48 Hours in Portugalete

No trip to Spain is complete without a visit to the Basque Country, but selecting among the charming hubs of Basque culture and cuisine is difficult. The opportunity cost of selecting the wrong stop is high. On this trip, I decided to deviate from my usual pattern in which I burrow deep into San Sebastian, with only day trips out into the broader Basque lands. I was set on exploring Bilbao, the mighty seat of industry that shaped the thriving economy of Bizkia. However, late planning and few rental options in Bilbao, led me to make my home base an apartment on the river in Portugalete.

I arrived in the small town that is strewn across the steep Western embankment of the Estuary of Bilbao to find a bustling farmers market in operation by my riverfront apartment. Despite having no sleep for 24 hours, I was eager to begin my exploration in Bilbao so I dropped my bags and hopped on the train for the 17 minute ride into the city. My evening was an adventure worthy of its own story with pintxos, iconic Bar Eme sandwiches, and fish bowl-sized Gin & Tonics. But this story is about Portugalete.

The view from Portugalete across the Estuary of Bilbao into Getxo.

Afternoon pintxo seekers in the plaza by the river.

Fresh produce from the surrounding farms abounds.

Gateau Basque cakes filled with custard and cherry jam.

Business as usual
I woke early to prepare for a business meeting with potential new clients, Borja and Naiara. Besides being fabulously interesting people, they were kind enough to venture North from Vitoria to join me in Getxo, a small town on the Eastern bank of the river. With limited days, I used the meeting as an opportunity to visit Gure Extea Taberna, the work of Chef Joseba Irusta. In addition, this gave me the opportunity to transverse the river via the Puente Colgante, a Rube Goldberg-esque gondola suspended from a walking bridge 148 feet above the water. Puente Colgante is the world’s oldest transporter bridge built in 1893 by a disciple of Gustave Eifel.

The Puente Colgante Bridge, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Once on the bank in Getxo, the appeal of the neighborhood was palpable. The vibrant lunch crowd spilled into the streets filling cafes, bar and restaurants. A mixture of traditional architecture and Franco-era red brick buildings painted a colorful canyon through which I ambled slowly, peeking into the windows of shops. I was early for my reservation, yet without the slightest rebuke, I was welcomed, seated, and served a glass of txakoli.

The quaint streets of Getxo.

I am terribly sorry to report that great conversation, some of it even work-related, kept me from doing photographic justice to the meal. Suffice to say that Chef Irusta presented us with some of the finest treats plucked from the fertile soils surrounding Bilbao. To neglect the perfection of a Basque tomato in late summer would be just cause to revoke one’s tourist visa. It was dressed only with extra virgin olive oil, which itself was not to be upstaged by its curvaceous red co-star, and sea salt. The wedges of pure summer hummed with sweetness, tang, and indisputably perfect texture. I gained even greater respect for this humble fruit when I learned from Borja how the crop had triumphed over an excessively wet growing season. Indeed, all things Basque thrive in adversity. Bravo!

In-season peppers from the grill.

Next, the day’s special, grilled red peppers, joined in the celebration of the season. Peppers in this region are unlike their North American cousins. Without the endorphin-invoking tricks of jalapeños, pasilla, and such, these gorgeous red spears deliver a level of flavor that was long ago forgotten by our staple bell pepper varieties. They were followed by perfectly plump mussels in a sauce that quickly depleted my bread supply. Finally, because I gravitate toward the products I cannot have at home, we tried ventresca tuna belly two ways: first as tartar, which while tantalizing to the tongue, was a mere prelude to the hot preparation. The portion, prepared confit, melted in my mouth, as it should between sips of a perfectly balanced Albariño.

A Fortuitous Dinner at the Gran Hotel
It was late before my satiated belly emitted pangs of hunger so I wandered out into the fading evening light with no reservation but a clear objective – I was on the hunt for foie a la plancha. I walked past restaurants, peering into crowded dining rooms and already rowdy bars. I couldn’t commit, my introvert was taking charge of things, wanting only to wander the streets, take pictures, and enjoy the solitude. But, eventually, even she got hungry and my extrovert emerged, as if a bat signal had hit the clouds. Through negotiation, the two sides of my personality came to an agreement and I took shelter on the riverfront terrace of the picturesque Gran Hotel Puente Colgante, a short distance from the crowded plaza. I ordered a gin and tonic and a piece of tortilla de patata. The alcohol, view, and music slowly coaxed out my extrovert, who was pouting over her lost bid to sit in the plaza. So, when I went for my second drink, I started a conversation with the bartender to research where I might find foie a la plancha. The answer, in short, was not in Portugalete. A pathetically heartbroken expression must have befallen my face because he gave me another piece of tortilla on the house.

Dinner on the terrace at the Gran Hotel.

I returned to my table, pleased with my gifted tortilla. Then, mid-G&T, he returned to tell me that foie a la plancha had been procured and was being prepared in the kitchen. I was stunned and stammered my most grateful “Eskerrik asko!” Shortly thereafter, a lobe of foie and a glass of Pedro Jimenez was placed before me. Thank you, extrovert Jamie.

Surprise Foie a la planca.

Deliriously happy from my foie encounter and buzzed from my second vat of Gin and Tonic, I rose to settle my tab with the bartender. A man who had been seated nearby with a couple of friends, approached me and asked if I would join them for another drink. I accepted the invitation. I ordered a patxaran, a Basque herbal liquor, because it seemed fitting, and we began a discussion about fishing, travel, and work. It came to light that Ricardo, far from being a random local, is the Director of the Gran Hotel and manager of a couple prime restaurants in town. They cut me no slack, keeping the conversation in Spanish. Fortunately, my Spanish flowed more freely, if not more intelligibly, with the lubrication of alcohol.

When the terrace bar closed, we walked a block up the road for a final drink. As that bar, too, reached closing time, Ricardo invited me to attend a special meal the next day. A fair bit more was said about the event but my translation skills had retired  for the night. So, I was happy to depart with a solid understanding of time, attire, and meeting place.

Dia de San Nicolas
I woke early to music, laughter, the clanking of pots and pans outside the apartment. I had been forewarned about the festival (Dia de San Nicolas) along the river, but I had no idea the entire town would be in the streets drinking, singing, and preparing food! I headed out for a walk to the nearby port town of Santurtzi to cure my simmering hangover. I meandered through the farmer’s market, along the river, past statuesque pier fisherman, and into the Santurtzi port. I passed a decommissioned wooden in the midst of extreme maritime recycling. I could see her skeleton peeking through from her ruptured hull, every board of the deck a memory. But, the truly extraordinary find was a tile mosaic quietly lying at the foot of a crane used to lift and lower cargo from the port. The ceramic told a heartbreaking story of the children of World War II who, at that very location, had been placed on ships by their parents bound for England to escape a homeland reeling from the fiery air assault of Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen. Tears welled in my eyes as I considered the intense pain of that moment for each father, mother, and child. It was a bloodless horror of war, but devastating, nonetheless.

Fishing along the estuary.

Tile mosaics at the port of Santurtzi depicting the departure of the town’s children during the air raids of WWII.

Returning to my apartment, I passed through the local clubs and groups of friends who were jovially preparing to make tortilla, marmitako, paella, and more. Some were wielding kitchen knives, others drinks, and still others with both. Most wore the traditional blue and white colors of the feast day. By the looks of the Coca Cola 2-liters, there would be kalimotxos (the caffeinated way to get schnockered) aplenty. Teams stirred giant vats of sangria in plastic waste bins and ladled it into cups. The grills had begun wafting meaty perfume into the air.

Townsfolk gathered for Dia de San Nicolas.

As I sauntered through the crowd ogling the bounty, a hand jutted out from a tent holding a piece of txistorra on bread. I gladly accepted the bite just as another hand emerged from the shaded structure with a perfectly frothy cider. My kind of tent! I ducked inside to better thank my benefactors, a group of 40-something men well ahead of the festivities curve. Before I parted from my earnest hosts, I had two more drinks, learned some new Basque words (none of them appropriate for a church holiday), and was invited back for the paella at 3:00. But, if my memory of the previous night was correct, I had big plans and I needed to go get ready.

Generous givers of food and drink.

I was relieved to see Ricardo at the hotel waiting for me since I had no true understanding of my day’s agenda. The hotel was abuzz with people in for the festival. Ricardo took me to the top floor of the renovated 19th Century building to show me the view and explain some of the finer points of the maritime history of the river. I even understood a few. We left the hotel and climbed the streets to Torre Salazar, a restaurant high on the bank residing in an ancient armament tower. From the vantage point, we were able to witness a favorite San Nicolas Day event, the cucaña, in which young men attempt to walk/run along an greased wooden pole perched 20+ feet above the river in order to capture a small flag attached to the pole’s far end.

Next, we tucked into Casa Polvorilla, a bar specializing in briney treats from the sea. Plates of gambas, magurios (tiny snails), and centollos (large crabs) line the bar. The bartender poured me a white wine from Galicia and Ricardo asked her to bring me kiskillon, small, stunningly sweet prawns. As I sipped and snacked, Ricardo greeted guest after guest. If Basques could tolerate royalty, he would be a prince of Portugalete descending from three generations of hoteliers.

The menu at Casa Polvorilla reads like a fish market case.

Kiskillion prawns.

When he gave me the nod, I trailed Ricardo out of the bar, and down the cobblestone street, and through a another door. Entering the much emptier and quiet building, I finally understood the invitation I had been issued and my heart leapt! I was standing in a Txoko, a private gastronomic society dining hall. The large hall had dining tables for 40-50 people, a kitchen, and a lounge area. Below, a wine cellar of enviable stock held hundreds of dusty bottles. Earlier in the day I was taught an indelicate word for just such a moment and I used it.

In the kitchen, a hulking, kind-faced man named Aitor was sweating onions and peppers. I quickly learned that Aitor and his sister, Haydee, have a long lineage in Bizkaia, a fact substantiated by an impressive family tree on the wall spanning NINE generations.

Aitor Beitia

Haydee Iriarte

Aitor was making our entree, marmitako, a rustic, late summer fish stew that was born at sea to feed hungry sailors. In fact, marmita means ‘pot’ in Basque. When the suffix ko is appended, it mean ‘from the pot’. A simple fish stock is flavored and thickened with a vegetable base, choricero peppers, and potatoes cut cascada to release the starches. I watched like a hawk, eventually working my way to Aitor’s side to peer into the pot. Apparently, the recipe then called for sufficient time for the stew to thicken with potato starch so, as our group of family and friends grew, we venture back into the street marching toward another packed watering hole, Bar Arrieta, followed by an additional drink in Polvorilla before returning to the hall to complete the marmitako. In the last moments of cooking, the heat was extinguished and in went hearty chunks of fresh tuna. Moments later, we served the stew alongside lightly dressed garden tomatoes, fresh bread, and red wine.

Ready to eat!

Aitor’s Marmitako

The results are absolutely incredible. A savory, satisfying stew of soft potato, fresh fish, and a tangy broth that necessitates vast amounts of white bread. Given the alcohol already in my system and that likely yet to come, I understood the beauty of this carb-y, filling dish in a whole new light. After dinner, we danced like children with wild abandon. Eventually, I headed home with Aitor as my appreciated but unnecessary protector, through the streets still teaming with celebrating towns people.

When I say that I am traveling alone, I generally get a look of surprise swirled with concern. But in reality, except for a few scant hours, I am never alone. I found dear souls in that tiny town whom I will cherish for the rest of my days. I bid a bittersweet farewell to a surprise jewel in the Basque crown, Portugalete. With her sights, food, festival, markets, and lovely people, she completely made me forget that I came for Bilbao.