Travelogue Iberia 2: San Sebastian

9-12 September 2013

We picked up “Negrita”, our black Seat Ibiza, at the Europcar without complication – and I was worried with how casually the date change had been handled sans paperwork – and took the first motions into our road trip experience. 

It wasn’t the easiest of asks, having Christian execute his first left hand drive experience in amidst the bustle of Estacio de Barcelona-Sants, with me having to navigate using a city map (why oh why didn’t we bring Lixi and her mad maps skills?!)… that didn’t show the one ways!! Fortunately though, more by dumb luck than design, the station is toward the edge of town so there wasn’t too much to endure to get onto the highw

ay out of Barcelona. And soon we were on our way – the 573km from Barcelona to San Sebastian.

It was slow going at first, while Christian found his feet (on the wrong side of the car), but at least the open road offered fewer challenges while we got used to our new appointments. 

There wasn’t much of interest in interior Catalunya – although I’m sure that there must be more to offer slightly off the beaten track since Lleida (about 2 hours inland from Barcelona) is a relatively successful wine district, that we’d intended an overnight in on some of our earlier draft itineraries. 

Amazingly, the landscape changed dramatically as we left Catalunya and travelled through Aragon, which is sparsely populated and known for its mountains, castles and ancient stone villages. We’d contemplated a stop in its capital, Zaragoza, which Kate (our hostess in Barcelona) had told us feels like a town out of an old Western, but were keen to get to our destination so decided to keep moving. 

Our last intended stop was Pamplona but, on reading up and realising it was only really famous for Running of The Bulls on 6 July, we again decided to skip it and keep on trucking.

What might’ve been a good overnighter, had we had more time on this trip, is La Rioja, where the best red wines in Spain are produced. It would be good to enjoy an afternoon of wine-tasting on the Basque side as an introduction to Basque Country… but clearly not with driving to do afterwards!

We had some difficulty entering San Sebastian as the Google Maps I’d downloaded were quite vague and the road and offramp numbering didn’t seem to correspond with the signage. (Oh, and I’d managed to accidentally throw the print outs away at the first truck stop… but got free wifi and redownloaded them at the second). Everything made infinitely more confusing by the reference to San Sebastian suffixed with “Donostia”, its Basque name. We took a wrong turn initially and ended in the thick of a suburb completely the wrong end of town, but managed to navigate back onto the highway and instinct our way into town correctly. 

I’d booked us another apartment through since we had 3 nights in San Sebastian, so the logic was to have a bit more freedom to eg make a light breakfast or just a cup of coffee (not for me, clearly). This meant we were placed in the slightly more suburban part of town, across the dividing waterway from the central sights and main beaches. Of course, this turned out to be a matter of only a few blocks – with several bridge crossings – as commonly happens when maps make cities seem bigger or more complicated than they are in real life scale.

I’d selected our location (in Egia) largely based on the promise of it being the only neighbourhood in San Sebastian with free parking (costing up to €20 per night elsewhere!), both on our one-way downhill  road (Calle Virgen del Carmen) and the parallel one-way uphill road (Avenida de Ametzagana). It was clear, however, that this was not a well kept secret! I have never seen such expert parallel parking! The kind of level of expert that is only achieved through constant necessity! Cars that had wheedled their way.into a bay with mere single digit centimetres of space front and back! Worse still was the number of cars with bumpers touching both sides! What if we get parked in?? Or someone bumps us and we’re liable for the hefty €780 excess on our rental?? And why oh why had we let Europcar upgrade us for free, when we could have had the halfloaf Fiat 500 to park?!

Anyway, we couldn’t worry about all those things at once, so we decided on focusing on finding our building first, a parking (big enough for an amateur left-hand driver and reasonable parallel parker) second and the courage to leave the car there last.

Fortunately, the very blurry seemingly-not-to-scale map got us to the right apartment block, where Christian parked in the loading bay across the road to offload our bags and then set off to hunt down a parking while i sorted our check-in and induction.

There really wasn’t much to induct since our “apartment” was little more than a room. Obviously our landlord had converted a room of their apartment into a flatlet by adding a built-in kitchenette unit and a minute bathroom. But, it was lovely and modern and new, with clean and soft bedding on the 3/4 bed, so no complaints. 

Christian took some time to find a parking, but in the meantime I managed to get some great advice on local sights and eating spots from residents on their way into the building. By this time it was well after 9pm and, on the good advice of our new neighbours, we nipped straight out to a bodega called Beti Boga in the next road to grab a quick bite.

Tapas has now been replaced with pintxos (nibblybits), racions (bigger portions of nibblybits) and bocadillas (baguettes). The bocadillas are very good with generous amounts of meats and grilled cheese, with fresh garnish for crunch. All washed down with a cervesa, of course.

It had been a long day on top of a short night so we were finished and hunkered down (relatively) early, comparatively.

It was disappointing to wake up to grey skies, especially since Tuesday was supposed to be our San Sebastian beach day. Christian had popped down to the shops to get supplies so he made us scrambled eggs on fried bread (genius, since we had no toaster) in our kitchen (which is also our bedroom), while I started plotting a walking tour at our desk (which is also our dining room, coffee table and bedside table).

We crossed the bridge and made our way into Centro, did a turn through the Parte Vieja (where the old and famous buildings are) and were heading for a stroll along the waterfront at Playa de la Concha when the heavens opened.

We sought solace in Garagar… the local Irish pub… and listened to not very  Basque international chart tunes while we sipped not very Irish Cokes and played cards. 

Luckily the rain ebbed long enough for us to find the tourist office so we could source a local map to organise our walking tour further and another to prepare our day trip to France the following day… and get to McDonalds to do all that over a McBacon!

With renewed energy and ambition, we took on Mont Urgell, climbing the steep hill to get to the bastions, castle walls and enormous statue of Christ that overlook the city and, best of all, Isla de Santa Clara (700m into La Concha bay, that I fondly refer to as “My Island”). It was a hefty climb, but so so worth it.

San Sebastian is really easily navigable once you have a tourist map, so it was easy peasy to then wander over to Playa de Zarriola and back again for a promenade stroll and some very civilised sundowners at La Perla overlooking Playa de La Concha.

It’s a great section for people-watching. It’s a far more glamourous and sophisticated city than Barcelona, probably largely due to an older population. The hotpants jeans shorts from Barcelona are replaced with lots of beige and twin sets in San Sebastian. And all the old ladies have dogs – Yorkies, Maltese, Boston Terriers… – which has made me very houndsick for the Sausages!

And sausages make me think of food…

Which makes me hungry…

So we went in search of food…

Which is an odd affair here. 

Restaurants and pubs have their pintxos displayed on the bar counter and you pick and choose what you want. Hot pintxos are either displayed in “raw” form on the counter or listed on boards. It’s sub-optimal thinking for me. I dislike the idea that the baguette open sandwiches are left lying around to get stale and I can’t reconcile eating a mouthful at a time at €2 – €4 a pop! So… we only had Txakoli (local wine) and moved on.

… finding a rock bar called Minuto Y Medio. 

A tiny little place at the edge of town that caught our attention with their heavy metal themed menu and endless complimentary crisps. If it hadn’t been for the Kantxa (a shooter cross between Jagermeister and Sambuca) we might still be there!

We were relieved when Wednesday morning was cloudy but bright, concerned that another day of rain would ruin our planned daytrip to France.  We celebrated with homemade boiled egg and soldiers, innovatively served in carved-off sections of the egg carton and prepared for evac.

We entered the city quite blind since we didn’t have a detailed street map, but instinct told us to stick to the marina, which we did and it paid off with a brilliant parking bay perpendicular to the road, that we could drive forward into! Simple pleasures indeed!

We’d seen a Turistico sign when we entered town so headed off on foot in that general direction. The town is very patriotic, with lots of houses, shops and apartments displaying the green, red and white Basque flag and the Hondarribia red cross and crest on white flag. This might not be a year-round phenomenon though as we found out later that 8 September sees the commemoration of victory over the city’s worst siege in history (in 1638), still celebrated annually with the Alarde parade.

There remained an air of festivity,  especially as we approached the old city, where there were families being entertained with music and people dressed up in strange caricature costumes with quite dramatic overgrown head masks.

Although this area has been inhabited since the Paleolithic Age,it only started fortifying in the Middle Ages after being granted its town charter in 1203. It was during the Renaissance that the city took on the form still showing (in part) today – the robust walls, strongholds, drawbridges and moats – and was so sturdily built that it resisted nine major military blockades, with a well preserved grid of cobblestone streets, stately buildings, wrought iron balconies and finely carved eaves to show for it.

It’s well worth the half hour or so trot around the old city and, having secured a free walking tour map from the tourist office on Arma Plaza, we easily navigated around the narrow cobbled streets – and the bitesize snippets of info on the map tell you what you’re looking at.

As luck would have it, the exit gate at the end of our tour was right near our car so, all in all, it was quite an effortless stop!

Christian masterfully negotiated a seemingly endless series of roundabouts to get us on the road to France. A €1,70 toll (bringing tolls from San Sebastian to France to a total of €4,30) saw us cross the border with 25km to go to Biarritz.

It’s a beautiful town with big elegant buildings lining a spectacular seaside, with a warm blanket of shops cushioning the shore – enough that there’s everything you’d need; not so much to intimidate the day-visitor. 

Again we easily secured a tourist map (available at any of the many hotels) and saw that there aren’t many formal sights per (discounting the naval museum and aquarium), so we busied ourselves with a review of the esplanade and an enormous filled baguette lunch in the Port Vieux enclave. This tiny beach is a genuine natural swimming pool with high rock walls on 3 sides facing the open sea. Napoleon III opened baths here in 1858, but subsequent the bathing huts have been replaced by the stairs and a horseshoe of freestone for bathers and sunworshippers to enjoy. 

We opted to take on the more ambitious sights to work off lunch, including the best vantage points at Belle Vue and then top of the lighthouse – all 248 steps to the top of it! Built in 1834 and standing 73 metres above sea level it offers exceptional views over the Basque coast the sea and the mountains, but is very windy. Worth the €2,50 entrance fees, but not for the faint of heart with the number of stairs and the stairwell quite dark at the bottom and snug at the top where the lighthouse narrows. The other option for similar views is then to walk across the footbridge to Rocher de la Vierge, which is a big rock in the sea that Napoloeon III planned to use to anchor a port he planned to create. He apparently didn’t get that far, but at least built the bridge so there’s access to this peninsula from which you can admire the vast ocean in front and the landscape behind.

We’d planned our time well and as our 3 hour parking (metred at €4) was up,we were done. A very pleasant roadtrip all in all.

Back in San Sebastian, we deposited the car in the same neighbourhood it had been parked the night before – at the top of the hill near a grand old cemetery. It was a beautiful sunny evening so we decided to redo the walking tour from the previous day, with more patience and for better photos. 

We didn’t even need to follow the map and now seem to know our way around San Sebastian, even being able to find our favourite pintxos spot in the heart of the muddle of crossroads in Parte Vieja! 

Back at Astlana 1960, we had txakoli and Keler and made an attempt at pintxos, ordering bacalao croquettes and bacalao with onions (bacalao is cod, which I’d never had before). The place was as full as the previous night, but luckily we got a table (well, a keg barrel and barstools). We seemed to be the only people that lingered and in the time it took us to have 3 drinks and pinxtos – which we ordered one at a time with our drinks – the clientele had turned over several times. 

With the food all laid out on the counter, the experience seems unlike any restaurants we have at home – people walk in and join the queue that runs the width of the bar; when they get to the front they load up a side plate with cold tapas off the platters on the bar counter and order hot tapas and drinks from the barman; then they move away and stand (mostly) around little cocktail table peninsulas affixed to the walls (some inside, mostly on the outside walls in the street; barman delivers hot tapas; eat, drink, move on… and presumably repeat. it doesn’t seem like a whole lot of food is eaten in a meal – and it’s a very expensive way to eat (although th

ere is no obvious price displayed so this doesn’t seem to be an issue). It also seems to follow the Spanish disregard for mealtimes and as many people were filtering in at 10pm when we left as were there when we arrived at 8!