Vitoria-Gasteiz is the capital of the Basque region.
Vitoria has many architectural gems and still conserves much of its medieval layout. To begin our exploration of the city, let’s start at the Cathedral of Santa María. It started life as a 13th century church-fortress in Gothic style and after a number of additions became a cathedral 1861. It is known as the Old Cathedral because there is a newer one in the 19th century suburbof El Ensanche.
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 and its Gothic portico 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.
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.
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.
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.