Vitoria-Gasteiz: The Cindarella Story of the Basque Country

Proud by nature, many Basques I met in the large coastal cities of Bilbao and San Sebastian had few compliments for the region’s landlocked capital, Vitoria-Gasteiz.

“It’s quaint.” one local friend said.

“It’s really old.”

“It’s the Green Capital of Europe for 2012.” shrugged another.

“It’s the most liveable city in Spain.”

I nodded my head, wondering how the livability of a city concerned a passing traveler like me.

After six months of living in the Basque Country, few locals could give me a solid reason for visiting the capital of their region. Bilbao had the Guggenheim, San Sebastian had the beaches and the food, but Vitoria was just the political capital. So I stuck to villages of the coast, weary of venturing over the hills into the Basque hinterland.

But Basque culture remained an enigma to me; it felt like something was missing. I viewed visiting the third Basque sister as a way of triangulating this ancient culture that continued to escape me. So I booked my ticket from San Sebastian and read up on the city along the way, hoping for clues in one of the oldest cities in the region.

My bus departed early, passing through the green hills of Gipuzkoa province into the drier plains of Áraba. The geography seemed more like the central meseta of Spain than the isolated valleys of the Basque coast – a geographical nuance that I sensed translated to culture. I stared out the window as we came into Vitoria, wondering how this might manifest in the city.
I wanted to explore the city chronologically, so I began in the Medieval Quarter, called the casco viejo. The almond-shaped casco viejo is perched atop a hill and partially surrounded by the oldest city walls in the Basque County. The original settlement, Gasteiz, had been in existence perhaps five hundred years before King Sancho the Wise granted the charter for Nova Vitoria in 1181. As the town grew into a prosperous trading post between Spain and France, it was fortified, renamed Vitoria, and brought closer to the Spanish crown.

The best place to discover this early history is in the city’s unique cathedral, La Catedral de Santa María, which doubles as an archeological dig open to the public. Not only was it an architectural sight in it’s own right (Ken Follet researched scenes for the sequel to Pillars of the Earth here), but my 6€ ticket got me a hard hat and a full tour – from high up in the rafters to down into the crypt where teams of archeologists were peeling back more than 1,200 years of history. After my one hour tour, I made my way over to the 15th century gothic church, La Iglesia de San Vincente, where a 1€ donation allowed me to climb up the old bell tower for a panoramic view of the entire city.

I came back down to street level and I walked along the three parallel arteries of the old village. Alleys were named after now-vanished trades and guilds, while the main streets were lined with opulent palacios of medieval merchants. Through such trade, Basques became the wealthiest people in the Spanish Empire, a legacy that continues today.

The three streets merged into the Plaza de la Brullerías, the sight of the medieval market where Castilian merchants sold wool to Basque traders for refinement in the Spanish Netherlands. The cobbled square was the most iconic corner of the city, surrounded on all sides by wood-beamed inns, a crooked tower and centuries-old residences.

 Though climbing up this rickety tower was prohibited, many of the palacios were open for visitors – all of which were free. Right on the square was El Portalón, a former inn for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, immaculately preserved and now converted into one of the city’s top restaurants. Then I stopped in the nearby Casa de Cordón, a thirteenth-century building that was once home to a prosperous Jewish merchant. Next, I saw the Palacio de Villa Suso and the Renaissance-style Palacio de Montehermoso, where Joseph Bonaparte during the French occupation of Spain. But most regal was the Palacio de Escoriaza-Esquibel, the former residence of the private physician to the king of Spain.

Though these residences only offered a quick peek into the past, one renaissance mansion called BIBATheld a quirky surprise – the world’s finest collection of playing cards. For centuries, Vitoria was one of Europe’s top producers of playing cards, and the Fournier Playing Card Museum‘s exhaustive exhibition traces the game’s spread from Asia to the rest of the world, while explaining the arcane symbology of suits, face cards, and national variations across Europe.

Museums weren’t the only places holding art – it seemed like each block in the medieval quarter held a wall painted with a large, avaunt-guarde mural. The tourist office handed me a pocket guide to all the murals and their artists, some dozen in total.

The art sparked my interest in the modern side of town, so I wandered south towards the Plaza de la Virgin Blanca, the central square of Vitoria. In its center stood a statue of the Duke of Wellington, the British general who defeated Joseph Bonaparte just outside the city walls during the Napoleonic wars. The statue was a subtle reminder that the Basque Country has always existed as a land swept between greater powers, Vitoria even more so.

In a land where Basque and Spanish culture are often viewed as mutually exclusive, Vitoria is relatively Spanish. In the turbulent 1980s, the Basque nationalist group ETA waged a bloody war against Madrid’s infant democracy in the wake of Franco’s death. When the new government granted the Basque Country autonomy, Vitoria loyalty to Madrid made it an ideal choice for a capital. Of the three major Basque cities, it remains the only one with a Plaza de España.

I set my course for the home of the Lehendakari (the Basque president), the current heir to a 2,000 year tradition of Basque self-governance. On the way, I swung by the Basque parliament building, where representatives from the three Basque provinces convene as they have since before Roman times, when they used to meet under an oak tree in Guernica, 86 kilometers (53 miles) north.

The Lehendakari’s home was a ten minute walk beyond the 18th century enlargement, known as the ensanche. Like the rings of an ancient tree, the streets of Vitoria radiated out from the walls of the medieval quarter in concentric circles through the ensanche to the modern homes on the city’s limits. In contrast to the narrow alleys of medieval Gasteiz, the uniformly tall townhouses of the ensanche sat along wide promenades where new electric street cars silently whisked locals around the city, drastically cutting down noise and traffic from cars.

I preferred to walk, heading down the Paseo de la Senda, a green swath of pedestrian walkways, parks and mansions that cuts southwestwardly through the city. Some of the city’s finest examples of neo-Basque architecture adorn this walk – from the home of the Lehendakari, the Ajuria Enea, to the French-style Palacio de Augusti, home to the city’s fine arts museum, where I discovered an impressive collection of local impressionist paintings depicting the Basque countryside at the turn of the century.

These parks, museums and grassy walkways form part of what locals call the “green ring,” a deliberate swath of nature surrounding the downtown area. Vitoria’s green lung doesn’t just provide a place to walk in peace, it was part of the city’s drive to become the green capital of Europe, an award it finally earned this year.

However, the largest part of the green ring is Salburúa Nature Preserve, a wildlife-filled wetlands some twenty minutes outside of town by bus. Walking the trails and swimming in the lagoons is ideal during warmer months, but the inside interpretation center has plenty of interactive exhibits that make it a great place to let the kids crawl around on rainy days. The main observation deck is covered, projecting some twenty five feet over the lagoon.

I walked down the deck and stood above the lagoon, alone for a moment in the serenity of nature. I gazed over the brown hills around Vitoria, marveling at this other side of the Basque Country I had failed to see from the coast. It felt like I’d moved through multiple centuries, navigated Basque, Spanish, and European cultures during a single day in Vitoria-Gasteiz. I’d come searching for a final piece of the Basque puzzle. Instead I only discovered another layer of complexity.

That evening, as my bus sped through the sunset towards the familiarity of the coast, I saw the passing villages in a different light. Like Vitoria, I no longer viewed them as clues to solving the mystery of the Basques. The Basque Country, I decided, was a mystery I wanted to take my time to solve.

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