Donostia San Sebastian, Basque, Spain.
24 Hours in San Sebastian
Italian waiters serving French tourists who’ve hopped 30 minutes over the border into the Spanish city known for being the cradle and heart of Basque nationalism. San Sebastian, Donostia. Delicately inserted into scallop bays, a medieval labyrinth, a contemporary grid system, an expression of infinitely-complicated cultural and generational identity wrapped up in multiple languages and a deeply contentious history.
There are extremely few places on Earth like it.
After a day and half’s coach ride along the northern Spanish coast, from Gijon to an overnight halt outside Santander in the industrial town of Torrelavega, through the mountains and along the sea. Basque country. Foremost, somehow more and simultaneously less rugged, with hillsides much closer and shorter, yet considerably steeper, more wooded. Pines growing out of all available estate, and a sky as grey and heavy as steel. As with everywhere in Northern Spain, rain is a constant package deal.
Bilbao in a storm, when viewed from out of brown beer-bottle-tinted windows, is far from a dreamy vista, but I can’t say it was anything like a fair first impression. After a short stop in the bus station, more trees, more four-storey apartments teetering near the sides of raised, sharp-edge embankments overlooking the highway. A few glimpses of distant blue after a longer stint in the valleys, and then, more sea, properly now.
San Sebastian is nestled, flanked either side by beaches, and further mountains just outside the city limits that remain almost always visible at the end of streets even in the middle of old town.
We stayed in a converted floor of an apartment building with a shared staircase, a small hotel with surprisingly large and numerous rooms. It was sat just beyond the cathedral, on the western and opposite side from the underground bus station, itself buried on the other side of the eastern river. Ten minutes in the rain, across an ornate bridge encircled by marble mounts and gold horses, through autumnal tree-laden continental-style streets, around the church, cafés, mopeds, numerous small white vans. Squint, and the entire city is orange, green, and tan. Open your eyes a little more and the grey of the paving, terracotta of the roofs, and pop of the white road markings. There’s a graphic quality to the streets, like everything was illustrated; not a unique quality in southern Europe, but a necessary personal change from peri-urban sprawl of outer-London.
Old Town, Parte Vieja, sits further out into the bay, beyond the gridded streets and numerous communal squares. It quickly becomes narrower and busier, more touristy yet quite obviously more authentically Basque. It’s all about food, and as far as you go, as much as you attempt to escape, everything eventually devolves back to food here, and famously for a good reason. Basque cooking is world respected, not perhaps as heavily exported, but crushingly well-considered.
Pintxos clearly sit at the centre of the modest culinary monolith that is Basque cooking. Small, intricate, and when done right here, a ridiculous medley of flavours and ingredients. Something only those who’d dominated the sea and with revelry uncovered all of its secrets, then smashed it together with all of the most frequently potent and/or exquisite assorted goods that the local landscape could offer. They are, to be noted, not uniquely Basque in nature, but they are most famously so, and perhaps the most distinctive of which are from the Old Town of San Sebastian. We went to Gandarias, just up the road from the basilica; mushrooms, goats cheese, typical miniature slices of fresh bread, sun-dried tomato, pistachios, crab, and a variety of other small ingredients that in their current form were unrecognisable. Smotherings of balsamic, used ubiquitously akin to soya sauce within East Asian cooking. I’m no Bourdain, and I’m certainly not as well versed, well travelled, or well equipped to deal with Basque cooking like he was, even as an outsider, but I try in my own way.
He was well-respected there, as he was in any place whose food he championed. Donostia was no exception to this rule.
But for as synonymous with Basque history, food, language, and general identity San Sebastian may well be, it’s also broadly the most integrated pan-European city I’ve ever been to. Perhaps this is due to the size, not just the location less than an hour from Biaritz across the border; San Sebastian is small. Compact. Tight. It is not, to be clear, claustrophobic; I find London and any number of larger and smaller locales infinitely more cramped and oppressive. The place is beautifully human-sized, with buildings and a surrounding, domiciling day-to-day culture that feel built and cultivated for each other, rather than just cohabitating in the same space. Maybe due to this, the ever-present pleasantness of it all, that the integration for broader European identities feels so much more apparent. So many languages are spoken and none feel in competition, as though they were separate from one another, as if only a handful can belong or could ever belong.
I felt, within just a few handful of hours, very much at home. It was not, and likely would not be, my home. But that sensation is important, especially when it exists with a guttural sense of respect. Together, you create a space that feels safe, expressive, and ever-relaxed.
Within just a square mile or two, a world-famous auditorium, multiple museums of Basque cultural and maritime history, a design biennale, various theatres, several iconic religious monuments, numerous leading restaurants with one of the highest densities of Michelin stars on Earth, some of the greatest examples of multiple forms of western European architecture, as well as a well-respected accompanying architecture school; and all of this wrapped up within a truly remarkable local landscape. Yet, it felt homely, laid-back, effortlessly stylish, and not in the Parisian sense of the phrase where effort is very much a present and dominant factor. From the extremely casual wearing of a Basque beret, to the omni-present tan trench coat, the clothing was a direct aesthetic, behavioural, and physical reflection of the world around it. Water-proof, wind-resistant, a palette that blended just as much into the masonry as it did the weather, and a distinct if noticeably unpretentious old-world charm. It wasn’t posh, despite the suits and traditionally-minded and oriented wear, it was, frankly, just itself. Like a drawing, a movie, a painting; it was carefully created yet fully organic form of inert and fully present lived-in costume design. A choice that not only reflected its place, in all of its complexity, but reinforced it, grew it, made it better.
For a town with such a significant cultural weight, I’d expect very little else.
Donostia seemingly retains all of the depth and value that put it on the map in the first place, and a short stopover there, at perhaps what is just a superficial glance, suggests it has faired so much better than its contemporaries. It feels authentic, for whatever value left that word retains in its increasing hollowness and absurd overuse. A tiny and ambitiously complicated little city in the ruggedly beautiful pit of the Cantabrian sea, crushed between a couple of beaches, a hell of a lot of mountains, and serving some of the greatest food on the continent.
I am wholly unequipped and far to0 undereducated in the issues and various topics at hand to properly describe a place like this, especially for a monolingual British tourist who arrived on a bus. Yet, I fully understand the appeal. I get why much better writers fell in love with the place, even if, for the very real issue of my brevity there, I *don’t* actually get it. I can’t. I barely touched the surface of a place like that. But I was, and am, enthralled. I have been no where like Donostia.