We only ended up in San Sebastian by happenstance. After committing to two weeks in southern France, my wife and I discovered that a college friend and his wife were planning a simultaneous two-week trip to Barcelona and parts south. To meet up, we needed a compromise destination. San Sebastian, rubbing up against the French border on the northwest Spanish coast, was an equal detour for both of us.
I had never been to Spain's Atlantic Coast, or to its Basque region. All I knew about San Sebastian came from a brief passage in the 1926 novel "The Sun Also Rises." The beach town was where Hemingway's antihero Jake Barnes retreated near the end of the book to recover from a prodigious weeklong drunk and having his heart gored by Lady Brett Ashley. Stoic as ever, he walks from the hotel to the beach and dives into the surf.
"I swam slowly, it seemed like a long swim with the high tide, and then pulled up on the raft and sat, dripping, on the boards that were becoming hot in the sun. I looked around at the bay, the old town, the casino, the line of trees along the promenade, and the big hotels with their white porches and gold-lettered names. Off on the right, almost closing the harbor, was a green hill with a castle. The raft rocked with the motion of the water. On the other side of the narrow gap that led into the open sea was another high headland."
Ninety years on at that point, the description perfectly captured the view that met us as we drove into the surprisingly (to me) big town. The only thing lacking, sadly, was the swimming raft, which had no doubt slipped its moorings several generations earlier.
Paris on the beach
We'd booked an Airbnb a block from the Kursaal Bridge over the Urumea River, an easy walk to the oldest part of the city. Within minutes, we were wandering through the heart of town, alternating narrow streets and wide boulevards lined with immaculately preserved Belle Epoque sandstone block buildings, five and six stories tall, faced with filigreed wrought-iron balustrades. The walkways were lined with shade trees, palms and art deco streetlamps. A promenade curved through a park along 1,500 meters of white sand that swept along Concha Bay. The bay curved in a near-perfect crescent — green hills rising at either end and an island in the middle. The immediate impression was Paris on the beach. That's no accident, since the Parisian plan inspired those who rebuilt the city in the 19th century, after it had been burned to the ground in the Napoleonic wars.
The city had grown gracefully, across the river and up slopes to the east and west. It was full of flower-filled parks, historical sites and well-attended museums. Wandering down any of the narrow streets — many of them only for pedestrians — revealed an endless variety of bars, cafes, restaurants and storefronts. After noon and before dinner (which begins at 8 or 9) the bars are overflowing with people and pintxos (pronounced peen-chos) — the Basque version of Spanish tapas. Heavy on squid, shellfish, cheese, olives, eggs, Iberian ham and luscious sauces, pintxos were made to be washed down with one of the many craft beers flowing from the taps.
It can be a little confusing at first. The pintxos are arrayed along the bar like some medieval groaning board, and patrons wade into the crowd to indicate their selections, some of which need to be taken into the kitchen to cook. No tabs are kept; you pay at the end when you count up the plates and total what you had. Pintxos range in price, generally from around two to six euros a plate. Essentially, it's an honor system. Oh yeah, the tradition is to throw the used napkins on the floor along with any empty shells. The bars with the dirtiest floors tend to be the bars with the best pintxos.
Locals eat a few pintxos, then go to a proper restaurant for their meal. If we'd done that, I would have needed to buy an extra seat on the flight home. But in San Sebastian, it definitely pays to leave some room for the restaurants. One of the city's claims to fame is having among the highest number of Michelin stars per square mile of any city in the world.
Our favorite place was Restaurante Saltxipi, just a few blocks from the beach and right at the foot of Monte Ulia, which rises about 1,300 feet above the city. The restaurant is in what must have once been a lovely family home, and as soon as we entered into a great room with a stone fireplace, we were treated like old friends. The wait staff spoke Spanish and the ancient Basque tongue, which is unrelated to the Romance languages. But they eked out enough English to show friendly interest that seemed genuine. The food was simple, the ingredients massively fresh, the Spanish wine delicious.
The next morning, we went up the steep approach to Monte Ulia and took a 6-mile hike along the mountain's ridge trail, overlooking the dazzling blue disc surrounding the steep-sided cliffs descending to the Bay of Biscay. The flier we picked up in the tourism office said the trail was clearly marked, but either we somehow missed it or the trail markings were more aspirational than real. But no matter. We just kept the ocean to our left and climbed whatever path presented itself — from paved road to goat trail. By noon, they had carried us to Ulia's highest spot. There, unadorned by signage, were the stone ruins of what looked to have been a 19th-century fort. It offered a commanding view of the harbor, sweeping down to a promontory about 1,000 feet below us. Atop the promontory, at the verge of a jagged cliff dropping another 400 feet into the ocean, was the Cape Plata Light, complete with castlelike turrets.
We found ourselves alone except for the birds that soared on the thermals high above our heads. We sat on the steep slope swept by an ocean breeze and had our lunch of country bread and cheese and fruit, washed down with bottled water. Then we made our way down the back of the mountain on a steep path that became a paved road winding into the harbor of the fishing village of Pasaia.
The sun beat down as we descended the steep road, thankfully ending up at a cafe and bar near the harbor. We sat in the shade of an awning and let the sweat dry, washing away the dust with a few cold beers.
A bus stopped on the town's main street right in front of us, and we hopped on for the short ride back to San Sebastian. The driver set us down almost where we'd begun that morning, just in time for pintxos.