Hondarribia has a number of attractions for visitors: its beach, old quarter and fishermen’s district, its exquisite cuisine and the warmth and hospitality of its inhabitants.
And for those looking for a bit of culture and tradition, Hondarribia has even more to offer, starting with its traditional Alarde de Armas (Arms Parade) and finishing with its age-old festive celebrations, whose roots date back to the dawn of time and mark the changing of the seasons.
Documents dating from as early as 1602 include references to the Easter celebrations in Hondarribia, and to the huge number of “people from other realms” who flocked to see them. The celebrations themselves, however, are believed to date from a much earlier period. At the end of the last century and the beginning of the current one, Hendaye and Hondarribia’s Easter celebrations attracted large numbers of visitors to the towns, thus generating business for the fleet of skiffs which ferried people back and forth across the Bidasoa.
Today, the tradition continues to have a strong local flavour, making it unique. Visitors are particularly fond of the Good Friday Procession.
Hondarribia is a walled town, to which Alfonso VIII of Castile granted a Charter (in accordance with the San Sebastián set of rights and privileges) in 1203. According to Francisco Gainza, however, the fortification of the town began in 1194, by order of King Sancho the Strong of Navarre. Remains from earlier periods indicate that the area was already inhabited during the Aeneolithic – Bronze Age. There are also indications of Roman presence and even evidence of a Gothic King, Recaredo, who, according to tradition, was responsible for building the original village or settlement.
Due to its location from 1200 onwards on the border of the kingdom of Castile, the town’s history has a markedly military character. The main square was defended by a thick, high wall, surrounded by a moat except on the eastern side, where it overlooks the sea. The wall was equipped with a number of bulwarks, drawbridges and ravelins at the entranceways.
From the Middle Ages onwards, the town became a major trade centre, protected by its thick walls and aided by its shipyards and ideal sailing conditions, as well as by the proximity of the French border.
However, the town also suffered many setbacks over the years, including diverse fires (according to documentary sources, in 1498 a fire destroyed everything except nine houses) and sieges (in 1794, for example, the French completely destroyed part of the defensive wall). All these, coupled with the challenges of modern expansion at the end of the 19th century, form the Hondarribia we know today.
Next to the Palace of Charles V, perhaps the town’s most emblematic building due to its ancestral origins, stands Santa María Church, work on which began during the final third of the 15th century, and finally finished, after a short interval, during the first half of the 16th century.
It is important to remember that the period to which we are referring here inherited a strong religious tradition, in which devotional practices formed an important part of everyday life. Thus, the Navarre set of rights and privileges (which had a clear influence on the province of Gipuzkoa) divided the year into three main periods, focused around the three principal festivals of the Christian calendar: Christmas, Lent and the period before Pentecost, each of which had its own series of obligations.
Although no one knows the precise moment at which the Passion began to be represented in the town, historical sources indicate that this tradition dates back at least to 1602, when the Hondarribia Local Council applied for a permit from the bishop to hold the procession.
In 1567, Hondarribia, which had hitherto belonged to the Bayonne Bishopric, became part of the Pamplona Diocese. During that period, a “license” was required to represent “the Passion and remembrance of Our Lord Jesus Christ” in the Parish Church on the “day and evening” of Maundy Thursday. Although some doubts were expressed regarding the appropriateness of holding this event on Maundy Thursday, the huge number of visitors from both France and other neighbouring regions, and the opportunity presented by the occasion for conveying to them “holy things” constituted sufficient reason for the Bishop of Pamplona to grant permission for the procession. It was Gabriel de Egullor, a clerk at the Pamplona Episcopal Curia, who issued the license.
The general enthusiasm can be measured by the degree to which people contributed to covering the costs of the procession by giving alms. The clothes, jewellery and general attire required by those taking part in the procession were, according to a list of expenses dating from 1602, brought in from San Sebastián.
Although no one knows exactly what the ceremony consisted of, records do exist of the expenses incurred by the “Angel from the port”, as part of the budgetary item dedicated to the procession. The rite may have been similar to that held in Tudela, where a young boy, dressed as an angel, comes down to the Virgin and removes her veil.
It is possible, therefore, that the modern-day Easter procession is an evolved version of that original representation, which may date back to, at least, the beginning of the 17th century.
According to Julio de Urquijo, the ceremony was as follows:
On Good Friday, 14 young people dressed as Nazarenes formed a procession representing the Via Crucis. At the place where the crucifixion was to take place, Jesus would walk with the cross on His shoulders between the two thieves, of which the one on his left would threaten him with his fist, mocking him cruelly. This spectacle is thought to have been abolished at the beginning of the 20th century.
The Descent from the Cross is played out inside the church itself on Good Friday afternoon. To the rhythm of the words of the narrator, the nails and crown of thorns are removed from the image of the Crucified Christ located at the foot of the altar. The image is then removed from the cross and placed in a glass coffin. Soon afterwards, the procession of the Holy Burial leaves the church as it embarks on its route around the town.
At its head walks Saint Michael, accompanied by children dressed as cherubs carrying miniature instruments of the Passion, which years ago used to be brought out on Maundy Thursday. After them comes Christ in Gethsemane (an angel leans towards Jesus, offering him a chalice). Next, ten Roman legionaries appear. Then we see Christ tied to a column, led by penitents in purple robes. After them comes Veronica, bearing a canvas depicting the holy image. Around her walk the guards, with upside-down rifles. Next comes Christ, carrying the cross and dressed in a purple velvet robe tied with a golden cord. After him comes the Virgin of Sorrows, Mary Magdalene, carrying a cloth, and Saint John in black, with a red cape. To the sound of a funeral march, the supine body of Christ then appears, covered with a series of thin veils and surrounded by Roman guards. Finally, the Virgin of Solitude brings up the rear, dressed in black velvet and with her face covered in tears.
At ten o’clock on Easter Saturday morning, high mass is said and a black curtain is pulled across the high altar when the celebrant says the Gloria, revealing the flag of the resurrection. At this moment, the bells begin to ring, while the Roman soldiers standing in two rows in front of the altar fall down, as if hit by lightening (the odd numbers falling inwards and the even ones outwards), and helmets, swords, pikes and shields crash to the floor. After a while, the captain stands up and as the Gloria is sung, pokes his soldiers with his staff of office, to see if they are asleep. Upon realising that none of them are showing any signs of life, he returns to his post and kneels down, arms crossed on the ground and his head resting on top. As the Dominus Vobiscum is said, the soldiers all kneel up, and remain kneeling until the end of mass.
As mass finishes, the captain signals with his staff and the two shield bearers rise to pick up the shield, helmet and swords. At a second signal from the captain, they hit their swords against the shield. At the sound, the rest of the soldiers stand up. At a third signal, they collect their fallen helmets, replacing them on their heads backwards. At a fourth signal, they pick up their spears, holding them upside down and as a march plays, make their way from the church to the Town Hall.
On Easter Sunday the Ttopara or Procession of the Meeting takes place. Early in the morning, the statute of the Virgin Mary is carried on the shoulders of four men, accompanied by the twelve apostles wearing different colour cloaks. All walk down Calle Mayor, through the Plaza de Armas and into Calle San Nicolás, where they set the Virgin down in the garden of Num. 2, which has been prepared beforehand with rugs and damask curtains. In front of the garden they then await the arrival of the Procession of the Holy Sacrament, which by this time has also left the church and is moving along Calle San Nicolás, although along a different route. Upon arriving, the Regina Caeli is recited and then, in deadly silence, the Virgin is carried to the Meeting, with three bows being made along the way as signs of greeting. Following this ceremony, the participants begin singing the royal march and both processions make their way back to the parish church.
Today, the Ttopara or Topara ceremony is held inside the church.