Basque in the Sun in San Sebastian

Basque in the Sun in San Sebastian

posted in: Articles, Europe, Spain | 0

brussels-to-san-sebAhhh Spain, my longtime love. It has beautiful cities, beautiful architecture, beautiful people, beautiful beaches, and delicious food. I first visited Spain in high school as part of a summer trip and was swept off my feet. We mostly saw the middle and south of Spain starting in Madrid and bouncing around smaller towns like Toledo, Granada, Segovia, etc. before finishing in Sevilla.  I enjoyed Sevilla so much that I made sure to return to Sevilla in college as part of a study abroad program. During that program I also got to visit some more cities like Barcelona and San Sebastian. I came back to Spain one more time in July 2004 for a month long Spanish language program in San Sebastian. During that month I crossed off a bucket list item and ran with the bulls in Pamplona. Amazingly frightful experience that I’m glad I did but probably wouldn’t do again. I talked up Spain quite a bit to Diem before our trip so finally getting to Spain I was a little worried that I may have set the expectations too high. San Sebastian was a great introduction to Spain for Diem. It is close to the border of France and located in the Basque region of Spain. San Sebastian is famous for its tapas (pintxos), the Concha beach, and its Old Town having the highest concentration of bars in the world.

We had a long train ride to San Sebastian from Brussels and we mistakenly made it longer by getting off at the wrong train station in France for our last transfer to San Sebastian. We also had issues finding our Airbnb but a nice guy working at a pizza shop helped us by calling the host and showing us where to go. We were tired and just crashed the first night but I was really pumped to be back in Spain.

That octopus was bananas!
That octopus was bananas!

Our first full day in San Sebastian we were excited to eat tapas. Unfortunately, tapas restaurants in the U.S. are bastardized versions of real Spanish tapas. In the U.S., tapas places usually have small dishes between $5-10 USD and you have to order between 5-8 dishes for two people to get full. In Spain, you can get most tapas for between $1-3 USD which makes a huge difference for our travelers’ budget. In San Sebastian and the Basque Country tapas are called pintxos, the Basque word for tapas, so don’t be confused when you see all the restaurants having signs promoting their pintxos. During my time in San Sebastian back in 2004, I went to an international school and took Spanish language and business classes. I ate a lot of great food but didn’t remember the exact spots so Diem did some research and had a number of places to try. Most of the best places are in Old Town San Sebastian. The first place we went to was La Vina where we had some amazing pintxos and some cheap house wine. It was delicious, especially the octopus, and really took me back to my time there.

Free range of all these barrels? Yes please!
Free range of all these barrels? Yes please!

It was pretty cloudy and rainy so we decided to take a siesta before our dinner plans at the Petritegi Cider House Brewery. To get there, we took a bus and had to walk 15 minutes on the street which was a little scary. We booked a brewery tour at 6:30 PM which lasted about an hour. We learned about the cider making process, saw the apple trees, and learned about the cider history in the Basque region. The tour guide seemed a little rude but it was an interesting tour. After the tour we had a tasting of the cider and a cider stewed chorizo which was delicious. We also decided to have dinner at the restaurant there. Dinner starts at 8 PM and comes with unlimited cider which you pour directly from the gigantic barrels and each barrel has a slightly different flavor because of the different apple varieties. The dinner wasn’t unlimited but it was a lot of food. The appetizer included fresh bread, a fish with peppers and onions dish, more cider chorizo (which we had to ask for), a salad, a large steak, and a dessert which was cheese and nuts. Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t take advantage of the unlimited cider and the food even though everything was delicious. Since it was a Thursday the night buses weren’t running all night and the last bus was at 10:30 PM. Since I wasn’t feeling well I just wanted to get home as soon as possible so we asked the restaurant to order us a cab. Unfortunately the cab took forever, just about an hour and cost 20€, but the manager of the restaurant was nice and gave us a couple of bottles of cider and glasses because the cab took so long. In retrospect, I would arrange transportation beforehand and I’d probably skip the tour.

On the second day we ate lunch at Borda Berri. This was my favorite place of the trip. We had some delicious octopus, beef cheek, and other beef dishes all cooked to order. It was rainy so we headed back to the apartment to wait for the rain to clear up. It didn’t really clear up so we just ate next to the apartment and went to bed.

Nice little surprise wine tasting. Very refreshing on a hot day.
Nice little surprise wine tasting. Very refreshing on a hot day.

The next day we decided to do a walking tour of San Sebastian Old Town at 11 AM which was free with the multi-day public transportation cards we bought. The tour guide started the tour by talking about how San Sebastian used to be an old fortress city with a wall surrounding Old Town. We learned about the festival of the San Sebastian Independence in January. We learned about the old fish and food markets (la Bretxa). We next went to the San Vincente church which was the working class church. Afterwards, we went to the Museum Telmo which has an entrance fee but we got to see the interior for a bit as part of our tour. After seeing the interior and stopping for a break, we walked down by the harbor and saw that there was a swimming race that was finishing up. We’ve seen a couple of these events in our travels but I didn’t know about them beforehand. I would have liked to have done each of them but my shoulder is pretty messed up and it’s painful for me to swim so I couldn’t do any of those events. I do need to do some research about some running races that I could do while we are traveling though because I think that’d be fun. After the tour, we went to lunch at La Cuchara.  During the tour we saw that in there was a wine tasting event in the main square of Old Town so once we finished lunch we went there to try some Basque wine. The event was called the Getariako Txakolina Festak (1st Annual) and you could get 5 tastings for 6€. Diem and I shared a tasting because the pours were almost full glasses each. We finally got a sunny day where we could lay on the beach so we headed to La Concha. I went out to a floating platform and went on the slide, did some flips and then came back. We hung out for a bit then went up the funicular at Mount Igeldo to get a nice view of La Concha, San Sebastian, and the sunset. We were lucky because it was a beautiful day and it wasn’t too crowded at the top. It was a long day so we got a couple of good pics and headed back. I went to this viewpoint in 2004 with Colin and as you can see below, not much has changed. That night we had dinner at Gandias near the apartment.

Left: 2016; Right: 2004
Left: 2016; Right: 2004

On our last full day in San Sebastian there was a famous boat race in San Sebastian that happens on the first two Sundays of September. The race is called The Kontxako Bandera (Basque) or Bandera de la Concha (in Spanish, meaning "Flag of the Kontxa") is one of the oldest and most famous estropada races along the La Concha Bay of San Sebastián. The race is a huge deal and regularly draws crowds of more than 100,000 people and around 20 rowing teams. The women took off at 11 AM and the guys started at 12PM. We went by the harbor and saw the women start and we went by where the teams put their boats in the water. Each team had their own color (blue, pink, yellow where the main ones we saw) and the fans were dress in the corresponding color all along the harbor. I took a number of pictures but unfortunately they are all on the phone that was stolen so I got nothing. We tried to get better viewing but you had to buy tickets to get closer. It was only 3-4€ but we didn’t feel like paying since we weren’t invested in any team and wanted to have some more tapas for lunch.

The sangria flows like wine here
The sangria flows like wine here

The streets of old town were packed with fans still watching the races on TV. We went to Simiri for another delicious lunch of tapas and wine. After lunch, we went to Zurriola beach, the surf beach of San Sebastian that tend to be less crowded than La Concha. We hung out for a while and then decided to hike up Mt. Ulia on the opposite side of the beach. It was getting pretty hot but we hiked up. We went up for a while but we found out there is not a great viewpoint at the top.  We eventually found an opening on a trail that had a pretty good view of the two beaches. After the first hike, we decided to go up the last viewpoint of San Sebastian which is Mount Urgull that has a Jesus statue, Mota Castle, and viewpoints of both La Concha and Zurriola. The tour guide the day before told us that there would be a lot of drunk kids around and we were thinking it would be more college students. On our hike up we found out that it was all high school and maybe younger kids that congregated all on this hill. It was later in the afternoon and we saw more and more teens getting drunker and drunker as we got closer to the top. We were getting really annoyed with the kids acting stupid and all the trash that was on the ground but it was our last full day so we kept going to try to get the top. When we got up close there were cops telling us that they closed down the top of the hill because there were too many drunk kids up there. Such a waste! We went back to our place to shower and rest before dinner. We went back to old town for dinner and ended up going back to La Vina which was the tapas bar we went to on our first full day because a lot of the other tapas places we wanted were either closed or way too crowded with drunk people. It was a great last meal though and we went back to the apartment after that.

We had such a great time in San Sebastian and it was as shame that the drunk kids on Mount Urgull left a bad taste in our mouths but I’m still sold on the city and after visiting some more of Spain later on our trip, I’d have to move San Sebastian up to #1 on my favorite cities in Spain and I’m glad it lived up to expectations.

See the full gallery of our time in San Sebastian here: San Sebastian, Spain

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Paul is a lawyer taking a mid-career break focused on capturing all his adventures during his yearlong honeymoon around the world.

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