Bermeo

The head of Biscay

For centuries, Bermeo had institutional and economic predominance in the Lordship of Biscay. As a historical fishing town, its port is still among the most important ports on the Cantabrian Sea. This is an authentic town where you can take part in the local way of life and enjoy some magnificent surroundings with a wide variety of activities.

Plan your visit to Bermeo

It can take a morning to walk around the town of Bermeo and its port. After eating well for cheap in any of the numerous bars and restaurants, we recommend heading to the nearby islet of Gaztelugatxe in the afternoon to hike up to the top of the hill. In addition, several active tourism companies are based in Bermeo and offer outdoor activities in Urdaibai Natural Reserve. Other good weekend activities in the area include visiting nearby Mundaka and its reserve interpretation center (a little to the south of the town) or touring the town of Guernica. Bermeo is home to economical options for lodging, making it a good place to stay for a tour of the comarca; on our pages about sleeping and eating in Bermeo, we’ve compiled some of our favorite establishments.

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The first recorded mention of the village of Bermeo is from the year 1051 in a document granting the town Santa María de Axpe Church. Some legends tell of the founding of the town’s port by a descendant of Noah (just 150 years after the Flood) or by the Romans in the 1st century B.C. In 1239, it attained the status of a town when Lope Díaz de Haro (the founder of Bilbao) granted it the Fuero of Logroño.

In 1296, Bermeo became one of the founding towns of the Brotherhood of the Marshlands of Castile and Vitoria (Hermandad de las Marismas de Castilla con Vitoria). This was an alliance for mutual defense against foreign nations, backed by privileges conferred to it by the Crown of Castile. It was made up of eight important Cantabrian port towns and the city of Vitoria, and it came to extend its commercial networks as far as the most important fisheries of England and France.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Bermeo was the recipient of royal favors, fueros, and privileges, all thanks to the prosperity generated by its economic activity. In 1476, King Ferdinand II designated the town Head of Biscay (Cabeza de Vizcaya), and it came to boast significant influence and leadership over the rest of the towns in the province. For example, in the Juntas Generales of Biscay, not only did it have the first seat and the first vote, but all the other representatives had to remove their hats when it was the Bermeo representative’s turn to speak.

Starting in the 15th century, the causes of its decline began to take shape. The War of the Bands (conflicts between feuding Basque aristocratic families) affected its economic and social stability. Another factor was the rise of Bilbao, which little by little began to concentrate the land and sea trade routes as well as a flourishing shipbuilding industry. Bermeo also found itself embroiled in a never-ending series of legal disputes with neighboring elizates (an old type of administrative division) over issues of administrative and judicial jurisdiction, and some of these cases were settled against Bermeo. It was also hit hard by the great fire of 1503, which completely destroyed the town. Nevertheless, Bermeo’s economy never faltered, and it remained the main port on the Cantabrian Sea for a long time. Its fishing network extended into the North Sea and reached as far as the coast of Newfoundland in Canada.

In 1596, it was plundered by a fleet of French Protestants from La Rochelle, who were eventually driven out by the militia of the Lordship of Biscay. A few years later, in 1602, Bermeo humiliatingly lost the title of Head of Biscay to Bilbao. However, the 17th century was a time of renewed prosperity due to the town’s fishing business: the docks were extended, new shipyards were built, and a fish canning industry cropped up.

The people of Bermeo did not participate in the riots known as the matxinadas, but when the War of Independence began the young people attacked the town hall in order to avoid being drafted into the army

Bermeo ca. 1900

In March 1937, the Battle of Cape Machichaco played out nearby, an epic naval battle between armed trawlers of the Basque Auxiliary Navy and a Francoist cruiser, the Canarias. In addition, two months later, it was the stage for the Battle of Sollube, in which the Basque army nearly swept the Italian brigade which supported the Nationalists.

In the postwar period, the industrialization process was concentrated in Bilbao. Even so, Bermeo’s fishing and industry have preserved its status as one of the most important fishing ports on the Cantabrian.

The town of Bermeo, perched on the side of Sollube Hill, is located on the land of Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve, a true natural paradise. Its seaside location, the proximity of its beaches, and the bustling atmosphere of its streets make it a dynamic meeting place, especially in the summertime and on weekends. Its main tourist attractions include its charming old port and historical quarter, whose layout is originally from the Middle Ages and is full of multicolor homes that used to belong to fishermen. While you walk around the streets, you’ll also be able to see the many sculptures that live there, such as the popular group of sculptures La Lechera (The Milkmaid) by Bermeo native Enrike Zubia, the monolith to those who died at sea, the monument in homage to Benito Barrueta, and Olatua, the last two created by the excellent Bermean sculptor Néstor Basterretxea.

The first thing to see upon arriving in Bermeo is the Casino, located above the esplanade and Lamera Park. This emblematic building with an eclectic design was conceived by Severino Achúcarro in 1894 and its design is reminiscent of a classic French castle. After the flooding in Biscay in 1893, it had to be restored. Despite having almost completely recuperated its original appearance, the building regrettably lost some interesting original paintings, including works by the Basque painter Ignacio Zuloaga. Today it is the headquarters of the Bermeo Society.

At the end of Lamera Park is Santa Eufemia Church (from the 13th century, rebuilt in the late 15th century). In the late Gothic style, it is the oldest church in Bermeo. It was also the place where the monarchs would confirm fueros when they visited the province, as Ferdinand did in 1476 when he confirmed the town as Head of Biscay. With one nave and a Byzantine-style cross, the church is the site of the tomb of the Mendoza de Arteaga family, in white marble.

Lamera Park also opens onto the New Port (Puerto Nuevo), where you can visit a replica of a 17th-century whaling ship and see a reenactment of what fishing in Bermeo used to be like. After passing by the Guild of Fishermen of San Pedro, you’ll arrive at the peaceful Old Port (Puerto Viejo or Puerto Menor). A staircase leads to Ercilla Tower, the only one of the 30 defensive bastions from the old town wall that remains today. This home, built in stone in the late 15th century, belonged to the family of Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga, the famous author of the poem “La Araucana.” Today it is the site of the Fisherman Museum, which is dedicated exclusively to showing visitors the world, life, customs, and work of the arrantzaleak, or fishermen.

Returning to downtown Bermeo from the cliff that rises above the old port, we will pass under the Arch of San Juan, the only one of the seven gates of the wall built in the 15th century which has lasted to the present day.

In Sabino Arana Plaza is the Town Hall, declared a Historical-Artistic Monument. Built in 1732, its elegant façade features two sundials. Across from it is Santa María de la Asunción Church, the city’s most modern church, built after the destruction of Santa María de la Tala Church. Designed in the 19th century by architects Silvestre Pérez and Alejo Miranda, its structure is predominantly Neoclassical with two towers at either end (one of them being a bell tower) and a Classical vestibule between them.

In the lower part of the historical quarter you can find San Francisco Convent, founded in 1357 by the Lord of Biscay Don Tello and his wife Doña Juana Lara and composed of a church, residence, and Gothic cloister. The church is in the Gothic style and has only one nave, covered by cupolas with ribbed vaults and chapels on the sides. The cloister, also Gothic, is the most notable part of the complex, and for years it served as the site of a town market.

Another must-see building in Bermeo is the Kikunbera House, also known as the “Ship-House,” a reflection of the architecture and spirit of the 1920s. Designed by Fernando Arzadun, it was built on steep terrain with spectacular views of the bay. The building has a complex shape (rectangular with some curved sides) and its facades are dominated by terraces, balconies, and semicircular lookout points. All of this makes its appearance reminiscent of a ship; its design also draws on the Streamline Moderne style of art, which would be popularized by the writings of the architect Le Corbusier. This interesting piece of architecture was catalogued as a Historical-Artistic Monument in 1995.

Casino de Bermeo

In the area surrounding Bermeo you can enjoy some of the most interesting geographical features in Biscay: Cape Matxitxako, a protected natural area covered in ferns and conifers which has two lighthouses and a magnificent panoramic view; Ízaro Island, at the entrance of Urdaibai Reserve, where you can see the ruins of an old Franciscan convent and Santa María Magdalena Shrine; Akatz Island, which is home to a significant bird population; and Gaztelugatxe Hill, where you can find the well-known San Juan de Gaztelugatxe Shrine.

Must see

Puerto de Bermeo
Reserva Natural de Urdaibai

Basic Facts

Coordinates

43° 25′ 15″ N, 2° 43′ 17″ W

Distances

Bilbao 36 km, San Sebastián-Donostia 121 km, Madrid 431 km

Parking

On Calle Askatasun, near the port

Altitude

11 m

Population

17 159 (2013)

Andramaris (September 7), the Day of the Magdalene (July 22), San Juan (June 24)

Regattas: “Flag of Bermeo” (the Saturday after Andramaris), every year the Itsas Gudarien Eguna commemorates the efforts of the Basque auxiliary navy during the Battle of Cape Machichaco in 1937.

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