independent

Monday 21 April 2014

San Sebastian: Basque in its glory

From its pintxos to phantom beaches, San Sebastian is one of the best city breaks Europe has to offer

San Sebastian is framed by leafy green mountains.

Why go?

Location, location, location. We all know the property mantra, but San Sebastian takes things to another level. Curving around the scallop-shaped La Concha beach, framed by leafy green mountains and boasting an Old Town rammed with pintxo bars, the city is a stunner.

But it's more than just a pretty face. San Sebastian – Donostia, in Basque – has more Michelin stars per capita than any other city.

Surfing beaches and a sweeping promenade forming part of the Camino de Santiago's northern route match an outdoorsy exuberance to the epicurean delights – and if that wasn't enough, it's shaping up to be the European City of Culture 2016.

Buckle your seatbelts: this could be the best 48 hours of the summer.

See

San Sebastian grew up as a fishing village hugging Mount Urgull, and despite, its global fame, it's still home to barely 183,000 souls. That's why, even though well-heeled tourists have been coming in droves since Queen Isabel II first took the sea air in 1845, it still feels like an intimate city break.

The harbour at San Sebastian.

First stop has to be the Old Town. San Sebastian was almost completely razed by Anglo-Portuguese soldiers in 1813 – in the process of 'liberating' it from Napoleonic occupation – but its tightknit streets feel as if they've been that way forever.

Stop into Constitution Square, where numbers above the windows hark back to its former life as a bullring, or join the queue for fresh bread and croissants at Galparsoro (Calle Mayor, 6). It's the bakery locals wish you didn't know about.

If you're going to do one museum in San Sebastian, make it San Telmo (santelmomuseoa.com; €5). This repository of Basque culture and history is housed in a converted Dominican convent, so you'll find archaeological treasures or works by local sculptor Eduardo Chillida, for example, interspersed with a gorgeous cloister and moody old church.

Don't miss the traditional women's headdresses banned in the early 17th century "due to their interpretation as a phallic symbol". You decide.

Chill out

Playa de La Concha is the principle beach in San Sebastian, a sweeping zinger wrapped like a necklace around the Bay of Donostia. It was here that Queen Maria Cristina built her Miramar Palace, that Jake Barnes swam in Hemingway's 'The Sun Also Rises', and that generations of locals continue to walk, jog, kayak, sail, swim, hug and kiss on the prom and sands. It's a plum spot for sunset.

Another option for a post-prandial is the Paseo Nuevo, a section of the promenade skirting the base of Mount Urgull. From crashing waves to hikers walking the Camino de Santiago and canoodling couples lingering under the lights of the former casino – now the town hall – it's quite the coastal stroll.

Eat

Basque cuisine punches so far above its weight, it's dizzying. San Sebastian has 16 Michelin Stars at the latest count, with restaurants such as Arzak (Av del Alcalde Jose Elosegi, 273; arzak.es) and Mugaritz (Errenteria; mugaritz.com) ranking in S. Pellegrino's World's 10 Best.

Top-notch ingredients, snap-fresh fish and breathtakingly creative chefs keep the avant-garde evolving too. Best of all, you don't have to spend a fortune to eat well. The local tapas, known as pintxos (pronounced 'pinch-ohs'), are an art unto themselves.

Take a txikiteo (the local term for a pintxo bar-crawl), and you can piece together an entire meal out of these magical marriages of tapas, amuse bouches and bruschetta-style bread bites, washed down with wine, beer or Basque cider.

Everyone has their favourite pintxo places, but pick of the bunch for me were the gildas – big, buttery olives with local guindilla peppers and anchovy – at the edgily cosmopolitan A Fuego Negro (31 de Augusto; afuegonegro.com), the spider-crab tartlets at Bar Ganbara (C/San Jeronimo, 21; ganbarajatetxea.com), and a quick fix of artichokes with ruby-red jamon and salsa at Casa Urola (Fermin Calbeton, 20; casaurolajatetxea.es).

I capped the latter with a cold beer chaser, standing at the bar, for the sum total of €4.40. Yum.

There's always a bit of trial and error with tapas. But the tips I found most useful were: find out each bar's speciality; order fresh from the kitchen as well as picking from the counter; and get your bearings with a tour such as Flavours of San Sebastian (sansebastianturismo.com; €18pp).

Sleep

I stayed at the Hotel Codina (hotelcodina.es; doubles from €85). It's a smart enough three-star on Av. Zumalacarregui, a short walk from Playa Ondarreta. My rate was room-only, so I braced for a sting at breakfast. I needn't have bothered. Coffee, a croissant and fresh OJ cost all of €3.70.

For a luxury stay, check out – or check into – the Maria Cristina Hotel (hotel-mariacristina.com). This is San Sebastian's sole five-star hotel, and its spacious Belle Epoque rooms have been lounged about in by guests ranging from Mata Hari to John Malkovich. Going to press, it had a 'Luxury Romance' package offering B&B, flowers and a bottle of wine from €200 per night.

Kids

San Sebastian isn't hot on family-friendly hotels, but it is a kid-friendly city. Playgrounds pop up in squares all over Gros, Centro and even the Old Town, there's a carousel on the prom, and an old funicular chugs up Mount Igueldo (monteigueldo.es; €3).

Take a spin for some awesome views and an amusement park packed with kitschy bumpers, toboggans and a 'Casa del Terror'.

Surfing is another option. Zurriola Beach is the strip to hit for waves, and I got stuck in over the course of an hour-long private lesson with Puka Surf School (booked through surfholidays.com for €52, including equipment). Gorka, my instructor, educated me as much about Basque culture as catching waves, and the urban setting reminded me of Sydney's Bondi Beach.

"Where you look, you go," he deadpanned. Sure enough, I went toppling into the sea.

Day trip

Aer Lingus flies into Bilbao, about an hour and 15 minutes by road from San Sebastian, so it makes sense to spend the first or last day there. It's the Basque Country's biggest and busiest city, and the undisputed highlight is its Museo Guggenheim (guggenheim-bilbao.es).

Another option is San Sebastian's 'phantom' fourth beach. Most tourists remark on the beauty of Santa Clara Island, which rests like a giant turtle in Donostia Bay, but few know that low tides reveal a small, sandy strip at the foot of its rocky slopes.

You can get there by taking one of the glass-bottomed boats leaving the harbour (motorasdelaisla.com) from June to September.

NEED TO KNOW 

Getting there and around

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies direct from Dublin to Bilbao on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. From Bilbao Airport, the bus connection to San Sebastian (pesa.net; €16.50) takes 75 minutes.

Taxis appear pricey at first, with a €5.33 standing charge during regular hours, and €6.18 after-hours or on weekends, but they trickle upwards at a relatively sane rate.

San Sebastian is very walkable, but I'd recommend hiring a bike if you're looking to cover serious ground. Public transport costs can be cut with the San Sebastian Card, which offers reduced rates and discounted entry to various attractions from €8 for six journeys over three days. See sansebastianturismo.com for more.

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