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San Sebastian: The prettiest jewel in the crown of Spain

The beautiful city of San Sebastian sits on the Bay of Biscay, in the heart of Basque Country, just 25 kilometres (km) from the Pyrenees mountain range and the French border. It’s 105 km from Bilbao, the largest city in the region. Famed for its two beautiful beaches – La Concha and Ondaretta – its placement on the Bay of Biscay is ideal as a touring base or a fixed holiday centre.

 

Due to its situation at the ‘head’ of the Iberian Peninsula, and its coastal position, San Sebastian has often been described as a ‘jewel,’ and as jewels feature in crowns, and the Northern Coast of Spain resembles the crown of the head, here at Spain Life Exclusive, we call the city ‘The prettiest jewel in the crown of Spain.’

 

Bilbao or San Sebastian?

 

If you’re looking for big city architecture, plenty of nightlife and the bustle of an industry-based city and port, you’ll be happier in Bilbao. However, if you feel small is beautiful, and like your cities more accessible, San Sebastian is for you. With a population of 186,000 as opposed to Bilbao’s 346,000, it’s possible to get around San Sebastian on foot, or you can jump on one of the city’s bus for just €1.70 per single trip.

 

Bilbao boasts a great assortment of museums and galleries– notably the Guggenheim, housed in its distinctive modern building. San Sebastian offers beautiful beaches and a picturesque, cobbled old town (Parte Vieja).

 

San Sebastian

Gastronomy in San Sebastian

 

If fine dining is your Big Thing, the city boasts 16 of the 40 Michelin Stars awarded in the entire Basque Country. Three of San Sebastian’s Michelin-Starred establishments have been awarded the coveted three stars. Considering there are only seven 3-starred restaurants in the whole of Spain, and 137 in the world, that’s pretty impressive.

 

This means that San Sebastian has more Michelin Stars per square metre than any other city in the world. With prices for 3-Star restaurants ranging from €95 – €146 per capita, and 2- and 1-Star establishments charging €50 – €140 per person, this is a luxury you can afford during your trip to San Sebastian. Websites for the Michelin-Starred establishments are listed below, so you can do your research and whet your appetite before travelling. Buen Provecho!

 

Akelarre *** https://akelarre.net/en/

Arzak *** https://www.arzak.es/en/

Martin Berasategui *** http://www.martinberasategui.com/es/inicio

Mugaritz ** https://www.mugaritz.com/en/

Alameda * https://restaurantealameda.net/en/

Kokotxa * http://www.restaurantekokotxa.com/en/home/

Mirador de Ulia * https://www.miradordeulia.es/

Zuberoa * http://www.zuberoa.com/en/

 

Karlos Arguiñano

 

San Sebastian

 

No section on gastronomy in San Sebastian is complete without a tip of the chef’s toque to one of the Basque Country’s most high profile personalities,  Karlos Arguiñano. The chef, TV presenter and businessman, who is now 71, first opened the Restaurante KA in 1979, in the beautiful seaside town of Zarautz, just 21 kms along the coast from San Sebastian. The 105 year old stately home is now Hotel KA, with 12 bedrooms, and five of Karlos’s children run it, while he concentrates on his media work.

 

If you want to try some of Karlos’s recipes to get you in the mood for your trip, check out his website. Karlos may be in his 70s, but he’s up to speed with current trends. The website includes a recipe for albondigas (meatballs), made with quinoa and suitable for vegans!

 

Pintxos

 

Pintxos

 

Spain is famed for its tapas, and rightly so. Pintxos  –  named from the Basque word meaning ‘pierced,’ – are small portions of food served on bread. They are speared with cocktail sticks, so they stay together until they are eaten in one or two bites.

 

Like tapas, pintxos are enjoyed with a drink, usually before lunch and dinner. However, while tapas are often small portions of main meals, pintxos are created as snacks in their own right.

 

There are a number of pintxo bars in San Sebastian, and the custom is to grab whatever you want,  then keep the cocktail sticks so the bar staff can work out your bill when you’re ready to leave. Differently priced pintxos will usually have coloured tags or some other means of differentiation on the sticks. If you prefer hot pintxos, just grab them from the trays as the waiters pass among the tables.

 

To visitors from other countries, this practice may be rather strange, as it relies on trust that the customer will pay for everything they eat. It’s customary all over Spain, though, and the bar staff soon spot the odd customer who tries to leave without paying. Compared with other Spanish cities, the crime rate for both locals and foreign nationals is pretty low anyway. The bar and cafe owners don’t expect problems, and rarely have to deal with dishonest patrons.

 

One of the most famous of all San Sebastian’s pintxos is the Gilda, which is an olive, a pickled chilli pepper and an anchovy speared on a piece of bread. It’s named from the eponymous character played by Rita Hayworth in a movie more than 60 years ago. The Gilda, created in the city, is so-called because, like the character it is named for, it’s a little perverted, witty and spicy!’

 

Gatronomy Societies (txokos)

 

San Sebastian is famed for its gastronomic societies – or txokos – which are best defined as a bridge between eating at home and dining in a restaurant. Originally, these societies were for men only, but as with many things, women are now admitted as well. Txokos are private clubs which are held in any establishment where there is a kitchen, a bar, and room to seat all the members.

 

There’s a store cupboard with staple ingredients such as flavourings and canned and dried foods, and two or more members will bring along the fresh ingredients to cook the meal. Practices vary from club to club. Everyone will then enjoy an afternoon, evening, or even a whole day of eating, drinking and socialising with friends and family members. All members pay subscriptions, and pay enough to cover their share of food and drink. Like the pintxo tradition, it’s all done on trust, and it’s unheard of for people to steal from a txoko.

 

There are lots of txokos around San Sebastian, but the only way to get a look at one is to book on a tour of the Old Town, when a meal in a txoko is included. If you can arrange your visit to coincide with San Sebastian Day, on 20 January, most of the txokos will open up to visitors, but they are normally tourist-free zones.

 

The Game of Thrones Tour

 

Games of Thrones

 

Several of the locations for Juego de Tronos – or Game of Thrones to non-Spanish speakers – can be found in and around San Sebastian. Many fans make the pilgrimage to the area, and Viator operate an exclusive tour for 2 – 7 people, picking up and dropping off at your accommodation. This is not for the faint-hearted, as there’s quite a lot of hiking and climbing involved, but if you are reasonably fit, and you are a fan of Game of Thrones, you’ll love this 7 – 10 hour trip.

 

First stop is the stunning Biscay coast islet of Gaztelugatxe, which is linked to the mainland by a winding, man-made footbridge which leads to ‘Dragonstone Castle,’ the ancestral home of Daenerys Targaryan, and the Ermita de San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a church dedicated to John the Baptist, with stunning views over the coast.

 

You get to recreate John Snow and Daenerys’s 241-step walk along the footbridge, so be sure to take sturdy footwear and comfortable clothes. Gaztelugatxe translates as ‘castle rock,’ but unfortunately, you won’t be able to take a tour of Dragonstone. The castle you see on TV is computer generated, as there is no actual castle at Gaztelugatxe.

 

After a pit stop for photos and refreshments, it’s on to ‘Westeros,’ and the entry point to the castle. This is Zumaia, better known as ‘The Flysch.’ The beach where Jon Snow docks to meet the Mother of Dragons boasts an 8 km stretch of impressive rock formations and jagged cliffs, which create an ‘out of this world’ atmosphere which is perfect for the fantasy series.

 

Even if you are not a Game of Thrones fan, it’s worth taking this luxury trip for the views, photo opportunities and the host of information your tour guides impart about the Biscay coast. It’s a high end tour, with included drinks and light refreshments. Check Viator’s website for current tour dates and prices.

 

After the excitement and exertion of the Game of Thrones Tour, it’s time for a couple of relaxing days exploring the attractions of San Sebastian itself. These are the ‘Must Do’s’ if you’re looking for a real taste of Basque culture, and some great photo opportunities.

 

Rural Sports

San Sebastian football team, Real Sociedad, has a fervent following, but the city is also a great place to get familiar with Basque culture, as there are a number of rural sports unique to the region. There’s no better way to absorb the specific ambience of a region than cheering along with the locals at one of these ‘must see’ events. It’s well worth scheduling your trip to take in one or more of San Sebastian’s showcase rural sporting occasions.

 

Regatas de La Concha

 

The ‘Regatas de La Concha’ have been a feature of the San Sebastian sporting calendar since 1879. It’s a boat race, as you’d expect, but it has its traditions in the days before steam. The fishermen along the Cantabrian coast would row out into the shallow waters in wooden boats specially fashioned for the job. The element of competition arose out of practicality – whoever got back to shore fastest with their catch got the best price, so building up speed and strength for the row home was essential.

 

These days, the racing, which takes place over the first two weeks of September, with qualifying rounds in late August, is for pleasure and prestige only. The victors win the coveted ‘Flag of La Concha.’ The fishing village of Orio is the most successful competitor, with 32 victories to its credit at the time of writing.

 

Since 2008, women crews have taken part in the regatta, making up around 30% of the typical entry of 45 – 50 craft. Spectators converge on this section of the coast in their thousands, and the atmosphere is electric.

 

Pelota de Vasca

 

Pintxos

Bill Shankly, the iconic Liverpool FC Manager in the 1960’s famously said. ‘Football is not a matter of life and death, it’s much more serious than that.’ This is how the Basque people se Pelota de Vasca, or Basque Pelota. It’s almost a religion – in fact, Basque men probably go to pelota games more often than they go to Sunday Mass!

 

Pelota is basically hand ball. It’s like tennis, but without the rackets, and it’s played with a leather ball. It’s been around for centuries, and games are contested on special courts, with a minimum of two players. The game can also be played using a tip basket, which is a hand-held concave piece of equipment. This makes for longer, more exciting games. A visit to a pelota game is a must, if you aim to fully immerse yourself in the unique San Sebastian Experience.

 

San Sebastian is the home of Real Sociedad, known simply as ‘La Real’ by the locals. Games are played at the 32,000-seater Estadio Anoeta. The team is well placed in La Liga, the Spanish football league, and match tickets are reasonably priced, compared to English Premier League prices for top teams.

 

It’s possible to take the club’s Museum and Stadium tour for the bargain price of just €6 per person. Phone 943 473 953 to arrange your visit. To really immerse yourself in the atmosphere of one of Spain’s top clubs, book a night or two in the adjacent Hotel Anoeta.

 

Velodromo de Anoeta

 

This indoor stadium, which opened in 1965, has hosted cycling championships and European Athletics Championships. These days, the 5,500 seater stadium is more likely to host concerts by big-name Spanish and international artistes.

 

The Anoeta sporting complex is about 2 kms from the main attractions in San Sebastian. Consider a visit if you fancy a sport-themed break from the culture and stimulation of the senses in the city itself.

 

Centro Kursaal

The eye-catching, prize-winning conference centre designed by Rafael Maneo is constructed from two cubes of glass, built to resemble ‘beached rocks,’ and the building mimics the landscape which first attracted the Game of Thrones production team. It’s a thoroughly modern building, which successfully realises Maneo’s vision of ‘Emphasising the harmony between the natural and the artificial by perpetuating the regional geography.’

 

Kursaal plays host to a number of festivals and concerts, most notably Jazzaldia, an international jazz festival taking place from 22 – 26 July 2020.  As the name suggests, jazz fans can listen to music all day and every day, provided they can get the tickets!

 

San Sebastian

Monte Urgull and El Cementario de Los Ingleses

 

The high spot – pun intended! – of a visit to San Sebastian is a trip to Mount Urgull and the remains of the 12th century castle, Castilio de Mola. This is also the location of the atmospheric English Cemetery, built as a memorial to the English soldiers who perished in the Carlist Wars of the 1830s, fighting for the moderate Isabelinos – followers of Queen Isabella – in the conflict against Fascism.

 

The monument to the fallen is almost covered in moss, which seems to add to the mysterious atmosphere of the place, and a visit to this sacred slope is sure to bring you closer to Nature. Complete your outing to Monte Urgul with a visit to the Mirador, or viewing place.

 

San Sebastian certainly lives up to its reputation as a perfectly stunning and exclusive vacation destination. In winter, the Biscay Coast can be cold and damp, as is evidenced by the proliferation of greenery. However, in summer, temperatures rarely rise above 84 degrees Fahrenheit, making San Sebastian a perfect choice if you’re looking for sunshine without the stifling heat of the more southerly coastal and inland areas of Spain.

 

Its lively mix of culture, gastronomy, sightseeing and sports means that even the most exacting holidaymaker will find something to make their stay in the city more memorable. For those who wish to experience the ambience of the Basque Country in the most authentic way possible, San Sebastian is the perfect Spanish coastal destination. Buen viaje!

 

 

 

 

 

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