The capital of the entire País Vasco, as well as of Araba (Alava), VITORIA-GASTEIZ is a fascinating and exceptionally friendly old city, all the better for lying off the tourist circuit, and well worth a couple of days’ visit. Sancho el Sabio, King of Navarre, built a fortress here in 1181, on the site of the Basque village of Gasteiz. He renamed it Vitoria to celebrate his victories over Alfonso VIII of Castille, who promptly captured it back in 1200. Stretching along a low ridge in the heart of a fertile plain, Vitoria subsequently prospered as a trading centre for wool and iron, and still boasts an unusual concentration of Renaissance palaces and fine churches.
The streets of the city’s Romanesque old town, the Casco Medieval, still circle like a spider’s web around either side of the central hill, while a neater grid of later developments, Ensanche, lies below on the plain. All Vitoria’s graceful mansions and churches are built from the same greyish-gold stone, and many of the medieval buildings are amazingly well preserved. The finest of Vitoria’s buildings, on c/Fray Zacarías near the cathedral, include the Palacio de Escoriaza-Esquibel, with its sixteenth-century Plateresque portal, and the Palacio de Montehermoso, now run as a cultural and exhibition space. On the southern edge of the old town, the porticoed Plaza de España is a gem, while the neighbouring Plaza de la Virgen Blanca is more elegant, with glassed-in balconies. If you find the hill itself a bit of a challenge, Vitoria offers a remarkable feature: moving stairways climb it from both the east (Cantón de San Francisco Javier) and west (Cantón de la Soledad) sides.