Everyone who has visited the Basque country longs to return; it is a blessed land.Victor Hugo
May 22-31 2017
After a month in southern France we took a short train ride from Bordeaux to reach our next stop- San Sebastian, Spain. We stayed in the Basque Country for 10 days, spending most of the time enjoying the neighborhoods and beaches of San Sebastian, but also made a one day trip over to Balboa and Guernica.
When we arrived, we checked into our AirBnb located between the Gros and Amara neighborhoods. While the city is small enough to be seen in just a couple of days, we really wanted to soak in the atmosphere as I had heard a lot of great things about the city. We quickly fell in love with the food, beaches and neighborhoods and had the next week and a half to explore it all.
What we found was that the Basque people take their food seriously. You will find the finest produce from sirloin to seafood in almost every restaurant, and taste their specialty pintxos (a kind of tapas) in every bar. It was wonderful to just dip in for a quick snack help ourselves to a wide arrange of tasty options after a long walk or a day at the beach.
To take things a step further, the cities restaurants and bars host pintxo-pote night, where each establishment offers a pintxo and a drink for two euro all night long. We made a fun ‘pintxo-pote hop’ out of it through the Gros neighborhood, and couldn’t believe that this is what the town comes together and gets to do this every week, from university students to business people and families all having a good time.
What San Sebastian is best known for though is their amazing urban beaches. A magical combination of sea and forests, with the the Urgull and Igueldo mountain ranges enhancing the beauty of the shoreline, the city had three main beaches for us to choose from, plus a small island in the bay.
Of course, we had to try out all three, especially with the long days and late evenings, with the sun setting well past 9PM. We ended up spending the most time at the largest, La Concha Beach, soaking in the sun with swims in between, and one day to do some watersports. Near the heart of the city, a boardwalk lines the expansive stretch of beach stand lining the Bay of La Concha, providing us with clear warm water to enjoy.
One day while at La Concha we rented a kayak and a stand-up paddle board, making our way to the small Santa Clara island, which had a small beach of its own to relax on. The bay is protected by mountains on either side so the water was calm, making it an easy and relaxing journey.
Just down from La Concha on the east end of town we also took in the scenery lining Ondarreta Beach. Full of more families and vacationers then La Concha, a large park extends just behind the beach making it a diverse atmosphere to hang out in. It made for a nice stroll as we walked to the end and checked out the Chimes of the Wind. A feature of the sculpture that included features that play museical notes when the waves crashed against the sea walls and the water receded.
The third main beach of San Sebastian we hung out at and the closest to us, was La Zurriola beach. The beach directly faced the large Bay of Biscay of the Atlantic Ocean, providing large waves all throughout the day. We ended up making a lot of evening walks along the shore and enjoyed watching the surfers ride the waves from the walkways and plazas high above. The beach and Gros neighborhood that it was in provided a more laid back vibe then the other areas of town, and we really felt like we got to get to know the city and its people best in this part of town.
Other sites in San Sebastian that enjoyed besides the beaches, were the plazas and festive atmosphere of the Parte Vieja Old Town, the views after hiking up to a fort on Mount Urgull, taking a walk through the Cristina Enea central park observing ducks, geese and peacocks, and especially for Maggie, hanging out in a cultural center full of co-ops, collaborative work spaces and a quiet library to get some work done.
The Parte Vieja Old Town is located just below Mount Urgull and between La Concha and La Zurriola Beaches. We would pass through many times, navigating the narrow but orderly streets and plazas that filled the neighborhood. One such plaza we enjoyed was the form location of a bull ring, surrounded by Victorian era viewing boxes that have since been turned into apartments with restaurants below. The neighborhood was the main area for tourists so the stores weren’t that interesting, but there was plenty of good food in the cafes and pintxo bars if you looked for where the locals were hanging out.
In the area we also got our cultural history fix, checking out the San Telmo Museum. Learning about the long and proud history of the Basque culture, it was actually one of the better museums we have ever been to, organized well and with a mixture of mediums that touch on nearly every detail of the Basque country, it’s history and culture. The museum itself was impressive, combing a modern wing with an old cloister and monastery.
Everywhere in San Sebastian and around Basque country you can find the red, green, and white flag of the autonomous region proudly hung or being flown. We found that inside supermarkets and stores, items are labeled with the Basque flag so that people know what they can buy in order to support something made locally, having the equivalent of nearly everything available produced somewhere within the region.
With a strong culture, we learned the identity is best kept by primarily speaking the Basque language, known as Euskera. Heard far more then Spanish on the streets, Euskera can be found listed first on all signs throught the region. The language, perhaps more then any other place in the world, is what brings together and forms the very basis for the Basque culture, we also learned that it is the oldest language founded and spoken in all of Europe. And while we had absolutely no idea where to begin trying to speak it, everyone was happy to communicate with us in Spanish the entire time, but knowing now why San Sebastian is sometimes and preferably so, called Donostia.
Overall we found the culture and history very similar in ways to Catalonia, and to a further extent Andalusia. You find strong identity all across the country, which makes it really feel more like a nation made up of smaller nations, all with their own local laws, foods, and traditions. It’s one of the reasons Spain is near the top of our favorite places we have ever visited, dedicating over a month during this visit to explore just a few of it’s regions.
Of course, being in the area we had to plan a day to head over to Bilbao and visit the famous Guggenheim Museum. We decided to catch a bus and visit on a Saturday, so we would have all day since Maggie didn’t have to work. When we arrived, we decided to just wander which ever way looked interesting, spending the morning and most of the afternoon exploring the cities central and old quarters. We finished the walk along the once industrial but now tansformed estuary, eventually seeing the striking Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim museum in the distance.
The museum has an extensive collection of sculpture and paintings by a wide array of modern and contemporary artist. However, the star of the show is definitely the museum itself. Inaugurated in 1997, it had been hailed as a signal moment in the architectural culture, and today is still one of the most important works completed since 1980. I have been following architecture since a young age and had studied urban planning in college, so I was naturally excited to finally see it. It totally lived up to the hype, and although there are now multiple buildings by Gehry and other architects that have a similar design, such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles which we have seen, the original cannot be matched. The museum is seamlessly integrated into the urban context, unfolding its interconnecting shapes of stone, glass and titanium along the Nervion River. The inside features a ton of light and space, with no right angeles to be found (except the stairs), yet the space still functions well and provides a proper design and flow for the types of work that were on display.
After enjoying Bilbao and the museum, we continued our day-trip, hopping on a regional train out to the city of Guernica. You may or may not know it as the site of a 1937 bombing by the Franco Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War, leaving the town devastated. For almost four hours bombs rained down on Guernica in an “experiment” for the blitzkrieg tactics and bombing of civilians seen in later wars. Recognized as one of the first aerial bombing of civilians, questions surrounding the incident sparked worldwide attention. It became the focus of the famous Pablo Picasso painting that bears the towns name, with both of us having seen it and learnig the story during our visits to Madrid. When we arrived headed for the Guernica Peace Museum to learn about the events and take in the scope and meaning of the tragedy.
On a happier note, we were able to see and visit the Basque Parliament, it became the seat of the Basque Parliament back in the 14th century and was left unscathed in the bombings. It has an amazing stained-glass ceiling resembling an oak tree, symbolic of the traditional rights of the Basque people. Outside, you can find the depicted oak tree itself, or at least it’s sibling, with the current tree being planted in 2004, replacing past trees dating back to the 1500’s but all grown using the previous trees seeds. After relaxing in a couple of the towns plazas and watching people out and enjoying the day, we hopped back on the train to Bilbao, making some stops for pintxos on our way to catching the bus back to San Sebastian.
Our 10 days would quickly come to an end, but not without some days of just relaxing and doing little more then going out to eat and going for short walks. On Memorial Day Sunday, we even stayed in as I spent the day watching auto-racing well Maggie relaxed between prepparing some delicious snacks. It’s necessary to slow down sometimes, and we’re able to with our pace of travel which allows for Maggie to work and still have time to recharge between exploring different places.
We really enjoyed our time in San Sebastian and the Basque Country. Between the weather, pintxos, beaches, and unique cultural vibe, its definitely a place we’d come back to and a place we can highly recommend. Outside of seeing pictures and hearing some good things, I really didn’t know what to expect, and I think Maggie even moreso, but it ended up being one of the best smaller cities we’ve ever been to, offering plenty to do and experience during our visit.
Up next we would be moving on to the more familiar city of Barcelona, both of ours most visited destination to date, where we would spend the next week getting a further feel for the capital of Catalonia.