UNESCO nod shines spotlight on Newfoundland and Labrador's Red Bay
By Diane Slawych
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RED BAY, Newfoundland and Labrador -- One archeologist called it "the race car of the 16th century."
The 8-metre-long Basque whaling boat has a simple design but experts say it had incredible stability and speed. Called a chalupa, the wooden vessel was discovered beneath a sunken galleon in Red Bay Harbour, brought to the surface and restored over 12 years. It now sits on display in a temperature-controlled environment at the Visitor Orientation Centre in this Labrador town.
The boat, and others like it, were used by Basques from northern Spain and France 400 years ago to hunt bowhead and North Atlantic right whales in the Strait of Belle Isle. The area was once the world's largest producer of whale oil. Used as fuel for lanterns, and in a wide range of other products including paint and soap, the oil was a valuable commodity in 16th-century Europe.
At the peak, as many as 50 ships -- each with a crew of 50-75 men -- would cross the ocean each spring and stay for eight months of every year from the 1540s to the early 1600s. Though the Basques had set up a major operation in Red Bay, their presence here was forgotten until the 1970s, when archival researcher Selma Barkham uncovered the previously unexplored chapter of our history.
Since then thousands of artifacts connected to the life and work of the Basque whalers in Canada have been found such as harpoons, wooden plates, clothing and the earliest known original will written in Canada (dating to 1577). All are on display in the Visitor Orientation Centre and the nearby Visitor Interpretation Centre near the waterfront.
A National Historic Site of Canada since 1979, Red Bay received international recognition in June when UNESCO designated it a World Heritage site, describing it as "the earliest, most comprehensive and best preserved archeological testimony of a pre-industrial whaling station."
Aside from hunting whales, the Basques also rendered the blubber into oil and built the wooden barrels needed to transport the commodity home. Much of that work was done on Saddle Island -- a one-minute boat ride away and well worth a visit.
It's sunny and warm the day I arrive on the tiny island, where the only sounds are the blowing winds and the calls of the Herring Gulls and Black-backed Gulls that nest there. Walking along a shoreline path, I meet two Montrealers picking wild berries, including the prized cloudberries (called bakeapples in Atlantic Canada).
The path is dotted with 34 markers that indicate aboriginal and Basque sites. Now just depressions in the ground, some of these are the former locations of whaling operations such as tryworks (furnaces for processing whale oil) and a cooperage where barrel makers worked and lived.
As the trail winds closer to the rusted half-sunken French ship Bernier (a recent wreck), I am reminded of the San Juan, a galleon loaded with 800 barrels of oil that in 1565 broke its anchor in Red Bay harbour during a storm and sank. Discovered in 1978, the ship was dismantled, recorded and then returned to the harbour. A small model of the ship and the recovered artifacts are on display in Red Bay.
At the west end of the island is a cemetery with 60 graves that contain the remains of 140 whalers, many of whom it's believed died from drowning and exposure.
No one knows exactly why the Basques abandoned the Labrador coast in the early 1600s, although stocks of the right whale were in decline. But one thing is now certain. They were definitely here.
The Basques, who invented commercial whaling, originated from northeast Spain (and to a lesser extent France). Today, Basque Country is an autonomous region of Spain with its own language (Euskera), culture and traditions. The capital, Bilbao, is Spain's sixth-largest city and biggest port.
1. Guggenheim Museum
Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry, is cornerstone of the city's redevelopment, which includes other major projects by renowned architects. Galleries in the avant-garde structure of stone, glass and shimmering titanium display works by modern and contemporary masters.
2. Historic Vitoria
The headquarters of the Basque government, Vitoria was founded in the 12th century and has plenty of beautiful churches, palaces, plazas and courtyards. Start a visit in the Old Quarter, where the streets are named after medieval artisan guilds.
3. San Sebastian
Spain's royal family once had a summer home in this pretty seaside town. Of its three main beaches, crescent shaped La Concha is the most popular. Spend time on the promenade in the evening or use the town as a base for exploring Basque Country's other fascinating attractions.