A beautiful and distinguished town, the name Hondarribia is made up of two Basque words: Hondar, meaning “sand” and “ibi” which means ford or, in this case, sand ford.
But I bet you didn't know that once upon a time this charming little town belonged to Navarre?
Well, yes... as you hear... and it remained as such until the year 1203 when King Alfonso VIII granted Gipuzkoa the San Sebastian Muncipal Charter and “fuero”, a Spanish concept which roughly translates as its own jurisdiction. As such, Hondarribia came under Gipuzkoan mandate and the Kingdom of Navarre lost what had been its only link to the sea. During the next few years, the town of Hondarribia made various attempts to join itself once more to Navarre, even in 1639 proposing a navegable route along the Bidasoa river as far as Sunbilla.
For Hondarribia, being Navarre's only sea port had made a significant difference to its finances, while Navarre also fancied having its own access to the ocean, and such was the level of persistence over so many years that in spite of protests from Gipuzkoa's provincial goverment, King Charles IV of Spain finally handed Hondarribia back to Navarre in 1805, which meant it at last had a port from which to export the agricultural produce for which it was famed, as well as other goods like wool, cocoa and sugar.
However, it so happened that around the same time Napoleon was invading all invadable territories, thus rending the transfer null and void. A little later, as was habitual with Mr Bonaparte, he changed his mind... and even proposed a plan that would build a navegable canal all the way to Pamplona... however, the plan never bore fruit.
A final attempt to annex Hondarribia to Navarre took place relatively recently, during the Spanish Civil War... But that didn't work out either and since then Navarre has remained without an access to the Cantabrian Sea.
Interestingly over the course of its long history, Hondarribia has been the victim of several battle-sieges: as many as eight are documented to have taken place between the years 1280 and 1876, which roughly works out as a siege every 70 years. To look at it another way, if you'd been alive during that time it's very likely you wouldn't have known a lot of peace during your lifetime. Every time war broke out between Spain and France, Hondarribia was always the first to be attacked by the French. One of those attacks was led by none other than Cardinal Richelieu (that's right, him from The Three Musketeers). On that occasion, Hondarribia received city status having come out victorious, supposedly thanks to divine intervention from the Virgin of Guadalupe. Since then, every 8th September, a festive display takes place by way of renewed thanks to the Virgin. And this concludes this section on historic calamities except to say that Hondarribia has twice been destroyed by fire: in 1461 and again in 1498.
All that aside, when it wasn't been burned down or laid to siege, Hondarribia was a prosperous commercial port.
As a result of so much conflict, Hondarribia was heavily fortified, many of its defensive walls and constructions having survived to the present day. Today, its old quarter is an elegant example of what medieval towns were like. Through its three main entrances, one enters an areas of cobbled streets, forged iron balconies and squares where it seems time stood still... We recommend visiting the imposing Carlos V castle, today a National Parador, with walls that still show evidence of war.. Not to mention the parish church of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción y del Manzano, a building of huge architectural value given its mix of gothic and spectacular Basque barroque styles.
The end of the Carlist Wars in 1876, which incidentally marked the very last time the town was taken siege, also saw the start of construction work, undertaken to expand Hondarribia, which would determine the future of the city. It was then that building began outside the wars of the main town where, on a settlement that was almost prehistoric, the current fishing neighbourhood of La Marina rose up, which was to become one of the most important ports in Gipuzkoa together with Getaria. These days it is a charming part of town where you can sample a few prize-winning pintxos while surrounded by multicoloured houses and balconies bedecked with flowers. Incidentally, it was also the setting for the Steve McQueen film Papillon. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the neighbourhood of La Marina has been declared a Monumento Histórico-Artístico.
One final anecdote to end on: a few metres further down, on the Paseo de Butrón, one can lay foot on the very last centimetre of Spanish coast before crossing over into France.