“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,” begins A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens cited as one of the most famous novels of all time. He tells with magic words what went on in Paris and London during the French Revolution. I don’t know if Dickens ever visited northern Spain but, if he had seen Vitoria-Gasteiz, I’m sure he would have written another masterpiece about the “two tales of a city” -this verdant capital of the Basque Country is praised for two blessings: history and nature. Parks as rich as botanical gardens and well-kept medieval neighborhoods tell two magical stories that set an example for the world.
The Basque Country is one of the 17 autonomous communities in Spain. Bilbao, the de facto trade capital of the country, shines bright like a star in the world of architecture with the monumental Guggenheim Museum, in gastronomy with the unforgettable delicacies of the Basque Country, and in football with the legendary achievements of Athletic Bilbao. The Basque capital of Vitoria-Gasteiz also has links here because Bilbao sends its guests to Vitoria-Gasteiz after hosting them for a while. I’m grateful that it is too because, otherwise, I would miss the experience of seeing the lovely flower dog Puppy which is associated with the Guggenheim, sipping coffee at Plaza Nueva which is the heart of the city, and strolling along the popular shopping street of Gran Vía .
I arrive at Vitoria-Gasteiz after a 40-minute drive. With a population of 250,000, this small, organized and historic city was chosen the European Green Capital in 2012. Another highlight of Vitoria-Gasteiz besides its greenery is that it has dutifully protected its historic heritage. The Old Town, locally described as “almond-like” for its shape on the map, is filled with medieval structures. Virgen Blanca Square, the heart of the city, is vibrant. Most of the people and children are cycling on their way to work or school. I see children playing in the fountains or chasing after pigeons on the square. The highest spot the pigeons perch is the Battle of Vitoria Monument in the center built to commemorate the victory against the French in 1813.
I climb the stone stairs behind the monument and am greeted by a bronze statue with an umbrella. The folk hero of Celedón has his eyes fixed on the Church of San Miguel, obviously waiting for the beginning of Virgen Blanca Festival, arguably the highlight event of the city, which is celebrated every year between August 4 and 9. The festival is held in memory of Celedón who came from a village to Virgen Blanca with an umbrella. The most exciting show of the festival takes place when a puppet slides down a rope from the belfry of the church to the balcony overlooking the square.
The city facilitates the housing of foundations or museums in most of its historic structures, BIBAT being one of its finest examples. Dating back to the 16th century, this mansion is named after a play of words in Basque -meaning "two in one" -"BI" (one) and “BAT” (two). One part of the building is the Museum of Archaeology and the other is the Fournier Museum of Playing Cards. Those who wish to see more can also add the Lantern, Fine Arts, Natural Sciences, and Contemporary Art Museums to their list.
Narrow streets with opposing iron-wrought balconies are named after medieval merchants such as leather smiths and ironsmiths. The great wooden gate opening into Knife Makers’ (Cuchillería) Street, is no different than a secret passage. I climb the wooden stairs to the crypt of Cathedral of Santa María de Vitoria. This is a vault used as a crypt in the Middle Ages. The tombs have been transported to the Museum of Archaeology, but the dimly lit vault looks fantastic enough to still be inhabited by spirits.
What excites me in the Cathedral of Santa María de Vitoria from the 13th century is not limited to history and architecture. The first public restoration in Europe also took place here. I wear a white miner’s helmet and climb towards the belfry. Here is old Vitoria with three streets and four towers. Here are San Vicente, San Miguel, and San Pedro Apóstol Churches; and Las Escuelas, Santa Maria, and Fray Zacarías Martínez Streets.
El Portalón restaurant is a perfect place to both relax and to try the delicacies of Basque cuisine. Housed in an inn built for tradespeople, the restaurant offers a medieval scene with herringbone stone flooring, a wooden structure, dim lighting, and waiters wearing local costumes. Keeping in mind that seafood and mushrooms are the region’s favorite, I order grilled rape (monkfish). I smile at the presentation of the fish which resembles a Gothic arch with two arches meeting in the air.
After the meal, I intend to listen to the city in the open air, so my first stop is España Square -a former arena which used to host bullfights until the 19th century but is currently surrounded by apartment buildings. While sipping my cortado, I hear music overflowing from the nearby cafés. I look at the digital countdown on the square. Now, time flies faster here because the city is very excited to host the final games of EuroLeague this year. Every passing second takes sports fans one step closer to the great competition.
I drive towards Fernando Buesa Arena which will be the host of the event. Ten minutes later, I see the arena in the horizon. The Salburua Nature Park right across also deserves a visit. The park is very popular thanks to its bird observatory, cycling and jogging trails, and wetlands. It feels like another planet with ducks swimming among reeds, storks working to build a nest, and cyclists and joggers.
About 45-50 minutes by car from the city, the medieval villages of Laguardia and Elciego astonish visitors with their landscape resembling a movie plateau. Salt Valley is another wonder of nature you should visit in the area. I learn that the secret to the delicacy of Basque cuisine lies here. The salt manufactured here is used by 15 world-famous chefs at Michelin starred 26 restaurants. San Sebastián, a haven for the latter, is 130 kilometers away. La Concha Beach is the symbol of the city and the source of inspiration for the Golden Oyster Award presented at the internationally acclaimed film festival every September.
San Sebastián is also the locomotive of gastronomy. It’s mostly influenced by the blessings of the Atlantic Ocean and the cultivated land in addition to the magnificent homecoming of chefs who moved to France during the Spanish Civil War. You can attend pintxo tours to explore these artistic venues scattered around the narrow streets of the historic quarter of Parte Vieja. My tour stops by Ganbara and Casa Urola, and finishes at La Viña, famous of its cheesecake. The flavor of the cream blends with the pleasure of visiting the cities of the Basque Country. Bilbao, Vitoria-Gasteiz, and San Sebastián leave lasting memories in my mind like unforgettable feasts on special days.