San Sebastian: the Heart of Basque Country by Rich Carriero

The bus from Santander rose ever higher into the green hills, winding through narrow passes on the route east. Rock formations, stacked high with brown and red shelves of stone jutted up toward the roadside. Sometimes the shoulder would drop away and I would look over at the precipitous drop below. The countryside was an ever-present green with the occasional splashes of red in the form of rooftops on white houses. The ride took only a few hours. I sat with Vicki, a girl from Germany who spoke very good English and Spanish. She was going to San Sebastian to find a job in tourism. She told me many interesting things about Spain and the Basque country that we were entering. For myself I traveled to San Sebastian to satisfy a long curiosity. I had first read about San Sebastian and Basque country in a book I had read as a child called Bridle the Wind. In the story the main character travels from France through Basque country to his home in Spain in the years after the Napoleonic wars. His companion, a young basque girl in disguise as a boy, tries to teach him the difficult Basque language and unique culture. The scenery and culture depicted in the book capture my imagination. Hemingway also described this corner Spain in The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls. I was very excited to see it for myself.

The Basque people are a mystery. The Basque language, Euskal, bears almost no relation to other languages in Europe. Some say that the Basques are a remnant of the first immigration of human beings into Europe and date back to the stone age. Others believe the Basques to be descended from Muslim tribes or Indian nomads. Whatever their origin the Basques have managed to weather the tides of invasion and conquest that have flowed through Europe for millennia. For this reason Basque culture is both unique and proud. Even to recent times Basque independence movements have consistently recurred. Although Basque country historically is comprised of territory in both Spain and France straddling the pyrenees mountains, at this point only a small portion of that country is autonomous.

San Sebastian, or Donostia as the basques call it, has many historic locations to visit. The Basque Art Museum houses many beautiful modern and classical paintings and sculptures. The museum, housed in a large medieval villa with a sunlit courtyard, also has many exhibits depicting scenes of traditional Basque farming and pastoral lifestyle. A journey up the slopes of Monte Urgull offer a glimpse of well preserved Napoleonic fortifications, complete with fortress and cannons. To the east, the precipitous slopes of Monte Ulia are notched with trailmarkers that signify the path of a catholic pilgramage route along the rocky crags of the surrounding mountains. This path should only be attempted by seasoned climbers, however, as it can be quite dangerous. In the course of my stay I did check out these beautiful landmarks, along with walking tours of the old town and a trip to the romanesque cathedral but the main purpose of my stay was to enjoy the leisurely and invigorating atmosphere.

I arrived in San Sebastian and I could immediately sense the differences between the city and other parts of Spain that I had seen. San Sebastian has a medieval aspect with many churches, palaces and beautiful buildings. The city is ringed with the foothills of the pyrenees. Three principle headlands divide San Sebastian’s shore into two bays. San Sebastian’s principle boatdocks are found in the Bay de la Concha. The Playa de la Concha, a large crescent shaped beach known for its placid surf is ideal for swimming, sailing and sunbathing. Monte Urgull, a large mountain headland dominates the bay, is crowned with a military fortress left over from the Napoleonic wars and a statue of Christ with arms outstretched. During my stay in San Sebastian I would often climb the wooded paths of Monte Urgull and sit on the benches and admire the idyllic settings: the view of the city and pyrenees to the south, the Bay of Biscay and Bay of la Concha to the north. To the east the Bay de la Zoriolla is more exposed to the rough surf of the Bay of Biscay. Playa de la Zoriolla’s surf makes it a popular place with surfers and body boarders. I love to body surf so I spent most of my time at the Playa de la Zoriolla. The temperature of the water in the Bay was not very warm and reminded me of the Atlantic Ocean on the Jersey shore during the summer time.

The night life in San Sebastian is one of its premiere attractions. San Sebastian is known very well for its tapas bars. Tapas bars are small bars that serve platters of finger food for a low price along with their alcoholic beverages. Most tapas bars serve some for of seafood specialty along with cheese, cured meats and olives. Legend has it that tapas bars originate from an antiquated law that required bar patrons to eat one piece of food with every drink consumed in order to decrease intoxication. It is customary in San Sebastian to travel from bar to bar eating a few pieces of tapas and enjoying a few drinks. On any given night in San Sebastian hundreds of barhoppers crowd the narrow streets of the city’s old town going from bar to bar enjoying the music, dancing, food and drinks.

Staying in San Sebastian offered me an opportunity experience more of a traditional spanish lifestyle. There are no grocery stores in San Sebastian but a central underground market filled with butcher shops, cheese shops and fish shops served the freshest foods. In my hostel, Lolo Urban house, each day the guests would take turns cooking fresh foods from the markets in the community kitchen. It was an immense pleasure to enjoy a fresh meal for breakfast, a picnic lunch on the beach or on Monte Urgull and then a light supper at the tapas bars. San Sebastian is also a place with an incredible international flavor. The superb beaches of the city attract thousands of surfers from places like Australia, Canada and the US and the nightlife draws tourism from every corner of Europe.

The four days that I spent in San Sebastian greatly exceeded my expectations. The beaches, mountains and scenery made for a relaxing and stirring setting. I often found myself reading and writing in my journal for hours. I also spent many hours on the beach, enjoying the sun and waves. The beaches were packed all week with thousands of gorgeous young people. At night, the tapas bars were always bustling and I found each night out lasted until the early morning hours. While I was looking forward to heading on to Madrid when my stay was over, I did feel a twinge of regret to leave such an incredible European paradise.

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