By Marilou Trias
I heard that there was a concentration of Michelin chefs in San Sebastian. I was soon headed on a Western European cruise and had to fit this destination in somehow. I decided to fit it into the first leg of the trip so that I could cross it off my bucket list. For several days prior to the trip, I had repeated, “Gustagarri “, over and over. It means delicious in their local language. I didn’t know then that San Sebastian would become the highlight of my trip.
Three gargantuan mountains, the Urgell, Iguedo and Ullia Mountains surround San Sebastian. Strong winds can make it treacherous for a plane to land at this airport making it infamous for perilous landings. Our flight lightened its load by leaving all baggage in Barcelona. A word to the wise, pack some clothing with your carry-on items when flying into San Sebastian, Spain.
San Sebastian Spain: Location and Language
Donostia, as it is called in Basque, is a coastal city off of the Atlantic Ocean in the Basque community of northern Spain. Just twelve miles south from the French border, San Sebastian is prominent for its beaches, Old Town and first-class restaurants. The Basque Country occupies the westernmost Pyrenees Mountains to the modern-day borders of Spain and southwestern France.
The Basque language, Euskara is unique as a pre-Roman language. Through history, wars regularly befell on the area putting it in constant peril. Under changing leaderships, inhabitants were forced to abandon their culture and language. It wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that it started making a comeback.
The Euskara language has no syntax relationships to any European language or any other known living language. It is believed to be one of the few pre-Indo-European languages and its origin remains relatively unknown.
Playa de La Concha
As morning was dawning, delicious scents from a nearby bakery lured me in. I sip my coffee and watch from my perch near the window as the city stirs to life. A distant conversation asking directions towards the bay caught my attention. The merchant’s hand pointed that way. Minutes later, I began to walk towards the direction pointed.
On the way there, it was hard to ignore the historic and opulent city hall. During its past life, it was the Grand Casino. Gambling was a favourite activity of European aristocrats during its heyday. It was one of fifteen casinos built during the 19th century. The golden era was at its crest, then in 1924 gaming was suddenly forbidden. The dictator, Primo de Rivera had banned gambling in Spain. All the city’s casino doors were closed and soon went into disrepair.
A two-mile promenade extends the length of the golden sands at La Concha beach. Decorated with polished railing and street lamps, it was called, Paseo de la Concha. The promenade circles the bay along the beach. The beach is shell-shaped and often referred to as the most beautiful city beach in Europe. No matter what time of year, residents of all ages swim these waters. They claim that seawater is healthy and has a great influence on one’s condition. In fact, in the 19th century, Queen Isabel II was recommended by her doctor to come here for her bath therapies.
Spain’s nobility took notice of the Queen’s visit, transforming this humble coastal fishing village into a fashionable international hideaway. Spanish monarchy escaped the hot summers of central Spain to spend summer holidays in San Sebastian. By the end of the 20th century, Donostia was the crown of the Belle Époque. San Sebastian became the European aristocracy’s summer resort.
As I walked the promenade, in the distance I glimpse surfers catch waves in the bay. Clothes were flapping in the breeze just outside building’s windows at a nearby shore. Enormous green mountains surround the city, redirecting winds from the bay. The large Sacred Heart of Jesus statue watches over the town from the top of the Urgell Mountain. Queen Maria Cristina’s changing rooms have been transformed to inviting cafés, restaurant and a fancy spa.
Smack in the middle of the La Concha Bay is Isla Santa Clara. At low tide is the only time a bench on its shores appears on this small green island. During the plague at the end of the 1600s, infected victims were transferred to the island’s convent to prevent the illness from spreading. These days, visitors can take a glass-bottom boat that runs every 30-minutes from San Sebastian. Day trips can be spent hiking, splashing on the beach or exploring the lighthouse cottages. Most bring a basket of food and find a shade of trees higher up on the island. They soak in city views across the breezy blue waters. A plate of paella can be savoured from the chiringuito (meaning: beach bar) near the pier.
Palace Miramar (meaning: palace overlooking the sea) was built in the late 19th century. This was where the Kings and Queens stayed for their holidays. This palace overlooking the crescent-shaped beach was the location that Queen Maria Cristina held court. Presently, the palace grounds are open to the public and guided tours are available for the interior areas.
To the west at the end of the walkway, we found ourselves at the foot of Mount Igeldo. Sculptures labelled Comb of the Wind (photo 2) by the famed local artist Eduardo Chillida, protrude from the rocks near the water’s edge. The viewing area included natural blowholes summoning my inner child to come out to play. During heavy swells, columns in the walkway allow the waves to gush up forming towering jets of ocean water. Rhythmically, the power of the sea beat against rock cliffs and crashed over the sculpture. It was all just pure magic.
San Sebastian Old Town
The basilica of St. Mary del Coro is one of the most famous churches in the city. A Romanesque-style church that dated back to the 12th and 13th centuries. A huge blast from a neighbouring castle in 1688, brought serious damage to the church. Currently, Baroque style of St. Mary del Coro occupies the site with a magnificent entrance bearing a statue of Saint Sabastian, the city’s patron saint. It was erected and completed in 1774.
Gastroleku Aste-148, an alfresco restaurant located in the emblematic Plaza de la Constitution had the perfect ambience. At the core of San Sebastian Old Town, the square was formerly a bullfighting arena. In 1817, the square was built with a Baroque façade on four-storey buildings with balconies included. At each balcony, a number above displays the bullfighting arena’s club seating. The number “148” in the restaurant name refers to its position in co-relation to the row of balconies painted on the building. An open-air table amidst a web of narrow streets that is Old Town was where I got my first taste of local food. The Iberian pork cheek, ham croquettes, fillet steak and seasonally garnished rice was just a tease on my taste buds.
San Vincente is San Sebastian’s oldest church and was constructed between the 15th and 16th centuries. The Baroque entrance leads into the soaring ceilings of a Gothic-style church with round stain-glass windows. Its rich carving of religious scenes and statues highlighted with gold leaf is the interior’s main feature.
Culture and Food
After the sun goes down, the Old Town scene remains very much alive. Astonishing show of local eateries, markets and shops fill the narrow streets. The lives of the Basque society are intensely ingrained with its food culture. There are over 100 pintxo (peen-cho) bars and gastronomic clubs located here. So, it would be no surprise that San Sebastian is considered the culinary capital of the Basque Country.
To find the best pintxo bars, there are two sure-fire ways. When you happen upon a bar that couldn’t possibly fit one more person, that’s exactly where you want to be. Get cosy, belly up to the bar and expect to eat standing up. Pair up with small glasses of alcoholic beverages that are perfect to wash down those tasty bites. Dirty floors are the other indication for a great place to eat. Yes, you heard me right. It’s a huge hint that the locals frequent that place. Locals instructed me that after eating a pintxo snack, toss the stick onto the ground and the same goes with napkins. As locals enter the pintxo bar, they greet the restaurant with a hearty “apa” or “kaixo” (kai-sho). On the way out of the bar, they say “gracias” or “agur” (a-goor) as a way to say thank you. It’s a delightful way of just how things are done here.
In the Old Town food is everywhere. Pintxo, meaning stick in Basque, has a slice of bread topped with local ingredients and harpooned together with a skewer. Pintxos are the Basque’s equivalent to Spanish tapas. Moreover, these small gourmet plated snack-like foods are easy on the wallet.
It’s no easy feat to commandeer a table at a packed restaurant with a smorgasbord of cold pintxos lining the bar tops. The selection was mind-blowing, beautifully arranged, colourful and epicurean. My plate consisted of mouthwatering snacks of baby squid, local sausage and mushroom crepes paired with their local white wine. On the wall is a list of warm pintxos listed mainly in Spanish or Euskara. The food is simple, fresh and local.
One of San Sebastian’s best-kept secrets is the txakoli, (cha-ko-li) as they are locally referred to. The semi-sparkling white wine is native to this area. Servers enjoy the technique of pouring from high above their heads to the glass below. A glass of zurito (small glass of beer) also goes well with pintxos.
Cultural to San Sebastian’s is the art of Txiquiteo, which is pintxo bar hopping. As they take one heavenly mouthful at a time, animated conversation volumes increase. Locals say that it’s their way to socializing. As we wandered the narrow streets, we find that not all pintxo bars are created equally. There is fierce competition that motivates bars to display the most tempting parade of pintxos.
Gastronomic clubs are another well-hidden secret of San Sebastian and only accessible by invitation only. In the past, it had been a private club for men only. For almost a century, most of its traditions and past rules are maintained in the clubs. A professional chef is the host and a member sharing his knowledge on preparing a high-quality dish. They use only simple and local high standard ingredients from the Basque lands. They invite who they want, women included. The meal stresses an emphasis in regional food prepared on the spot and shared in a familiar atmosphere.
Gastronomic club memberships can be passed down to a son or sold to a candidate who has approval by club members. Not accepting women as members had been a long-standing tradition of the club. However recently, others are starting to adapt to society by changing these rules.
There are 18 Michelin stars all within a ten-minute drive from City Hall. Of the eleven restaurants with three Michelin stars in Spain, there are three located inside San Sebastian. Additionally, four restaurants in San Sebastian with two Michelin stars and 2 with one Michelin star. San Sebastian possesses the greatest concentration of Michelin restaurants in the world with the exception of Kyoto Japan.
It is said that San Sebastian is the best single stop in the Basque Country. Annually, two million tourists are drawn to the romantic setting of a shell-shaped bay, churches of antiquity, sculptures and historic plazas. A city that is beautiful in so many ways. Today, if someone were to ask me what I thought of San Sebastian, I would describe it with one word. “Gustagarri!”, which means delicious in Euskara.
Where to Stay:
Gorka Hotel (4-star Hotel)
Gipuzkoa Plaza 11, 20004 Donostia, Spain
Tel# (+34) 843 98 42 00
Why do I recommend the Gorka Hotel? There are friendly staff who speak English. I enjoyed an air-conditioned room with free Wi-Fi, a safe and access to the gym. There are a bar and restaurant at the main level. it has a great location in the city centre, close to shopping, La Concha Beach and the Old Town.
Marilou is a freelance travel writer and photographer based out of Oahu, Hawaii. She focuses on sharing her experiences of cultures through food, history, and entertainment. Born in the Philippines and grew up in Seattle where she got her education, worked and retired from Seattle City Light. Taking one footstep at a time to discover cultures, history and destinations on this small blue planet, her work has been published in Epicure and Culture, Rovology, Short Weeks – Long Weekends and more.
Note to editors: Marilou writes in US English, but we edited it for Travel Inspires.