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.
Vitoria’s largest annual festival, the Fiesta de la Virgen Blanca, is celebrated from August 4 to August 9 each year. On the first day, head for the Plaza de la Virgen Blanca with a blue-and-white festival scarf, a bottle of champagne (or cava) and a cigar, and wearing old clothes. At 6pm, the umbrella-toting “Bajada del Celedón” – a life-size doll dressed in traditional costume – appears from the church tower and flies through the air over the plaza. This is the signal to spray champagne everywhere (hence the old clothes), light the cigar and put on your scarf – which the hard core don’t take off until midnight on the 9th, when Celedón returns to his tower, signalling the end of the fiesta. In between, the town is engulfed in a continuous party.
During the third week of July, the city also hosts a jazz festival that attracts big-name performers (wjazzvitoria.com).