San Sebastian – Basque Country
San Sebastian (Donostia) lies in Spain’s Basque Country in a region that straddles the Pyrenees Mountains between Northern Spain and Southern France. The Basque language is unique to the area, the locals refer to themselves as Donostiarra, the food is delectable, and the inhabitants are warm and welcoming.
The town boasts an expansive horseshoe beach with golden Sahara – colored sand and is framed by a ring of lush green mountains.
Historic Old Town is one hundred percent pedestrian – the only exception being emergency vehicles. Parking is located underground in a massive parking garage that covers several city blocks, so finding our little family-run pension presented quite a challenge, but was well worth the effort. I became enamored with standing on our small balcony and observing life in the narrow street below.
San Sebastian is home to fantastic Tapas Bars. Our first night in town, we discovered Casa Alcade. We hadn’t eaten all day, so we arrived early, long before the locals, and returned every night thereafter to indulge in their smorgasbord of tapas. By 8 p.m., the place was hopping, and it was standing room only. I dream of those tapas: the presentation, the melding of flavors, the interesting combinations of ingredients, was sublime.
Steps from Casa Alcade, at the top of the narrow street, one cannot miss the exceptional façade of Basilica de Santa Maria del Coro, set against a backdrop of green forest.
From the entrance of the church, one has an unobstructed view – straight ahead and across the city – to Catedral Buen Pastor.
On our first morning in San Sebastian, I stopped an elegant lady on her way to the outdoor market and asked for a recommendation to her favorite bakery and coffee shop. We became instantly engrossed in lively ‘conversacion,’ and by the time we reached our destination, we had exchanged emails and hugged one another ‘adios.’ It’s these impromptu interactions with the local people that make travel such a rich and memorable experience.
Pasteleria Oiartzun pastry and coffee shop (Ijentea Kalea, 2) is addictive. A true example of enjoying food with all one’s senses: the aroma of freshly baked patisserie wafts down the street; the mouthwatering display of golden pastries greets you as you walk through the door; and the crisp, buttery, texture keeps one coming back for more. We became morning regulars, lingering at an outdoor table, watching the parade of people stroll by while indulging in pastries, accompanied by steaming cups of café con lecche.
One block from Pasteria Oiarlzun one reaches Bahia de la Concha (La Concha Bay – Kontxako Badia). To the right fishing boats rest in the water at the foot of Mount Urgull, and a few steps to the left, an eye-catching, gracious building overlooks manicured gardens.
Ayuntamiento de San Sebastian, which, in 1947, became San Sebastian’s city hall, was built in 1887 as a casino where artists, politicians, and the city’s elite gathered. The façade is embellished with two belle epoque towers set on either side of a dome.
The Alderdi Eder gardens are famous for their rare and lovely Tamarix trees, which thrive in the sea air and are resistant to strong sea winds.
A spacious, elevated seaside promenade lines the horseshoe bay from City Hall all the way to the funicular station. It’s a long, delightful walk, every inch of the way. One passes ornate lampposts, restaurants, bars, grand hotels, old buildings with charming architectural design, the painted Loretopea tunnel which links La Concha Beach to Ondaretta Beach, and on a small hillside, Palacio Miramar, the summer residence of Queen Maria Cristina, who loved the sea and English country gardens with vast expanses of green lawns.
The renowned five-star Hotel Maria Cristina, which dates back to 1912, proudly carries the beloved queen’s name. (Paseo, Republica Argentina Kalea, 4).
For the most stunning views of San Sebastian, its beaches, and the surrounding mountains, a ride on the funicular through a lush forest, to the top of the hill is a must.
The restaurants on the boardwalk overhanging La Concha Beach are the ideal lunch stop. We took our time to enjoy a late lunch at La Perla while soaking up the tranquil beauty of the bay on a sun-drenched October afternoon.
Beautiful Zurriola Bridge, which spans the Urumea River, connects the Old town to the New town; to Zurriola Beach – where surfers ride the rolling waves; and to the architecturally unique, award-winning, Kursaal Conference Center, which faces the bay.
The Conference Center, designed by Rafael Moneo, consists of two irregular glass cubes, which can house over a thousand people for conferences, film festivals, and concerts.
Near the market place in Old Town, we stumbled across a small bronze statue of a drummer and learned about San Sebastian’s famous Tamborrada – Drum Festival, which takes place come rain or shine on January 20th. Residents crowd into Constitution Square at midnight, and when the mayor raises the San Sebastian town flag, the twenty-four-hour, nonstop Tamborrada begins. Over 100 bands participate. The festival dates back to Napoleon’s occupation of San Sebastian. Women drummers dress in traditional Basque clothing. The men dress as soldiers of that period or as chefs, as members of culinary clubs originally formed many of the bands.
San Sebastian is pure delight. It has a great energy and vibe and endless sights to uncover.