null Santurtzi, a town devoted to the sea
From the summit of Mount Serantes to the waters of the fishing port, all the roads lead to the sea in Santurtzi.
Thanks to its ideal location on the Bilbao Abra Bay, the forts on Mounts Serantes in Santurtzi were in charge of defending the entrance to the Estuary of Bilbao for a long time. Now, the town is home to the Port of Bilbao, an essential engine of economic activity in Biscay and one of the most important ports in Atlantic Europe.
However, Santurtzi’s true essence lies in its maritime tradition. Its customs are carefully kept alive not only in its fishing port or in the Cofradía de Pescadores, but also in the history of the ‘sardineras’ (sardine sellers) and in the town's most popular delicacy, its sardines. A history preserved in songs, buildings, monuments, and paths.
Everyday life in Santurtzi has always been linked to the sea, so the fishing port is beyond doubt the epicenter of the town. Its harbors have at some point been frequented by sailors, corsairs, merchants, smugglers, fishermen, traders, adventurers, rowers, ‘lemanes’ (port pilots who helped boats avoid the natural obstacles in the Nervion Estuary) and, of course, the well-known ‘sardineras’.
As one of our most popular songs says: ‘Desde Santurce a Bilbao’, –from Santurtzi to Bilbao– these women used to come down to the harbour when the fishing boats arrived with the fish they had caught on the day. After filling their baskets, they carried them along the streets of nearby villages to sell the fish, letting the neighbours know they were thereby announcing their arrival in a loud voice. The Monumento a la Sardinera, located in Avenida Iparragirre, created by Basque sculptor J. Lucarini, pays homage to these hard-working women, who had to travel on foot across towns and villages for kilometres on end as the song goes: “con la falda arremangada y luciendo la pantorrilla” –their skirts rolled up, showing their calves–, while carrying up to 20 kilos of fish in a basket on their shoulders to help maintain their families.
Apart from licensed fishing boats, which are still put to sea nowadays, in the harbour, you can also see smaller amateur fast fishing boats, as well as pleasure crafts, boats that take people on whale-watching trips, ships from whose decks you can discover the Abra and its cliffs, while you can go sport fishing, learn to sail or go on a guided boat tour along the Nervión Estuary.
Some of the remains of the industrial activity that one day took place in the area have also been well-preserved. An old manual crane can be found on the harbour near a statue of the Virgen del Carmen –patron saint of both the town and all fishermen–, whose festivities are celebrated every July 16. On that day, local fishermen get together to take the image of the Virgin from the Church of San Jorge to the end of the harbour by boat, and once there, flowers are offered in memory of deceased fishermen.
Not far from here is the Cofradía de Pescadores, restored in 2011. The structure houses a fish market, where the process of selecting the best pieces and bargaining over their price has become a ritual. Inside the same building, we can find an interpretive centre too, Santurtzi Itsaso Museo, an entertaining museum where you can find out more about the strong connection between Santurtzi and the sea. Pesquero Agurtza, one of the last few coastal fishing vessels made of wood that we can see today, is also part of the history of the fleets that sailed from Santurtzi to the nearby fisheries. Now turned into a boat museum, this interpretive centre shows visitors how the local white tuna or ‘bonito del norte’ was caught and preserved, giving also a more detailed account of what the life of the Basque fishermen, known as ‘arrantzales’, was really like on board their ships.
Next to the quay, built over a surface gained to the sea, Parque de Santurtzi is the centre of local social life. A combination of exotic tree species, paths and sculptures surround the lovely bandstand decorated with polychromatic mosaics that stands in its middle. Next to the park, we can find the Church of San Jorge –the other patron saint of the town. The exact age of the church is unknown, but records confirm it was already part of the town in 1075. Close to the park as well, we can see the Town Hall, built in an eclectic style, and the Palacio Casa Torre, a beautiful Baroque building dating from the 18th century. There is also a lively commercial and recreational area, where you can either have a taste of one of Santurtzi’s most popular and delicious dishes, grilled sardines, accompanied by a good txakoli wine, or try of one of our pintxos, which are real gastronomic pleasures.
Within walking distance, in the direction of Portugalete, is the Palacio de Oriol. Erected in 1902 by Severino de Achucarro, who designed some of the most outstanding buildings in the Ensanche de Bilbao at the time, this is the most illustrative example of a manor house in Santurtzi. At the end of the 19th century, the town experienced a period of economic and commercial growth, and imposing residences sprang up to accommodate the wealthy families that were starting to make their fortunes.
The companies that established their infrastructures in the neighbouring mountains for the intensive exploitation of its iron ore mines, and the industrialization of the left bank of the Nervión Estuary, brought about the rise of the bourgeoisie together with an increase in the number of visitors who regularly came to the town to ‘have a bath’ in the Cantabrian Sea. The above-mentioned Palacio de Oriol, a three-storey building accessed by a great staircase surrounded by lovely gardens, was the preferred accommodation for these newly emerging classes. Currently, as a hotel, the palace continues offering its guests and visitors equally spectacular views over the seafront of the town of Getxo, with the Abra opening up to the Cantabrian Sea to one side, and to the other, the Bizkaia Bridge, framing the estuary towards Bilbao.
With a height of 451 metres, Mount Serantes is the perfect vantage point for viewing the Bilbao Abra Bay and the mouth of the Nervión Estuary, which gives access to Bilbao. Such is the view from there, that the mountain long served as a lookout point from where the incoming and outgoing ships were watched, preventing enemies and pirates from attacking the city.
Built in 1881, El Torreón –The Keep– has been recently restored. From its top, there is an impressive view of both banks of the Estuary, a large part of the Biscayan coastline and the so-called ‘montes bocineros’ Mount Oiz and Mount Sollube. A year after the keep was finished, in 1882, El Fuerte (The Fort) was constructed. This bastion belonged to a larger system of fortifications that were erected during the same period. Its main purpose was to defend the coast with the help of the artillery batteries that were once installed in it.
If you are looking for a good excuse to enjoy the natural beauty of the Serantes and to admire the amazing views it offers, you can either take part in a guided tour, where you will learn more about the history of the mountain, or you can climb all the way up to its summit on the annual traditional pilgrimage to Cornites, celebrated every Easter Monday since the 19th century. On that day, the locals head towards the mountain and celebrate such a special occasion in the open. In addition, for those who like staying physically active, Mount Serantes is part of Santurtzi’s Nordic Walking Centre, having 38 km of well-signposted trails of different levels that follow the contours of the mountainside.
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