The term Zumaia apparently derives from the world zuma or zume, which in the Basque language Euskera means wicker, a vegetable fibre commonly used in the Middle Ages and which was apparently abundant in this part of the province.
According to a surviving parchment, the first building to be constructed in Zumaia was a monastery called Santa María (or Saint Mary's) back in 1292. Though the precise location of the building is uncertain, there is no doubt that the first inhabitants of the town were monks who, a little tired of all the attacks from robbers, pillagers and pirates, erected a walled and fortified town to protect both themselves and the measly 4 inhabitants dotted around the area, from such effrontery.
A few years later, in 1344, the monks (or rather the Prior at the convent of Roncesvalles) signed a covenant in Pamplona for the establishment of that fortitied town and three years after that, King Alfonso XI granted its residents a People's Charter for the “Town of Villagrana of Zumaya”, under the jurisdiction of Donostia-San Sebastian. A place chosen, among other reasons, for its size, its strategic situation and direct contact with the sea. By the way, remember that a moment ago we spoke of the origins of the world Zumaia? Well now let us take a minute to tell you where Villagrana gets its name: Apparently, it is from the seeds (grano or grana) that gave the area its copious woodlands of holm oak.
In the 16th century, Zumaia was comprised of six streets and 70 houses protected behind its walls, of which today not even one stone remains; it was all razed to the ground midway through the 18th century in order to “clear up” the area and allow the town to grow.
And my! Did it grow..! At the end of the 14th century the town could already boast a successful ship-building trade, where boats used to export iron brought from inland Gipuzkoa were constructed alongside those used to fish for salmon, trout, shellfish and eel. And there was still time left over to combine all these labours with the skill of agriculture.
Life continues.. and with it, the passing of time. The end of the 17th century were difficult times for Zumaia's economy. The fields, its main occupation, particularly the production of wheat, corn and beans, did not provide enough for everyone... Things were so bad that in 1766, when a peasants' revolt, known as “la Machinada” broke out in Gipuzkoa against the Minister Esquilace, checks were carried out on all the houses to ensure that nobody had more grain than was necessary.
But one good thing to come out when things are really bad, is that if they change it can only be for the better. Gradually, farming was strengthened and improved, helped by the dessication of the marshlands which led to an increase in the cultivation of corn. But aside from shipbuilding, fishing and agriculture, you can't imagine with what another industry Zumaia would make its name... The manufacture of cement!! Yes, you heard correctly! So much so, that since the mid-nineteenth century, when the first cement factories were built, Zumaia has exported to markets as far away as the Netherlands and Belgium...
Furthermore, as far back as the 19th century Zumaia's cement factories were to become the mainstay of its economy which, as a knock-on effect, helped boost commercial activity down at the port. The years 1882 to 1885 saw the construction of the road which would connect it to Getaria, and subsequently with Donostia-San Sebastian. 1900 saw the advent of the railways and by 1926 the Urola railroad was up and running.
All this meant that gradually more and more people chose to work in the transport, both maritime and terrestrial, of iron and other goods, while the fishing trade simultaneously thrived, all of which led to the foundation of the Cofradía de Mareantes de San Telmo, St Elmo's Brotherhood of Seafarers.
As such, the beginning of the 20th century saw a return of the boom years in the naval and even the motor industry. Interestingly, the diesel motor ever built in Spain was in Zumaia.
To draw this audioguide to a close, we recommend a trip to the House Museum of the painter Ignacio Zuloaga, which contains works by El Greco, Rivera, Zurbarán and Goya, as well as to the Church of San Pedro; with its Basque Gothic style dating back to 1347 it has the appearance of a fort (don't miss the marvellous gargoyles that spit water on rainy days!)
And to conclude, a visit to the famous Ermita de San Telmo (St Elmo's Chapel), vertiginously located on top of a cliff overlooking the beach of Itzurun and recently chosen as the location for the marriage of Amaia and Rafa in the 2014 film “Ocho Apellido Vascos” (known in English as Spanish Affair).