At 11 p.m. on a Saturday night, I sit down at a small table in the middle of the street as the night owls of San Sebastián walk around. At best I’m alone as I was grazing a dish of plump octopus tentacles fried in garlic, glass of rioja in hand. It is the new part of the city on the right bank of the Urumea River, home to young, orderly and lovingly multicultural artists and musicians. Pretty girls in lambrequin skirts walk around in the impossible stilettos that the Spaniards love. Except that I’m not really in Spain.
San Sebastian, capital of the province of Gipuzkoa, is a wild waterfront city in the heart of the Basque country south of the French-Spanish border. The frontier spirit is anarchic, eager for pleasure: food, drink, culture. Historically, working men ran single-sex cooking clubs where they competed to present their friends with exotic fish dishes. Woke has made inroads in gendered customs, but the endemic skills are reflected in the Michelin stars, 19 within 25 km from the center. Three with three, Akelarre on the slopes of Mount Igueldo, the family business Arzak and Martin Berasategui in the countryside, two with two stars, six with one. How Michelin inspectors have to fight for this round of duty.
The Carnival of Lent is a riot of colors and escape. Running with the bulls through the streets of neighboring Pamplona remains a cherished symbol of Basque manhood, a brief license to live dangerously in a time when health and safety tremble as citizens cross the road. Factor of a language predating our colloquial Indo-European languages, of disputed but unknown origin: there are suggestions that the Caucasus may be partly responsible. Admittedly, there is nothing obvious in the fact that aizto means knife.
With a population of 190,000, San Sebastian is an easily walkable city, elegantly laid out on the curves of the Urumea River flanked by numerous parks and gardens. Near the mouth on the left bank, the old town is a grid of narrow pedestrian streets; beyond, the foreland is dominated by Monte Urgull, a vantage point over the golden crescent of Ondarreta and La Concha beaches, shallow, super calm, perfect for small children. More ambitious swimmers prefer Zurriola: on the right bank facing the sea, with perfect waves for surfing.
My introduction to my cultural mission was made on the islet of Santa Clara at the foot of Urgull, accessible by boat during the summer months. I was breathless from the steep trek up to the old lighthouse of Hondolea, even more so gazing into the depths of Cristina Iglesias’ mesmerizing installation carved deep into its interior. The local sculptor exhibited the intricacies of the coastal rock structure, the fascinating curls, shell shapes and holes browned by the sea water that surges every two minutes. Reality forms and re-forms as you stare at the languid whirlwinds: they would pierce you for hours.
To dive into a multi-faceted city, the San Telmo Museum (€6, free on Tuesdays), a former 17th-century Dominican convent, is an obvious starting point. The cavernous church displays 11 monumental paintings depicting the historic Basque struggle for autonomy; shipbuilders, stonemasons, brawny blacksmiths forging anchors, ships surmounting stormy seas. The early 20th-century Catalan artist Josep Sert has an overflowing and rich imagination, perhaps a spin-off from his lifelong friendship with Salvador Dali.
The San Telmo exhibit follows familiar lines: armor, musical instruments, costumes, a penny, a scooter, a vintage 500 seat. There are Basque specificities, in particular pelota, a game which consists of throwing a ball against a wall with one hand, a racket, wooden bat or narrow basket attached to the wrist. Variously called cesta, pediment, and jai alai, it’s been the sport of choice here since the 1200s. Gambling and drinking are part of the fun: stage an evening game if you can.
The temporary exhibition halls pay homage to Eduardo Chillida, a sculptor known as Gaudi of San Sebastian. Not that his work bears any obvious resemblance to the exotic spiers of the Sagrada Familia, the Catalan architect’s Barcelona masterpiece. Chillida instead uses natural materials, metal, wood, pink granite, to reflect the industrial past of its region. Some of his sculptures are monolithic, others figurative, and his surreal wrought iron pieces, reflecting their intricacies on polished surfaces, are remarkable.
In the early 1980s, Chillidas purchased 27 acres of land in Hernani, a village outside of San Sebastian. The grassy hill in the middle provides the perfect setting for his larger rooms. Visitors wander among the sculptures, stopping at the 16th-century farmhouse to view smaller exhibits inside. The Chillida Leku Museum opened in the 1990s, closed in 2011 nine years after the artist’s death and in 2019 reopened as a permanent memorial with financial support from the Swiss modern art gallery Hauser & Wirth (€12, €6 on Thursdays) .
After culture, cuisine, which in San Sebastian means pintxo – tapas in Spanish. Head east from San Telmo into the old town on Calle 31 de Agosto and look for the ever-popular Bar Martinez 1942 across from where a parliamentarian was gunned down during the fight for an independent Basque state orchestrated by the terrorist organization ETA, between 1959 and 2011 – memories of the troubles are never far away.
When Manuel Martinez and Julliana Gil opened the bar in 1942, they were the pioneers of pintxos: Gilda was one of the first: the plate of baby peppers and anchovies dominated the menu 80 years later. Peppers stuffed with bonito, bright red tartar sauce, skewer of monkfish and prawns are on the menu of specialties.
San Sebastian’s refreshing joie de vivre extends to an entire region with easy access to the Rioja vineyards. Burgos, capital of Castile until the 15th century, is a key stop on El Camino, the budding pilgrim’s long path to Santiago de Compostela. The cashier of the magnificent Gothic cathedral asks you if you are a caministe. Say yes and you will get a cheaper ticket. Or head to Bilbao and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum on the waterfront. From certain angles, its building looks a bit like an ocean liner coming upriver from the Bay of Biscay. For others, it’s strangely abstract, a tangle of curves and shapes burnished with titanium against maritime corrosion. Inside, resonating galleries display imposing metal installations. Brave the Basque road signs and it’s worth the trip.
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