Balmaseda – Valmaseda

The first town in Biscay

Valmaseda, in the central part of the comarca of Enkarterri, was the first town established in the historical territory of Biscay and it played an important economic role as a dry port that connected Castile to the Cantabrian Sea. Enkarterri is a significant area for mining and industry which from the 19th century on connected Bilbao and Castile by railroad. This is a place that preserves its traditions, and it is the best place to explore this little-known but wonderful rural comarca.

Plan your visit to Balmaseda

The historical town of Balmaseda is a unique destination, a medieval town that has preserved its deep-rooted traditions and strong social fabric. Here you’ll find a nice, peaceful environment where you can relax and imagine what was once a powerful medieval village. In the surrounding area is the Casa de Juntas (Assembly House) of Avellaneda and its beautiful environs, including a museum about the unique history of the comarca. Also nearby is Armañón Natural Park, home to Torca del Carlista Cavern. For those who want to go to the beach, one hour to the north is the beautiful town of Castro Urdiales on the Cantabrian Sea. As Valmaseda is still an up-and-coming tourist destination, there are few places to stay (although the options that exist are high-quality); we’ve compiled them on our pages about sleeping and eating in Balmaseda.

Want to discover this place?

On January 24, 1199, Lope Sánchez de Mena, Lord of Bortedo, founded Valmaseda and granted it a charter, the Fuero de Logroño. Therefore, it was chronologically the first town in the history of Biscay.

Valmaseda was founded mainly for economic reasons, given that it is at the bottom of a valley and is traversed by an old Roman road, making it an apt location for the establishment of a new trade route between Castile and the Cantabrian ports cutting through the Basque territory. Alongside the fact that it was the most important town in the area since its foundation, this had the effect of attracting all kinds of people to the town, including an affluent Jewish community which was the key to the town’s prosperity until 1483 when the Jews were expelled and the Inquisition was installed in Valmaseda.

Given its strategic location, Juan II of Castile decided to establish a dry port in Valmaseda which allowed the town to collect customs duties on the merchandise that entered it. In addition, a Romanesque bridge was built over the Cadagua River which allowed the town to collect bridge tolls and obtain even more benefits, since it was the only place to cross the river in the area. It should be noted that Valmaseda was also part of the Camino de la Montaña (Mountain Way), an old route of the Camino de Santiago which is in the process of being recovered.

Even though the periodic flooding of the Cadagua River blocked off the path to Burgos that ran along the riverbank, the commercial traffic of the area continued to grow until the demolition of the Rock of Orduña in the 18th century. This work made it possible for Orduña’s bridle path (suitable for mules and horses) to be converted into a camino real (state-built road, suitable for carriages). Valmaseda still had only a bridle path, so its commercial traffic consistently diminished until ultimately the town’s customs office closed in 1841, along with those of the other dry ports, when all customs offices were moved to the coast.

In the late 18th century, various armed conflicts, including the War of the Pyrenees, the Peninsular War, and the Carlist Wars, left their mark on Valmaseda, destroying a good deal of the town. As a result, in the mid-19th century arose the necessity to redesign the city, to raise it from the ashes. Its new structure was designed according to new principles of urban planning, and some modern features were added.

Mercado antiguo de Balmaseda

It was also at that time that industry started to rear its head in Valmaseda. In 1890, the railroad line between La Robla and Bilbao (today the longest narrow-gauge railroad in Western Europe) was opened and charged with supplying the Basque iron and steel industry with carbon from the mines of Palencia and León. Railroad garages were also set up in the town, which attracted a number of new workers from other regions.

Today, Valmaseda is a town with great touristic and monumental value which has been able to maintain its urban center.

The best time to visit Valmaseda is probably during Holy Week, when the town stages the most extraordinary representation of the Passion in the Basque Country. The event, which involves the entire town, begins on Maundy Thursday at 9:00 at night and continues throughout Friday, depicting the different moments leading up to the Burial of Christ.

The town, situated next to the mountains, has long been shaped by the flow of the Cadagua River, a tributary of the Bilbao Estuary, which today separates the residential area from the industrial area. The medieval layout of Valmaseda’s historical quarter is preserved, with four parallel streets at the ends of which are Plaza de San Severino (to the north), which is the heart of the city, and Plaza de los Fueros (to the south). In Plaza de San Severino you’ll find the Parish Church of San Severino, a Gothic church built in the 15th century which includes some Baroque elements, such as the bell gable that crowns the main entrance and the tower, although it was refurbished by Severino de Achúcarro in the 19th century. Inside the church, you can see a beautiful altarpiece in the Chapel of Santo Cristo de la Misericordia, a space which was designed in 1535 by Rasines, a stonemason from Santander.

In Plaza de San Severino you can also find the Town Hall, a classic example of civil architecture which is commonly known as the Mosque of Biscay due to its spacious and stately arcade. It was built in the Baroque style in 1743 by the architect Marcos de Vierna y Pellón, but several later renovations were done throughout the 19th century and early 20th century during Valmaseda’s era of grand transformations.

Next to Plaza de San Juan on Calle Martín Mendía, the street closest to the river, is the Gothic-Renaissance Church of San Juan Bautista, which has undergone several renovations since it was built in the 15th century, including an 18th-century refurbishment of the clock tower which plays the town’s anthem every day at noon, 6pm, and 8pm. Currently the church is not open for worship, as it is the site of the Valmaseda Museum of History. On the same street you can also find the Renaissance mansion of the Marquises of Bumiel, from which point you can see the town’s most iconic construction, the Puente Viejo (Old Bridge) also known as the Romanesque Bridge, which connects the historical quarter and the Cristo neighborhood. Since it was built in the 12th century, it has been the only point in the surrounding area to cross the Cadagua River. Made of stone, it is composed of three arches and a defensive turret in the middle which used to guard the entrance to the city. The customs office was established on the bridge and it was the place where the town’s wealth was concentrated.

On Avenida de las Encartaciones is the 17th-century Santa Clara Monastery which, after being renovated in 1993, is now a hotel. Its church, which has also refurbished, now houses the Valmaseda Interpretation Center of the Living Passion (Centro de Interpretación de la Pasión Viviente de Balmaseda), which is a permanent exhibit of clothing, objects, and images related to this folk reenactment staged during Holy Week.

Iglesia gótico-renacentista de San Juan Bautista

Examples of civil architecture in Valmaseda include the Horcasitas mansion (the old city customs office) and the Urrutia family mansion, both from the 17th century.

It might be interesting to visit La Encartada Beret Museum (Museo de Boinas de la Encartada), located in an old beret factory in the Peñueco neighborhood. The factory, opened by Marcos Arena in 1892, is today an area of industrial heritage under the protection of the Basque government.

Nearby Valmaseda in Carranza Valley are the Pozalagua Caves, which are of great natural interest due to their stalactites and cave paintings.

If you head towards Bilbao, nearby Galdames is Loizaga Tower, where the arts patron and businessman Miguel de la Vía refurbished a medieval fortress dating from the time of the War of the Bands and Lope García de Salazar. It is now home to one of the best collections of classic cars in the world. Check their website to confirm the opening hours.

Must see

Vieux Pont
Semaine Sainte à Balmaseda

Basic Facts

Coordinates

43° 11′ 0″ N, 3° 11′ 0″ W

Distances

Bilbao 35 km, Donostia- San Sebastián 128 km, Madrid 428 km

Parking

Avenida de las Encartaciones and around Lehendakari Agirre Park

Altitude

146 m

Population

7833 (2013)

San Severino (October 23), Nuestra Señora del Carmen (July 16)

Reenactment of the Crucifixion (during Holy Week), Medieval Market (mid-May)

Nearby destinations

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