Philippe Bourget - 2012-06-01
At first sight, this coastal working-class village aligned with the Basque separatist movement has very little to recommend it. But Pasaia’s blend of genres – from the old sailors’ manors to the commotion of the docks - produces an inexplicable charm that once captivated Victor Hugo.
Although lacking in major tourist attractions, Pasaia Donibane (Basque for ‘Pasajes de San Juan’)defines itself as a site that leaves a lasting impression. The village and commercial port located in the heart of the city of Paisana - of which it is one of three distritos - is located a few miles north of San Sebastián. Cited in the guidebooks, it is easy enough to find, but as you near it you may be daunted by the ugliness of the surroundings and tempted to turn back. After leaving the Guipuscoa’s capital, you’ll need to pass through a number of indistinguishable suburbs whose blocks of flats and expressways suggest a form of urban planning that is completely bereft of inspiration... and reference points. Just when you’re about to give up, a poorly paved quay lane, improbable warehouses and the chaotic grey effervescence of a city port in action indicate that you’re almost there. Through the car’s open window, evocative sounds drift in: freight trains creaking along the edge of the dry dock, metallic containers falling from the grip of gigantic cranes and the sirens of cargo ships about to cast off. But the quay has a very different appearance than the sounds suggest, as it is lined with balconied houses that seem to have miraculously escaped the uniformity of forced industrialisation.
A port town renowned for its restaurants
This then is Pasaia Donibane, a port protected from the sea boasting a handsome row of 17th century sailors’ mansions: a string of pearls leading to the ocean. The Atlantic lies at the end of the ria, aber or fjord – you can choose your metaphor according to your travels. The mouth of the river lies a short distance away; beyond it are the churning waves of the Gulf of Gascony and the high seas adventures that once lured fishing boats to set sail towards the Americas. Pasaia Donibane and its commercial port are a protected microcosm where resilient stevedores go about their various tasks, proud of their Basque identity.
To reach the harbour mansions, there’s no bridge; you’ll need to take a boat. For a few coins the ferryman’s green boat put-puts you over to the sound of its wheezing diesel engine and leaves you right beside the houses. You’ll be in a single street, a row with arched passageways that beckon in the shadows behind the houses. Terraced restaurants attest to the fact that the port has long been renowned for its fine food. On the square in front of the town hall – the only open space in the area – the wood of the balconies serves as so many flagstaffs clearly expressing local political preferences. Pasaia Donibane is a bastion of the Basque separatist movement. Flags and slogans spell it out for anyone who might be tempted to ignore the fact. But to distance yourself from this radical milieu, all you need to do is walk past the Santo Cristo de la Bonanza basilicato the mouth of the channel where families gather in summer to roast sardines, or climb up the narrow streets to the Santa Ana hermitage. Built on a promontory that majestically overlooks the port, it is an established halt along one of the roads leading to Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims arriving from Hondarribia and the Jaizkibel range often roam through carrying heavy loads and deep existential questions.
A museum honouring Victor Hugo
They are not the first to leave their mark on Pasaia Donibane; it is a little-known fact that the town has seen its fair share of the rich and famous. This is where, in 1777, Lafayette left for America where he would lead the War of Independence. It’s also where Victor Hugo stopped in 1843 during his travels across the Pyrenees. The novelist yielded to the port’s charms and decided to spend several weeks here. The handsome Renaissance-style manor where he sojourned has become a museum dedicated to his life and work. An audiovisual section maps out his adventures in the Pyrenees and shares his ‘tourist’impressions. For Hugo, Pasaia Donibane was nothing less than a ‘little radiant Eden’. There have been other celebrities as well. The famed German naturalist and geographer Alexander von Humboldt spent time here at the very beginning of the 19th century. Even Paco Rabanne can pride himself on having been born here in 1934. Might his avant-garde fashion parades featuring dresses and epaulettes in hammered metal have been inspired by memories of Pasaia’s industrial atmosphere?
Victor Hugo’s House (and tourist office)
Calle San Juan
20110 Pasaia Donibane
Tel: +34 943 341 556
The Ontziola traditional shipyards also merit a visit.
Restaurant Ongi Etorri
Calle San Juan, 60
20110 Pasaia Donibane
Tel: +34 943 524 588
Near Victor Hugo’s House, this ordinary-looking restaurant serves fine, plentiful cuisine of earth and sea. From € 12/£ 9.60.
Calle San Juan, 79
20110 Pasaia Donibane
Tel: +34 943 52 36 99
Renowned amongst seafood-loving epicureans, Casa Camara has its own natural lobster farm in a seawater pool.