Friday, December 4, 2015


Basque place names can be confusing. Elburgo is Burgelu in Euskadi, Elvillar is Bilar, Guernica is Gernika-Lumo and there are many more places where the Basque name is different to its Castilian appellation. There is no such problem when visiting the capital as in both languages it is known as Vitoria-Gasteiz. Vitoria, to give it its Castilian name, is situated in the province of Álava (Araba). As well as being the capital of the whole of Pais Vasco, it is also capital of the province. 

Plaza de la Virgen Blanca en Vitoria-Gasteiz
photo: public domain by Guyletsbuild
 Vitoria has many architectural gems - many of them in the old town - thanks to the city's historical development. Well over 800 years ago, a small hamlet stood on the hill where the historic centre of the city now stands. It was known as Gasteiz. In 1181, Sancho VI the Wise, the King of Navarra, founded 'Nueva Victoria'. In 1200, Alfonso VIII of Castile captured the town and incorporated it into his kingdom. Over the succeeding years, the town grew and, in 1431, King Juan II granted Vitoria the title of city. On 21 June 1813, the armies of Napoleon were defeated at the Battle of Vitoria - the defining moment of the Peninsula War. The British army, led by the Duke of Wellington, comprehensively beat the French whose control of Spain was finally ended. In 1980, Vitoria-Gasteiz was chosen as the capital of the Basque Country.  

The city still conserves much of its medieval layout that, during the time of Sancho the Wise, was surrounded by a wall. As Vitoria grew the urban centre spread down the sides of the hill. In spite of this growth, the city is remarkably green with tree-lined avenues, pedestrian and cycle paths and open countryside within walking distance of the historic centre.

To begin our exploration of the city, let's start at the top - at the Cathedral of Santa María. It was built as a church-fortress in Gothic style in the 13th century. Further additions were made in the 14th & 15th centuries and, in 1496, it became a collegiate church. Finally, in 1861, it obtained the rank of cathedral. It is known as the Old Cathedral because there is a newer one down in El Ensanche the 19th century suburb. The Cathedral of Santa María has been declared a Historic-Artistic Monument. 

In the area around the Cathedral are the oldest streets in the city. They have names like Cuchillería (knifesmiths), Herrería (blacksmiths), Zapatería (shoemakers) and Pintorería (painters) reflecting the craftsmen's guilds that thrived there. In this medieval area there are a number of Renaissance buildings including the Palace of Escoriaza-Esquibel with its picturesque courtyard. Other palaces include those of Urbina Zárate, Bendaña, Villa Suso and the Casa del Cordón, which was built in the 15th century in late Gothic style. This Historic-Artistic Monument has an attractive façade that includes the coat of arms of the Catholic Monarchs. 
In the Plaza de la Virgen Blanca is a monument to Wellington's victory at the Battle of Vitoria. The Church of San Miguel is located in this square. It was built between the 14th and 16th centuries and is a mixture of Gothic and Renaissance elements. It houses the image of the White Virgin, the patron saint of the city. The Gothic portico of the church leads to Los Arquillos, an arcaded walk that connects the historic quarter with the nineteenth century new suburb. Here, too, there are fine palaces, churches and civic architecture but they are more modern, having been built in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Monumento a la Batalla de Vitoria (1813), en la Plaza de la Virgen Blanca
photo: public domain by Zarateman

The new cathedral is called Concatedral de María Inmaculada. It is a Neogothic building that was started at the beginning of the 20th century. Next door, is the 19th-century Basque Parliament. Of the palaces built in this area of Vitoria, the Augusti Palace is yet another building that has been declared a Historic-Artistic Monument. It houses the Museum of Fine Arts, one of many museums in the city.

Catedral Nueva de Vitoria-Gasteiz
photo: public domain by Zarateman

Other museums in Vitoria-Gasteiz include the Museum of Archaeology; the Arms Museum which contains weaponry rather than body parts; the Natural History Museum and the Museum of Natural Sciences which is housed in the Torre de Doña Otxanda, a slender tower constructed in the 15th century. A museum with a difference is the Museo Fournier de Naipes. It is a museum of playing cards. It contains - um - playing cards - lots of them - 18,500 decks to be precise. They cover a vast range of subjects and are made with different types of material. All the different printing techniques used by card-makers over the years are represented in this delightful museum.

With all these medieval monuments and museums, some of you may be forgiven for thinking that Vitoria is a dull boring city - it is not! There are many green spaces - more than other cities in Spain. Only minutes from the historic quarter is Parque Florida - a 19th-century garden with bandstands, statues, ponds and, of course, plants. Other parks include San Juan de Arriaga Park, the largest in the city. Only half an hour's walk from the city center is the Forest of Armentia - a vast parkland crisscrossed by cycle paths. And that is another thing; the city of Vitoria-Gasteiz has promoted the use of bicycles. There are many cycle routes both within and without the city and, what's more, the Vitoria-Gasteiz Town Council has decreed that there is no charge for hiring the bikes. It is just one of a number of environmentally friendly schemes drawn up by this forward thinking band of politicians - like rubbish collection - rubbish is efficiently disposed of through underground tubes to distant incinerators. No wonder that the city has won prizes for its cleanliness and its greenness. A vast green belt completely surrounds the city and the citizens enjoy more open space per head of population than any other city in Europe. 

Kiosko del música en el Parque de la Florida

more blogs by Robert Bovington... 

"Photographs of Spain"
"postcards from Spain"
"you couldn't make it up!"
"a grumpy old man in Spain"
"bits and bobs"
"Spanish Expressions"
"Spanish Art"
"Books About Spain"

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