The clouds hovering above San Sebastian can disperse swiftly with a puff of a strong wind, and melt into a crystal azure canvas of blue sky. Often streaming from the Atlantic, the weather system tends to change rapidly in this moody part of the Basque region, but this is the charming visual attribute of the coastal Northern Spain. As if you wiped off the colour palate in front, the brush of nature creates a brand new landscape painting within minutes.
Love at first sight, a blazing storm of emotions, indeed. It happened to these, who let their eyes to fly freely in these paradise-found landscapes. Inhale the pristine clean air, let go, be one with the dream as I was.
A hilly pair of horns that form the rocky coast and spike from a half-moon of sprawling white beaches often stamp San Sebastian on post cards. Gripping, the dramatic jaw appears as if gulping a small islet in between its lips. After a stroll and a boat ride, there is more to see and taste in Donostia, as San Sebastian is known in Basque. Troll up by a cable car to the Mount Igeldo or hike to the old castle atop the Mount Urgull to admire the verdant hills in San Sebastian’s back country. Lush after frequent rain, the mountains reach deeply inland towards Navarra region. Hemingway’s first novel The Sun Also Rises was inspired by his frequent trips to its bull rings (Pamplona) and the spawning rivers. The Britsh author literally fished out his affection for creative writing in these hills and by the Irati river, where the trouts swam once aplenty. In his Hemingwaysque ironic restraint he wrote:
“Where I’d better go? Up or Down?”
“Down is the best. They are plenty up above, too”.
Before your imagination takes you too far into the unknown lands, flip from the dreamscape and return to San Sebastian. The coast facing the Bay of Biscay possesses so much beauty, addictive and hard not to fall for. The sizeable town was cast as having one the Europe’s most alluring beaches. Avoid the planes swapping journey (so far the only direct flights are from Barcelona and Madrid) during the peak of the summer when swarms of umbrellas and sun bathers flock to the Playa de La Concha. For most of the year its rustic, pure and exotic panoramic coast is much more visually attractive, umbrella-free.
As you linger in the shielded port, its charms inspire plenty of adventurous as well as nostalgia-teasing ideas. Taking a fisherman’s boat to the tiny island of Santa Clara may tiptoe into your mind as an idea of a romantic journey, but you will more likely hop on a regular ferry taking visitors to this turtle-shaped rocky mass covered with trees. Positioned in everyone’s plain sight from the horseshoe curved bay, the romance is over. Still, if you catch a lucky tide and the rare human-free presence, you can stride barefooted on its tiny beach feeling like a nymph washed ashore.
San Sebastian treasures: from nature to your mouth
Nature’s bounty also inspires the plates at local restaurants. Many of the Spain’s three Michelin stared gastronomic pilgrimages are located in the Basque region, from the globally known Arzak to the lesser known, but exquisite Martin Beratasegui.
Gastronomy in the region flourishes almost effortlessly. With three restaurants obtaining the maximum of three Michelin stars in the San Sebastian’s ward itself, as well as some excellent, more casual one starred places to eat, there is no doubt that a visit of the area is on every foodie’s bucket list. A hot ticket is right near the airport in Hondarribia, a typical Basque fishing town worth seeing. The family-owned Alameda offers three generations of superb local cooking with a modern twist and a warm friendly waiters including the family members themselves. For a more casual bite, in parallel to the port promenade turn into a pintxos-filled bar street adorned with the gingerbread, Alpine-like, but for this region typical, narrow houses.
As everywhere in Spain, there is also plenty of salivating stimulation for the less affluent foodies. The casual pintxos as the tapas are locally called (a cocktail stick keeping the food together is in Basque called a ‘pintxo’) are reputed to be one of the best in the country. Perhaps only Seville can rival San Sebastian in the Iberian tapas race, where convenience, diversity, quality and value are judged. I find the tapas in Barcelona and Bilbao less quality and for the later less creatively driven, while Madrid offers generally more commercial and too touristy tapas bar scene. Some are more pub-like and basic stand and eat only, while others spin culinary ideas creating more contemporary, lighter, less oily while gushing with flavours.
For decades only the local chefs succeeded in capturing the best from the local ingredients such as unsalted anchovies, tuna and koktxa, literally meaning a cheek, but usually a fried cod fish chin, into morsels of pleasure. Change came with the recent influx of the culinary phalanx of foreigners and ex-Bulli cooks, who revived the creativity in this coastal town. The foie gras comes from nearby Landes across the border with France and is served as frequently as Jamón Íberico in this region.
In the realm of alcoholic drinks, a must try is Txakoli, a slightly sparkling, very dry local white wine with high acidity and low alcohol content. Cider (slightly fermented apples into a bubbly fruity beverage) is another Basque pride poured in abundance.
The old town stretches from the Baroque Basilica of Santa María through the Calle Mayor street towards the port. Here you find the highest density of casual tapas eateries and its narrow streets invite for a mindless mingling in between the pintxo bars. A truly indulgent and affordable heaven for foodies.
Liberated art scene
The town is currently burbling through a liberating transformation. After all, hardly a decade passed since the legally-binding agreement between ETA, the locally terrifying separatist terrorist group, signed a peace treaty with the Spanish government. The Basque pride will not shut itself off from being expressed publicly though. In Basque San Sebastian is known as ‘Donostia’, and the airport sign still assures the visitors and locals alike of the non-impeding regional definition here.
After stiffing the ETA movement, new projects cropped around the town. San Telmo Museum located in a former Dominican Convent was refurbished into a modern edifice with a contemporary space for dining. The museum displays the history of the Basque region and its culture from their trading prowess through their separatist decades of the past century. Scattered around the old town are also more personal small galleries such as the Ekain Arte Lanak reprinting many successful living as well as established Basque artists post mortem.
Fashion is of serious interest at the Balenciaga Museum, dedicated to the master couturier from the nearby Getaria, it is housed in a newly built annex to Palacio Aldamar, about 30-50 minutes drive from San Sebastian.
Where to lodge in San Sebastian
Now that the lives of the locals were stripped off the fear from bombs and bullets, they enjoy the abundance of their town. Outdoor cafés hum with activity. And there is plenty to choose from whether you want a cup of well-made espresso, pastry or tea (Aramendia, 22 Narrika street). The only drawback is the lack of good hotels in town as well as a serious need for more boutique places to stay. The most flamboyant is the recently refurbished Maria Cristina Hotel. Having a cocktail, a glass of wine or tea at the elegant bar is a must if you don’t stay there. A more restrained, but historic is the beach Hotel Nizza still owned by the descendants of a famous Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida. Don’t leave the booking to the last minute as you might end up staying somewhere not that ideal. Although cool and fun, the cinema-themed Hotel Astoria 7 we stayed at was noisy as you could hear not only the local construction but also every shower, toilet and basin in the rooms above you flushing. Each room has a different actor or director featured on its walls, so if you are a film buff, you may still fancy residing there.
The architecture of San Sebastian may be confusing. If blindfolded and someone dropped you out in the middle of the almost 200.000 inhabitants bolstering town, you would think that you are in some mid-sized French destination. Art Deco, Art Nouveau, but also Baroque and Gothic styles will guide your eyes glued on the facades as you stroll through its cobbled streets. Being once the favoured health retreat for royalty, the ornamental villas and decadent castles pinned in the bay are dazzling.
By the coward weather determined character, the locals rebel as more crisp, genuine and very casual than the slow-paced people in the South of Spain. The social interaction is acted out in a plain sight on streets, and the bars are preferred by the families in place of a secluded hangout in their backyards. This outdoor display takes over sidewalks during all-weather conditions. It feels like being in a village. Just raise your gaze towards the bright red flower pots adorning the windows of countless buildings. Tourists are currently not being privileged with any kind of a special attention, even the museums describe their displays mostly in Basque and Spanish only. This can be desirable as much as unpleasant, but being accepted by the locals as their equal feels liberating and authentic.
Explore the innocence of the town now before the international and commercial Spanish brands arrive and change the independent spirit of San Sebastian. Not just the superficial beauty is there to be admired, but San Sebastian also bursts with a gripping character – from its so far noncommercial independent film festival screenings, the aristocratic past, to feeding your belly and mind with the local superb cuisine and art.
My recommended gastronomic restaurants:
Martin Beratasegui – 3* Michelin
Mugaritz – 2* Michelin (contemporary molecular temple)
Alameda – 1* Michelin (most casual and affordable)
Etxebarri – 1* Michelin (a must visit rural grill about 1 – 2 hours drive towards Bilbao)
Atari Gastroteka – our favourite offering a wide fresh selection of pintxos
La Cuchara de San Telmo – modern and local’s favourite
BETI-JAI Berria – contemporary, young, great wine selection
NOTE: We did not have good experience at Akelare, both service and the food were disappointing. After being underwhelmed with Elena Arzak’s restaurant in London we were not as interested in her family’s 3* Michelin legend near the town.