Grand Vitoria is an elegant and stylish 19th century industrial boom town of light-filled squares and pretty parks built around a medieval centre of churches and palaces. It’s now networked by a series of highly efficient modern trams and a comprehensive cycle way giving it the status of a ‘Green City’.
Founded as Victoriacum by the Visigothic King Leovigild around 580, by the Middle Ages it was in border territory between the infant Christian Kingdoms of Navarra and Castile. King Sancho VI ‘the wise’ of Navarra granted ‘Nueva Vitoria’ its licence to trade in 1181 but the Castilians snatched the town away from him soon after.
Like all medieval Castile towns, Vitoria prospered and extended. It grew rich from trade in iron and wool and many half-timbered homes, workshops and craft stalls were built along streets that wound out from the central and irregular square of Plaza de la Virgen Blanca.
The Renaissance ushered in decorative palaces and fortress towers, in imitation of the Italian ducal towns. A surviving 15th century tower is now the city’s Natural Science Museum. The narrow winding streets are now packed with tiny pintxos bars selling tempting morsels of pickled fish, creamy crab, smoked meats and preserved peppers all piled onto slices of fresh bread to nibble on whilst sampling the local wines – effervescent white Txakoli and big bold red Riojas.
Vitoria became known more widely across Europe after 21 June 1813, when it saw the decisive battle of the Peninsular War between Wellington and Napoleon. The Duke, in retreat from his failed siege at Burgos, caught up with the French and routed them here, and in doing so earned himself the name ‘Defendre d’Espagne’. A year later the war came to an end with Napoleon’s abdication.
The battle is commemorated in a monument that features both military leaders in a commanding position in the Plaza de la Virgen Blanca. It is overlooked by stylish town houses built in the industrial boom of the late 19th century, which are smartly fronted by fully enclosed and glazed balconies called ‘miradores’.
Nearby the perfectly symmetrical Plaza de Espana boasts grand neoclassical apartment-living over wide arcaded walkways. Café owners were setting up outdoor seating under large white parasols and a group of teenagers practiced some dance moves on a temporary stage set up in one corner.
All around it felt as though life was emerging out of doors once more as shops were spruced up, woodwork was repainted, and an army of workers assembled stages and platforms ahead of one of Spain’s biggest cultural events – Semana Santa.
We enjoyed a few quiet moments in the lovely Parque de la Florida, laid out in 1855 and retaining much of the Romantic spirit of the times. Ornate ironworked railings and a white-painted bandstand stood amongst beds of thousands of blooming pansies in salmon pinks, yellows and blues. In its heyday the park was the centre of the city’s fashionable district and lined around it are the grand mansions of the old industrialists.
Whizzing silently along the boulevards, electric trams travel on rails across carpets of neatly mowed lawn. How this is managed we couldn’t work out, unless nocturnal mowers come out to work under the light of the energy saving bulbs housed in the restored iron gas lamps.
Staying just inside the city boundary we were parked for free in designated motorhome parking between residential apartment blocks. The ground floor of each block housed at least one bar, a café or restaurant and a local convenience shop. The public space was open, clean and well kept with plenty of seating and grassed areas for exercising small dogs, of which we saw many.
The surrounding road network was dual carriage way but strangely quiet, at all times, which we put down to the success of the public transport system. Regardless, a breadcrumb trail of pedestrian and bike crossings automatically stopped the few cars every couple of minutes whether a person wished to cross the road or not. It felt as if we had discovered somewhere, finally, where the car is not king!
Vitoria has had a grand past, and perhaps its crowning moment came in 1981 when it was made the capital of Euskadi, the Basque Country. It has expanded into one of Spain’s modern industrial centres but has managed to retain the architecture and heritage of the historical core of the city and fill it with the best of modern environmentally friendly transport technology.
All this and a gourmet food scene that is becoming recognised as rivalling the best at Donostia. A terrific first stop!