There is an aroma that hangs heavy in the narrow lanes of Getaria, one that overpowers the sea spray that blows in each morning from the Bay of Biscay. It's wood smoke, that familiar scent of burning charcoal, so strong you can sometimes see its blue haze. It's something else, too. A hint of charring fish and crustaceans, the weekend barbecue smell, the one that causes instant Pavlovian salivation. It's time to eat.
And people here are eating. Everyone. The oldest part of this Basque fishing port is only a few short streets, cobbled lanes that lead down to the boats depositing their catches, and yet today they're filled with people clutching drinks and sampling snacks, the burble of their voices echoing off centuries-old walls, the good-times atmosphere impossible to avoid.
Getaria is famous for several reasons. One is its stunning location on the rugged north coast of Spain, wedged between two beaches, with the Bay of Biscay sparkling in front and the rolling hills of Basque wine country laid out behind.
Mostly, however, Getaria is famous for seafood. It's famous for anchovies, the silvery little fish that pack such a powerful culinary punch. It's famous, too, for turbot, the flat, bug-eyed creatures with delicate, almost gelatinous flesh that are so highly prized.
And it's the turbot that permeates the air today, and every day. The fish here is traditionally grilled over hot coals, smoky, sweet and delicious, and most restaurants have open-air grills on the street, where chefs flip fish, char prawns and draw crowds desperate to get their hands on the produce.
The most famous of those is Elkano, a Michelin-starred fine-diner named in honour of Getaria's most famous son, Juan Sebastian Elcano, the first man to circumnavigate the globe. Elkano is a local institution. Culinary pilgrims make their way to Getaria to sample the restaurant's famed turbot grilled over coals. Hence, it's difficult to get a booking. And it's not exactly cheap.
It's also the reason I'm not eating at Elkano today. Instead, I'm dining at Elkano Txiki, the famous restaurant's smaller, more secretive sibling, a no-frills bar where the seafood is just as fresh and delicious, but served in small, pintxos-style portions that most people snack on while standing out on the street.
Want to sample absolute perfection on a skewer? Try the "brocheta" – two plump prawns and a slab of monkfish, grilled and placed on a slice of baguette. There are no fancy flavours here, just the sweetness of the meat, the salt of the ocean, the kiss of flames. It's served as we stand outside sipping red vermouth, bathing in the spring sunshine. And it's so, so delicious. The freshest seafood, expertly prepared. Simple. Elegant. And it costs €3.5, or about $5.50. In fact, everything on the menu – which my partner and I proceed to work through in its entirety – is similarly affordable, and delectable.
There's txangurrito al horno – crab meat mixed with tomatoes and onions and butter and cooked gratin-style. There's ceviche, a take on the Peruvian classic. There are croquettes with jamon iberico that set an all-new standard.
Everything is so casual, so unfussy. This amazing food is whisked out to the street and handed to us with no fanfare, just a smile. Some people standing out here with us, locals in their Basque berets, are not even eating, just enjoying a drink in the sun.
There's an open grill out the front of Elkano Txiki the same as there is at Elkano, but here it's not for turbot. This one is for steak, thick rib-eye fillets the Basques are also known for. Every time one of those "txuletas" hits the grill, the air fills with smoke, just another aroma to add to the mix, just another reason to eat.
Qantas flies daily from all major Australian ports to Paris, via Hong Kong, with code-share connections to Bilbao. From there, Getaria is a 45-minute drive. See qantas.com
The Hotel Iturregi is a luxurious rural hotel just outside Getaria. See hoteliturregi.com
Elkano Txiki is open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays for lunch and dinner. See restauranteelkano.com
Ben Groundwater travelled at his own expense.