We’ve mentioned Albaola, the Basque Maritime Factory located in Pasajes San Pedro (Pasajes, Gipuzkoa), on many occasions. For is, it’s one of those extraordinary places where it is possible to connect with our country’s history directly.
In this case, it’s with one of those parts of our history we find fascinating, and which is hugely important. This would be the importance, and influence, Basques had for centuries in shipbuilding. It was of such great importance that it made this small people one of the most active in the North Atlantic and made its sailors world renowned. The greatest expression of this may have been the Basque whalers in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which we’ve spoken about on many occasions, or on the island of Spitsbergen.
Albaola is using traditional methods to build a replica of the San Juan, a Basque whaling ship that sank in what is today Canada, and which is now being used by UNESCO as their logo for their Underwater Cultural Heritage program.
But Albaola is much more, and as we’ve always said we owed it to them, we finally decided to pay up, at least in part, with this article/interview in which its president, Xabier Agote, tells us how they came about and why they’re here.
Incidentally, when this interview was being prepared, we were still awaiting the news about the awards that are given by the Tiqets platform, which offers the ability to get tickets to cultural experiences worldwide in one place.
Today, at press time, we learned that Albaola, the Basque Maritime Factory, has received the 2020 award for the Best On-site Experience award in the country. Similarly, the Chillida Leku, another Basque cultural center, has received the same award in the “Best Hidden Gem” category. Both centers, of great cultural interest, are just a few miles apart, in Gipuzkoa.
We’ll leave you with the Xabier Agote interview and a link to the Albaola website.
- What is Albaola?
Albaola is an Association created in 1997 with the goal to highlight the importance of maritime heritage with the recovery of traditional wooden ship construction of vessels with heritage interest.
- What is the Faktoria?
Albaola Itsas Kultur Faktoria is a shipyard-museum where we receive visitors to show them the keys of the naval technology of the past which allowed for the development of large maritime companies. It is an area where we approach culture in an innovative way and where values feature prominently. Among these values is diversity (one of our pillars), as we understand that it is important to treat our maritime culture from the deepest roots while staying open to the world. The main axis of the activity at the Faktoria is at the Lance Lee Ribera International Carpentry School’s Aprendiztegi, where several apprentices from all over the world come to learn a trade over a three-year period.
Another of our values is equality. From the beginning, we have encouraged women to take part in areas normally dominated by men, both in naval construction and in sailing itself.
Participation is also very important. We open our doors to any volunteers who want to join in on the project and contribute their energy. The Faktoria is located in Pasaia and we work in close collaboration with the Oarsoaldea Area Development Agency. They have also embraced our project, understanding it is necessary for the socio-economic interests of Pasaia and the region. Every project we develop is aimed at socio-economic development.
- A very important milestone was achieving UNESCO sponsorship. Why?
We got it in 2015. UNESCO gave us their sponsorship thanks to the commitment we made when exactingly rebuilding the ship San Juan, following scientific sources (archaeological sources provided by the Canadian Government) at all times. But this sponsorship, it is understood that the research sources for the San Juan are exceptional, as they are the fruit of more than 30 years of research at the highest level. We receive that information and, thanks to it, we are able to reproduce a transoceanic sailing ship from the 16th century whose characteristics were unknown to us unti Canada started researching them. Before that, all we knew was what look these ships had, but now we know their essence.
That’s why UNESCO gave their sponsorship to the process of the reconstruction of a historical ship. Quite a milestone.
- After that UNESCO sponsorship, I recall an exhibition at the Museum of Human Evolution, alongside the great Juan Luis Arsuaga. Tell me about that collaboration.
Here, several of Albaola’s hallmarks come together. On the one hand, we have the vocation of taking our activity beyond the walls of the Albaola Itsas Kultur Faktoria. On the other, we want to recover certain trades associated with naval construction. Among those is the production of pitch (tar, produced in pine trees) that was used to protect the ships’ wood. We came into contact with the Royal Carter Lodge in Quintanar de la Sierra, Burgos, which had been trying to recover the skill of obtaining pitch for some time. We decided to work with them. Culture is very important for establishing modern relationships based on those that existed in the past. This collaboration was a resounding success. We wanted to share this element of the past that was unknown to the general public…what relationship could there be between the mountains of Burgos and a Basque shipyard?
Based on that collaboration, we got in touch with Arsuaga, who is the curator of the Museum of Human Evolution in Burgos, and we organized a very special exhibition that was very popular: “Txalupak & Carretas”. We were able to show the ties between the coast, the Basque Country, and Burgos, at a time when there were huge investments in maritime expeditions (many of them Basque).
This exhibition was created in the context of the cattle drive we organized alongside the Quintanar association, from there to Pasaia with a load of tar. It was a huge hit.
- In 2016, you were awarded the EGURTEK SARIA prize. Why give an award to the Faktoria as a building? How was it built and what was it before becoming a shipyard-museum?
The space we occupy now used to be an abandoned shipyard. The administration offered it to us and we began a process to recover and recondition it for Albaola’s activities, which was the transformation from abandoned shipyard to active shipyard-museum. To get there, we got in touch with the Lekuona Arquitectos studio.
Of all the different things we did, the most important would probably be the wooden edifice that covers the San Juan, thanks to the uniqueness of its construction (the biggest wooden building in the Basque Country), which is made of wood that hasn’t been chemically treated, and thanks to its architectural characteristics, we were awarded that Egurtek award for architecture in wood. At Albaola, while we are recovering ship building, we are also recovering the wood sector.
- A year later, in 2017, two very important things happened: you published the book EUSKAL HERRIA MARÍTIMA A VISTA DE LA NAO SAN JUAN, which is not your first book as a maritime heritage expert. But why was its publication so important?
At Albaola, we defend the maritime character of the Basque Country, which was hugely important in the past and which has somehow been forgotten. This book is a very informational tool to help the reader understand certain key aspects of our maritime history and our heritage.
- That same year, there was another important milestone: the opening of the ribera carpentry school, Aprenidztegi. Tell me, why was it set in motion, with which goals, and what is it and who is it aimed at?
It’s one of the biggest events in the history of Albaola: the opening of the Aprendiztegi, the Lance Lee International Ribera School of Carpentry. We’re aware that there can be no safeguard for heritage if knowledge is not passed down.
For years, we’d educated people informally, but we were aware of the need to create a structure to teach ribera carpentry. Aprendiztegi guarantees the passing down of the trade. It’s not a school in the traditional sense, as it has only one goal. If we look back, one of the main characteristics of maritime history is cultural diversity: the sea is synonymous with intercultural relationships. Therefore, we wanted to grant that same character to the school and take in passionate people. Our school is highly vocational, aimed at apprentices and entrepreneurs.
Our ambition is to be one of the leading schools in the construction of traditional vessels. Here, it is possible to build vessels of all different types, all with heritage interest and from different time periods.
- In 2018, three big things happened, among many things, of course. On the one hand, as regards sharing the project, National Geographic published the 4 Winds and 23 Countries project run by Albaola and the history of the Basque whalers via the whaling ship you’re building, the San Juan. It would seem that Albaola contributed as a source of information for the infographics. How did that go and what did that mean for you and for Albaola?
In 1985, I read the National Geographic article about the discovery of the San Juan (it was on the cover). From that moment on, I knew that the San Juan needed to be rebuilt. The fact that so many years later, National Geographic would dedicate that article to us is very special. This collaboration in 2018 was deeply satisfying for us. It really helped extend our international reach.
I’d like to highlight the warm reception our project has had in the media, as one of our main goals is to share our maritime history.
- On the other hand, there was the 1st edition of the Pasaia Maritime Festival, which was a resounding success. What is the goal in celebrating this festival, and why is it important?
For us, it was hugely important. We’d spent many years wanting to put it together, but we knew how complex the structure of a maritime festival would be, as we had participated in many of them since before Albaola got started. When you go to a maritime festival and you see such a successful format, the first thing that comes to mind is, “I want one, too”. But for us, it was vital to have previous experience in these festivals, to know their ins and outs, and to have collaborators and friends in that area. We had to wait a few years to put one on, but it was a huge success. It was a celebration of our maritime past combined with a modern-day project, like Albaola.
The Pasaia Maritime Festival was a great celebration of our maritime tradition and also of all the work we’ve done.
- The year ended with another award, the PRIZE FOR SUSTAINABLE TOURISM. Why was Albaola given this award?
The Basque Government Department of Tourism, Consumer Affairs, and Commerce gave us this prize for the way we work, respecting the environment and natural resources, based on the sustainable socialization of our maritime heritage. At Albaola, we emphasize artisanal work techniques and tools that avoid causing the impact to the environment that these vessels cause when they are made of polyester, for example. It’s a problem when handling these vessels when they are not going to be used anymore.
Our wooden ships, however, are sustainable in every phase of production, both during construction and at the end of their life cycle. They’re biodegradable vessels.
Regarding the Faktoria as new cultural equipment, as we’ve said before, we took advantage of an abandoned space to give it new life. As for the economic activity, it is gradually going up meaning we can proportionally increase projects, visitors, personnel, and volunteers. We’re experiencing what could be called sustainable development.
- Last year, 2019, in addition to beginning with the challenge of building an 18th-century corsaire and entering into the ERIH network, Albaola was named an Association in the Public Interest, a good gift for the fifth anniversary of the Itsas Kultur Faktoria. What did that mean?
This was the Basque Government’s way of recognizing us for our contribution to the promotion of the general interest via the development of activities with the values of generosity, altruism, solidarity, and pluralism.
Some of these activities, for example, are the construction of traditional Basque vessels of heritage interest, the spreading of knowledge of maritime culture, and the promotion of the Basque maritime image in the world.
This declaration allows us to obtain more advantageous fiscal deductions for our sponsors and patrons; in general, it’s something like 35% withholding, and 20% on corporate tax and residents outside Gipuzkoa, and 20% of the donation on withholding.
- It is necessary to recall that Albaola is a non-profit organization that seeks travel companions and patrons in order to provide for this marvel of a sustainable, authentic project which not only teaches but also employs, and which has managed to highlight Basque maritime heritage and history with a format that is attractive and accessible for all audiences. So, why should a company sponsor this project?
At Albaola, we emphasize the fact that this maritime history comes from the entrepreneurial spirit of the Basque Country, and we give that network and that industrious, entrepreneurial spirit a historical perspective, as it comes from centuries past. That’s what companies see when they support us.
A company that sponsors us can justify that its product is quality, because here we’ve been making top-quality products for centuries, and innovation and a job well done are fundamental parts of the Basque Country.
That’s everything, Xabier, thank you very much for your time, and we’re eagerly looking forward to the TIQETS AWARD nominations to watch as you add another award to your collection. Fair wind and a following sea!