San Sebastian--Northern Spain

It's a stunningly beautiful and elegant place, with a broad sweep of bay, mountains at either end, and a thumb of land sticking into the middle of it with a steep hill on its nail--Mt. Urgull. Under the brow of this hill, the original medieval city was built, walled on three sides, with the sea on two, and the mountain protecting the seaside. The old quarter, or parte vieja, sits in this protected spot, a roughly six by six blocks, and sits on a peninsula bounded by monte Urgull on the sea, the Bay of Conchas to the west, and Rio Urumea to the east. The old part is a pedestrian zone of 4-5 story golden sandstone buildings with wrought iron balconies and granite flagged streets. Plaza de la Constitución is at the center, and the Calle de 31 Agusto at its sea end, in the lee of Mt Urgull. The buildings in the old part are very uniform, owing to a fire on August 31, 1813 that burned the entire city up to the last street, leaving only 34 houses and the two churches--Santa Maria and San Bizente--at either end of that street, which was subsequently named to commemorate the date. Every year on the anniversary balconys in Calle 31 Agusto are festooned with candles, and solemn, silent processions wind slowly along it.

The streets of the parte vieja are fairly jammed with small and interesting shops, restaurants and bars, because if nothing else, San Sebastián is an eating town. Called variously the culinary capital of the world, and a foodie's mecca, restaurants in or around San Sebastian aggregate more Michelin stars per capita than any other city, even Paris. There are of course some excellent pintxos bars, with many known for their own specialties. La Chuchara de San Telmo offers the most upscale pintxos you can imagine--literally a three-star degustation menu standing up.

Bar Txepetxa in Calle Pescadero specialized in fresh, plump anchovies, in unlikely combinations. Two large fish shaped menus behind the bar offer Antxoas calientes--hot anchovies--topped with perhaps crab or bacalau, and Antxoas frias--cold anchovies topped with black olive paste, salmon, trout roe or fruit--mango, papaya or coco. Unusual certainly.

Ormazabal (formerly Juanaenea), at 22 Calle 31 de Agosto is a beautiful wood panneled bar with old-fashioned globe lights exuding a warm glow, and features different filled crepes, and small folded tarts of puff pastry filled with ham, cheese, crab, and more.

Bar Ganbara, tucked behind the central Plaza de la Constitución, features wild forest mushrooms. The end of the sweeping bar is heaped with hongos y setas--huge mahogany cepes, dark wrinkled morels and tiny golden perretxicos. These are fantastic sauteed with a bit of garlic to be piled on bread slices, and can also be had as revueltos con hongos--creamy scrambled eggs with earthy mushrooms and bits of jabugo ham. Relatively standard pintxos, of highest quality, include white anchovies in olive oil, micro croissants filled with jabugo ham or smoked salmon, and crispy tartlets of txangurro--spiced spider-crabmeat.

The pastime of bar hopping and snacking is known as the txikiteo. This 'tapas crawl' would be called tapateo in other parts of Spain. The fiercely proud denizens of Donostia (the Basque name for San Sebastián) claim that pintxos were invented here in the 15th century, well before anywhere else in Spain. It was in the first decades of the 20th century that cuadrillas, or squadrons, of revellers started these bar crawls. San Sebastián has a tradition of txokos, or gastronomic societies, going back to the early 1800's, in which men would gather in private clubs to prepare traditional dishes, sing and drink--and over 100 of these till exist today. These revelries often spilled into the streets, and resulted in 'flying squadrons' of txikiteros going from place to place. Today, it's not unusual for a half dozen to a dozen people to
visit five or six places serially over the course of several hours, having a drink and a snack or two at each one.

Monte Urgull is one of two hills that flank the harbor like sentrys, and offers fantastic views of the old and Belle Epoque city, the Isla de Santa Clara, a steep wooded island in the middle of the bay, and the Basque countryside. To access the peak, one must hike up a fairly good grade spiraling around the hill. At the summit there is a crumbling fort--Castillo de la Santa Cruz de la Mota--and a large statue of Christ benificiently opening his arms to the city.

Just below the parte vieja are two areas of wide, tree lined streets with sidewalk park benches and cast iron streetlights and often tiled sidewalks, flanked with 4-5 story apartment and commercial buildings decorated in the beaux arts style. These areas, known as antique and romantic quarters, were built at the turn of the twentieth century--late 1800's and early 1900's--to accomodate the influx of both visitors and new residents that resulted from the Queen Cristina and Spanish royal family building the Palacio de Miramar in the 1890's, and commencing to summer in San Sebastián. naturally, the court, and other wealthy Spaniards followed suit, and the city expanded rapidly. The Palacio is the site of frequent musical events, and its seaside gardens are open for visitation.


To the east and west of these two areas sweep Concha Beachs and Ondarreta Beach, lined with old world cafes and bathhouses, and backed by r
anks of elegant apartment and hotel buildings--the whole effect of that view from the top of Mt Urgull being one of early 1900's elegance by the sea.

So a sojourn in San Sebastián can be broken into four basic elements: first, wandering around the parte vieja, looking at the oldest architecture; visiting the two churches--the fortified gothic St Bizente and baroque Santa Maria del Coro; peeking into one of the numerous men's private dining clubs housed in elegant old building fronts; dipping into the small boutiques; strolling along the port watching the fishermen bring in the catch; and diving into the underground La Bretxa market to scope out ranks of cured hams from Iberian hogs, phalanxes of fresh white asparagus, mounds of wild mushrooms from surrounding forests, and dazzling displays of ultra-fresh fish--bream, sea bass, flounder, and all sizes of shrimp, prawns and langostinos.

Second, strolling the romantic and antique quarters, taking in the elaborate beaux arts architecture of scrolls, ornamented balconies etc etc, visiting the neo-gothic Catedral de Buen Pastor, window shopping the elegant shops in the area, both upscale Spanish and international, meandering through the lovely manicured Guipuzcoa Park.

Third, depending on the season and your inclination, either walking the beaches in contemplative silence and relative isolation on a blustery winter or early spring day, or spending time swimming and sunbathing with thousands of like-minded sea worshipers in the summer.

And fourthly, in any and all events, you'll need sustenance--food and drink to support those activities, and food and drink is an area that San Sebastián ab
ounds in variety and choice. Several hotel choices are available, in different quality and price ranges, but this town is the perfect setting to take a short-stay apartment--small city, everything relatively close and walkable, not much need for busses or cabs, and infinite dining choices right out your door. You'll cherish those choices, and come away thinking the foodie press is right--this IS the culinary epicenter of the world.