San Sebastián, Spain – Basque in 2016’s European Capital for Culture

This Tip is provided by English Explorer, Matt Mills

There are few coastal cities that I’ve visited which are able to contend with the un-spoilt beauty of San Sebastián, Northern Spain and its Bay of La Concha (the shell). The turquoise water is sometimes calm and motionless, as if frozen, but within minutes the waves come crashing into the bay with wild force – and these rough seas are what draw surfers from all over the world.

Life’s a Beach

Despite not being much of a surfer myself (it’s a balance problem) we stayed in a Surfing Etxea Hostel which was great – assuming you don’t mind sand everywhere and being called “dude” – and it was within clear sight of the pristine Playa de Gros (or Playa de la Zuririola) beach, a three minute walk away at most. This beach is quieter than the main Playa de la Concha where most of the tourists gather and the two beaches are separated by the famous Parte Vieja which literally means “old part” but is just known as the Old Town or Old Quarter.

Somewhat different from your average street artists, there are guys who spend all day meticulously making enormous, yet impressively intricate pictures in the sand. They place a bed sheet down with “muchas gracias!” written in the sand above it so that the tourists passing on the promenade overlooking the beach can show their appreciation by launching it in their general direction. A great idea as it appeals to the more childish among us who just like to throw stuff.

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Stars and Surfers

The city is regularly branded by the rest of Spain as, un poco pijo (a little posh), but you can forgive this considering the royal reputation it has to uphold. Traditionally the Spanish Royal Family have had a palace or two here and every September the city hosts The San  Sebastián International Film Festival, which brings film lovers and stars from all over the world to this Basque beauty. The likes of Robert de Niro, Audrey Hepburn, Alfred Hitchcock, Elizebath Taylor and Brad Pitt have all graced the lush green coast to attend this international event and this is one of the reasons that San Sebastián has been nominated as one of this year’s two European Cities of Culture – the second being Wroclaw, Poland.

What to do

The small size of San  Sebastián means that the city lends itself perfectly to the increasingly popular weekend getaways or city breaks. There is a lot to do, but not too much that you leave with a twinge of guilt about not having seen everything you wanted to. Unlike places like London and Paris you can do San  Sebastián in three days, maybe even two if you’re more organised than many of us. Here are some must-dos:

Hike to Pasaia: This is a little fishing village located about 5km along the coast towards the French border – a mere 20km away from San Sebastián – but here the journey is very much the destination. The trail takes you up along high cliffs with breathtaking views out to sea, and then plunges down to untouched beaches and into deep and silent forest. The path is a little unclearly marked in places and we apparently took a wrong turn which lead us through an old, dark mining tunnel with only a pin prick of daylight at the other end. But the easy path is not always the most interesting…

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The village itself is beautiful but after several hours of walking we were quite happy to eat in one of the nice bars and get back to the hostel. A bus service connects Pasaia to San Sebastián every 15 minutes and is a little over a euro, or you can walk back!

Stuff your sun-kissed face with Pintxos:  Pintxos are basically tapas (small snacks of many varieties typically eaten in bars) but in the north of Spain and the Basque Country. San  Sebastián is very famous for it’s food and very reasonably priced considering it’s popularity and reputation and the wide selection means that there’s a pintxo for everyone! The Old Town is the best place for this and why not take in the architecture while you’re there. Personal favourites included: mini hamburgers, smoked salmon on toast and ensalada rusa (Russian salad).

Mount Igueldo Funicular: If you walk right to the end of La Playa de la Concha then you reach the foot of Mount Igueldo, one of the gateposts of the bay. The summit demands incredible views of the bay and La Isla de Santa Clara, a small island which sits within the bay itself. The “theme park” at the top divides opinions a bit, with many seeing it as an eyesore but the steep cable car  ride up the mountain really puts the “fun” in “funicular” – couldn’t resist.

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Peine del Viento: The literal translation of this attraction is the Comb of the Wind. It is a piece of modern art by Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida at the western end of the bay. It does spend a frustrating amount of time being off limits to the general public due to developments but if you’re lucky you can enjoy a sublime convergence of nature and sculpture.

San Sebastián – or Donostia as it’s known locally – has a huge amount to offer any visitor, boasting a vibrant nightlife, unrivalled natural beauty and world-renowned cuisine; there is something for everyone in this small and refreshingly manageable city. There are no metro lines to wrestle with and it is a real luxury to be able to walk everywhere. The city is elegant and yet bohemian, with millionaires brushing shoulders with hippies and despite so much outside influence it defiantly retains a real sense of it own, Basque personality.

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