CERVEZA, SANGRIA & PINTXOS IN SAN SEBASTIAN
Continuing our journey we arrived in San Sebastian today. Famed for its stunning beachside location, and exquisite cuisine, San Sebastian is in Spain’s Basque country. Surrounded by green hills and facing out across the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean, this is a beautiful town and quite unlike anything we’ve seen in Spain so far – the Belle Epoque architecture and lush setting reminds us of France (unsurprising given we’re just 20km from the Spanish/French border; also the region was under French control for many years). Adding to San Sebastian’s appeal is its plethora on pintxo bars and reputation as a centre of gastronomic delight*. After just 1 day of exploring the town we’ve already fallen in love; we’ve also discovered a passion for pintxos, cerveza, and sangria.
*San Sebastian has more 2 and 3 Michelin Star restaurants than anywhere else in Europe – across the world only Kyoto in Japan has more.
The change in scenery as we moved into the Basque country was dramatic; the wide expanses of red and yellow earth we had become accustomed to were replaced with hilly terrain, dense forests, and lush valleys. Tucked away in the foothills of the Pyrenees, this North-Western corner of Spain is much greener than the rest of the country thanks mainly to the prevailing winds that sweep in off the Atlantic. Like in Ireland and Scotland these winds bring rain and moderate temperatures, creating a pocket of countryside unlike any other in Spain.
Spanning the border between Spain and France, the Basque region of Europe is quite unique in other ways as well: this is the traditional home of the Basque people, believed by many to be the “original” Europeans. The Basque people are believed to be the remnants of the Palaeolithic inhabitants of Western Europe. They did not migrate to this area from somewhere else and have a language* and cultural identity that is vastly different to those around them.
*This region has 2 official languages: Basque and Spanish. The Spanish we can comprehend, but Basque is very, very different to anything we’ve encountered previously. Alongside Finnish and Hungarian, Basque would have to be one of the most incomprehensible European languages we’ve heard!
This uniqueness has led to a strong sense of identity amongst the Basques, with the Basque nationalist and separatist organisation Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) spearheading the often bloody campaign for Basque sovereignty over the years. Fortunately ETA declared a cease fire in 2010 and since then things have been peaceful, though we did notice a lot of pro-separatist graffiti scrawled across the walls of San Sebastian as we walked through town this afternoon.
San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque) sits on the Bay of Biscay, right near the Spanish/French border. The main industry in this town of 200,000 is tourism – this is one of the most famous tourist destinations in Spain. Unlike the backpackers, party-goers, and package tourists that flock to Barcelona, however, it’s a different kind of visitor that comes to San Sebastian. Like the French Riviera, this is the bastion of the well-heeled and discerning tourist – especially those with a refined palette and an appreciation for fine food. So prestigious in San Sebastian compared to other Spanish beachside resorts that it has its own international film festival (like the one in Cannes).
We’re neither well heeled nor dedicated foodies, but we do love a pretty town and the scenery around here is gorgeous. San Sebastian’s picturesque shoreline and hilly surroundings make for a lovely setting and some great photos.
We started our explorations at the beach closest to our accommodation: Playa de Zurriola. Popular with surfers, Zurriola Beach is normally alive with people enjoying the Atlantic swell. Today’s flat conditions meant the beach was deserted however.
Further around Playa de la Concha was a little busier, with a few people swimming in the cool ocean waters. Concha Beach is the best known, most photographed, and most visited beach in San Sebastian – and with good reason. The gentle sweep of the shell-shaped bay, turquoise waters, and fine white sand are lovely, especially on a (somewhat) sunny day like today.
Lined up along Playa de la Concha are numerous beautiful old buildings, dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s, when San Sebastian was booming and when it first gained its reputation as a holiday destination for the well-to-do. Amongst these is the monumental and elegant San Sebastian Town Hall, which was originally built in 1887 as a casino.
We walked past the Town Hall, along the port and into San Sebastian’s Parte Vieja (i.e. old town). For centuries this was the core of the city; up until 1863 the old town was surrounded by city walls.
Though San Sebastian is much older, most of the buildings in the old town date back to the early 18th century as this was when the city had to rebuilt after it was destroyed by British troops. The narrow streets of San Sebastian’s Parte Vieja are full of character and made for an interesting place to stroll.
Within the old town we came across the city’s original church: the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus (Basque: Koruko Andre Mariaren Basilika; Spanish: Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Coro). This Baroque church was rebuilt in 1774 after the original 12th century chapel was destroyed and is a dark, ornate affair.
Behind the church there’s a path that leads up to the top of Mount Urgell, where a giant statue of Jesus overlooks the town and beaches below.
San Sebastian is surrounded by 3 mountains:. Mt Urgell, Mt Igueldo, and Mt Ullia. They all make for some good hiking, but Mt Urgell is the easiest to get to and smallest, so that’s the one we walked up this afternoon.
Along the way we passed some rather interesting sculptures and an old cemetery. The views across to Playa de la Concha and Playa de Zurriola weren’t bad either.
At the very top of the mountain we explored the ruins of fortress that once stood watch over the town and its harbour.
The walk back down Mt Urgell was much easier than the hike up, especially as we knew there were pintxos waiting for us at the bottom.
We discovered pintxos in Barcelona* and love this informal style of eating. A pintxo is basically a bite sized snack and eating them is as easy as walking up to the bar where they’re all laid out and helping yourself to what you want. Each pintxo is held together with a toothpick or skewer and at the end of your meal or snack the bar tender simply counts how many toothpicks are on your plate to determine what you owe. At €2 each pintxos are a cheap snack, and we discovered that here in San Sebastian they’re often miniature works of gastronomic art!
*Technically speaking the snacks we had in Barcelona were tapas as the term “pintxo” is a Basque one.
Like sushi, the joy of pintxos in being able to enjoy a whole variety of flavours and textures, one morsel at a time. Needless to say we ate a stupid number of these bite sized snacks over the 2 hours we were there! To ensure we didn’t end up dehydrated after our strenuous afternoon, we complemented our pintxos with a couple of cervezas (i.e. beer) for Shane and some sangria (i.e. red wine sweetened with lemonade) for me. All in all it was a wonderful way to end a wonderful day. The question now is: will we ever want to leave San Sebastian?