Basque dancing, seen here at the Palacio de Miramar, takes many forms, with up to 400 different dances recorded. Each province has its own styles for festivals and other special events.
San Sebastian – Long Read

More Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than Paris

Photo by Javier Larrea

San Sebastian – Long Read More Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than Paris

Hello San Sebastian, called Donostia in the Basque language spoken by so many of the people of this region of northern Spain – whose food is only one of its major attractions. Once a Belle Epoque seaside resort, the city has more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than Paris and a fast-growing surfing culture.

Kike del Olmo
Kike del Olmo Travel Photographer

“EVERY time I return to San Sebastian, the city greets me with grey skies, with rain,” says Pablo Garmendia. He was born in Donostia, the Basque name for San Sebastian, but work has displaced him to the south of Spain. “This weather is so much a part of who we are. And yet, nevertheless, it does not dampen the magic of this place, whose light comes off the sea. Those of us born here even miss the zirimiri, which is when it rains without raining. We carry all this in our blood.”

The zirimiri is a drizzle so soft, so fragile and imperceptible that it’s as if it weren’t falling at all. Then, after a while, I realize it has soaked me down to the very bones. It is a mark of local identity that has been slowly disappearing. Some blame its loss on climate change.

The people of San Sebastian allow neither the rain nor the cold to put a damper on their plans, as you can see every December 25 at noon. I take a stroll along the Playa de la Concha on Christmas Day and can see some 150 people taking a plunge in the icy Bay of Biscay, swimming out to a buoy and back. It’s an annual event that supports a worthy local charity.

Many Donostierras take this dip in the sea each and every day of the year as a form of healthy exercise. “We never catch colds,” says a woman in her 60s as she comes out of the water, her skin purple with cold but her eyes sparkling with life. “The sea is our doctor and, besides, I like it cold like this. In summer, the beach is full of people and the water is warm. I come just the same but don’t enjoy it as much. In winter, walking out of this water is rejuvenating.”

When the swimmers emerge from the waves, they pass the beach strollers wrapped up in warm coats, scarves and hats. The contrast gives them even more strength, and makes them feel even more alive.

Tides can radically change the landscape

La Concha is the most famous of the city’s three beaches. It is protected by the island of Santa Clara which closes off the bay, calming the waves in a way not seen along the rest of the coastline.

The relationship between the sea and the region’s inhabitants is a powerful one, perhaps because of their history as fishermen or the present link to tourism, with its surfers and beach life. The city’s beaches are separated tacitly in a sort of natural tradition. Ondarreta is the most family-oriented, while Zurriola has become the hang-out for young people and surfers. La Concha brings everyone together.

The tides can radically change the landscape, the atmosphere and activities because of the huge contrast between low and high tide. At low tide, an enormous strip of hard, damp sand appears where people can stroll instead of walking on the cobblestoned promenade nearby. I see people of all ages walking to and fro, as well as runners, a football club practising, couples sitting and dogs that shed their leashes and run in all directions as if possessed.

Donostia was once the chosen vacation spot of Europe’s aristocracy, led by the Spanish Royal Family. The result is a smattering of buildings and palaces that have given the city a bourgeois feel which it has never shaken. These include the Grand Casino (currently City Hall), the Miramar Palace (summer residence to the kings) and the imposing bridges over the River Urumea.

People dress up to go out for a walk

Clearly, San Sebastian is a bourgeois city, classical in its form and attitude, where parents push babies in oversized strollers, like those from old photos from the 1960s, where men wear a sweater over their shoulders like a uniform, be it spring or summer. The women at their sides are done-up and walk self-assuredly as if to establish the existence of a matriarchal society, which is more historical legacy than reality.

People dress up to go out for a walk, showing off leather coats, necklaces and rings, not just to be seen but because this is how it’s always been done, even if it seems a bit outdated now.

“There’s a lot of foolishness in this city, the way we look at ourselves as if we were the center of the world,” says Susana Ribo. “Ask around in nearby villages what people there think of us.” She works in marketing and advertising, and understands people’s desires perfectly. “Look at the music from the Basque Country from the 1990s. Punk was king among the young but here we were listening to more melodious music, more pop and even music from the so-called ‘Donosti’ sound,” she says, laughing.

But San Sebastian-Donostia is changing. The “Belle Epoque” is over, as are the turbulent years under the threat of the terrorist group, ETA, with its violent protests and extortion rackets that kept people on edge. Modernization is happening, young people are taking charge and the award of 2016 European Capital of Culture seemed inevitable.

You can feel the good vibes

I meet up with my friend Gonzalo Etxeberria, who runs an ad agency, to talk about the present. Speaking about ETA’s long truce, he is sure of one thing. “There’s a clear ‘before’ and ‘after’,” he says. “Today, Donostia is a tourist city where you can feel the good vibes. In summer, it fills with people from all over the world. Before, this didn’t happen. It was pretty normal to see confrontations between young people and the police, or you were forced off a bus and then they’d torch it. This sort of thing went on. We got used to the street violence and now luckily we barely even remember it. Before, you wouldn’t talk about it at all on the street, out of fear. We just wanted to turn the page and enjoy the moment.”

We’re in the Koh Tao coffee bar, one of those venues that is beginning to break the mold. It has mismatched second-hand chairs, all-natural juices and teas, and a relaxed atmosphere. Customers sip coffee while looking at their smartphones, typing away on computers, or just enjoying the banter with others.

From here, on the far side of the River Urumea, you can see a huge building with cranes. It’s the old tobacco factory, Gonzalo tells me. “The Egia neighborhood could be the starting point for an entire revolution,” he says. “Here they’ve opened places that we never would have imagined. El Dabadaba, el Staaf and the Bukowski form a triangle of very interesting concert spaces and cultural centers. And the flagship for 2016 is a new cultural space right there in the old factory. They want to turn it into an enormous hub of culture. We’ll see. For the moment no one knows for sure what’s going on.”

Egia borders on the Gros neighborhood, which is still the main hang-out for the young. The Kursaal is its main draw: two impressive crystal cubes conceived by the architect Rafael Moneo, just in front of the Zurriola beach and which hosts shows and exhibitions constantly.

Much more work has been done than it seems

But Gonzalo is right; the organization Donosti 2016, which has had three presidents in three years, has stumbled along, making little progress. “At last it seems things are starting to work. The new director, Pablo Berastegui, is experienced and comes from the world of culture. I hope he gets things moving.”

Berastegui himself is warning that a lot of hard work lies ahead. “Time is running out, but there are always complications in any cultural project. I think 2016 is going to work out, it’s coming together and much more work has been done than it seems.”

At any rate, the future of the city is likely to be fun-filled, if 2016 moves forward and people successfully combine that with what today is the city’s other mark of identity: pintxos. A form of tapas that is haute cuisine in miniature and mixes innovation with tradition, it fills the many bars of the Old Quarter, where countertops overflow with food. At some point in the morning or afternoon, I make sure to get lost in a bar. This part of town hosts the largest concentration of bars per square meter in all of Spain.

I join the crowds who pop into one, eat a pintxo and drink a txakoli (local white wine), a zurito (small glass of beer) or a glass of red wine, before heading off to the next. The bars themselves, long and completely covered in textured, colorful assortments of food, are a sight to see. “Can I get you something?” a waiter asks a group of French tourists who seem undecided. In the old days, clients would eat whatever they wanted and when done the waiter would count up all the little serving-sticks – each pintxo has one – to know what to charge. But today, in many bars, the waiters bring you the food; the result, no doubt, of dishonesty among some clientele.

Relax with co-workers, friends or family

“El Poteo” – as the act of going out to drink and eat pintxos in bars is known – is a tradition unaltered by time, a moment to relax with co-workers, friends or family. “In Donostian culture everything revolves around food,” says Susana Ribo, who’s joined me at the Koh Tao. “And not just because of the reputation of our chefs [San Sebastian boasts 16 Michelin stars, and four restaurants have three stars] but because all celebrations involve sitting down to eat. I remember my student years in Madrid, when we’d wake up at the dorms on a weekend morning. We Basques were always running around making sandwiches or cooking, always in the kitchen.

“How do you think the Gros neighborhood became revitalized? With the “PintxoPote,” a concept in which one day a week they give you a free pintxo with your glass of wine… the neighborhood has filled up with people and once again has a great atmosphere.” Susana smiles and raises her glass in a toast.

Urgell and Igueldo are the sentinels, the two mountains that guard the city from the east and west and give it its distinct shape. Each time I come back, I climb one of the two peaks to enjoy the views. But I admit that the old amusement park on Igueldo usually draws me up that one. It’s a small, simple and antiquated spot, a real treat. “They ought to fix the place up a little, it’s really old,” says a father who’s climbed up here with his family, perhaps with hopes for something more Disneyfied.

“But that’s what’s so great about the place,” says his wife. “Look how much fun the kids have here.” I don’t agree with her but I leave the debate to them and head back down to the coast to see the Wind Comb. This is perhaps the most iconic sculpture created by artist Eduardo Chillida, and I believe it defines the city’s feel very well. Sea meets strong but rusty iron, elegance meets toughness as the Wind Comb fights against the sea.

It is designed with holes through which the seawater fountains at certain states of the tide. Today, with the big waves crashing in, I am hoping to see the spectacle but I’m out of luck. The sea is not even rough enough to send spray over the sculpture itself. This city of gentle rain once again shows its calm side.

TRVL Favorites

…from the TRVL community