San Sebastian is a sum of many parts, comprising gastronomic excellence, Old Town architecture, music and the arts, and some of the oldest traditions and language in Europe from the Basque heritage.
A city that once drew in royals and aristocrats for their summer holidays, in more recent times it became a destination dominated by ETA headlines and the Basque conflict for independence. Today, San Sebastian’s wounds are healing as it draws in many people eager to sample the array of activities and sights that proudly display its diverse cultural mix, and its move towards peaceful new beginnings.
It’s the mix of old tradition and artistically new, with an emphasis on all forms of cultural activity as a tool for coexistence and interaction, that has marked it out as the European Capital of Culture for 2016.
Adventure on Land & Sea
San Sebastian appears small, but its streets are big on activity. From strollers to shoppers, Baroque basilicas to Belle Époque buildings, manicured gardens and open squares to old towns and modern neighbourhoods, this is a city with many faces.
There’s no better way to glide through San Sebastian’s highlights than on a bike, which I did with a local who was able to get off-track out into local parks, side streets and quiet pockets of outer neighbourhoods. It’s a city filled with dedicated cycle paths to encourage explorers to seek out its many cultural corners. As a huge city cycle advocate I had to try it out in San Sebastian – a space where you can cover a lot of ground in just two peddling hours including the banks of the Urumea River and into the ‘new’ neighbourhood of Gros, the Paseo Nuevo promenade and the city’s classically pretty bridges.
A city surrounded by sea, the water is very tempting for those wanting to actively explore. One of the three main beaches, Zurriola is filled with the sound of crashing tides, attracting surfers in search of more powerful waves. Club Deportivo Fortuna on La Concha beach offers a variety of equipment hire and lessons, including stand up paddle boarding (SUP) and canoes. The weather was a little too chilly and choppy for me in take on a surf lesson, but it is high on my list for when I return.
An alternative means of taking to the seas, should sport not be your style, is to simply jump on board the 25 minute boat trip from La Concha to the 400m long St. Clara island that sits in the middle of the bay of Donosti.
The Food Pinnacle of the Gastronomically Acclaimed City
Pintxos Tour and Cooking Class
The Basque country is known for its specific flavours and combinations that come from the fresh produce of short harvest periods, alongside the traditions of pickling and preserving. The very pinnacle of this gastronomically acclaimed city is the delicate miniature mouthful known as Pintxos – delicious morsels of layered food held together by a single cocktail stick.
Pintxos bar hopping is a favourite pastime of locals, and soon became mine, so why not join one and be shown some of the famed Fermin Calbeton Street’s tasty favourites? Go Local San Sebastian offer tours of some of the top hangouts during a 2.5 hour mini-feast, which you will wash down with samples of fruity Txakoli white wine and the local apple cider.
Tucked away in a cosy apartment on the same street, Tenedor offer a variety of pintxos and general Basque cooking classes suited to any and all levels of culinary expertise. A private chef guided us through the delicate process of pintxos making – including the favourites of peppers to anchovies – where we left with a better understanding of the unique and long-standing gastronomic culture of San Sebastian.
Drinking the Basque Culture
Visit a Traditional Cider House
As a cider enthusiast, I’m used to ordering from the bar or drinking from a ceramic jug, as is the old traditional in countries like Germany. In San Sebastian however, you taste it straight from the barrel.
San Sebastian’s traditional cider houses, found in the north-east province of Gipuzkoa, are another staple of the Basque culture that comes from the countryside and the seasonal sourcing of fresh fruit produce. In San Sebastian, you fill your glass from the curving liquid run of the kupela (barrel) tap, before returning to your seat and feasting on all manner of hearty meat dishes, mingling with friends and locals. This retains the old custom of bringing food, so as not to drink on an empty stomach!
You can return to the barrel as many times as you like – there’s always someone guarding the tap ready for your next visit down to the cellar.
Health, Well-being & Indulgence
No trip to San Sebastian would be complete with a trip to La Perla Spa, whose long heritage is steeped in over 100 years of history since first opening its doors in 1912.
The first uses of the spa came about when aristocrats, knowing of the healing powers of salt water when sea bathing, wanted the water brought to them. Hence the La Concha beach spa was born. While visitors today still bathe the same way as those who indulged during the Belle Époque Era, it has since expanded to include modern hydrotherapy pools, water jets and an underwater gym, which you can read all about here.
Explore the 250km Coastline of the Basque Country
A Springboard for the Basque Coast and Geteria
The feel of San Sebastian’s romantic ‘Old Town’ reverberates along the 250km coastline that makes up the Basque Country, with neighbouring small town Geteria easily accessible for a day visit.
While similar in appearance, with narrow streets and cobbled walkways, its major draw is the Balenciaga Museum – an ultra-contemporary exhibition dedicated to the Geteria-born fashion designer’s young life and early beginnings in San Sebastian, where he opened a fashion house. It’s modern black annex structure is built next to the 19th Century summer house known as Palacio Aldamar – the former residence of the Marquises of Casa Torre (grandparents to Queen Fabiola of Belgium) and mentors to Balenciaga in the early years of his career.
Known for his perfectionism and expert sewing techniques, this annex is filled with many rooms that house his timeless designs including evening dresses, suits and capes, all presented immaculately in huge glass cabinets within beautifully lit rooms. His 20 years working as couturier in San Sebastian, before his rise to fame in Paris in 1937, is not forgotten and remains a key part of the city’s 20th Century cultural legacy.
As the city gears up for its European Capital of Culture acclaim, which will see over 500 European artists participate in everything from music and literature to gastronomy and nature, the question is – how will you see San Sebastian?
Things to Know:
- The San Sebastian card for €25 for public transport us and discounts in museums, stores and restaurants
- For further information and trip planning visit sansebastianturismo.com or the Spanish National Tourism Office who are helping to promote San Sebastian as the European Capital of Culture for 2016.
Credit: San Sebastian spa view image – © Time Travel Turtle