A Tribute to the Basque Whalers and Explorers

By Scott Penfield

Friday afternoon’s excursion took us out of the city and to the verdant coastal town of Pasaia, where we visited Albaola, a shipbuilding museum and school that pays homage to the historical dominance of the Basques in maritime exploration and whaling. Located in a secluded inlet only accessible by boat or mountain trail, Albaola is centered upon a decade-long effort to perfectly recreate the San Juan, a 16th century Basque whaleship that was found sunken off the coast of Canada in the 1970s. There is also a shipbuilding school where students learn the techniques that powered the Basque country to a near-monopoly on the global whaling industry for centuries. Our group toured the museum, saw the current status of the San Juan, and were given a maritime knot-tying lesson by a Basque sailor.

The museum at Albaola contains a vast array of information about the Basque Country’s rich maritime heritage. Exhibits with details regarding shipbuilding technologies, whaling techniques, the lifestyles of explorers, and much more brought the time period to life. It is easy to see how this history is woven into modern Basque life, with the most ubiquitous example being bacalao (salted cod). This seemingly simple food was the staple of Basque ocean journeys, providing a protein source that would last for months at sea. To this day, almost every bar or restaurant in San Sebastian will serve bacalao in one form or another.

A list of the common rations for a Basque sailor on a 2-3 month journey across the Atlantic
Of note: The average sailor would be allocated 3 liters of Basque cider per day

Even as some of the Age of Exploration cultural artifacts persist to this day, many of this unique heritage has been lost since the decline of Basque whaling post-18th century. This is a large part of Albaola’s founding mission: to maintain this vital part of Basque culture through their shipbuilding school. With eighteen students from all over the world currently studying the art and engineering behind Basque shipbuilding, the school is a thriving attempt to resurrect a mostly forgotten trade that, in its day, was the driving force behind the Basques’ ability to dominate the open seas. This resurrection is being manifested most clearly in the recreation of the San Juan whaling boat, a project that began in 2013.

An inside look at the carpentry workshop of Albaola, where students are taught Basque shipbuilding

The original San Juan was on a whaling expedition from the port of Pasaia and made it to Newfoundland, when the North Atlantic whale hunt was at its peak. Before returning to the Basque Country, however, the ship sank off the coast of Red Bay in Labrador in 1565. There it sat underwater for over 400 years, not found until a Canadian historian pieced together clues that led to its discovery in 1978. Because of the frigid temperatures, it is considered by archaeologists to be one of the most well-preserved shipwrecks ever found.

Albaola’s magnum opus gets its own building, set apart from the museum and the school. The goal of the project is as simple as it is daunting: to perfectly recreate the San Juan. This immense undertaking is made even more impressive by the fact that only original techniques and materials are being used: several tons of iron from Basque ore deposits, along with locally sourced oak wood, are the most crucial elements. Seven years into the project, the San Juan is close to complete, and is expected to set sail for Canada in roughly two years, where it will rest at the same location where the wreckage was found over forty years ago. The project is a collaboration between the Basque and Canadian Governments, as a tribute to the shared history that led the Basques to be the first Europeans to establish a permanent whaling colony in what is now Canada.

The San Juan recreation project
While difficult to appreciate the size in photos, this ship would have housed around 60 sailors on a transatlantic voyage over several months

Our time at Albaola was a unique opportunity to learn more about a part of Basque history that, while crucial at the time, is now often relegated to historical footnote several hundred years later. However, modern Basque culture is still strongly influenced in a variety of ways by this history. The spirit of the early explorers lives on here, and Albaola is giving that spirit a place to grow while sharing it with the rest of the world.

Mount Urgull

By Brett Hill

Hello from San Sebastian! It’s been a pretty interesting first week. The weather has been hit or miss most days so far, but that hasn’t stopped any of us from going out and enjoying all that San Sebastian has to offer. COVID is still a very real threat here, as it is everywhere else in the world, but just this past Saturday the outdoor mask mandate was lifted, as long as one can maintain at least 1.5 meters (almost 5 feet) distance from others. Despite the mask mandate being lifted, many people around San Sebastian are opting to continue wearing masks outdoors, proof of how serious the COVID virus is being taken here. I think the extra caution is due in part to a recent outbreak in another part of Spain (Island of Mallorca) that occurred this past weekend involving a couple hundred teens, but the Spanish government was quick to quarantine the students in hotel rooms to mitigate further spreading.

Having been here for just over a week and having had plenty of time to explore some of the city and its offerings, today’s adventure is the much-anticipated hike up Mount Urgull. The weather today is clear, sunny and quite warm, in other words it was the perfect day for a short hike. Mount Urgull is probably one of the most iconic sites in San Sebastian. Located on a peninsula that separates the city and its beaches along with the river Urumea on the east side of the peninsula and La Concha Bay on the other side, and ascending from the edge of the Parte Viaje neighborhood of the city. Resting high on top of the mountain is what catches most people’s eye when looking out towards the sea from the city, it’s a 12-meter-tall statue of Jesus (24-meters tall including the base of the statue), known as the Sacred Heart Statue erected in 1950. The statue is similar to the Christ of the Sacred Heart Statue in Rosarito, Mexico and the Christ the Redeemer Statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Even more interesting than the statue, is that the statue sits on top of a military fortification that was built in the 12th century known as the Castillo de la Mota. Today it is difficult, if not impossible to see the fortification in full from the ground, due to the tree coverage all around the mountain, but once up close it’s truly amazing to see in person.

We all met up with Professor Zabalbeascoa on the edge of Parte Viaje overlooking the port of San Sebastian. The trails on the way up were paved with black top and with laid stone in some sections. While I don’t know how old the stone paths were, they appeared to be quite old and gave the hike a more antiquated feeling than the black top. As I mentioned earlier there is a good covering of trees that surround the mountain and create a canopy of shade. The heat of the day felt like it was stagnated under the canopy, only to be swept away occasionally by a cool sea breeze, and not wearing a mask made this hike that much more enjoyable. As we ascended the small mountain there were numerous sites where one could venture off for a quick breather or a nice view of the city or sea depending on location.

As we neared the top of the mountain, the sandstone-colored walls of the fortification became more visible. We entered the fort through a small entrance way that led us up to a viewing deck on top the fort. From here one could imagine that it was must have been quite an amazing defense for the city as you could see for what seemed like miles out over the ocean, and offered a truly amazing view of the full city from the edge of the Gros neighborhood and Mount Ullia to the Antiguo neighborhood and Mount Igueldo on the other side and the flowing Pyrenees Mountains in the background. The walls of the fort looked to be about 3-4 feet thick and had numerous cutouts that were about 3 feet wide, I imagine these were for canon placement. On the corners and other parts of the fort were what appeared to be jail cells, not very big, maybe 9 square feet in total, and completed with metal jail cell like doors. I thought it might be a lookout position, but the windows inside are far too small for any meaningful watch to occur and it has metal doors that lock from the outside.

After taking many pictures from this part, Prof. Zabalbeascoa brought us into the museum that is located inside the fort. The museum gave a had exhibits illustrating some of the history of the military, industrial, and commercial past of San Sebastian. From there we were led up to the highest point that we were allowed to go, which was right at the base of the Sacred Heart Statue. From here you could really see the whole city and Pyrenees mountains surrounding the city in the background. While we were only able to stay up there for a limited amount of time due to COVID restrictions and the size of our group, it was amazing to have a view and perspective of the city that we have all spent the past week walking around and exploring. After taking in the views from up there, I can completely understand why so many people love this city, it’s not a big city, but not small a city either, its sprawling, but also close enough that everything is a walkable distance. The historical aspect of the fortification made me think about how great of a position San Sebastian was when it had to defend itself with the Pyrenees mountains in the background hindering most land attacks and the great post set up on Mount Urgull keeping a watchful for pirates and adversarial naval fleets looking to attack. Overall, this is a must see for anyone that visits this beautiful city.