Standing atop Mount Urgull, I want to embrace the enigmatic city stretched out before me. Five days here and I am besotted with San Sebastian, a Basque resort city on the Bay of Biscay, at the north-eastern neck of the Iberian peninsula. Steel skies and the sound of white-tipped waves crashing on boulders below heighten the city’s cool, mercurial character.
For its unique mix of beach and Basque culture, food and wine delights, San Sebastian is, along with Wroclaw, Poland, the 2016 European Capital of Culture and promises to flourish with festivals, concerts and exhibitions this year.
Sitting in the heart of the Basque coast, Donostia, as it is known in the Basque lingua franca, is best known for its food. It is second only to Kyoto for the highest number of Michelin stars per capita, with three of Spain’s eight three-Michelin-starred restaurants in the city area.
It first became famous as a seaside resort in the late 19th century, when Queen Maria Christina of Spain chose the city as her summer residence. Spanish aristocrats and diplomats soon established summer homes here, building splendid Art Nouveau and turn-of-the-century architecture, mostly found in the city’s centre –along the Urumea River in a neighbourhood called Area Romantica, around the Buen Pastor Cathedral and the beachfront of Playa de La Concha.
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One of Europe’s best urban beaches, La Concha’s 1.5km of soft, white sand and beach-side promenade with cafes, restaurants and white wrought-iron balustrades, has been the centre of the city’s seaside life for more than a century. Built in 1887, La Concha’s luxury boutique Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra is still one of the city’s best, with fully renovated and updated rooms and unparalleled views of the ocean.
Belle Epoque attractions continue along the promenade in Alderdi Eder Park, where a vintage carousel with gilded carriages and white painted horses from the 1900s still runs daily. Overlooking the river on Republica Argentina Street is Hotel Maria Cristina, the grandest of San Sebastian’s accommodation. Designed by Charles Mewes, the French architect behind the Ritz hotels in Paris and Madrid, the opulent hotel, which blends marble staircases and vintage chandeliers with modern interiors, has been a favourite with the well-to-do since its opening in 1912. Silver screen stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts have stayed here and, in September, it is the hotel of choice for celebrities attending the annual San Sebastian Film Festival, Spain’s biggest film festival, held in the city since 1953.
Yet the soul of the city’s culture comes from the Basques, a proud and reserved people who have inhabited this elbow of coast for millennia. Basque culture emanates from every corner of the city, particularly in Parte Vieja (Old Town), where many of the city’s restaurants and nightspots are located, and Gros, the residential district across the river, home to families, youth and university students.
Chefs at the three Michelin- starred Arzak, Akelarre and Martin Berasategui restaurants have put themselves and San Sebastian on the map through elevated traditional Basque dishes, turning humble ingredients such as salted cod into gastronomic works of art.
Meals at these restaurants cost anywhere from €120 to €200 a person and must be reserved months in advance, particularly in the high summer season.
But one of my favourite aspects about San Sebastian is that I do not have to spend a lot of money to eat very, very well. While the south of Spain has tapas, Basque country boasts its pintxos (pronounced peen-chose), a small plate or bruschetta-like bites on sliced bread, typically eaten standing at bars.
There are more than 200 pintxos bars in San Sebastian, and Basques like to spend the evening eating, talking and walking from one pintxos bar to another, popping into one bar for a glass of wine and their favourite roast pepper stuffed with bacalao (dried, salted cod), to another for cheesy risotto balls and another for fresh anchovies, a delicacy of the region.
It can get a bit chaotic, particularly at the more popular pintxos bars where people are squeezed up against the bar trying to place or eat an order, but it is part of the fun. At popular bars such as Borda Berri and La Cuchara de San Telmo, signature dishes –such as red wine braised beef cheeks, roast suckling pig and risotto balls –can sell out within an hour of opening.
As in the rest of Spain, dinner is served late. Pintxos bars are at their most vibrant after 10pm. To get the most of the pintxos atmosphere, go to the bars which appeal to you and grab whatever looks good. You cannot go wrong. Before the end of the night, head to La Vina (lavinarestaurante.com) for its rich yet fluffy cheesecake which locals avow is the best in the world.
A crowd has formed around Atari Gastroteka at the foot of Iglesia de Santa Maria del Coro, the city’s most picturesque cathedral. A popular bar, Atari is known for its food as much as its curated selection of gins and tonics. Inside and out, the bar is packed with people standing, drink and pintxos in hand. Everyone is in jovial spirits and no one seems to mind the throng or when a light, misty rain which the Basques call “sirimiri”, begins to fall.
Adapted from The Straits Times: Experience the heart of Basque culture in San Sebastian.