Tuesday, June 26, 2012


San Sebastian. Heart of the autonomous Basque region in Spain. When you say the word 'Basque,' many people will think of the separatist movement and the violence that came with it in the last fifty or sixty years. Officially, that ended last October, when the separatists called for an end to terror. Not necessarily an end to the struggle for independence though. That’s still very much a topic of conversation.

Not that you or I can understand that conversation. About half the people here are fluent in Basque and use it daily. When Ed spoke to a waiter about the food, the very affable man patted him on the back and said Ed spoke great Castilian. As in – what they speak over there, in central Spain.

To me, San Sebastian evokes memories of the first time I ever took my girls to Europe (they were eight and five then). We traveled on an overnight train from Madrid to Paris and I remember waking in the middle of the night to a long pause in San Sebastian. Shadows outside, eerie lights and stillness, followed by a lurch and a slow movement toward the French border, at a time when crossing a border in Europe still meant something.

Our own train pulled in from Barcelona on Monday, after 9 p.m. (one minute early!) and there was no sign of darkness yet.


We walk the ten minutes to our pension - the very inexpensive, very simple, very new, very white, very clean Pension Ondarra. (Just five very basic rooms on the second floor of an old apartment building in town.) We’re not in a hurry to eat – isn’t San Sebastian the tapas capital of the world? Don’t Basque people eat all day long and late into the night?

Though we don’t often include cities on our itineraries, San Sebastian is manageable. Somewhere between 250,000 and half a million, depending on where you draw the borders. And it has the great beauty of wide beaches with pounding Atlantic surf.  We are stopping here for three nights and the hope is that Ed, at some point, will enjoy some of that pounding surf.

So think of this place as two bays flanked by tall hills. Sort of like a small Rio de Janeiro. With two great beaches – a calmer one (La Concha) in the bigger bay and a somewhat wild one across the river, where we are – in the old working class or bohemian (not my choice of descriptors) section called Gros. I should mention the other two sections of San Sebastian (and I really should use its Basque name – Donostia, as that’s what most people here call it): they're the Old Town and the Romantic district and actually neither is very old as the city burned down many times over and was completely rebuilt in the 19th century with all the ornamentation of that era. Think Rue de Rivoli, Paris.


There are indeed plenty of bars and tapas eating people. But here’s the thing – I keep forgetting that Ed really is not a great fan of the tapas noshing that takes place in Spain.
I never know how much to order! He complains. A sit down meal makes more sense! And I admit that going out for tapas (called pintxos in Basque -- most every word I see here has an 'x' in it!) is a challenge. We enter one bar and pick a small slice of bread with shrimp and a fried dumpling with seafood. Ed says – you eat it.

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This wont work. So we search for 'real' food. And San Sebastian has great restaurants, starred treasurers that are not within our price range, but also humbler eateries. But we miscalculated the eating habits of people here. This isn't Catalonia anymore. Dinner is an earlier meal. More like 8:30 or 9. We're pushing 10 and 11 now. 

(Some evening views of La Concha and it's opening out onto the ocean.)



So it is quite fortunate that we do find an open place, a nice if modern spot where the genial waiter is happy to have us order a full dinner of appetizers...

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...followed by the waiter's favorite (and I admit, I love this too) – paella with squid ink (hence the purple color) and seafoods.


We aren’t done until well after midnight. Our first Basque night and we can’t get the eating habits in line with local custom. Next day we’ll do better!

And next day is of course Tuesday and weather.com tells me it’s to be a sunny day, that indeed the sun is shining right now, except that when I look outside, I notice a low overhang of something that’s maybe cloud, maybe fog, but decisively obstructing any blue sky and, too, any summits that flank San Sebastian.

We eat breakfast at the café bar across the street. A café con leche for me with a chocolaty croissant and another chocolate speckled roll for Ed. We're back to the simple beginnings of bread product with coffee.

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And we take a good look at the second beach, Gros beach -- our beach, just a five minute walk from our Pension.

The coast here is (they say) a surfer’s paradise. On most days. Today, there are plenty of surfers waiting for good waves that never quite seem to get it together. Still, we walk to the water’s edge just to watch the kids take to the boards (there are school groups here learning to surf).


There is a crazy abandon to these fresh and young surfers that I find so very compelling. They haven’t the grace yet of the more adult surfers, but they have quick, jerky movements that show off their imagination and agility. Of course, they crash into the surf again and again. Unfazed, they get right back on the boards and paddle out to try again.


Ed and I are not ready for a swim. I suggest a hike up one of the hills – the one to our side, you might say the lesser one – a touch wild, not that beloved (these days) by the locals (but as we find out – very much beloved by French hikers). I’m thinking – a 45 minute walk up, a good view and then back to town for further exploring.

So how is it that this evolved into a day long hike along the rugged coast, putting us in the neighboring port town of Pasaia?

Very early into the hike, the views back toward the Gros beach and, too, the city, are exquisite.


Here, let me zoom in a tiny bit so you can get a feel for this gorgeous sweep of sand and of the ribbon of surfers waiting, paddling, waiting...


But the trail then quickly plunges into a forest that obstructs further views. 


And when it opens up again, we see that we've rounded the hill and so the city is lost somewhere behind. 


And where are we anyway? We see a complicated sign. Ed takes out the iPhone and starts working on a translation. A French hiker coming towards us pauses and offers some information.
If you continue on this path, in a few hours you will be in the next town along the coast.
Is it a nice place?
An interesting port. And the climb is along the coast. Very nice.

And so we have a plan. And maybe no one is surprised that on our first day in the city, we are actually hiking outside the city, in the lonely quiet of a cliff side trail.


We make a detour to the peak of Monte Ulia. That was, after all, the initial destination. And I cannot say if it's the fault of the clouds or the fault of the trees that have sprouted at the summit, but the truth is you can't see anything at all from this peak.We spend some time sitting on a step watching a grandfather make a bow and arrow set for his grandson.


 And then we pick up the ridge trail again and continue the hike. This is when the clouds thin out.


We begin to feel the heat of the day. We're not prepared for a longer hike. We each have only one bottle of water (that fits in a pant pocket). But, the views are multiplying -- one beauty after another and it's really not that far now, just beyond this lighthouse...


There, down we go toward Pasaia. And let me say this about Pasaia: the entrance to the port is quite pretty.


And there are many reminders that we are in the Basque region:


...but in the end, Pasaia is a commercial port. The kind where freighters pull in and have scrap metal dumped into their hold. So, it's loud. (Sound carries over water)

We stay long enough to buy a very refreshing glass of freshly squeezed juice and catch the bus back to San Sebastian.

In the heat of a now almost sunny late afternoon (early evening?), people have flocked to the sands. The beaches are crowded, even as the waves are still insignificant, from a surfer's perspective.


Some are still waiting, paddling, waiting. Others take their boards and pedal home. Impressive how they can do that, through the busy streets of San Sebastian.



So should we swim? -- Ed asks.
Ice cream first. Then a brief rest...


And maybe it's because suddenly the air is sticky and very warm, or maybe it's because we (unexpectedly) hiked for a good four hours today, or, let's be honest -- maybe it's that the little white room with its small bed has superb WiFi -- for whatever reason, we never make it to the beach on this day.

We do remember the lesson from yesterday: don't wait too long for dinner. By 9 we're poking into bars and hunting down eateries and, too, taking in all the commotion, because here, as in Barcelona, as in perhaps most cities in Spain, you come out in the evening for a stroll. To walk, talk, drink, nibble, take in the street theater.


 It takes us a while (many false turns, disappointing discoveries, padlocked doors) to locate a dinner place. But there it is -- in the Old Town -- a really sweet little restaurant -- La Muralla. It has a simplicity to it that, for us, is very appealing. And it has a fixed price menu that's a steal. 

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If there is any unfortunate part to this meal it is that I tell Ed that I think using a finger to assist in the clearing of a plate is perhaps not a great plan. (With a main course, he'll use bread for this, but as he points out, that is not an option with dessert.) Anyone who has seen the two of us in this mode where I give 'gentle' pointers on what is appropriate to do in public (or, more often, what is not appropriate to do in public) will I'm sure be smiling. Because you'd think that I will have learned by now that when I nudge him in his way, he responds with an impish continuation of exactly that which I suggest (again, 'gently') he might want to put off for another time.

So here's Ed, finishing a delicious chocolate dessert:

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And here are the lights of San Sebastian as we cross the river to return to our sweet little white room in Gros.