King Sancho el Mayor of Navarra (Sancho the Elder) founded the city of Donostia (San Sebastian) around 1180. It is likely however that human settlement had previously begun, possibly in the El Antiguo district. That walled, medieval area was the beginning of the Parte Vieja (Historical Quarter), although there are no architectural remains pertaining to that early period. The oldest remaining buildings were constructed after the 16th century. Remains of the city wall can still be seen at Monte Urgull, El Muelle and the Boulevard car park.
However, few buildings of even the post-16th century era remain standing. Among the few that do are the Iglesia de San Vicente (Saint Vincent Church), the church of Santa María and the convent of San Telmo. The city had to be rebuilt following its destruction in the great fire of August 1813. This was the beginning of a concerted modernisation effort that continued with the demolishing of the city walls, which contained the city’s growth, after 1863, and the forging of city expansion through reclaimed land from the Río Urumea (Urumea River), the sand dunes surrounding the city and the salt marshes. This expansion and development of an important urban area is referred to as the Area Romántica. Buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that typify this era in the city’s history include the Hotel María Cristina, the Teatro Victoria Eugenia (Victoria Eugenia Theatre), the avenues of the Boulevard and Francia (France) and the Calle Prim. In these places one can appreciate the so-called Eclectic style, a reinterpretation of previous architectural styles applied to dwellings built with modern materials.
A necessary place to visit in the city is the seaside promenade of La Concha (the Shell). This links two important urban areas that are separated in time but not in space: the port, whose construction began in the 14th century, and the Peine de los Vientos of 1976. Along the way you can see other places of interest such as the Real Club Naútico (Royal Yacht Club), the Ayuntamiento (City Hall), the area of La Perla, the Palacio de Miramar (Miramar Palace) and the funicular (cablecar).
The medieval community was clearly inclined towards commerce and, despite several interruptions over the ages, this activity continues today with San Sebastian’s broad selection of cultural, gastronomic, commercial and tourist offerings. These activities have been modified over time. From being a spa resort visited by European royalty in the 19th century, San Sebastian today presents a modern image to the world, adapted to the requirements of tourism. The city has interesting cultural events, especially in the summer, and new infrastructure developments like the beach of Zurriola, and the Palacio de Congresos del Kursaal (Kursaal House of Parliament).
Once you have visited San Sebastian, it is worth taking in the townships and villages surrounding the city, which are of significant tourist and cultural interest. Of particular interest are the medieval towns, typified by Hondarribia. Here you can see the impressive remains of the city wall, the local church and the Castillo de Carlos V (Castle of Charles V), then take a walk to Monte Jaizkibel. Another interesting place to visit is the village of Pasajes, situated on the edge of the bay of the same name and whose buildings even today retain a nautical flavour. Towards the west of San Sebastian there are another three coastal settlements worth a visit. One is Orio, with its casco histórico (medieval historical quarter) and busy fishing port. Another is Zarautz, an important tourist centre with interesting cultural activities, the (Torre Luzea (Luzea Tower), Campanario (bell tower), Itsas Natura, Photomuseum, various monuments and renowned surfing beach. Finally there is Getaria with its interesting historical quarter, varied gastronomy and the port facilities where fishing and recreational activities intermingle.
History of San Sebastian
Before you get confused, it is a good idea to explain that Donostia is Basque for San Sebastian. Euskera (Basque) is a language whose origins are unknown. It is spoken by 35% of donostiarras (San Sebastian’s residents), and is one of the two official languages of Euskadi (the Basque Country). The other is Castellano (Castilian Spanish). For this reason nearly all signs in the Basque Country are in both languages.
Although the Basque language is ancient, Donostia is less so. Sancho el Mayor (called Sancho el Fuerte-Sancho the Strong) founded the city of San Sebastian around 1180 in what is today the Parte Vieja (historical quarter). The city’s unique geographical situation, an isthmus joining the city centre with Monte Urgull (Mount Urgull), the bahía de la Concha (curved bay) and the outlet of the Río Urumea (Urumea River), made it ideal as a military stronghold with a port. The city is surrounded by a wall for this very reason. The city has seen several wars, and experienced many sieges during the 15th and 16th centuries. One of the most notable wars took place in the 18th century between the English and the French. From 1719 to 1721, San Sebastian was occupied by the French, who finally withdrew after the signing of the Paz de la Haya (The Hague peace treaty).
From that time until 1808 Donostia enjoyed relative peace until the occupation by Napoleonic troops. August 31st 1813 was a key date. With the French occupying the walled city, Anglo-Portuguese troops with their intense barrage against the city caused a huge explosion and a great fire to sweep through it, reducing it to ashes. The citizens took refuge in Zubieta and made the decision to rebuild the city, complete with its walls. The population at this time was around 2,500.
In the 19th century the city was again the scene of war, this time the Carlist wars. Even as these bellicose activities were occurring, the city prospered. In 1863 Donostia was named permanent capital of the province of Gipuzkoa. This brought about a change in the city’s role, and was the cause of the walls eventually being demolished. Controversy, ever present in this area, centred around the questions of whether to demolish the walls, or construct a broad main road linking the historical quarter and the new city centre. New development began with the Ensanche Cortázar, demolishing the walls and extending the city towards the centre and Gros district.
Towards the end of the 19th century, with the royal court of Madrid taking up summer residence in Donostia at the Palacio de Miramar (Miramar Palace), the city became a popular tourist destination and spa resort. A casino was built in 1887 in what is now the Ayuntamiento (City Hall), attracting Europe’s upper classes. The city reached its peak during the First World War, known as the Belle Époque. While the rest of Europe was at war, Donostia became the most cosmopolitan city in Europe. Examples of the splendour of the era are the Ayuntamiento (City Hall) and the Hotel de Londres.
The Belle Époque came to an end with the arrival of the dictatorship of the Spanish general Primero de Rivera who outlawed gambling. The Spanish Civil War, intense in the Basque Country, nevertheless did not cause great damage to Donostia. In an attempt to stress the Spanishness of the city, General Franco spent every summer in Donostia in the Palacio de Aiete (Aiete Palace) until his death. During this time, nationalist feelings grew in Basque society.
The arrival of democracy in Spain radically changed society. The transition from dictatorship to democracy, and the first years of democracy, were intensely felt in Donostia. Even today you feel the impact of political conflict on everyday life. Nevertheless, Donostia is generally a peaceful city.
The physical nature of the city has changed from the days when it was a walled military stronghold. The Ensanche extended the city towards the centre, and reclaimed land from the sea (districts of Gros and El Antiguo) and the river (Amara). In recent years, the city has further expanded in the Antiguo, Intxaurrondo and Aiete districts. There are no exceedingly old buildings because of sacking and fires that the city has suffered through the ages. Nowadays the population is around 180,000.