Karen Hartman has fielded questions from Basques all over the world about Boise-area attractions.
Hartman isn’t a travel agent or tour guide. She’s co-manager, with her husband, Bill, of the Boise Riverside RV Park, 6000 N. Glenwood St. It’s on the north side of Expo Idaho in Garden City.
All 165 spaces at the RV park are full this week, with many occupied by Jaialdi festival-goers. They’re driving in from all over the West.
“I’ve had a couple that are flying into Seattle and renting RVs there,” Hartman said. “That gives them a chance to see the Pacific Northwest. A couple are flying into Boise and renting RVs here.”
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They’re not all coming from far-flung places.
“Some are out of Nampa or Caldwell, but they want to be close,” Hartman said.
Those staying in RVs at Expo Idaho have a front-row seat to all Jaialdi action on Saturday and Sunday, the last two days of the festival. There will be musical acts, dancing, food, Basque merchandise for sale and sheep-wagon displays at the fairgrounds.
Festival-goers will be coming in from all directions and taking all manner of transit. Tour groups from around the Northwest will come by bus, said Lisa Edens, a spokeswoman for the Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau.
A couple of the groups visiting from the Basque Country are flying into Boise and chartering buses here, so they can get around in town and also take trips to Las Vegas and other places afterward. Some are planning family reunions.
A four-person film crew from the Basque city Bilbao is making a documentary on the history of Jaialdi and is planning to head to San Francisco afterward to do interviews for another project, filmmaker Mikel Erkiaga said.
HOW MANY VISITORS?
Jaialdi organizers don’t know how many people participate in the festival, or how many come from outside the region, but they estimate about 30,000 people were involved in Saturday activities at Expo Idaho in 2010 — the largest concentration of people during the event, said Amy Wray, a chairwoman for the 2015 festival.
Getting a total count for the whole week is difficult because not all activities are ticketed, and some people participate in everything.
This year, the fairgrounds will have a ticketing system. The cost for Basque-ing at Expo Idaho day activities on Saturday and Sunday is $6.50 online (includes fees), $7 at the gate (free for kids under 10). The Saturday Night Dance, from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., is $11.50 online, $12 at the gate.
“We’ll have a whole lot better records this year,” Wray said.
BOOKED A YEAR OUT
Hotels in Downtown Boise that are near the Basque Block fill up months ahead of Jaialdi, and the rest get close to capacity as the event nears.
The Red Lion Hotel Boise Downtowner is booked up for the week of Jaialdi. About 140 of 182 rooms will be occupied by festivalgoers, said John Beacham, director of sales for the hotel.
Beacham said the hotel is hosting three tour groups from the Basque region of Spain. He said representatives from two of the groups visited Boise before making reservations.
“They talked to different hotels and talked to the Convention & Visitors Bureau about what they can do besides Jaialdi,” Beacham said. “They’ve been planning for at least a year.”
Michal Lloyd, manager of The Modern, said the hotel’s 39 rooms were booked up for the week of Jaialdi about a year ago.
“People have been pretty on top of getting their reservations,” she said.
Lloyd said those booking rooms are primarily Americans of Basque descent from other states, including Nevada and California, but some are from Spain. Those coming from Europe tend to stay longer — 10 days or more.
“I can’t imagine that this doesn’t have a big economic impact on Boise,” Lloyd said. “People love Boise, Idaho, and they want to come back.”
She said some visitors do rent cars, and they are interested in checking out other local attractions while at Jaialdi, including museums, the Old Idaho Penitentiary and Idaho City. The Modern has a half dozen bicycles that visitors can use to tool around Downtown.
For those who are staying at Downtown hotels and don’t have wheels, free shuttles will be running from the Basque Block to Expo Idaho on Saturday and Sunday, Wray said.
REPEAT VISITORS SPREAD THE WORD
Jenny Maitia-Poncetta, of Bakersfield, Calif., is coming back to Boise for her third Jaialdi.
“It’s kind of neat, and it’s all about our history,” said Maitia-Poncetta, who runs a Basque restaurant, Wool Growers, that her parents opened 61 years ago. “Coming from California, it’s such a safe, clean town. It’s just phenomenal. You have no graffiti. You don’t have all the garbage we have. And the people are so nice.”
She and her husband are flying to Idaho, but she said she has several friends who are planning road trips. The Maitia-Poncettas plan to rent a car in Boise so they can do some sightseeing.
“I have a cousin in Texas, and he’s into cattle. He’s looking to buy a ranch on the outskirts of Boise,” Jenny Maitia-Poncetta said. “He sent us on a mission to do some sightseeing.”
The couple already has reservations to eat at Epi’s, a Basque restaurant in Meridian.
“We’re from a different province,” Jenny Maitia-Poncetta said of the draw to Basque food, even though she makes it for a living. “We’re from the French side. I highly recommend Epi’s. I told a bunch of my friends, and they’re all going there this time.”
Epi’s is a 12-table restaurant in a house on Main Street in Meridian. It is owned by Chris Ansotegui and her sister, Gina Urquidi. Their brother, Dan, was the original owner of Bar Gernika and The Basque Market in Boise.
Jaialdi festivalgoers were trying to make reservations last fall, but Ansotegui told them they were too busy to begin that process until after Jan. 1. When she arrived at the restaurant on Jan. 2, there were requests for reservations waiting on the answering machine.
“Jaialdi brings many people to our area to celebrate,” Ansotegui said. “I’m very blessed that the restaurant is on the radar.”
She said it’s primarily Basque-Americans that come to sample the cuisine, not those from Europe.
FEEDING HUNGRY CROWDS
Basque restaurants in Boise and Meridian aren’t the only ones that benefit from the huge influx of visitors.
Kevin Settles, the owner of Bardenay restaurant on the Basque Block, expects to have record sales on the fourth day of Jaialdi, on Friday.
“It’ll be the biggest day we’ll have for another five years,” he said with confidence.
“Everybody that works for us will be working that Friday,” he said. “Nobody gets the day off.”
Settles begins planning for Jaialdi months in advance. He won’t hire any extra staff but may bring in workers from the Eagle Bardenay restaurant to help out. He buys pizza and sets up a food station in the back for his employees.
Bardenay is not a Basque restaurant, and Settles doesn’t change the menu for Jaialdi. He has had the menu translated into the Basque language, and he does make sure he has an interpreter around during business hours (typically a Spanish speaker).
The restaurant doesn’t take reservations during Jaialdi.
“We’re only capable of cooking x-amount of food. There’s no way we can service those spaces and take care of everybody on the floor,” Settles said. “There will be greater demand than we could produce.”
Settles said the restaurant sells a higher volume of of chorizo sandwiches, steaks, lamb and beef meals during Jaialdi. They plan to offer roasted corn and simple house cocktails at Beside Bardenay and part of the Bardenay patio.
Even those Boise restaurants that aren’t on the Basque Block are getting inquiries from groups interested in making reservations during Jaialdi.
Fork has a first-come, first-served patio and bar top, but it takes reservations for its dining room. It has daily waiting lists of an hour to 90 minutes.
“We’ll take their phone number, and they’re welcome to walk around Downtown. Then we’ll give them a call,” Fork manager Jackie Shannon said. She said they highly recommend reservations, which can be made online or by phone at 287-1700.