Vitoria-Gasteiz( population 217,000 est) is the capital of the Basque Country.
Its geographic location at the north of the Iberian peninsular is strategic from a communications viewpoint. For example, the city is connected to other cities by a good road network which includes the Nacional 1 Madrid-Irun main road, the Bilbao motorway and the Pamplona main road. Likewise, it has excellent rail connections such as the Madrid-Irun railway which then connects up over the border to France; and also an airport with direct flights to Madrid, Barcelona, Malaga and Tenerife and forty minutes by motorway to another airport (Bilbao) which has direct flights to Brussels, Frankfurt, Geneva, London, Milan and Paris). In short, Vitoria-Gasteiz still maintains its historic past as a crossroads for different routes and also as a meeting point.
Vitoria was founded in 1181 by the King of Navarre, Sancho VI the Wise as 'Nueva Victoria' on the hill where the old settlement of Gasteiz had been
Vitoria-Gasteiz is a city with special charm which seems almost to be surrounded by a halo of peace and tranquility. It is a city with one of the highest levels of "quality o life" in Spain. Any visitor quickly feels at home in Vitoria-Gasteiz simply strolling along its wide pedestrian streets, crossing through parks and squares until reaching the urban heart of the city known as the Ensanche. From here if the visitor walks up several narrow, stepped streets or steep alleyways called cantones, he/she will soon reach the summit of the hill upon which the medieval part of the town (and the city's origins) is situated. With is characteristic profile of the four towers, the old part of town is one of the most important characteristic parts of Vitoria-Gasteiz. Bars, restaurants, handicraft shops, museums, ancient family homes, small rustic squares, all comprise this part of the city which is harmonious contrast with the wide open areas, green parks, shopping centers and large avenues or tree-lined boulevards of the modern part of Vitoria.
Not only does Vitoria-Gasteiz have one of the highest percentages of "green areas" per inhabitant in the whole of Europe, but it also seems as if the countryside reaches in to the city. The fields of Olarizu, Armentia, Lasarte, Mendiola, Gamarra and the Zadorra river, are on the city's perimeter and invite its inhabitants to relaxing walks which, as often as not, end up with lunch at one of the cider-houses or small tascas which are dotted throughout these areas of countryside.
The origins of the Basque people are felt by many traces which are left throughout the city. Firstly, the Basque language, (called euskara) which has a very surprising structure and which has been kept up even through the emergence of more modern languages. Today, the sound of Basque can be heard throughout the whole of the Basque Country, even though its usage in the towns in the southern half of Alava is somewhat more limited.
Vitoria-Gasteiz has an interesting cultural programmed (cinema, jazz, video, music, organ, the theatre, dancing, etc.) throughout the year. Especially noteworthy are its International Jazz Festival and International Theatre Festival which take place in the months of July and October respectively. There are also other major culture centers such as the University, the city's Historic Archives, The Institute of Iconographic Studies, Its Image Centre, Music School, Dance School and its Art, Archaeology, Gastronomy, Ceramics and Card Museums, to name but a few!
This cultural vitality is strengthened by an intense festive activity, which comes to the fore especially during the Fiestas of La Blanca, Tamborrada, Día de San Prudencio and Día de Santiago (local and regional patron saints days). During this time the streets of Vitoria come to life with people having fun and watching exhibitions of traditional Basque sports (such as Jai-Alai and traditional rural sports).
The city's medieval origins means that it contains a great deal of ancient heritage in the form of churches, palaces and ancient family homes. Remains from Norman (Romanic) times are also to be found in the Santiago way which passes through Alava.
And what about local culinary delights. There are numerous restaurants and gastronomic societies in Vitoria offering the very best of Basque cuisine and local products such as the famous Rioja wine, Idiazabal cheeses and sweetmeats.
If a longer outing is what you are after, then only a few kilometers separate Vitoria from the Rioja Alavesa with its magnificent wine cellars. Another alternative are the Ullíbarri and Villarreal reservoirs or the Valderejo Nature Park. Or why not visit the Quejana Fortress where Canciller Ayala was born or get to know the Añana salt mines or the Eguílaz dolmen or the Norman sanctuary of Estibaliz.
It really is worth making some time for a visit to Vitoria-Gasteiz and Alava.
The economy of Vitoria is diverse, and many manufacturing companies have operations here, including Mercedes Benz, Aeronautica Gamesa, RHFournier,
AJL Ophthalmic, Pepsi-Cola, Michelin, etc.
The most remarkable monumental buildings are:
The Cathedral of Santa Maria, (XII century).
Vitoria Cathedral, (XII century) (www.catedralvitoria.com) is located on the highest part of the hill upon which the old settlement of Gasteiz was built, within the limits of the old city walls. The hill, with the cathedral at its northern end, runs north to south about twenty metres above the Alava Plain that surrounds it in all directions. The cathedral itself is build on part of this slope, as is evident in the fact that its southern and western walls, which face the old city located on the higher ground, are raised approximately nine metres above its north-eastern façade, which is located halfway down the hill.
As a result of these geographical and historical conditions, the subsoil of the building contains a large amount of imported earth, brought in specially to help level the floor surface inside the cathedral. Another consequence of the uneven landscape is the enormous difference in the height of the walls between one side of the building and the other.
From historical documents that chart the evolution of the city's oldest quarter, we know that the cathedral once formed part of the medieval defensive battlements. This explains the thickness of its walls, which were originally windowless on the north side, as well as the presence of a ramparts walk, which ran along the entire length of the building, from the southern end of its crossing to the north-western corner of its portico, past the ambulatory, transept and north nave.
This defensive aspect of the cathedral building has, however, been obscured somewhat over the years by the construction of housing and service apartments on its eastern flank, where the steep drop from the ramparts walk to the ground (around twelve metres) would have once lent an imposing air to the outside of the ambulatory, similar to that so evident still on the northern side of the crossing. Today, the Cathedral forms part of a block of multipurpose buildings that have the effect of hiding its sheer size. This, along with the absence of a traditional 'main façade', prevents the cathedral from projecting the 'monumental' image so often associated with historical religious buildings.
Fortunately, the evolution of the city finally left a clear area at the south-western corner of the building - Santa María Square, from which visitors can gain access to the cathedral from a slightly lower floor level. To the west and north, Fray Zacarías Martínez and Santa María Streets run up the slope from the square to Cuchillería Street, along the west and north façades, respectively. This last street, which follows the curving façade halfway down the hill around what was once the old city walls, is lined with a series of later buildings.
Church of San Miguel, ( XIV century ) stands in the Plaza de la Virgen Blanca (Square of the White Virgin), and contains a niche with an effigy of the patron saint of the city. The apse is of great historical interest as it contains a niche in which the symbolic "Machete vitoriano" was kept for three centuries, before which each new attorney general had to swore an oath on taking up his post. Apart from its main altar (the most important in the city and the work of Gregorio Fernández (17th century)), this church offers a number of interesting features such as its nine chapels, the sacristy, choir, the boardroom and the alter piece of the main chapel.
Los Arquillos, were constructed between 1787 and 1802 and form a beautiful colonnade of columns and balconies, above, under and alongside a row of private homes. They can be divided into two main blocks: the first extends over the Cuesta de San Francisco; and the second block is located under the Church of San Miguel (St Michael). Plaza Nueva (New Square) and Los Arquillos are also the result of the first period of expansion in the modern era of the city of Vitoria-Gasteiz, and were designed to resolve the problem associated with the great difference in height between the medieval city and the surrounding land. Together with the Plaza de España (Spain Square), it represents one of the most outstanding examples of neoclassical architecture of the Basque Country.
Plaza España, the municipal nature of this Square can be seen in the distribution of its interior facades of which only that of the Town Hall stands out from the rest. This characteristic would be a constant feature in the design of a number of main squares in Spain from the times of the Hapsburgs. The construction of this square came about as a result of the first expansion of Vitoria-Gasteiz in the modern era, and is also one of the most outstanding examples of urban architectur.
Plaza de la Virgen Blanca
This is one of the favourite meeting places for all
the inhabitants of the city and the setting for a large number of events, the most important of which, without doubt, is the descent of “Celedón”, marking the start of the festivals of the city's patron saint, the Virgen Blanca. The square is presided over by the church of San Vicente with a niche containing a statue of the patron saint of the city.
Quality and variety... this is what Álava has to offer in terms of museums. A highlight in Vitoria-Gasteiz is the Artium Museum,( www.artium.org ) Basque Centre-Museum of Contemporary Art, which offers an interesting collection of modern and contemporary Basque and Spanish art: Picasso, Miró, Tápies, Chillida, Oteiza, Barceló, Badiola, etc.
The “Fournier” Playing Cards Museum in Vitoria-Gasteiz is housed in the Renaissance Palace of Bendaña and has a unique collection. This is the world’s largest collection of playing cards, and it reviews the card games customs of different countries.
The Fine Arts Museum is devoted to Spanish art from the 18th and 19th centuries, and to Basque art from the period between 1850 and 1950. It includes works by such representative artists as I. Díaz de Olano, Arteta, Iturrino and Echevarría. It is right opposite the Arms Museum.
Nature lovers can visit the Natural Sciences Museum, at the Tower of Doña Otxanda.
It offers collections of botany, zoology, geology and has recently inaugurated a room devoted to Amber as a main attraction.
The Archaeology Museum gives us an insight into the life of the settlers of Álava from prehistoric to mediaeval times. The Parish Museum of Religious Art can be seen inside the New Cathedral.
The aim of ARTIUM, Centre Museum of Contemporary Art, is to disseminate the art of our time through exhibitions of its permanent collection, the organization of temporary exhibitions and other parallel activities relating to thought and the creative process. (www.artium.org )
Las Fiestas de la Blanca:
On August 4, the inhabitants of Vitoria-Gasteiz congregate in the Plaza de la Virgen Blanca, to wait for the moment when the clock on the tower of San Miguel chimes six o'clock in the evening, and the Mayor of Vitoria-Gasteiz lights the fireworks to announce the beginning of the festivals of La Blanca, the crowds in the square light cigars and open bottles of champagne, giving way to the highlight of the fiestas, the "Descent of Celedón".
These festivals have been developed over the years, adapting long-held traditions to the tastes of the modern era and comprise the following main activities: religious ceremonies, music, the "blusas", children's activities, bullfighting, theatre, fireworks and sports.
After six days of intense merrymaking and rejoicing, the festival comes to its conclusion on August 9 with the "Ascent of Celedón".
Fiestas de San Prudencio:
To the sound of drums and the aroma of snails and perretxikos (wild mushrooms), every 28th of April there is a Tattoo and Procession of Drums to mark the beginning of the festival in honors of San Prudencio, the Patron Saint of Alava.The city council of Vitoria agreed to hold this festival as far back as 1483. Since then, the festival has been held on the meadows of the village of Armentia, birthplace of San Prudencio, where every year large numbers of people from this province meet to enjoy the festivals of their patron saint.
Day of The Blusa:
This festival, name after the "blusa" or "smock" worn by the young men on festive occasions, is held on July 25th and is also known as "garlic day".
The garlic stalls are set out along the entire length of the street called San Francisco. The morning festivities begin with the long-held tradition of buying a string of garlic, which people wear around their necks on the way home. Garlic day is a kind of prelude to the festivals of the Patron Saint of the city of Vitoria-Gasteiz, the festival of the Virgen Blanca (White Virgin), held on August 4-9.International
The Festival de Jazz de Vitoria-Gasteiz is one of the most important musical events in Spain. In fact, the Festival, which takes place from July 10th to 16th, and it is the only Spanish Festival member of the International Jazz Festival Organization which unites the most important European Jazz Festival together with some of the most prestigious in North America as Montreal and Vancouver in Canada and Monterey and Ravinia in United States.
The combination of big star performances at Mendizorroza Sports Arena and the concerts of young and almost unknown musicians at the Principal Theatre, makes an attractive musical offer not only for the audience wishing to attend a specific event but the most interested in jazz. After the main hall concerts, some clubs present jam sessions until the dawn which, in the past, have included great stars like Wynton Marsalis or Marcus Miller. Another permanent section are the New Orleans Brass Band street parades.
On the educational side, the Festival de Jazz de Vitoria-Gasteiz will hold the 6th Jazz Seminar with the collaboration of the Juilliard School of New York. This project that was also featured in 2004 will continue in future years and it is open to music students and professional musicians. Chick Corea will teach a Master Class during the Seminar. This year there are classes for children who are student in Conservatories and Music Schools, going under the name “Discovering Jazz”, as well as classes and pedagogical work shops for music teachers. www.jazzvitoria.com
International Theatre Festival (May to September)
International Games Festival (Jun 15th to July 2nd)
International Choir Week of Alava