The town of Hondarribia (Fuenterrabía in Spanish, Fontarrabie in French) stands on the south bank of the river Bidasoa, a natural frontier between France and Spain at the western end of the Pyrenees. The town was first fortified in the 7th century and a square castle with four towers was built by the Navarese in the 10th century. Following a disastrous siege by the French in 1476 Hondarribia was strengthened by the construction of several large round towers that could mount artillery. In 1512 Spain annexed most of the kingdom of Navarre, prompting French counter-attacks in the 1520s. During this period French troops occupied Hondarribia, which was almost constantly under siege for three years. The fortifications were also improved at this time, although large round towers were still favoured instead of the angular works that would be developed later.
In 1539 Emperor Charles V visited Hondarribia. With the memory of the recent French occupations still fresh in Spanish minds, it was decided to strengthen fortress using modern angled bastions. Hondarribia lies on a tongue of land jutting out into the river, so it is protected by the water on three sides. The most vulnerable approach is in the west, where the town is overlooked by high ground. To guard against this weakness, two arrow-headed bastions'were constructed on the western side of the town. The castle was also modified to be resistant to artillery fire. It was transformed into a large oblong building with very thick walls and a gun platform on its roof. The new castle became known as the Castillo Carlos V. It served as the fortress arsenal and the governor's residence. Although a strong building, it would have been of little use as a citadel'because of its small size and lack of flanking capability.
In 1572 the way was opened for more improvements after a section of the walls on the south-east side of the town collapsed. This was an opportunity to modernise this section, which was replaced by a large bastion that incorperated an earlier round tower (the Santa Maria tower) into its right flank. This work was overseen by the engineers El Fratín and Tiburcio Spanocchi. They also suggested the construction of a coastal fort to guard entrance to the harbour, but this was not carried out.
Encouraged by the presence of the Spanish garrison, the inhabitants of Hondarribia prevented French vessels from using the river, something which prompted the French to take steps to protect the south bank. In 1618 a small fort was built at Hendaye opposite Hondarribia on the French bank. Although this fort was little more than a coastal battery with a redoubt, it enabled the French to exercise some control over the river and keep watch on the garrison of Hondarribia. In the 1620s the Spanish started work on a coastal fort near the mouth of the river. This fort, called the Santa Isabel fort, was essentially a gun battery at water level.
In 1638, during the Thirty Years War, a French army crossed the Bidasoa and laid siege to Hondarribia. The Spanish commanders had not been expecting an attack in this area and the garrison was unprepared and poorly supplied. Nevertheless the town held out for two months, repulsing several assaults, until a relief army arrived and forced the French to withdraw. Although the fortress of Hondarribia had successfully withstood the attack, it was obvious to all concerned that this was mainly due to the incompetence of the French commanders. The siege had highlighted some of the deficiencies of the fortifications, which the Spanish were keen to strengthen.
During the siege, the French had installed batteries on the high ground to the west of the town. To reinforce this area, two demi-lunes'were built, protecting the vulnerable Baluarte de Leiba. A covered way provided an extra layer of defence. To the north of the Baluarte de Leiba, a new bastion (the Medina Bastion) was constructed in front of the semi-circular Magdalena Tower to improve the flanking in this sector. The old tower was left in place, rising above the bastion and serving as an additional place to mount artillery. On the east side of the town the Santiago Bastion was built, perhaps to guard against an attacking force that might have reached the patch of dry ground to the east of the town at low tide. However, the river provided a good defence at this point, so there was no need for a bastion between the Medina Bastion and the Santiago Bastion.
In 1685 the French engineer Vauban'visited the region on the French side of the border and made plans for a larger fort to counter Hondarribia, to be built nearer the mouth of the Bidasoa. In the end these plans were shelved and Vauban contented himself making minor improvements to the fort at Hendaye. Perhaps surprisingly, Hondarribia was not attacked by the French during the reign of Louis XIV, when France and Spain were almost constantly at war. However in 1719, during the War of the Quadruple Alliance, a French army under Marshal Berwick crossed the Bidasoa and laid siege to Hondarribia. As in 1638, the besiegers built batteries on the high ground to the west of the town, battering the Reina and Leiba Bastions. The garrison held out for a month before capitulating and marching out with the honours of war. The French returned in 1794 and took Hondarribia again, slighting the fortifications (particularly the eastern side, which faces France) to prevent the Spanish from using the fortress again.
Despite the damage done by the French in 1794 and subsequent urban expansion, significant sections of the fortifications have remained to this day. The two western bastions (the Baluarte de Leiba and the Baluarte de la Reina) are the best preserved, but little remains of the defences in the east, which were almost completely demolished by the French. The walls have recently been cleaned up and access has been improved. The Baluarte de la Reina, which still has large breaches in its walls from the French slighting of 1794, has been renovated and made into a public space. It is fascinating to walk around the partially demolished bastion and see how the walls were constructed and supported from behind. The Baluarte de Leiba is more intact than the Baluarte de la Reina but it has been made into allotments, so it is less accessible. The Castillo Carlos V has also survived intact, although it is a hotel today, so it cannot be visited. Part of the river battery of the fort at Hendaye has also survived, but it is far less spectacular than the fortifications at Hondarribia.
Hondarribia is an interesting fortress to visit, especially as the ramparts are being restored and made more accessible to the public. The San Nicolas gate (see left) has recently been reopened and a new footbridge has been built across the ditch. The Santa Maria gate is also being renovated. Unfortunately some parts of the fortifications are still inaccessible or have modern buildings crowding them, making it difficult to get impression of their size. Hondarribia is within walking distance of the train station at Irun. The old town stands opposite the San Sebastian airport, so bus and road connections are also good.