No visit to Getaria can begin without knowing the answer to this simple question: Who was the first person to circumnavigate the earth?
What you and I learned in primary school, it appears, is the wrong answer! Ferdinand Magellan did plan and embark on the ambitious voyage from Spain. He did discover the strait that led to the Pacific ocean (whose name he coined as well). But he did not live to complete the circumnavigation. That honour goes to one of his subordinate officers: the Basque sailor Juan Sebastián Elcano, who successfully captained the sole surviving craft of the expedition back home from the Pacific.
And his charming hometown does not let you forget the fact. With ubiquitous statues, a strange but imposing monument, over a dozen businesses boasting his name and even a fiesta, every four years, to celbrate his 1522 landing at Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
Getaria is picture perfect. The highway with commanding views over the Bay of Biscay turns into the main thoroughfare that bisects the town into the old and the new. The former, complete with charming medieval buildings and an atmospheric Gothic church with ancient foundations is arrayed along four short parallel streets leading to a wharf lined with a slew of seafood restaurants. All brimming over with lunch time crowds. At 4PM! Our evening snack of fried shrimp and beer is perforce consumed indoors when it becomes evident that no one is in any hurry to vacate a terrace table.
Across the road, the new urban development elegantly traces the steep slope of the hillside. Midway up a flight of stairs (there are escalators for the infirm and the lazy) in a swank annexe to the Palacio Aldemar, is the Cristobal Balenciaga Museoa that pays homage to yet another famous son of Getaria. The stark boxy exterior of this “first museum in the world exclusively dedicated to a dress designer”, sticks out rather oddly against the beautiful Palacio. Inside, the sheet metal overlay with floral cutouts that reminded me of the intricate metal fretwork in the avant garde train station in Cuenca, was nearly as striking as Balenciaga’s timeless creations.
Its renowned citizens aside, Getaria’s current claim to fame is the Mecca for seafood lovers: Restaurant Elkano (What else!) An unpretentious grillhouse, started by Pedro Arreguiin in 1964, that has no sea views or contemporary interiors, and that wears its newly received Michelin star lightly. Aitor, Pedro’s son and current owner, personally guides each guest through a fuss free menu where the ingredient takes centre stage.
We skippped their signature kokotxa – the throat of the hake – since I wasn’t sure I would like its gelatinous texture. But the prawn ceviche amuse bouche, chopped lobster in a beautifully textured onion and egg white sauce and the baked spider crab were all superbly balanced, and the extremely fresh rodaballo (turbot) grilled to perfection. Desserts in speciality restaurants are often underwhelming, but Elkano’s helado con queso (local cheese icecream) in a bath of fresh tart strawberry compote gave their seafood a run for its money.
It was the perfect place to begin our exploration of Basque cuisine, washed down with our first bottle of Txakoli (the local white recognised as a ‘denomination of origin’ as Getariako Txakolina). And to celebrate R’s birthday! The best seafood restaurant in the world? We are not food connoisseurs and are yet to explore the world fully, but this certainly surpassed any seafood meal we have had anywhere. That’s saying a lot considering I grew up on the coast on an almost exclusively fish diet.
Situated just 25 minutes by road from San Sebastian, Getaria makes for an easy day trip by car or bus. But we opted to stay overnight at the lovely Saiaz Getaria whose owners generously tweaked their two night minimum stay (summer) policy for us. That view alone was worth the night stolen from San Sebastian.