San Sebastian, Spain by Alex Walker
To start off I’m not sure if San Sebastian is really Spanish. I mean geographically it is obviously within the borders of Spain, but it doesn’t feel very Spanish. There’s no one doing crazy flamenco dancing in the streets, or people running off to attend bullfights or children chowing down on chocolate dipped churros. But maybe it’s my own perception that is flawed, what I imagine Spain should be like. On top of this, the weather was not great - overcast and muggy - so unlike the Spain of my imagination.
Located in the North East of Spain near the French border and the French city of Biarritz, people say it’s similar to of Nice. Having not been to Nice, I just smiled and politely agreed, “Oh yes, very much like Nice”.
Having said all that, I loved San Sebastian. It has the unique claim of being a beach and a city at the same time. The product of this combination is a very relaxed and cosmopolitan vibe - busy, stylish, and super-chilled. The most appealing factor for me is that San Sebastian is the home to 14 Michelin Star restaurants. This means that San Sebastian has more Michelin stars per kilometre than anywhere else in the world. Not that we could afford any of them, but that is beside the point. Snaps to you San Sebastian.
Apparently San Sebastian was the playground of the rich and famous from way back when, popular with such dignitaries as Queen Isabella II and Queen Maria Christina (the latter is the namesake of the very grand hotel there and responsible for the very grand Miramar Palace there. All very grand). I can just imagine them strolling the promenade with their fancy hats and gloves, no doubt a little white puffball of a dog on a leash beside them and long thin cigarette holders dangling delicately from their mouths.
But back to the beginning. Or the future. Whatever. We were a party of 4 friends – Alex and Monique from Sydney and Rose and Ben from London, but originally from Sydney. Our version of San Sebastian was always going to be a little different from a Lonely Planet or a Rough Guide or even a Wallpaper Guide experience. We were not there to explore or discover and had nothing to check off our to-do list. We were there merely to eat, drink and spend time catching up with each other.
Not speaking Spanish, or even Basque, meant that we really did only speak to each other. Most of the time this was okay and we got by, but the communication barriers proved hilarious in our encounters with our house lady Mari. I say house lady because we were not actually sure of her role – perhaps owner, manager, housekeeper, cleaner, or kindly friend of any of the aforementioned. Once it was settled that words were not going to be much help to either side we launched into an extended and very animated session of charades in order to understand the house rules. Most of it is still unclear – eg there seemed to be something extremely important about water and electricity and power that went over my head and we never did locate the advertised bikes – but the effort was definitely there, so thanks Mari.
Our first outing was to the supermarket to load our trolley with wine that was cheaper than water, some of it in tetra juice packs for less than 50 cents a litre. Perhaps a risk, but then at 50 cents a litre, perhaps not. And then to the various stalls stocking cheeses and breads and jamon (our collective term for all prosciutto type meats). Not equipped with even the most basic “please”, “thank you” or “how much” of the language, we pointed our way though each interaction, and felt it safe to always get one hundred grams of everything. Taking our purchases home, we had a sunset picnic on our villa rooftop which was so lovely and perfect that it became our daily routine.
Although, like children who wake up and forget whether it’s a school day or a weekend, we constantly forgot about siesta. Well not the idea of it so much, because afternoon napping is really quite addictive and easy to adapt to, but the idea that shops closed. So, often there were mad, frenetic dashes up to our favourite stalls to point and weigh and buy our snacks before their shutters closed us out.
Post nap and snack, our next activity would be seeking out pintxos places for the evening. Pintxos, the basque tapas, is the best thing in this world! More elaborate that the regular Spanish tapas, they can be available at a regular looking restaurant, sometimes at a bar, sometimes at a café. But you will recognize them by the plate upon plate upon plate of tasty morsels that are lined up at the counter. Again, the pointing-to-order method tends to come into play as you pick your favourites, hold up your fingers for how many serves, and wait for them to be brought to your table, generally arriving as fast as you can say “Mmm I feel like pintxos” or something else that you might say very fast when you’re hungry.
Pintxos is largely a standing up activity, and mostly consists of golden foods – things such as deep fried mushrooms, deep friend ham and cheese croquettes, deep fried potatoes, deep fried little fish, and deep fried cheesy egg frittata like things. It was all finished off with generous lashings of rich cheesecake which was probably not deep fried but was golden all the same. Delicious but it really did make our lips glisten for the rest of the night.
To repair the damage of too much golden food, our days commenced with long invigorating walks. We divided the city up into blocks and each morning conquered a different area. First was what we called the Jesus mountain, pronounced in the “Hey Zeuss” way. A great museum sits atop the mountain as well as the odd rabbit. And if you’re lucky with your timing you can catch the handsome rower men at the rowing club on your way up.
Funnily enough, we were lucky with our timing twice during our stay. It wasn’t planned at all. The next day was a venture to the other side of the bay where a freaky deserted theme park exists. There’s nothing quite so unsettling as abandoned dodgem cars, a creaky ghost train and a rickety old rollercoaster. Lots of bright flashy signs but no children. Spooky. Fantastic view though.
Before each walk we’d grab a coffee to take with us. But take away is not the go in San Sebastian. There are no recycled cardboard coffee holders, or plastic stirrers or take away cups. As they see it, coffee is a five minute, stop in, drink, leave scenario. Why the need for take away? I’m now a convert.
However, there were a couple of times that take away coffee was necessary – two people buying coffee for themselves and two back at the villa. No other way to do it. So we searched for a café which seemed the least anti the idea and got resourceful with them to produce kind-of-cups and a tray-like-thing that would do the trick and were very careful not to spill the hot contents out of their lidless containers. And the looks we got. People on the street were laughing and pointing at us. Actually most were scoffing. For carrying coffee. We felt shamed. So adopting the good old when in Rome perspective, we only had dine-in coffee from that moment, and loved it.
An essential deviation during a trip to San Sebastian is an excursion to the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Seemingly there’s not much else to do in Bilbao, but that’s okay, this is enough. Designed by Frank Gehry, the architecture is sensational, truly looking like an extraterrestrial spaceship has just landed at the end of a very regular street. My persistent comment was that I wished I had jewelry that looked like it.
At the time, the museum was housing two exhibitions – the surreal exhibition, which immediately transported me back to every year 9 art class, in a good way, and the Frank Munoz collection, an international retrospective including incredible sculptures and installations of figures and faces. One small recommendation though – if getting there and back by car, the coastal route is a bit of a lie. Just take the highway.
San Sebastian ended up being everything we wanted for this particular trip – not too big, not too small; seaside but right in the middle of things; delicious food, great wine, and a rooftop that made it seem like we were kings of the castle. Or Queens. Queen Isabella II maybe, reinvented.
There are three main ways of reaching San Sebastian – a flight from Madrid or Barcelona, a flight to Bilbao from major European cities, or a flight to Biarritz from Paris or London-Stansted.
Return flights to Bilbao are approximately 100 pounds from London. Frequent flights are available through Iberia Airways and Clickair.
From Bilbao, hourly or half hourly buses (depending on the season) depart for San Sebastian. The trip takes an hour and tickets are 15 euros each.
Address: Abandoibarra Estorbidea 2, Bilbao Phone: +34 944 359 080 Web: www.guggenheim-bilbao.es
Phone: +34 670 249 033 Web: www.donostihome.com Email: email@example.com
A great place to pick up some Zara and MNG purchases as both are Spanish based chains.
Zara Kalea Fuenterrabia 3-5 Phone: +34 943 427 266