16-18 April 2013

Until the early 1900s, when tourism became an increasing source of income, Mundaka lived off fishing, maritime trade and some subsistence farming.  Vasco was the language and still is, although most locals are now bilingual in Castellano. The street signs and menus in restaurants are in Vasco, also a section in the local newspaper.

Even today the town is small, but the original part is obvious with its network of narrow streets and alleyways. Beside the harbour is a large building with striking wooden beams and columns, bound with steel bands. Today the ground floor is a bar and restaurant and the owner told me the building was about 220 years old. He said that in Mundaka there were not many (if any) older buildings still intact, apart from the church.

Mundaka, north-west of Bilbao, on the river inlet

I had gone to Mundaka to see if I could find any trace of the Lázaga family, ancestors of my sons’ maternal grandmother, Norma Lázaga Navarro (1930-2017).  She once told me that her grandfather, José Ignacio Lázaga, was born in 1865 on a ship in the harbour of San José, Puerto Rico, the family eventually settling in Habana, Cuba.  Her grandfather was captured during Cuba’s war of independence from Spain and was held prisoner in Ceuta. He was sentenced to death, but was reprieved at the last minute.  He rose through the ranks of Cuba’s navy and when he died in 1941, he was given a full military funeral.

I don’t know when José Ignacio’s father, José Ramón Lázaga, returned to Mundaka, but he died there in 1890.  It was the grave of José Ramón that I was hoping to find, and perhaps those of other family members.

The receptionist at the hotel was curious as to what had brought a Spanish-speaking Irishman to Mundaka.  I explained that I was looking for any evidence of the Lázaga family, of which at least one branch had moved to Cuba in the 1860s. I was particularly interested in anyone of the Lázaga name still resident in Mundaka.  The girl immediately called one of her friends in the Ayuntamiento (Town Hall) to find out what she could. She was told that there were no residents of that name still living in the commune. Of course, there could be married female descendants of the Lázaga family living there, but due to the data protection laws, she was not empowered to reveal that information.  But she was able to give the name of the last Lázaga buried in the town cemetery, a Mercedes Lázaga Goyenechea, who died in 2002, aged 75.

I headed out of the town to find the graveyard, which was on top of a hill about twenty minutes along the coast.  It was a beautiful walk with glorious views of the river estuary and over the town.

The view from the steep road to the graveyard

The cemetery was isolated and very peaceful. There was not a soul around. The receptionist in the hotel had drawn a sketch of the approximate location of the grave of Mercedes Lázaga and I had no problem in finding it.

The plaque was pinned to an older grave, the stone of which was so weather-worn that it was impossible to make out other than a few isolated words. I took pictures from several angles and later on my pc I tried to decipher the words, but to no avail.


I spent some time searching the graveyard for any evidence of the Lázaga name, but without success.  It seemed as if Mercedes Lázaga was the only Lázaga buried there. But the graveyard did not seem to be very old and apart from the worn stone on the grave of Mercedes, the stones were relatively new and easily legible, with the oldest being from the early 1900s.

So where were the older graves? Was there another graveyard somewhere that could have contained gravestones of the Lázagas? When I got back to the hotel, the owner explained that there had been a graveyard beside the church, but it had been removed when the new graveyard was created, and the area was now private residential property. I suspect that the eroded stone on the Mercedes Lázaga grave was from the church graveyard.

The next day I woke to a clear blue sky, warm sun and no wind.  I had an excellent breakfast in the almost deserted dining room – there were only two others staying in the hotel.  After breakfast, I decided to head out of the town for a long walk along the coast and perhaps up the hill into the countryside.  Just outside the town I passed a pristine and secluded beach, completely deserted. It was perhaps too early for sunbathers.


From the top of the first hill I had an excellent view of the church, prominent on the headland. There was already a church on the site in the 11th century, as a document from 1071 noted its existence and recorded a donation that it made.  The original church was destroyed during factional wars, being rebuilt and enlarged in the XVI century.

St. Mary’s church

I eventually came across an unpaved road off the coastal road and decided to follow it to see where it led. For perhaps thirty minutes the road steadily climbed up a narrow valley until it finally stopped at a dilapidated farmhouse. A dog started barking when it spotted me and an old man came to the door. He was exceedingly wizened and frail. I spoke to him but he did not seem to understand me. He replied in Vasco.  But sign language can be universal and I indicated that I wanted to walk further and was it possible.  He indicated that the farm was the end of the road, so I reluctantly returned back the way I had come. It was a pity that I could not have asked him if he could remember of any Lázagas.

Once back to the coast road, I stopped in a bar and had a beer, a light lunch and read the newspapers, before returning to explore Mundaka.

The Hermitage of St. Catherine sits on a peninsula and is isolated from the rest of the town. It was built in the 19th century on the ancient remains of a fortress. It was often used as a meeting place and as a place for quarantining victims of epidemic.

The hermitage of St. Catherine

The view across that bay to the next headland was spectacular. The day was peaceful and the water calm, but on the exposed headland one could imagine that the winds from the Bay of Biscay could be quite fierce during a storm.


Today Mundaka is renowned for its surfing and even on a relatively calm sea, there were several surfers patiently waiting for a suitable wave. The waves rise in the shape of a tube and can grow to four meters high and extend for 400 meters. In the village there are constant reminders of surfing in posters, photographs, rental shops and groups of young people, bronzed and athletic.

Surfing picture from a local brochure

The sea was remarkably calm that day and there was no activity in the harbour to shatter the glass-like surface of the water.  There were a few men fishing from the wall. There was no evidence of the fishing fleet and maritime trade that used to exist, just pleasure craft.

Looking from the harbour to the bay
And looking back towards the town

Before I came to Mundaka, I had ambitions of accessing the church records and proving the veracity of what I had been told of the family history.  But I had read several accounts of how difficult it was to get access. The records are not centralized as they are in many countries and one is quite dependent on the willingness to help of the parish priest.  When I saw the locked gate and the iron bars around the church, my thought was that the priest has bigger and more pressing problems that helping amateur genealogists. Perhaps one day in the not too distant future the Spanish church records will be centralized and available on the internet, as they are in many other countries.

The locked and barred church

When I returned home, I documented what I had found in Mundaka and sent the photographs and a local tourist brochure to Miami, to my sons’ grandmother.  I am glad that I made the effort to go to Mundaka when I did, for she sadly died suddenly, earlier this year.

Today would have been her 87th birthday.