Discover the Biscayan coast with Rubén Santonja, a true #SeaLover
The sea gives Biscay its essential character. Traditional fishing practises are still ritually carried out in its coastal villages.
Rubén Santonja is the perfect example of a Sea Lover. Born and raised in Santurtzi (fishing town par excellence on the left bank of the estuary of the River Nervión), our cheerful and adventurer ambassador knows the Biscayan coast like the back of his hand. “Sailing the Estuary of Bilbao, scuba diving near the Getxo marina, riding the waves at La Arena Beach in Muskiz, and paddle surfing in the Plentzia estuary” are the kind of things he loves. Internationally known as a professional photographer, artist and surfboard painter, Rubén is not alone in his adventures, his wife and his Golden Retiever, Bimba, also share his passion.
All the coastal towns in Biscay are full of stories and legends about sailors who navigated across the Cantabrian Sea or about the great expeditions and adventures they embarked on. But the essence of these towns, as Rubén points out, is best narrated by “more modest day-to-day stories, brought to shore by the vessels that now as then set sail from its ports relying solely on the skills of their crews, being at the mercy of the unpredictable sea”. They are the ones who provide us with the prized fish that has given such a good name to our gastronomy.
As Rubén has been able to witness first-hand, our fishing traditions are still alive in places like Santurtzi, his hometown; Getxo, in the lively Old Port of Algorta with its fishermen’s houses; Armintza, Lemoiz’s fishing neighbourhood; Bermeo; and Mundaka, the entry point to the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve through its estuary. The sea and its currents largely influence the life in other towns too, places like Elantxobe, built on a steep slope in Cape Ogoño, whose streets seem to flow down into its docks; the remote but charming town of Ea, with its small port, found at the end of a narrow valley; the elegant town of Lekeitio, where, guided by the Santa Catalina lighthouse, the ships can find shelter near the magical Garraitz Island; or Ondarroa, a town on the mouth of the River Artibai, whose banks are connected by bridges from different eras.
Ondarroa is the most important fishing port in the Basque Country in terms of fishing volume. For centuries and depending on the season, we have had the chance to see all kinds of sea delicacies on its docks: anchovies, Bonito del Norte white tuna, cod, monkfish, hake, blackspot seabream, sardines, or squids, among other fish caught either in large offshore fisheries or in coastal waters.
Guided by the Ondarruko Neskatilak (the women in charge of coordinating the activity carried out in the harbour), during his visit to the renovated fish market, Rubén “was given the opportunity to see in person one of our coastal villages’ most traditional customs, the sale of the fish. Every day, ships come ashore with full nets and the catch is taken to the fish market. There, the fish that has been caught inshore is sold to the public and you can get the freshest pieces.”
As every good #SeaLover does, Rubén loves setting sail and having a good look at our “stunning natural seascapes, formed by cliffs, beaches, ports and other charming corners, from each and every perspective”, something that never ceases to amaze him despite being a great connoisseur of Biscay and its coast. “I absolutely adore sailing on the sea, either by sailboat or powerboat, and one of my favourite routes is the one that allows you to discover the most maritime side of the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve”, which departs from Mundaka’s port, on the left bank of the mouth of the Oka estuary, and gets to Cape Ogoño. This one-day trip takes you to the little island of Izaro, once home to a convent that was plundered by pirates, now a refuge for birds. Nowadays, this uninhabited island belongs to the municipality of Bermeo and every July 22nd (on St María Magdalena’s Day), a roof tile is thrown into the sea to remind the neighbouring town of Mundaka that the island is theirs.
The possibility to watch some of the cetaceans that inhabit the Biscayan coast is another major attraction: dolphins, long-finned pilot whales, rorquals, sperm whales, killer whales, or the curious Cuvier's beaked whales, are some of the species you may find. As you leave Laga Beach behind, “a true paradise in between the woods and the sea”, a 308-metre-tall rock covered in vegetation begins to arise at Cape Ogoño, dominating the landscape above the sea.
This lookout point was once used by Elantxobe fishermen. It is also the kingdom of a ‘lamia’ –a local mythological creature who traps those who dare to enter her territory after midnight–, and the only place in Atlantic Europe where European storm petrels nest. Its cliffs are perfect for nearly impossible climbs. As our sea trip continues, we can see one of its most secret sides: impressive hollows caused by erosion, underground caves that have turned into a geological spectacle, some of them accessible for scuba divers.
Another way of getting to know the sea is by making the most of its coastlines. A true adventurer and Sea Lover like Rubén does not miss any chance to dive into action sports and enjoy the thrill of moving with the air currents, flying over the hills and beaches in Sopela. In Rubén’s words, “it’s a totally unique experience, an indefinable sense of freedom”. Whenever he has the opportunity, he also does some sailing, explores the sea floor in the shallowest coves while snorkelling, goes kayaking or paddle boarding along our rivers and estuaries, and hits the waves on his surfboard.
When he is in the mood for a more peaceful plan, either with his family or friends, Rubén’s loving dog Bimba always goes with him. He is keen on “walking alongside the Bizkaia Flysch in Barrika and is constantly amazed by the secrets of the coastline and its formation, which has been taking place for millions of years”. He loves taking guided boat trips along the Estuary of Bilbao to listen to the stories and anecdotes told in them, climbing to the top platform of the Vizcaya Bridge to enjoy the panoramic views, relaxing at any of the spa resorts of the region, and having txakoli, a local variety of wine whose production is clearly influenced by the sea.
Rubén Santonja is the perfect example of a Sea Lover. Born and raised in Santurtzi (fishing town par excellence on the left bank of the estuary of the River Nervión), our cheerful and adventurer ambassador knows the Biscayan coast like the back of his hand.