I have the goodies in my novel, The Grotto, spend a few action-packed days in Vitoria, where they learn how to use stone circles under Father Morrison’s tutelage, drink coffee in the Plaza Mayor, go on benders in the old quarter and stuff themselves with pintxos and Basque cuisine. O’Malley may or may not have hooked up with a local vitoriana called Ainhoa! In The Grotto, I wanted to get across Vitoria’s relaxed atmosphere, the size and authenticity of its old quarter and the city’s amazing gastronomical culture.
Vitoria-Gasteiz, the official capital of the Basque Country, has suffered (and probably always will) from neither being Bilbao nor San Sebastián. Bilbao —the capital of the province of Biscay and, for many, the real and de facto capital of the Basque Country — is bigger, bolder and brasher than Vitoria — the capital of Álava — while San Sebastián — the capital of Guipuzcoa — is more beautiful, more chic, more sophisticated (and has a beach and an international film festival with attendant celebrities and red carpets to boot). Additionally, Vitoria’s more distinguished fellow provincial capitals (three provinces make up the Spanish ‘autonomous community’ of the Basque Country) will forever be regarded as being more Basque, more authentic, less Spanish. It is always said about Vitoria (and Álava in general) that it has been more subject to Spanish influences down through the years and because of this is somehow Basque Country-lite. I’ve noticed some ‘real Basques’ spit the words Vitoria or Álava through their teeth the way Northern Irish nationalists or Highlanders and Islanders splutter Lowland Scot. The conspiracy theory goes that, post-Franco, the powers that be in Basque constitutional nationalism decided to locate the Basque parliament and associated governmental offices in Vitoria in order to give a shot in the arm to the city’s Basqueness. Regardless of its truth and whether or not it worked (you do hear a considerable amount of the Basque language on its streets, for example), Vitoria continues to be looked down up by Bilbao and San Sebastián and it is still regarded as a kind of Cinderella city. Many Spaniards outside of the Basque Country talk dismissively of Vitoria and some don’t even know who or what Vitoria is!
“If I was going to go on holiday to the Basque Country,” they often say, “I wouldn’t go to Vitoria; I’d go to the real Basque Country.”
But these people don’t know what they’re missing. Vitoria is a hidden gem, one of the north of Spain’s best kept secrets. Consistently rated (and scientifically measured, however this is possible!) as offering its inhabitants one of Spain’s highest qualities of life, the city (approx. pop. 240,000) resembles one of those perfectly-designed Sim or Civilization cities. An ideal blend of the old, the new, the urban and the wild, the traditional and the industrial, Vitoria has something for everyone.
If you’re into history (especially medieval history) and architecture check out Vitoria’s medieval quarter (casco viejo), one of the peninsula’s most extensive and best preserved. Here you’ll find numerous palaces, chapels, narrow, winding lanes and arcades, an ancient cathedral (in the process of restoration and open-to-the-public archaeological investigation) and the old city walls and ramparts. Spend a day roaming its dark, mysterious, narrow, cobble-stone streets. Read a book in a shady walled garden or watch life go by under the watch of the city’s patron — La Virgen Blanca. If culture is your thing, Vitoria has a plethora of museums and interpretative centers, the best known of which is the Artium — a bold and superbly-considered contemporary art gallery, a visit to which always stimulates and surprises. Football? Go see Alavés! (Remember them? 2001 UEFA Cup runners-up to Liverpool!) Basketball? How about Saski Baskonia, one of the Spanish League’s major teams. Into shopping? Wear yourself out exploring the casco viejo and stumbling across intriguing little jewelry and clothes shops or spend a morning in the more modern (Victorian and charmingly fin de siècle!) commercial district. And as for gastronomy . . . !
Vitoria is famous for its food and drink. With part of its province in the south forming la Rioja Alavesa, Vitoria is the place to come if you like your wine. Even the most humble neighbourhood bar will have a selection of reasonably-priced Rioja wines of outstanding quality. And why not chase the wine down with a pintxo (savoury snack or titbit)? It’s a local custom, especially among retired gentlemen of leisure (aka oul’ fellas), to meet up and go from bar to bar, enjoying a glass of tinto (red wine) accompanied by a pintxo in each establishment. This practice is known as chiquiteo and I would highly recommend aping this wonderful local custom — preferably in the old quarter, where the pintxos are unwaveringly excellent (chorizo a la sidra, morcilla, txaka, tortilla de hongos) and the bars range from authentic old codger dens to hip ‘n’ happening cutting-edge cafes to those of the radical Basque nationalist variety. A warning: make sure you’ve nothing urgent planned for the rest of the day, as chiquiteo, (especially if you’re Irish like me or my characters in The Grotto), has the tendency to deflect you from your previous objectives and morph into an all-day session! If you’re not prepared to spend a day tipping away at the wine, no problem: just “do” one or two of Vitoria’s hundreds of pintxo bars. My favourite is the Sokoa on Calle Independencia, which has a baffling choice of pintxos and Rioja Alavesa wines.
Moving up the culinary scale, Vitoria has, in keeping with many Basque towns and cities, a love affair with gastronomy and haute cuisine. In general, the emphasis is on Basque cuisine or modern variations on the theme, but you can find any kind of cuisine in the city. Vitoria’s Michelin-starred restaurant is the Zaldiarán on Avenida Gasteiz but there’s also the Marqués de Riscal in nearby Elciego.
Finally, if you’re into jazz, Vitoria hosts an internationally-renowned jazz festival. Many of the greats regularly visit the city for the festival, which has been running for over thirty years and takes place in July.