Argus man begins voyage of discovery on origins of Newport Ship
ARGUS reporter JOHN PHILLIPS and Newport councillor Charles Ferris set sail on Saturday on a journey of discovery following a route that may have been taken by the ship found here a decade ago.
WELCOME to the Brokoa, a vessel which is currently retracing the voyage of sailors who once delivered iron ore from Bilbao, Spain, to ports in the Basque region.
I'm on board to bring you reports from ports and forges that melted metal for centuries and Guernica, which was once a hub for iron ore merchants.
I'm with Charles Ferris who founded the Friends of the Newport Ship after the 15th century wreck was discovered in 2002.
Mr Ferris, 61, of Fields Park Avenue, Newport, said: "It is something of a pilgrimage to see where the ship may have travelled from and where it was most probably built.
"Sailing in its wake is a wonderful thing. To me, it's the completion of a pilgrimage."
Mr Ferris said the Newport Ship was believed to have come from the Basque region as its timber is from Navarre, a community of northern Spain bordering the Basque Country.
Some historians also believe the ship may have been built by Basque shipwrights, owing to its structural details.
And a barrel from the ship features the mark of Robert Baron, a Medieval merchant from Bristol who brought back iron ore and wine from Spain, Mr Ferris added.
The Brokoa, a 19th century replica ship, set sail form Bilbao on Saturday with the voyage to end in Saint-Jean-de-Luz in the Basque region in southern France on Wednesday.
But before we set sail on Thursday, we were immersed in the Basque culture as we visited the seaside resort of Saint-Jean-de-Luz in France.
Our host, Gonzalo Duo, took us on a tour of the town where medieval ships once brought metal from Spanish mines to be melted in forges across the Basque region.
We stayed a village called Ascain - "last" in Basque - which was the last place where the ships stopped to offload the metal turned into tools and medieval weapons.
Mr Ferris and Mr Duo had fun re-enacting what sailors would have done centuries ago, towing a ship on the bank of the Nivelle river in Ascain with locals.
A resident of Ascain told me the area was once dotted with forges, including one powered by a watermill on the bank of the river Nivelle, just a stone's throw from where we stayed.
Mr Duo drove us down to Saint-Jean-de-Luz where we sampled the Basque culture, breathing the fresh air from the Atlantic ocean and tour the town famed for hosting the Royal wedding of the French King Louis XIV to Maria Theresa of Spain in 1660.
We walked along the harbour into Ciboure, an adjacent seaside town known for being the birthplace of the French 20th century composer Maurice Ravel.
A day later, I met members of the crew of the Brokoa, anticipating our voyage following a route taken by iron merchants since medieval times.
We drove into the Basque Country from France to Spain to reach Bilbao and its iconic Vizcaya bridge, the oldest surviving transporter bridge in the world - something of interest to those in Newport who love our own transporter bridge.
The Bilbao bridge is a beautiful feat of engineering designed by the Spanish architect Alberto Palacio, who studied under Gustave Eiffel the man behind the most famous landmark in Paris.
The Bilbao bridge is in constant use with its gondola ferrying dozens of passengers and cars throughout the day.
It is also situated in a prime location in the centre of Portugalete, a large town within the city of Bilbao.
Built in 1893 to link Portugalete and another town lying across the Nervion river, Las Arenas, the structure is made of iron and is around 200ft in height.
Unesco declared the bridge a World Heritage Site in 2006, a testament to its perfect combination of beauty and functionality.
We stayed overnight at a rowing club near the Brokoa ship, which is taking us back to Saint-Jean-de-Luz in northern Spain, following an iron trade route used by merchants for centuries.
This historical re-enactment has been organised by a Basque organisation which seeks to preserve the maritime heritage of the region.
Its members are a friendly bunch of people all sharing a love of ships and the ocean, a passion reflected by the name they have given their group, Itsas Begia, literally "the eye of the sea" in Basque.
Finally, on Saturday, we set sail from Bilbao transporter bridge with a very experienced skipper Michel Pery who has been at the helm of the famous tall ship Le Belem.
Mr Pery takes us along the Basque coast having been the master of the 1896 three-masted barque turned into a French training ship.
Mr Ferris was surprised to see such a seasoned seaman on our small replica ship.
But Mr Perry soon told me he is one of the members of Itsas Begia and comes from Ciboure, where the organisation is based. The sea was calm and the weather fine and we started with a light picnic at sea, which delighted our bon viveur from Newport. Mr Ferris.
We headed towards the port of Mundaka in northern Spain, which is famed on the world surfing scene.
Its huge swells roll in from the Bay of Biscay before slamming into the rocky coastline of the Basque Country.
The Mundaka estuary created a perfect sandbar forming hollow waves and the town formerly co-hosted the World Championship Tour of Surfing.
* Read JOHN PHILLIPS' next report from his voyage later this week. His next stop is Guernica, once a hub for iron ore merchants.