Pasaia - the village that captured Victor Hugo's heart

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© Photo: Adam L. Maloney (The village of Pasaia Donibane)

I first came across Pasaia whilst on a long hike from Hendaye in France to San Sebastián in Spain. Upon arriving I was struck by how picturesque it was; a Basque fishing community with a peaceful harbour that rests on the very mouth of a river which opens up just slightly to the vast Atlantic Ocean, which is always in sight. That night I slept in a small church - Ermita de Santa Ana - halfway up the hillside, that caters for people walking the Camino del Norte, and I woke up to the sound of bells and distant waves. But I wasn’t the first outsider to ‘discover’ this hidden town; I was to find out that one of France’s most revered national icons had seen it all before me.

© Photo: Adam L. Maloney (Pasaia Donibane and San Pedro on the left)

Who was Victor Hugo and why was he in Pasaia?

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was a poet and novelist who is considered to be one of the greatest French writers to have ever lived. In France, he is loved for his poetry. In the rest of the world, he is perhaps best known for his novels such as the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, which of course was eventually turned into a world famous Disney movie, and Les Miserables, which is best known for its theatrical adaptation. He came to Pasaia in 1843, after having stumbled upon the town whilst on a trip to nearby San Sebastián. He would stay put here that summer to work on his travelogue book ‘The Alps and Pyrenees’. Sadly, his daughter died during this time and he wasn’t able to produce the exact work he had wanted. The book was nevertheless published posthumously in 1890, five years after his death.

© Photo: Adam L. Maloney (View of the Atlantic Ocean between the hills from Pasaia at dusk)

Finding Victor Hugo

I arrived in the late afternoon and allowed myself to wander around and grab a beer. Pasaia is divided into two little towns either side of the Ría de Pasaia, the small river separating them. The two towns are Donibane and San Pedro. I stayed on the Donibane side which is where most of the architectural beauty is, Santiago Plaza in particular, which is a little riverside square of those colourful fishermen houses that are emblematic of the Basque coast. Very close to this square, after passing narrow cobbled streets of stone houses, centuries-old arches and Basque independence murals, I found the beautiful 17th century waterfront house that Victor Hugo had made his home for one summer. The house of three floors is free entry and holds a permanent exhibition entitled ‘Victor Hugo, Viaje a la Memoria’. It’s a modest little museum and a shrine to the writer who once stayed there.

© Photo: Adam L. Maloney (A Basque independence mural beside the house of Victor Hugo)

Donibane to San Pedro

I left Donibane the next day by hopping into a small boat and being taken across the water to San Pedro. The journey lasted for about two minutes and cost next to nothing. From this side of the Ría de Pasaia, I headed to the Puntas de Pasaia San Pedro, a quiet spot with a small lighthouse where the river starts becoming the Ocean, and walked up the steep hiking path to catch some unforgettable views.

© Photo: Adam L. Maloney (View from the hill of San Pedro overlooking the mountains, the Ría da Pasaia and Atlantic Ocean)

“Be as a bird perched on a frail branch that she feels bending beneath her, still she sings away all the same, knowing she has wings.” – Victor Hugo (1802-1885)


The author

Adam L. Maloney

Adam L. Maloney

Adam is a Londoner who travelled to over 20 European countries and lived in both Portugal and Spain for several years. Adam is a fan of exploring intriguing neighbourhoods and meeting locals.

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