The history of Santurtzi is strongly linked to the sea. In fact, it has one of the most important ports in Atlantic Europe and songs have even been written dedicated to the activities and personality of its inhabitants, such as the famous song “Desde Santurce a Bilbao”.
The fishing boats, nets and the delicious aroma of grilled sardines are its hallmarks and soak the Fishing Port with their fragrance.
Strolling through its streets is a trip back in time, an ode to the trade of fishing, fish auctions and the old sardines.
Santurtzi was originally known as a fishing village.
Given the rocky geography of the coast, the most common boats in Santurtzi were small boats as the pinazas or txalupas.
These were boats, moved by rowing and sailing, they were used for different uses, such as fishing, piloting and cabotage (coastal merchandise traffic), or as an aid in cod fishing.
The fish they used to fish was mainly sardines.
The sardine is an oily fish rich in the omega-3 fatty acids essential for the proper functioning of our organisms: they are beneficial for the heart, help to reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels and lower the blood pressure.
A helping of sardines is a highly recommendable part of a tasty, well-balanced diet.
The sardine season runs from June to November but is at its peak in July, when Santurtzi celebrates the feast of its patron Our Lady of Carmel.
At that time warmer water leads to an increase in the plankton which these voracious fish feed on, enabling them to build up more fat under their skins and making them even tastier.
Sardines grilled on a low fire of embers and seasoned only with coarse salt are a mark of identity of the local culture and cuisine, and can be found in restaurants throughout Santurtzi.
In 2015, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the erecting of a statue in tribute to local fishwives, Santurtzi began to hold “Fishwives’ Day” in late summer every year. This festival is a tribute to the sardine sellers who inspired the iconic image of local women.
The festival begins with a traditional offering and tribute laid at the foot of the statue.
Dancers and flute players in traditional costume and groups of local people walk down to the fishing port, where the festivities continue.
The events organised include a recreation of a traditional fish auction, boat trips, tours of fishing vessels, workshops dedicated to traditional costume and activities on the water.
The festival ends with a procession and sardine roast.
“Desde Santurce a Bilbao vengo por toda la orilla, con la falda remangada, luciendo la pantorrilla…” [“From Santurce to Bilbao all along the river bank I walk, with my skirt hitched up showing off my leg”]
This popular song recalls Santurtzi’s past and its renowned fishwives.
They were women with little formal education but great wisdom and character.
Apart from running their homes, they were responsible for selling fish. This supplementary income sometimes exceeded the wages earned by their husbands on the fishing boats.
Young girls would walk down to the port every morning to help their mothers and learn their trade.
After vying to obtain the best fish at the port they would race to be the first to sell their wares. That race extended to Bilbao and other nearby localities.
At first they walked barefoot, typically with their skirts hitched up and carrying baskets of fish weighing up to 20 kg on their heads. Then came the tramway, which made life easier for them.
Santurtzi relives its seafaring past in its festivities and traditions.
The Feast of Our Lady of Carmel maintains the seafaring traditions of Santurtzi.
Santurtzi named her as its patron in 1907, after the mining district of Ortuella became a separate municipality.
Santurtzi has its eyes trained on the sea, so the “Stella Maris” or “Star of the Sea”, as Our Lady of Carmel is known, was a logical object of devotion.
The biggest day of the festivities is 16 July. It is on that date that Santurtzi holds its traditional seaborne procession in honour of its patron. This is the oldest procession of its kind in the Basque Country.
10 fishermen carry the statue of Our Lady of Carmel, decked out with flowers, from the Church of San Jorge to the fishing port.
On the quayside, the statue is hoisted aboard the barge Karmengo Ama Birjinia and sailed out onto the bay.
The official procession comprises 12 more vessels, but many others join in the floral offering made on the waters of the bay in remembrance of all the fishermen lost at sea throughout history.
People call out and sing songs in devotion to Our Lady throughout the procession. It is a thrilling spectacle.
Back on land, local dance troupes perform traditional dances in tribute to women, personified in the fishwives of Santurtzi.
Santurce, concha de oro,
De Vizcaya la flor,
De los mares la espuma,
Del mundo la mejor
[“Santurtzi, golden shell / Flower of Biscay / Foam of the sea / Best in the world”]
This poem appears on a plaque on the Fishermen’s Guild building, the most iconic building in the town.
It is attributed to La Sotera, a famous fishwife known for her improvised poetry and songs about her day to day work and major events in Santurtzi.
To honour her, the town’s rowing club named its boat after her.
The Fishermen’s Guild building in the fishing port is also home to the SANTURTZI MUSEUM OF THE SEA and its interpretation centre, where the town’s fishwives feature prominently in the exhibits.
Along with the pictures, accounts and audiovisual presentations concerned with fishwives, the museum also has a replica of one of the fish baskets where they carried their sardines. These baskets were designed specifically for carrying mainly sardines and anchovies on foot.
The fishwives could carry up to 20 kg in each basket.
The auctions in which the fishwives bid for fish are no longer held, but a DRAMATISED RECREATION of one is staged at the museum.
The AGURTZA is a fishing boat drawn up on the WATERFRONT PROMENADE close to the Puente Bizkaia transporter bridge. It is one of the last traditional wooden vessels on these coasts, and is open to visitors.
It has been turned into a museum and interpretation centre. Guided tours include explanations of different fishing methods.
On the one hand seine net fishing for sardines and anchovy, and on the other hand traditional hook and line fishing for white tuna with live bait.