The brushstrokes of colour in its houses, balconies, windows or wooden elements, the ease with which it strolls through its charming historic centre, its excellently preserved walls, its gastronomic wealth in the not at all humble pintxos (skewers) and the bonus that we are a few metres from the mouth of the Bidasoa River make Fuenterrabía the ideal setting for a one or two day getaway to the Basque Country.
And we speak of the Basque quintessence, in a small coastal and fishing town, with centuries-old walls, an old part of a prize (Historical Artistic Monument), a history of war due to its border situation, some green mountains populated by hamlets around it and, in more peaceful and recent times, a traditional holiday destination for those who seek tranquillity but not boredom.
Fuenterrabía (or Hondarribia in Basque) is the last northern Spanish city before arriving in France, literally crossing a river.
As in La Guardia (A Guarda) in Galicia with the Miño River and Portugal, in Fuenterrabía it is the Bidasoa River in its last dozen kilometres of course that draws the border.
No one imagines when walking through this quiet summer village that this strategic location, border and maritime, was worth a long series of sieges in various national and international conflicts, when France had access to Spanish territory from Hendaye a stone’s throw away and without mountains in between.
Today the French come in peace.
As locals from Madrid, Navarre, or other Basques, they come to enjoy a fishing village in which there is a lot to see, but, above all, they have to walk with tranquillity through places like the ones I recommend below and which you will find marked on a map at the end of the article.
1.- The walls of Fuenterrabía
In a country like Spain, with abundant vestiges of walls and well-preserved castles, the walls of Fuenterrabía are probably one of the least known and most impressive that we can find in a village surrounding its historic centre.
High enough to cause vertigo, they have fulfilled their function since the 16th century and have stopped projectiles of all calibres, even though – as in so many parts of our country – they have not been able to defeat their modern enemy, the urban redefinition, so they are no longer completely surrounded.
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The walls of Fuenterrabía partially or almost completely preserve four bastions, those of San Nicolás, de la Reina, San Felipe and Santiago, and two gates to cross them.
2.- The gates of the city
In the walls of Fuenterrabía there are still the two access gates to the historic centre, which are also very well preserved: the Puerta de Santa María and the Puerta de San Nicolás.
La Puerta de San Nicolás is double or, to put it another way, there are two doors with this name. From medieval times there is an arch at the end of Calle San Nicolás; from the 16th century there is the other, today with a modern pedestrian bridge, at a certain height over the road that borders the wall, and from which you can obtain a magnificent panoramic view of it.
The Puerta de Santa María conserves the building of the body guard on one side, the so-called Cubo de Santa María, and in the arch above it the coat of arms of the city that dates from 1694 and a sundial.
Before crossing under the arch of the Puerta de Santa María we must stop for a few moments to contemplate the sculpture of the Axero.
This sculpture represents a sapper, a soldier who, with his construction tools, provided the rest of the troops with access during the attacks, or the defences when the turns were reversed. And they know a lot about sustaining defences in Hondarribia.
King Louis XIII’s troops encircled the city in July 1638 in what was expected to be a victorious battle within the Thirty Years’ War.
They did not count on the devotion of the besieged who swore to the Virgin of Guadalupe that if she interceded to resist, they would thank her every year with a procession to her sanctuary on the outskirts of the city.
69 days after it began, the French surrendered to the evidence that the city was not capitulating and lifted the siege.
Philip IV grants the city the title of “Very noble, very loyal, very courageous and always faithful” and this commemorates the victory of 1638 every 8th September with a series of acts in honour of its patron saint, including a parade, El Alarde de Hondarríbia, with an escort in which the Axeros stand out in the vanguard with their peculiar dress and without weapons, only with tools proper to their function.
Being an axer in Fuenterrabía and parading during the Procession of the Virgin of Guadalupe is an honor for a Hondarribian.
3.- The Old Quarter of Fuenterrabía
Protected by its walls, the small old town of Fuenterrabía is so in extension and population (about 2000 inhabitants), but large in terms of the number of buildings and alleys for which it is a pleasure to lose.
In the Alde Zaharra (the old part in Basque), there is the baroque Udaletxea (Town Hall), from the 18th century. Against all custom it is not in a square, but it seems to be one more non-administrative building of the street, of course, with ample space under the arcades.
In the same Calle Mayor there are two interesting buildings, the Palacio Zuloaga, from the 18th century and the current municipal library, and the Palacio de Casadevante (Casadevante Palace). In this, now converted into a hotel, a plaque reminds us that the terms of the truce were negotiated there after the failed siege of 1638.
A few metres further on is the temple where the wedding between the Spanish Maria Teresa of Austria and the French Louis XIV was celebrated by proxy in 1660 (a union politically agreed to end a war), the Gothic-Renaissance Parish Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and of El Manzano.
The slope of the Calle Mayor ends in front of a huge stone cube that does not hide its military origin. Nestled at the highest point of Fuenterrabía, this rectangular fortress was enlarged during the reign of the monarch, which is why it is known as the Castle of Charles V.
Transformed into a Parador, its façade faces the Plaza de Armas, from which on one side you can see the Cantabrian Sea in which the Bidasoa dies and on the other the colourful houses of Calle San Nicolás.
Continuing along it and turning right onto Harategui Street, we arrive at Plaza Guipúzcoa (Guipuzkoa Plaza).
Despite the traditional appearance of this large space, it dates from the second half of the 20th century, although its low constructions and its delimitation by chains with bollards that imitate cannons gives it a certain medieval air, such as that of the arch that leads from it to Calle de Santiago de Compostela.
4.- The Fuenterrabía overlooking the sea
Beyond the Old Town of Hondarribia and its medieval walled air, there is a Fuenterrabía that looks to the sea, for leisure and necessity.
At the entrance of the Barrio de La Marina (the Port) is an exponent of that need, the Barco Museo Mariñel, a bonitero ship over 21 m long that has been restored and is a permanent “sailor on land” testimony of the connection of villa and inhabitants with the sea.
We can walk along the Paseo Butrón, parallel to the Bidasoa until we reach the Puerto Deportivo and, if we feel like it, we can go to the Spanish part of the beach of the Bay of Fuenterrabía. The French part is on the other side of the mouth, in the Baie du Figuier.
The most energetic will be able to continue to the fishing port and the San Telmo Castle to go up towards the Faro de Higuer campsite, from where you can approach the Cantabrian Sea, the coast and Hendaye from the Mirador (Begiratokia).
The less energetic will be able to stay at the shore of the Small Beach watching how the seabed makes the waves cross diagonally, which alternatively explode against a small dock.
And then, to explore the fishermen’s quarter in search of the best pintxos in Fuenterrabía.
5.- Eat Fuenterrabía based on pintxos
If in the Basque Country the pintxo is a high gastronomic category, in Fuenterrabía we are going to find products and places that are of medal, especially around the two sides of the pedestrian Calle San Pedro, in the Barrio de La Marina.
The pintxo (skewer outside the Basque Country) is rarely eaten at the bar because it is a miracle to find a place in it, unless it is kindly and temporarily given to us by another parishioner so that we can place our order or pick it up when they shout our name or the number of our table or barrel.
Some examples of pintxos, to whet your appetite, which I tasted during my visit to Fuenterrabía:
Gold mollete egg on shepherd’s crumbs with baby squid and poultry juice
Three-textured pork with beet mayonnaise base
Skillet Foie with pineapple reduction and angel hair
Grilled scallop with vegetables in two textures
Chop skewer with red wine reduction
With these examples, you will understand better because I think that pinchos and tapas are haute cuisine in miniature, not snacks to get out of the way, and that prices range from just over three euros and almost four and a half euros.
Within the multitude of establishments where to take pintxos in the Street San Pedro, I recommend the very award-winning Gran Sol (San Pedro, 65) and the very kind Vinoteca Ardoka (San Pedro, 30).
If you want to find an alternative to eating a pincho standing up in two or three bites, you can pay a gastronomic tribute at “Alameda” (Minasorroeta, 1), the Estrella Michelin restaurant in Gorka Txapartegui. Dating back to 1942 and in a family tradition inaugurated by his grandparents, the tradition of Basque roots continues with more modern touches.
To accompany, whether eating pintxos or in a restaurant, and whether you are from Ribera, Rioja or Rías Baixas, here you have to add to your passion for txacolí so I recommend Hirutza, the only one produced in Fuenterrabía (and whose winery you can visit).
If we are talking about having a beer with views, or, excuse me, a txakolí, then without a doubt approach the Ttopara (Calle San Nicolás, 2) in the middle of the Plaza de Armas or the Bar Tatapas (Calle Mayor, 31, although it is better to go to the back, to the high tables overlooking the Plaza del Obispo or located in this one).
At dessert time, for those of us who enjoy a sweet or a good ice-cream walk, Helados Kanttua (Domingo Egia 2, b) in the Barrio de La Marina offers you the company that you will take with you as you walk along the Paseo Butrón.
6.- Where to sleep in Fuenterrabía
If you make an escape to Fuenterrabía and stay overnight in the area, the “top” of accommodation, of course, is the central and monumental Parador de Fuenterrabía.
If the escape is made by a group of friends or several couples, a few meters away you can find a traditional but renovated house overlooking the Plaza de Armas, the Axula.
Two options also centric but of different budget are the Hotel Palacete (in full Plaza Guipúzcoa) or the Hotel Jaizkibel, to only 10 minutes walk of the historical center and located in a calm residential zone.
In the event that you make a getaway to Hondarribia from San Sebastian and are spending the night there, places to sleep in San Sebastian will not be lacking but you can consider the luxury views of the Mercure Monte Igueldo, or the very central Pensión Easo or Pensión Gárate (don’t be fooled by the name “pension” about its comforts).
7.- Map of what to see in Fuenterrabía
All the points of which I have spoken to you in this article can be found in this map and thus better calculate the distances between them when preparing your own route through Fuenterrabía / Hondarribia:
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8.- Practical information
Fuenterrabía shares with the nice Basque stereotype of exaggeration the bravado that San Sebastián Airport is located in this city, 20 km from where one would think it would be more natural to find it.
You can check the timetables and prices of flights to the airport from your city on this link.
If you like to drive (I love it, I went to Fuenterrabía from Madrid by car) you can check car rental prices on this other link.
For accommodation in Fuenterrabía or any other point, you can look at apartments in this link, or hotels in this other link.