Today Hondarribia is a small city located at the mouth of the Bidasoa river, in a particularly beautiful and calm landscape. But its strategic location, on the border with the neighbouring kingdom of France, meant that it played a highly prominent role in wars over the centuries.
The town was built on a small hill overlooking the bay, in a strong defensive location, and was considered the key to the kingdom: the stronghold that had to be conquered by anyone seeking to move into Castile.
Its urban centre still contains many vestiges of its heroic past, as we will have the chance to see, and it is the only well-preserved stronghold in the Basque Autonomous Community.
Alfonso VIII of Castile
There was a time when Hondarribia ‒like all of Gipuzkoa‒ belonged to the kingdom of Navarre. The Navarrese monarchs where the first to understand the strategic importance of this hill overlooking the bay, in a location of undefined sovereignty where several kingdoms converged.
At its highest point they built a fortress, probably by the 10th century. Two centuries later, powerful enemies had emerged against the ancient kingdom, coveting its coastal possessions. If it lost Gipuzkoa ‒its only access to the sea‒ Navarre would become a landlocked kingdom, enclosed between Castile and Aragon. Sooner or later, that would spell its end.
To avoid this, Sancho the Wise decided to repopulate and fortify Gipuzkoa’s coast by founding chartered towns. In the year 1180 he founded the chartered town of San Sebastian and soon later those of Hondarribia and Getaria.
Chartered towns were walled settlements governed by the laws and privileges that the monarch granted to them. In the midst of a dark and lawless world, dominated by powerful feudal lords, the safety offered by chartered towns was the best form of enticement monarchs had to attract people towards strategic locations in their territory. Gradually, a dense network of chartered towns was created that imposed law and order, making bordering paths and lands secure.
Hondarribia and San Sebastian, in turn, were particularly fortified chartered towns, as in addition to the wall, they had a castle.
THE PASSAGE TO CASTILE
However, all of Sancho the Wise’s precautions were not enough. In the year 1200 Navarre was about to permanently lose its access to the sea when the king of Castile, Alfonso VIII, decided to conquer Alava and Gipuzkoa. These territories prevented him from connecting his kingdom of Castile with the Aquitaine region on the French coast, which he claimed as his inheritance. Thus, just a few years after it was founded as a chartered town, Hondarribia went on to become a part of Castile.
The claim over Hondarribia as its natural port would be a constant theme throughout the history of Navarre, and despite everything, significant economic and commercial ties were maintained between them. The town of Hondarribia itself requested its reincorporation to Navarre on several occasions, which only occurred, briefly, during a few years in the 19th century.
FUENTERRABIA AT THE TIME OF ITS FOUNDING
The new lord of Gipuzkoa, Alfonso VIII of Castile, quickly confirmed the privileges of the newly-acquired chartered towns. The fuero (charter) of Hondarribia was confirmed in 1203, which is usually taken as the year it was founded, although it seems that the town was ‒as we have said‒ founded by Navarre a few years previously.
The town’s main activities were fishing and trade. Its most populated and influential centre was formed by Gascon seamen and traders from the Bayonne region on the French coast ‒ as was the case in San Sebastian and Getaria. The Gascons ‒who spoke a language of their own‒ were comfortable in European trading circles but rarely mixed with the local inhabitants: it was not until more than a century later that they started to integrate and blend in with them.
Soon after its founding we can find in Hondarribia all of the traditional medieval trades, organised by guilds: bargemen, tilemakers, dockside carpenters, bladesmiths, cape makers, shoemakers, innkeepers, millers, ironmongers, charcoal makers…
Life in Hondarribia was probably not very different to that of any other coastal town. Its location near the border did not cause it too many problems, as the French land north of the Bidasoa ‒the Duchy of Aquitaine‒, had been in the hands of the king of England for centuries.
15th CENTURY: THE START OF ITS GREAT IMPORTANCE
Everything changed suddenly when France recovered these possessions in 1453, at the end of the Hundred Years’ War. Tension began to build at the border with the new neighbours. All of a sudden, Hondarribia became a location of vital importance, located ‒increasingly‒ in the eye of the storm.
From then on it was to live in a permanent state of alert. Any event could suddenly alter the town’s normality, particularly if the Castilian monarch showed signs of weakness that could trigger the ambition of his powerful neighbour. This is what happened when Henry IV of Castile had problems with his brother, who claimed his throne, and invasion by France seemed imminent.
The next crisis would take place soon after. When Henry IV died without descendants in 1474, he was succeeded on the throne by Isabella the Catholic, who was to wage a war of succession against the other claimant to the throne, Joanna la Beltraneja, married to the king of Portugal. The inhabitants of Biscay and Gipuzkoa supported Isabella and her project to unite Castile with the kingdom of Aragon, while France, fearful of a strong neighbour, supported Joanna.
Isabella the Catholic
Hondarribia in 1476, before the intervention of the Catholic Monarchs
SIEGE OF 1476
This is the context of the first siege of the town, in 1476. The chronicler of the Catholic Monarchs describes it in detail:
The king of France approached the border with 40,000 men, to wage war against the province of Gipuzkoa, and besiege the town of Hondarribia. The king understood that by taking this town, the first and strongest of the entire province, he would easily take the rest.
He then makes an interesting description of the town’s natural defences:
Although the town sits on a hill and its walls are high, at high tide the water surrounds a part of it and rises half way up the wall. The part remaining on land is full of towers and the arrangement of the location makes it stronger, as it is rough and mountainous terrain, where horses or other beasts can barely walk.
The French entered Gipuzkoa, causing much destruction and burning nearby towns. The chronicler tells of how Hondarribia prepared for the siege and how the first attempt to assault the town occurred:
Upon seeing the power of the French, those in the province sent a request to the queen, who was in Burgos, for help. The queen sent Juan de Gamboa, so he could enter Hondarribia and assume its captaincy, and called to all the people in the towns and valleys to go and resist the French who had come to wage war in her kingdoms.
Juan de Gamboa arrived in Hondarribia with 1000 men from the region, dug huge trenches and moats, and built bastions and other defences.
The French settled at a distance of some 3000 paces, and as they could not reach the town to fight it due to the many gunpowder shots fired from within, they decided to dig an open trench up to it.
Those within the town then decided to defend it from below, from the bastions and the refuges they had built. To do this they demolished the tops of the towers and battlements, so that if the enemy’s artillery hit the wall and toppled them, the falling stones would not injure those below who were defending the town.
This is an interesting detail: we see how defences in the medieval period, based on very high walls, started to become inadequate against the power of modern artillery. In a few years they would completely change their fortification techniques, and walls would become lower and more resistant.
Juan de Gamboa had done a splendid job preparing the town’s defences. The French, realising how little damage they were inflicting, were soon demoralised and after nine days they retreated to Bayonne, where they were greeted with great indignation. The chronicler tells of the second French assault as follows:
When the King of France heard of how his people had achieved no results with their siege, he sent more captains and more people, giving orders to repeat the siege with extreme diligence and that in no event were they to lift it until results were achieved.
Meanwhile, in Hondarribia they had fortified the town with new defences and bastions, in such a way that they were no longer fearful of the French. And if they found themselves in difficulties, everyone in the region had been instructed by the queen to go to their aid.
Both sides fired great gunpowder shots, and even fought in the trenches so close to one another that they threw rocks with their hands. And so the French continued with that siege for two months, during which there were great skirmishes and fights, where many died on one side and the other. But the French could not reach the wall due to the great defences that the town had on the outside, and thanks to the great people within who defended it.
IMPORTANCE OF THE LOCATION AND REQUEST BY THE QUEEN
After the failed siege, the importance of this stronghold and the diligence required for its defence were proven. It was expressed in a memorial to the king of Navarre as follows: “because the loss of that town would mean the loss of all Gipuzkoa, leaving them free entry into Castile and Navarre”.
We already have evidence of guard and garrison duty from that period. All the town’s inhabitants had the serious obligation of doing guard duty shifts, monitoring and patrolling the fortifications to prevent surprise attacks.
Twenty years after that siege, relations with France deteriorated again and there was fear of an imminent attack. Hondarribia again became the Monarchs’ focus of attention. Correspondence between Isabella the Catholic and the new governor of the castle became constant. From the start she insists that “that fortress in Hondarribia is the most important to entrust and guard our kingdoms”.
In 1496 she ordered that new defences be built for the walls and the castle, which was carried out by the best engineers.
The queen’s interest in everything that happens in Hondarribia is constant: she takes care of its provisioning ‒ordering supplies to be brought from Burgos and Andalusia‒ and is concerned about quarrels with the castle’s soldiers. Specifically, there had recently been a serious disturbance about a death caused by a certain Montoya, and tension was running high. The queen wrote to the governor:
“The ill will you say those of that land have towards soldiers is usually caused by the poor treatment that soldiers dispense to them. You must ensure that none are treated poorly. Promptly do whatever is needed to avoid these situations and arrange things among them so that they may live in peace, and those who misbehave should be punished”, as delaying justice brings grave consequences and “by doing so all is healed and calmed”.
Just like in San Sebastian ‒Gipuzkoa’s other stronghold‒, the presence of a significant contingent of soldiers within the town was a constant headache for it. The soldiers ‒who were outsiders and were not subject to the municipal authority‒ roamed free and committed theft and many affronts against the locals. All social life was affected by their presence and the Crown received countless complaints from the town on account of this.
JOANNA THE MAD AND OTHER DISTINGUISHED VISITORS
This time the crisis with France was resolved without too much commotion, and the truce agreed between both kingdoms made possible one of the landmark events in the small town’s history: the visit by Philip the Handsome and Joanna the Mad.
The couple arrived in Hondarribia after travelling through all of France on their way to Toledo, where they would be recognised by the Courts as the legitimate heirs to the Crown.
Their stay in the town was extended by several days, leading to a few juicy anecdotes and leaving small after-effects that we will have the chance to comment on during our walk.
This will be another constant in Hondarribia’s history: the large number of distinguished characters that have visited it, and the diplomatic significance of this border town. Many of the old quarter’s streets are marked by these events.
Joanna the Mad
Francis I of France
If Hondarribia was already a decisive location for the Catholic Monarchs, it was to become even more important during the reign of their grandson, emperor Charles V. This town would be an absolutely essential stronghold for him. The fortifications we will see during our tour are basically those that he built.
Each time the power of the Hispanic kingdoms increased, tension with France rose a notch. And the current occupant of the throne was none other than the emperor of Germany, who with his possessions in Italy, Austria and the Netherlands, surrounded France on all sides.
The French monarch, Francis I, would not waste any opportunities to weaken the power of his great nemesis, even if he had to ally himself with the Ottomans. For 30 years Europe was to witness a terrible duel between the continent’s two most powerful men.
The first battle was won by the Frenchman. The emperor ‒barely an adolescent‒, was absent from the peninsula and fully occupied with the Comuneros’ Revolt in Castile, at a very delicate time for his kingdom. Francis I seized the opportunity to reach an agreement with the king of Navarre, who for years had been living in exile in France, trying to recover his throne taken by Ferdinand the Catholic a decade earlier.
Barely facing resistance, French and Navarrese troops entered Pamplona and took possession of the ancient kingdom. Soon after ‒and with the same ease‒ the imperial troops took it back again. Persistent, the Franco-Navarrese counter-attacked at the border, laying siege to Hondarribia until it fell. It was 18 October 1521, and this time the conquest would be long-lasting. Three thousand French and Navarrese soldiers entrenched themselves in the stronghold, flying the red flag over the castle in the name of the king of Navarre.
For more than two years Hondarribia remained in their power. The affront was keenly felt throughout the peninsula, as all of Europe knew that the emperor had lost Hondarribia: his kingdom’s first bastion.
Charles V lost sleep at night thinking only of recovering it. He spent a fortune on paying German mercenaries, the notorious Landsknechte, who besieged the town for months. During the last 4 days he subjected it to a fierce bombardment, leaving its walls and buildings in ruins.
As soon as he recovered the stronghold, in 1524 the emperor promptly set out to fortify it. If he wanted to be free to act in other parts of Europe he had to securely close the door of his kingdom.
For decades he would closely monitor the progress of the works, and even came in person in 1539, to inspect everything in detail. No matter how expensive it was to raise walls and bastions, it would always be cheaper than mobilising professional troops in the event of losing the stronghold again.
The second battle against the French was won by the emperor thanks to an incredible stroke of luck. And again this time Hondarribia would play a small role. This time the fighting was in Pavia, in northern Italy. When the French seemed to be winning the battle, an unbelievable thing occurred: in the heat of the battle, three soldiers managed to take prisoner the French king himself.
Francis I was taken to Madrid and held prisoner in a castle. After a year, the irregular situation was lasting too long, and in the end it was decided to exchange him for his two eldest children, aged 7 and 8. The exchange was carried out in Hondarribia in 1526, meaning that the French king was added to the list of distinguished visitors to the town, where he was greeted with great deference by the mayor and the authorities.
The swap was held the following day in the middle of the river Bidasoa that separates both kingdoms. The two parties left from their respective shores and rowed in synchrony to reach the neutral boat, which awaited in the middle, at the same time. There, the king embraced his children and they were separated again, exchanging their fates.
The king was so eager to be free that when he reached the French shore, he stumbled headlong into the water. But he couldn’t care less! He mounted his horse and with wild euphoria he rode towards the north, shouting: I am the king! I am the king!
Meanwhile, the princes were greeted in Hondarribia with the same deference as their father, and then they left towards Segovia as hostages. Four years later when they were almost teenagers, they returned to Hondarribia for a new exchange ‒this time for several chests of gold‒, which was done using the same procedure.
In addition to the periods of open war, the town frequently experienced moments of tension when faced with imminent invasion. The danger could be the result of a calculated ruse. Sometimes a feint attack from the Bidasoa was staged to hide the true intention of charging in Catalonia, Italy or any other location in Europe.
REGIME OF PRIVILEGE
The wars with France were to last one and a half centuries, from the end of the 15th century to the mid-17th century, the time that Spanish hegemony lasted in the continent.
During this time, an incredible war effort was demanded from Hondarribia. Time and again war devastated the town and claimed countless human lives. This was explained to the king on a memorial: “for our sins or because of our location on the border, we are subject to the dangers of war and we have seen great poverty, misery and destruction, as well as the death of the town’s best men and the destruction of our properties and ships (…). In no other place has there been such total and widespread destruction as in this town, such that only those who have seen it before and see it now can feel it”.
In compensation, all the monarchs granted it tax benefits and exemptions, until a true regime of privilege was created that would stir up envy among its neighbours.
Ships from Hondarribia enjoyed preference in all harbours. Even in times of food scarcity, the harbours of the Cantabrian coast, Galicia, Andalusia and the Canary Islands had to supply this town with goods for its provisioning, in detriment of their own needs. This led to the protests of the affected municipalities, but the monarchy confirmed its privileges time and again. That the stronghold of Hondarribia should be well provisioned was, in those times, a serious matter of State importance.
PHILIP II AND THE LAST SPANISH HABSBURGS
Charles V was succeeded by his son Philip II, on whose empire ‒it was said‒ the sun never set. The maritime war fronts opened in such vast dominions were countless. The king had to resort to the experience of coastal towns, and in particular those on the Basque coast, whose seamen were famous throughout the world. In 1574, Hondarribia had to contribute to the royal fleet with ships and seamen. The drafts were repeated in the years ’75, ’77, ’82, ’86 and finally, in 1588 for the disaster of the Invincible Armada. At last, exhausted from so much effort, the town had to acknowledge that it could do no more. In 1604, it was exempt from the seizure of ships and the recruitment of seamen for war.
The entire Kingdom started to show signs of exhaustion. From the beginning of the 17th century, the signs of decadence were increasingly worrying. The great figures of Charles V and Philip II were succeeded by the last Spanish Habsburgs, dominated by their royal favourites. The peninsula was becoming depopulated. The royal coffers were empty and there were too many open fronts.
To make matters worse, the Count-Duke of Olivares ‒favourite of Philip II‒ led Spain into a disastrous war, called the “Thirty Years’ War”. The nation hung by a thread, but it seemed that nothing was too much to defend the Catholic cause against the advance of Protestantism.
The all-powerful Cardinal Richelieu, the Chief minister of France, laughed to himself as he watched the suicidal idealism of his gentlemanly and weak neighbour. He knew well that not only was faith at stake in this war, but a new political balance in Europe, and he was determined to end Spanish hegemony once and for all. The pragmatic Cardinal did not hesitate to join the Protestant side, if only to give Spain the coup de grace, which was interpreted as a huge betrayal.
THE SIEGE OF 1638
This is the background for the most famous and memorable military event in the town’s history: the siege of 1638, an event that acquired mythical proportions and which every year is remembered during the patron saint celebrations of Hondarribia. Let’s allow the chronicler to say it in his own words:
On 1 July 1638, with Hondarribia completely unaware, a French army of 18,000 men led by the Prince of Condé besieged it, after taking over Irun, Oiartzun, Lezo, Errenteria and Pasaia.
At that moment in the town there were, between soldiers of the castle and locals, 700 armed men, an insufficient number for its defence. The Province contributed 77 men from nearby towns, and a few days later, taking advantage of the high tide, another 320 managed to enter. In total, some 1100 defenders had to face a very superior army with abundant artillery.
Before the siege fully encircled the town, some brave women managed to sneak up to the sanctuary of Guadalupe, in the mountain, and bring back the statue of the Virgin to the town’s parish church. Before it, the city pledged that if it was victorious, it would always celebrate that day.
In late July, just before the siege was completing its first month, the besieged townspeople were read a letter from the Admiral of Castile, informing them that he was gathering a large army that would come to their defence. They replied urging him to make haste, as they were running low on gunpowder, munition and provisions, and did not know how long they would be able to resist. They also managed to receive a letter from King Philip IV, stating that he was proud of their bravery and promising to perpetuate their memory and compensate all the damage.
Weeks went by and aid was not forthcoming. On 15 August, day 46 of the siege and the festivity of the Assumption of the Virgin, the people gathered at the church to intensify their prayers to their patron saint. As nothing seemed to change, after a few days they carried the statue in a procession so that, by seeing the ruins of the town, it may be moved to compassion.
On 31 August the French attempted an assault using ladders that the defenders repelled by pouring burning tar. In September, the situation became unbearable. The walls had fallen and the enemy had surpassed the moat; the defenders were few and they were defenceless due to a lack of munition.
The French made a surrender offer. The mayor silenced the voices that wished to accept it: “the first person I find talking about surrender, I will stab to death myself”, he said to them. The official reply was given by the governor of the stronghold, telling them to attempt the assault, that they did not need outside aid and that Hondarribia itself had enough for its defence.
The assaults continued. As there were not enough hands to close the breaches, a group of young men, with shotguns and muskets, defended one of the fortress walls, climbing over stones and dead bodies.
At last, on 7 September, day 69 of the siege, the relief army arrived under the command of the admiral of Castile. The French abandoned their positions and fled, many of them perishing from gunshots and drowning.
The admiral of Castile described the battle in a letter to his wife, using these simple words, which have become famous: “My friend, as you know not about war, I will tell you that the enemy camp was divided into four parts: one fled, another we killed, another we captured, and the other drowned. May God be with you – I shall dine in Hondarribia”.
The following day, the admiral observed the city in ruins. 16,000 cannonballs had fallen on it. No building was left undamaged, and many had collapsed. The sick and wounded lay in corners and doorways. Their emaciated faces laid bare the true magnitude of the tragedy.
Of the 1100 armed men, only 400 remained. The lack of munition had become desperate at the end of the siege: all the iron and lead in the town had been consumed and they had resorted to the pewter in homes, and even silver was used.
News of the victory was celebrated with festivities throughout the kingdom. Theatre plays, ballads and poems were written about the event. One of them, composed by Calderón de la Barca himself, spoke ironically of the trouncing the French had suffered. The defence of Hondarribia was compared to those of Saguntum and Numantia, to build a new myth that the decadent monarchy was in urgent need of.
The king had pledged great rewards. His royal favourite, the count-duke, promised “more favours than you can imagine”. But it was just rhetoric, as the Crown was bankrupt… A year later the breaches in the wall were still there and the city was in ruins. All he could still do was grant titles. For its heroic defence Hondarribia received the title of “city”. The “Most noble, most loyal and most valiant” city of Hondarribia.
The following year, on the anniversary of the liberation, the mayor reminded the town of its pledge, and all the inhabitants climbed in a solemn procession to the sanctuary of Guadalupe. It was 8 September 1639, and since then it has been celebrated every year except for some rare occasions.
Siege of Hondarribia in 1638
Siege of Hondarribia in 1638
Engraving of the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees
Pheasant Island or Conference Island
Meeting between Louis XIV of France and Philip IV in 1660
PEACE WITH FRANCE
20 years later, in 1659, Hondarribia was at the centre of the continent’s attention again. After a century and a half of continuous wars, Spain and France were to sign here the historic Peace of the Pyrenees, thus called because this mountain range was established as the dividing line between both kingdoms. The big event would mark Hondarribia’s zenith as a diplomatic venue.
The negotiations took place on an island in the middle of the river Bidasoa, on Pheasant Island ‒or Conference Island‒, of shared sovereignty. The inhabitants of Hondarribia travelled there in all kinds of vessels to watch the impressive retinues of those great lords, with their embroidered dress coats, their carriages and their powdered wigs.
It took 24 conferences to smooth out their differences. After three months of endless meetings, the Peace was signed and a solemn Te Deum was sung in the church of Hondarribia. The following year, 1660, the agreement was sealed with a marriage between the king of France, Louis XIV ‒the Sun King‒ and Maria Theresa of Spain, Spanish king Philip IV’s eldest daughter. The wedding took place on 6 June in Hondarribia, in a strange ceremony.
A large crowd of people from the court ‒knights, servants, noblewomen wearing flamboyant dresses in the Las Meninas style‒ filled the city’s narrow streets. Prominent personalities from nearby regions and the French kingdom also arrived. Just a small, but very important, detail was missing: the groom. The wedding was held “by proxy”. Louis XIV awaited in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where a few days later the engagement was to be ratified with a new ceremony. As can be seen, all this was in line with the Baroque style, with its fondness for affection, sophistication and complexity.
The following day, Philip IV had an interview with his sister, the French queen mother, whom he had not seen in 25 years. In Hondarribia he boarded a beautiful gondola, accompanied by his daughter, and went to Pheasant Island, where the meeting took place.
Meanwhile, Louis XIV, with the ardour of a 20-year-old, was very keen to meet his wife. Without a second thought, he mounted his horse in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, rode 18 kilometres and showed up at the island, where he was able to see her discreetly, hiding behind someone. When she discovered him, she became very excited.
After the interview, when the retinue was returning down the river, the French monarch ‒riding his sprightly horse‒ followed her along the riverbank. At one moment he stopped to observe his wife calmly, greeting her majestically as she passed, answered by Philip IV with his hat… and Maria Theresa stood and bowed graciously.
All these ceremonies brought to Hondarribia an exceptional guest: the great painter Diego Velázquez, who was the King’s Aposentador Mayor, in charge of looking after the quarters occupied by the court. Parsimonious, conscientious and loyal, Velázquez was one of Philip IV’s most trusted men, and this time he was tasked with making sure that everything was ready, with the dignity and pomp merited by the occasion: carriages, curtains, carpets, decorations… Nothing could go wrong at such an important event. The journey was to have fatal consequences for him. The work and the 72 long days of travel left the painter exhausted. Upon his return to Madrid he fell ill and died a few days later. He was 61. His wife followed him to the grave seven days later.
The siege of 1638 and its corollary, the Peace of the Pyrenees, mark Hondarribia’s zenith, but also the beginning of its decadence. From then on, the city’s history would be one of slow and lengthy decline.
The population of the area within the city walls, which had some 2000 inhabitants, gradually fell. The military importance of the stronghold would lose ground to the benefit of San Sebastian and Irun itself. Although it would still suffer two more sieges during the 18th century, it started to be considered a minor stronghold.
Irun continued to belong to the jurisdiction of Hondarribia, as did Pasaia and Lezo. They all requested segregation in the early 17th century, as did many localities that were then granted the title of chartered town. But Hondarribia strenuously opposed their independence, as its commercial monopoly was its last chance to prosper. Time and again, the Crown supported it, refusing to harm a stronghold that had always been loyal and courageous.
Irun insistently continued to make its request, until at last it managed to segregate in 1766, ending several centuries of continuous litigation and confrontation. By then, Irun had a larger population than Hondarribia and was a more important military site. The ancient town’s fate was sealed.
The final blow came in 1794, when French revolutionaries entered the town after a 7-day siege. One of their first targets was the church of Santa María, whose saints they dressed in uniforms and placed on the walls as if they were defending the battered stronghold. They then rampaged through the city, sacking and devastating it, causing huge damage to the castle and blowing up half of the walls.
That was the end of the military stronghold. The city had suffered 9 sieges throughout its history and that would be the last. The generals who visited it to assess the damage could only certify its demise: the stronghold had ceased to exist.
This time the city had fallen with disconcerting ease, and there were doubts over whether it had fought with sufficient courage. A military inquiry was launched, concluding that the city had fulfilled its obligations and that it could continue to preserve the honorary titles earned in 1638: “most noble, most loyal and most valiant city”. To clear any doubts, five years later the king granted it the title of “always loyal”, as it had repeatedly requested.
The city faced the 19th century immersed in a profound crisis: littered with ruins and without any economic perspectives other than fishing and its modest agriculture. But at the end of the century tourism began to emerge as a new and promising source of wealth. The growing colony of summer holidaymakers would help it to expand and redefine itself as a city, until becoming a top-tier tourist location.
Today, Hondarribia ‒the city’s sole official name since 1980‒ has 16,500 inhabitants, rising to 40,000 in the summer. Its population has been traditionally divided into three groups, with their own features and personalities: those living within the walled area, called kaletarras; those living in the fishing district, or portuarras; and those scattered among the farmhouses on the hills of Jaizkibel, called baserritarras. Today many people live in modern housing estates, meaning that those differences have gradually disappeared and nothing remains of that legendary rivalry, which lasted until the ‘80s.
As for its economy, the most outstanding feature is the total absence of industry. There was an express wish to spare Hondarribia from industrial development, and today it is a dormitory city, where most of its inhabitants work elsewhere.
Small farming by baserritarras as a way of life has all but disappeared: there are still more than 250 farmhouses left in the municipality, but they only plant small crops, for self-consumption and for local restaurants and shops.
However, Hondarribia continues to be an important seafaring location: its fishing harbour, dedicated only to coastal fishing, is Gipuzkoa’s main one, along with Getaria’s harbour. But this activity is also declining and barely represents 5% of its economy.
Most of the local economy is dedicated to services and, above all, to tourism.
In addition to its extraordinary monumental heritage, its fisherman’s district and its beach, Hondarribia boasts amazing natural surroundings, both towards the coast and the mountains. Another of its attractions is the large variety of popular activities organised throughout the year. And of course its famous festivities: the alarde, the kutxa, San Pedro, Easter Week… where the city becomes a hive of activity.
The walls of Hondarribia’s Old Quarter today