On the Northern coast of Spain, just 30 minutes from the French border, lies San Sebastian, a coastal retreat for Renaissance royalty, modern day celebrities, and gastronomical innovation.
Northern Spain is known as the Basque country. Officially known as Donostia, San Sebastian is the capital of the Basque province Gipuzkoa, and is the quintessential European city. Historical records date back to 1014, but mention of the Basques’ expert fishing and whaling ability throughout the Atlantic and unique language have been noted by the Vikings and early Romans.
During the Peninsula Wars in 1813, the British lay siege on San Sebastian and drove the French out. Most of the city was burned to the ground, but one street remained intact and was renamed Calle 31 de Agosto to remember that fateful day. San Sebastian was rebuilt in the Hausmannian style of grand boulevards, spacious parks, and diagonal street designs similar to Paris.
In the mid-1800s, the Spanish monarchy chose San Sebastian as its summer capital. Maria-Christina, widow of Alfonso XII, spent every summer in San Sebastian. With its scallop shaped beach protected from rough waves and currents by Isla Santa Clara and mild temperatures, it was the perfect holiday getaway in the past and today in the present.
Today, San Sebastian earns worldwide acclaim for its culinary achievements and festivals. Mugaritz, Arzac, Martin Berasategui, and Akelarre are listed on the world’s top 100 restaurants. The chefs of these restaurants continuously inspire the world to think of cuisine as an art form, an expression of colors, textures, sweet and savory.
The people of San Sebastian know how to party, and seem to be celebrating something at any given time. In July, the San Sebastian Jazz Festival, Jazzaldia, is the longest continually running jazz festival in Europe. The San Sebastian International Film Festival hosts top celebrities in September. Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Mel Gibson and Woody Allen are just a few that have graced the red carpet at the film festival. Soccer and pelota, or Jai-alai are favorite sports during the summer, and the city even has its own holiday in January called San Sebastian Day where the entire town dresses in military uniforms or in bakers garb banging drums for 24 hours. These are but a few of the celebrations the Basque enjoy throughout the year.
The city has grown, but the main focus is still the beautiful concave beach known as La Playa de la Concha. A whitewashed promenade stretches from one side of the beach to the other. Eduardo Chillida’s iron sculpture, El Peine de Veinto (wind combs), is welded to the rocks at one end of the bay and Monte Urgull dominates the other. The best views of the city are found on Monte Urgull where old cannons stand guard over the entrance to the small bay and a statue of Jesus Christ looks lovingly at the peaceful seaside city.
A picturesque marina and modern day aquarium occupy one side of the beach at the foot of Monte Urgull. Parte Vieje, or old part of town, begins here with colonial streets, ancient churches, and pintxo bars. San Sebastian has more pintxo or tapas bars per square kilometer than any other city in the world, and some of the best are in Parte Vieje.
City Hall unites the Parte Vieje with the new. A beautiful ornate carousel revolves in front of City Hall where a lovely park has been designed for people to enjoy the ocean breeze and sunshine. To the east of City Hall is the upscale shopping district leading to the Neo-Gothic Catedral del Buen Pastor, the largest church in San Sebastian built in 1897.
These are just a few of the sights, sounds, and tastes of San Sebastian. San Sebastian is a fairy tale city that is alive with heart and soul.