First town in Biscay
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Located between the coast and the inland, Balmaseda was destined to become a settlement of great importance. Merchants and artisans met here on their way to bordering landlocked provinces or the not-too-distant ports. Thus the place gained recognition and was named first villa (a town with certain privileges granted by the Crown) in Biscay, in 1199.
Balmaseda remained for centuries an economic powerhouse in the region – a strategic spot heavily dependent on trade and agriculture – until the opening of a new route to the inland in 1770. The period coincided with the rise of iron mining in the eastern side of the region, which somehow made up for the decline. Later on, at the turn of the 19th century, the arrival of railroad would bring further prosperity and a population increase.
Although the city walls and a castle were completely dismantled in the mid-19th century in order to allow for the expansion of the town, Balmaseda has preserved its medieval street structure, consisting of three long, narrow streets crossed by alleyways, all leading to ancient squares.
A journey in time
Sightseeing Balmaseda will give the visitor a magic feeling, something of a time-travel experience. A majestic yet sober medieval bridge, dating from the 13th century and named a national heritage site, connects both sides of town. It was one of the gateways to the city and used to hold a customs post when such inner demarcations existed.
Architectural landmarks spread throughout the town centre. The 17th-century Santa Clara complex comprises a former convent of nuns, a preceptor’s house and a church. The convent closed down in 1985 and was later renovated as a hotel. The adjoining church houses a museum devoted to Holy Week themes, as Balmaseda takes high pride in the religious procession that culminates in a breathtaking Crucifixion represented by a neighbour.
The nearby Horcasitas palace, dating from the 18th century, offers first-class architecture and a sense of grandeur. An elegant street leads the stroller from here up to the Town Hall building, also known as The Mosque for its large columned portico, reminiscent of Muslim architecture in the Iberian Peninsula.
Next to it, San Severino Church presides over the main square in town. The 15th-century Gothic temple is embellished by a great many Baroque details – pinnacles and chiselled archangels, to name a few – and sits on a former hermitage. As religion’s grip grew stronger, many temples were erected. Balmaseda History Museum, located inside San Juan del Moral Church, keeps an extensible collection of artworks, books, public records and artefacts – all vivid testimonies to the past and traditions of the town.
This ancient villa is filled with lavish mansions as well, some built by the indianos – or locals who had made a fortune in the Americas and then came back to flaunt their wealth, competing with each other for the most impressive house. Urrutia Palace, a magnificent building now turned into an apartment block, boasts wrought iron windows and a number of heraldic shields on its façade.
A beret factory
A mere two kilometres (1.5 miles) from the town centre, La Encartada Factory Museum offers a funny insight into the history and making of berets (txapela in Basque) – and a journey to the late stages of the industrial revolution. The complex consists of a prominent edifice and the adjoining workers’ apartments, together with a small chapel and an elementary school. And so, as was the norm at the time, a whole district emerged around the factory.
History and architecture aside, the sightseer will be grateful for the extraordinary landscapes surrounding the town. Mount Kolitza, at 879 metres (2,883 ft), is the highest peak around and can be reached from a trail starting right behind the Town Hall building. Horns and bonfires lighted on the summit used to convene communal meetings for centuries. It is not a coincidence that one of the very few Romanesque-style chapels in the region sits on the summit.
First town in Biscay
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Services / Extra information
What to visit
- The Old Bridge
- Horcasitas Palace
- Sundial calendar
- San Severino Church
- Balmaseda Town Hall
- San Sebastián and San Roque hermitages
- Mount Kolitza
Where to eat
- Balmaseda map (1.05 MB)