During my recent trip to the Basque Country to take part in the Durango Book Fair and attend to other CBS books business, I awoke early on one of my mornings in Donostia-San Sebastián, and with no meeting until 1:00 pm decided to go for a walk along the seawall of La Concha, up through the cobblestoned streets of the Old Town, and up Monte Urgull, the old city fortress turned into city park. It’s not the first time that I have climbed up the mountain’s paths, criss-crossing among heavy stone walls, old barracks and artillery battery sites, and usually populated by a variety of tourists and regular city users with their dogs or their children or their running shoes pounding the pavement.
This morning was a bit different though. It being pretty early (not that early, but Donostia-San Sebastián does not seem to be a city that moves quickly in the morning), there was no one at all around and I was alone to the climb up through the walls and ramparts and among the old cannons all the way to the base of the giant statue of Jesus on the hill’s summit.
As I walked up I realized something else, aside from the beauty and stillness of the morning. Without the usual clamor of residents and tourists it became much easier to imagine this place as it had once been—an important castle and contested point for armies fighting back and forth across the northern Iberian Peninsula. In 1813, for example, the Allied (mainly British and Portuguese) forces besieged the castle and the city as they forced Napoleon’s armies out of the Iberian Peninsula. In the course of this siege, the walls were breached and the city was burned and up to 1,000 city residents killed (of course, mostly innocent civilians suffering the horrors to war, this number is as most numbers are probably contested, via Wikipedia, The Siege of San Sebastian). The French, meanwhile, shut up on the hill’s formidable castle, were able to surrender with honors and the officers allowed to keep their swords.
Among the old cannons and looking over the ramparts at the top at the city shining below it was easy to imagine the horrors of war, women and children running to and fro bearing water and running errands, peasants carrying the heavy loads, liveried artillerymen sighting and shooting over the burning city below, officers commanding with pomp and circumstance.
Then, of course, a man with his dog arrived, the dog sniffing around the the cannons didn’t care anything about this history, and then below, an older group walking across a sunny glade pointing out the sights below and the place became what it really is now again, a city park.
If you’re interested in the history of the Basque Country since the Napoleonic Wars mentioned above, check out Cameron J. Watson’s Modern Basque History.