13 November 2011

Unique San Sebastián

San Sebastián started life as a fishing village and did pretty well for itself for a few centuries through whaling and cod fishing along with its perfect location for exporting Spanish goods to the Americas. Its workaday identity was given a big jolt of oo la la in the late 1800s when the Spanish royals decided to make it their vacation spot.
Since then, its cache has been added to by international film festivals and the presence of more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than anywhere on Earth. The beachfront properties are some of the most expensive real estate in Spain. But it’s still, at heart, a port town and remains just as influenced by the vast Atlantic as it is by the glut of tourists from across it.
San Sebastián is not a place to visit with too much of an agenda. Its main “sights” are its bites. Exploring the city means walking around until something pulls you in, which happens so often that you never really make it that far. In San Sebastián, you just have to go with the flow. The flow of foot traffic at night moves you from bar to bar. The flow of txakoli into your glass, from a bottle raised high above the bartender’s head, gives you just enough to wash down a pintxo, but no more. Go with the flow, go with the flow.
From atop Mont Urgull, under the watchful eye of a ginormous statue of Jesus and within the ruined walls of a castle, I looked down at Ponte Vieja (Old Town). You can barely make out any streets, as they’re all impossibly narrow and run between some pretty tall buildings. Streams of revelers at night leave napkins and cups washed up on shore and pushed to the sides of the street in the morning.
Going out for our morning coffee, we would notice the cobblestones were wet from a fresh hosing down. The bars were closed but the shops were open, devoted to salt cod, canned anchovies, meat, cheese, baked goods and vegetables. Old men in typically Basque berets walked down the street, cane in one hand and leashed terrier in the other. People don’t go many places without their dog in San Sebastián.
Across the river from Ponte Vieja, in the neighborhood of Gros, going with the flow means jumping right into it. Playa de Gros is a beach known for its waves and you see young men in wet suits just about everywhere. Some ride their bikes with a board tucked under their arm, other walk along with a bag filled with their work clothes. Just a quick surf on their lunch break.
Of course, the main beach is more well known. Playa de la Concha gets flooded with sun-bathers in the summertime. Photos of peak season showed a collection of bodies with some sand thrown between here and there. In November, it’s more of a community gymnasium. People stretch in the water. Bathing suit clad joggers run barefoot on the sand. Boys and girls high school rugby teams practice as a woman, hopefully not a teacher, tans topless nearby. These men gathered together for a game of pelota, a version of Basque handball. Their court was drawn into the sand and their playing surface was the wall of a worn down belle époque villa. Pelota courts are normally set up against the side of a town’s church. So, you could say the beach was their temple.
Looking at the city from above, from Monte Igueldo, the energy that I couldn’t quite find the right words for suddenly made sense. Watching the ocean funnel into the Bay of Biscay, lap up onto Playa de Concha, swirl around Isla de Santa Clara, linger, leave and return again, summed up something about the city’s rhythm for me. It’s a city on a cove, with a beach, an island and some pretty gorgeous hills thrown in around the perimeter. San Sebastián is a beautiful place to swirl around, linger and return to. If you can get yourself out of the pintxo bars.

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