From the sea wall at the mouth of the bay, I watched as a team of rowers, lined up in a trainera (a streamlined sporting boat once used to hunt fish and whales), powered out of the port into the glistening Cantabrian Sea, past criss-crossing jet skis and a yacht sailing lazily back into harbour. Families splashed around in natural tidal pools, cooling off from the midday heat. But while the ocean remains a source of pleasure and income for locals, it’s now serving a new purpose: as an immense source of power.
In 2011, the town installed the Mutriku Wave Energy Plant, the first commercial wave power plant in Europe. Harnessing the force of the waves, the plant’s 16 turbines generate up to 296 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power around 250 homes and cut 600 tonnes of carbon emissions each year. In 2020, the plant hit a major milestone, producing two gigawatts of cumulative electricity, a record for any wave plant and an example of the role marine power could play in the global transition towards clean energy.
I was in Mutriku to find out more about this latest chapter in the Basques’ long and prosperous history with the ocean. As I walked through the town, an MC Escher-like maze of stone stairways and zig-zagging narrow cobbled streets, I found mementos of the town’s distinguished seafaring past scattered throughout – many of them open to public viewing.
At the corner of one street was an 18th-Century Baroque mansion built by José Montalivet y Forjado, a famous captain and naval engineer. In the town square stood a statue of Cosme Damián Churruca y Elorza, an admiral of the Spanish Armada who died fighting in the Battle of Trafalgar. (A painting depicting his death is on display in Madrid’s Prado Museum). Tucked along a residential street, I passed the stone façade of the Arrietakua Palace, once home to the ship builder Antonio de Gaztañeta, whose designs revolutionized the Spanish fleet. Down a steep street leading down to the sea, I reached the gothic arches of the Antigua Lonja, an old fish market standing at the edge of the harbor just as it did in the 15th Century.