07/29/2018 - 07/31/2018
San Sebastian is the Spanish name for the city the Basques call Donostia. I generally call places that are well-known internationally by their international/English names (Rome, Munich, Prague etc.) and less familiar places by their local names. Although San Sebastian is neither the largest city nor the capital of the Basque region, it is probably the most popular for tourism. The city has become famous worldwide for its crescentic beach bookended by imposing coastal mountains as well as for gastronomy. The city hosts several Michelin-starred restaurants including Arzak which is recognized as one of the best in the world.
We arrived in San Sebastian on a high note. We'd had a great start to the day in Biarritz and we'd only had to drive a short distance to arrive at our home for the next two days. We had an Airbnb in the Gros neighborhood, a residential area across the Urumea River from the touristic part of town. We didn't have air conditioning but the atmosphere wasn't heavy with the windows open. The kitchen was so small that two people couldn't fit in it and any serious food preparation was clearly out of the question. It was just mid-afternoon so we decided to walk to the beach strip of La Concha. On our side of the river there was little to see except for a pretty Gothic church and some impressively ornate townhouses.
We crossed the Urumea on the Puente de Santa Catalina, the second bridge from the mouth of the river. To the north we could see the Puente Del Kursaal and the mass of Monte Urgull, and to the south was the elaborate Puente Maria Cristina and the downtown Amara neighborhood.
Up to this point San Sebastian had seemed much like any other mid-sized Spanish city. However, once we'd crossed through Centro to reach the eastern end of the La Concha beach crescent it was clear we were in no ordinary city. Despite the fact that it was late afternoon and overcast, the entire beach was jam-packed with a seething mass of humanity that seemed to overflow into the water. It was probably the most crowded, riotous beach I've ever seen in my life.
We hadn't come prepared to swim so we resisted the kids' entreaties to go down to the sand. Instead we walked the entire length of the elevated La Concha boardwalk, enjoying the views of the Bahía de La Concha. The twin outcroppings of Monte Urgull and Monte Igueldo formed the jaws of the bay, with the uninhabited island of Santa Clara hovering between them like a morsel of food about to get chomped. Across the boulevard from the beach were the top apartment buildings and hotels in San Sebastian.
At the western end of La Concha a vertiginous staircase led directly down into the surf. Stairs also led up from here to a hill on whose apex was perched the Miramar Palace, a former summer home of the Queen of Spain.
Behind the palace was a gently sloping lawn with trees loaded with purple crab apples. Ian and Cleo picked a few with my assistance and they proved to be virtually inedible.
We returned the way we came to forage for dinner. After a fruitless search for an atmospheric restaurant in Centro, we walked northward onto the peninsula that contains Monte Urgull. Here we encountered San Sebastian's elaborate City Hall, which was an enormous casino until gambling was outlawed in 1924. This impressive example of Belle Époque architecture marks the beginning of the Parte Vieja, or old town.
Once we were in the old town, it was clear that this was where the throngs of tourists were expected to eat. The pedestrian alleys were filled with bars and small restaurants serving the local specialty of pintxos. Pintxos are typically small tapas-like snacks on top of a piece of toasted bread, often with a wooden skewer affixing the two together. The skewer is what gives the pintxo its name. Mei Ling and I can eat these but we don't consider them dinner, mainly because we don't eat a lot of bread and because the toppings tend to be very salty. Trying to find a sit-down meal was virtually impossible due to the crowds and we were turned away from numerous restaurants. On our last attempt we were shown to a basement dining room where we had a meal that was pretty decent with no pintxos whatsoever. Sorry, but sometimes the local specialty isn't for us.
After dessert at an ice cream shop, we wandered around the old town and the seaside bar area for a while. Very little was amenable to photography with the limited equipment we had, with the exception of the brightly illuminated city hall.
There are two covered markets in San Sebastian, Mercado de San Martín in Centro and Mercado de la Bretxa in Parte Vieja, so we thought we had it made. Unfortunately, both were suffering significantly from the Mondays especially Mercado de San Martín. We puttered around dutifully for a while but the energy clearly wasn't there and we moved on.
We hadn't taken the kids to the beach once on this trip and we'd already seen most of the interesting part of San Sebastian, so we headed down to La Concha. It was still crowded although not as ridiculous as it had been on Sunday. The kids had fun although when they went in the water I was terrified of losing sight of them amid all the kids moving around in the surf. Just before we left a huge wave rolled over our towels, leaving them saturated with sand and seawater. It took close to half an hour to get them de-sanded and wrung out using the beach showers.
There's a funicular to the top of Monte Igueldo and an amusement park, which made it the easy choice of the two mountains to ascend. The amusement park is open every day during the summer, and otherwise only on weekends and holidays. The rides and games were pretty basic but my kids are young enough that it doesn't take much to entertain them. The most unique feature was a water flume that coursed around the edge of the mountain providing great views over the bay.
We didn't have much inclination to return to Parte Vieja for dinner so we decided to drive a few miles east to the small suburb of Pasaia, which has a reputation for fresh seafood. Pasaia is best known to travelers for the scenic coastal walk from central San Sebastian, which is a part of the Camino del Santiago. We did find a decent restaurant although the al fresco location along a busy street left much to be desired. The town rises steeply up another coastal mountain behind the port. After dinner we took the city elevator up a couple of levels but it was already too dark to see much in terms of views, and there was no old town to speak of. If I had to do it over again I probably would have made a slightly longer trip in the other direction to the peninsular fishing town of Getaria.
The next morning the markets were closed for a regional holiday and there was nothing else to do but get back on the road. We had two entirely new regions of Spain to visit before nightfall.