You are now in Ondarroa, quite an unusual little Biscay town. If you entered by road from Mutriku, as you reached the final bend your eye will probably have been drawn towards the houses you can see from there, which look as if they climbed up the hill just where the Artibai river curves round. As a matter of fact, the whole town has a certain Venetian air about it, as if it were on the edge of a huge canal. Parking on the other side of the river gains you the privilege of having to cross the Puente Viejo, or Old Bridge, which futher accentuates the feeling of being in the famously canalled city.
But it goes without saying that this is not the best thing about Ondarroa...
Like most Biscay coastal villages, quite apart from enjoying some exquisite surroundings, in Ondarroa you can also get lost along the steep little streets of its old quarter, where you'll find many places in which to enjoy a great meal before setting out to visit some very worthy tourist spots. To begin, its worth taking a look at the parish church of Santa María, another example of late Basque gothic architecture, from the second half of the 15th century. Take a close look at the gargoyles, which are a real treat. Surely Quasimodo himself could easily have passed for one of these!
But this is not the only construction worth seeing in Ondarroa. Maybe it escaped your notice, but as you enter the town, before getting to the very medieval Puente Viejo, you had to drive over another, much more modern bridge. Is this yet another design of the controversial Spanish architect Calatrava? Well, yes. It was built here so people could more easily access the town's enjoyable old quarter which, we might add, has been a Monumental Ensemble since 1994.
You may now be asking yourself what makes the old quarter so special, so beautiful, to be named a Monumental Ensemble. Well, because there is one chapter in the history of this town that tells of a truly important confrontation. Midway through the Middle Ages, around the year 1351, the noble town of Ondarroa came up against none other than King Edward III of England. One of those kings Shakespeare wrote a play about, the grandson of the terrible Edward I, known as “Longshanks”, the baddie from Braveheart.
It would seem, however, that Edward III could not live up to the standards of the so-called Hammer of the Scots.. because in 1353 he was forced to sign a peace treaty with Ondarroa, as well as various other Basque towns who had sent their boats in order to drive him out.
But don't think that Ondarroa's history of fighting ended there. Walk further into the old quarter and you will see that the town is truly a survivor of battle.
Ask about the Likona Tower. A typically Basque construction, this building bore witness to the endless fighting between two clans of warring feudal knights, the Oñaz and Gamboa.
Or, as you walk along its narrow streets, picture one of the many confrontations between the lords of Arancibia, Yarza and Licona which, at the end of the 15th Century, saw the walled town engulfed in flames as a result of one of their epic battles.
Afterwards, Ondarroa enjoyed a long period of peace, until in 1794 the town would experience for itself, first hand, the French Revolution, which would eventually change everything. Much to the chagrin of the monarchs of Europe, the revolutionaries started off by guillotining their king, Louis XVI. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Louis' cousin, the then King of Spain Carlos IV, wasn't too happy and declared war, which led to the famous “sans-culottes” coming south as far as Ondarroa... though hardly with the best of intentions. For those “blue” soldiers the world could be divided in two: themselves, the revolutionaries, and the rest, “slaves” who continued to obey the “tyrants” that they were guillotining.
Two Generals of the French Revolution, Moncey and Dessein, believed Ondarroa was little more than a refuge for those armies of so-called “slaves” and didn't give a second thought to attacking, sacking and setting fire to the town in around 1794.
And finally, we propose a little game. While walking around the old quarter, look closely at the years carved into the stone entrances of the houses. In many you'll see they were built after 1794, but you will also see a few that were built prior, This means you are standing before one of the few constructions lucky enough to have survived the tremendous blaze which, they say, could be seen all the way from Bilbao. A city, it so happens, that also featured on Moncey and Dessein's blacklist.