Day 3 & 4: San Sebastian – between the hills and the sea
I arrive in San Sebastian from Hendaye in the evening – had a splendid sunset view on the train when red hue and strips covered the sky. I stayed at “A Room In The City” guesthouse which was only 5 mins walking from the train station (Amara) and 5 mins walking from La Concha beach. It’s the best location in town that I can think of. They have clean and quiet rooms, spacious bathroom, common kitchen with free fruits and snacks (never seen such generous hostel), computers and TV room, reading room (with books and maps!), and a sunny terrace with chairs for all. That’s why I always prefer guesthouses than hotels: which hotel would give me all those services? For the price of 13 euros/night/bed. The guesthouse have private rooms too, but I’m okay with dormitary.
I took a walk in the city, the scenery was very pleasant and still full of Christmas decorations. The town hall looks like a Disney building, luminous and extra pink. The milky white waves caressed the sandy beach, and the crescent shore gently reflected all the lights it received from the land.
I like that the Christmas lights there were about traditional careers, such as wood cutter, smith, butcher,…
I reached the Old Town, where the density of bars is the highest in the world, and it certainly showed. Every street is lined up with bars, every bar is full of ample pintxos and cheering people.
I looked for “Kokotxa”, a local restaurant specialized in a seafood dish that I’d seen a youtube video about. I wrote to book a table there 3 days before I departed, but only when I arrived in San Sebastian that they replied me they were full. I still passed by to see if I had any chance, but the seats were all taken. The restaurant lay in a dark alley which seemed to be separated from the rest of the lively Old Town.
So I went to Borda Berri, a pintxos bar that my hostel said “might have the best tasting food in town”, and I had to agree with them. The menu was written on a chalk board, I didn’t understand most of the food names, I ordered it randomly and they were all superb, merluza or piquillo or pulpo. They cooked it at your order and one small dish at a time. It was very crowded and people don’t sit down, as usual at pintxos bars. It would be more calm if you come before Spanish dining hour.
Other bars looked sumptuous too, some have all the “thank you” notes from customers hanging on their window as a testimony.
Next day, I got up early to watch the sunrise, as my traveling habit. But in winter days it’s almost impossible to see a sunrise. The sea and the town still looked beautiful in the twilight colors of the dawn hours. There was an electronic board next to the beach which counted the number of runners or bikers passing by, and I saw a lot.
God and man (and a dog):
Then I passed by La Bretxa market, another traveling habit. I bought some Iberico bellota ham there with half the price when it’s exported to other countries. It’s a pity that the food stalls had been pushed into the basement to make place for a shopping mall. Who care about shopping malls?
La Bretxa means “The breach” in basque, because it had been the weak point of the city’s fortified walls, and had been breached several times in battles. In fact, San Sebastian had a dark past in the Napoleonic Wars: the city was burnt to ground after a siege, and the Old Town nowadays is not that old.
At noon, I took a bus to go to the 3 Michelin stars restaurant Akelarre on the top of Mount Igeldo, which I had successfully booked. It located next to a peaceful meadow and looked down the sea. No wonder internet reviews of it always rave about “the view”. I had to ask some farmer there for the way – an old man who didn’t speak english kindly led me into his garden and pointed to Akelarre in the distance. The cows kept staring at me.
I like the designing of the restaurant room, in that you can see the ocean whenever you sat. A table next to windows of course would offer better view, which mine wasn’t. The foods were pretty, the taste was good, the dishes were playful and the staff were professional without being too formal – I can’t stand formal ambience. They asked me where I came from, then offered to speak French with me. I agreed, and their French was quite decent.
I asked one staff how they grilled the fish so that it was still juicy. Without my expectation, he suggested to take me for a tour of the kitchen. Their kitchen was neat and very well-arranged, with a room for testing new dishes. The famous chef, Pedro Subijana, was standing there and coordinating his dishes. When he saw me, he shook hands with me and spoke in French. He was like a joyful grandpa. He told me how he grilled his fish, but I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to reproduce the same taste. After the meal, he came out of the kitchen and greet every table, including me again. It was a meal of 3 hours, the longest I’ve ever had.
I left Akelarre, filled to every corner of my stomach. I waited at the bus stop to go down – the bus came only once a half hour. After 15 mins waiting, I saw a car stopping in front of me. It was the staff of Akelarre who had spoken French with me. He had finished work for the lunch and said he could take me back to the town. I didn’t expect that kindness!
I entered his car, then after 5 mins of driving he suggested to drop me at a park at the top of Mount Igeldo with a great view over San Sebastian. I thought why not, I was having a perfect day. I said thank to him and headed to the park. It was an amusement park with the tiny price of 2.5 euros. The view was indeed wonderful.
There was an old watchtower at the top, which claimed to give “the best view in the world”. I wanted to climb it, but the price was 2 euros and they didn’t accept credit card, nor did I have enough to give them (I had to save for the bus back to town, I hadn’t initially intended to spend anything after Akelarre). I was about to leave when another visitor insisted on paying for me. Too much kindness in a day.
I enjoyed the watchtower tremendously, but I wouldn’t call it the best view in the world. The best for me would be the view from some real mountain up, or the view of Venice from San Giorgio Maggiore’s bell tower.
Then I realized I had no idea how to go back to town. My cellphone has no internet. I’d brought a paper map with me that noon but I’d incidentally dropped it somewhere. I asked people, they told me to take the funicular then the bus. Took me 30 mins to buy the funicular ticket – they pointed me to run around. After that, the bus – I had no idea where it was heading to, except that was “town center”. As soon as I saw La Concha beach, I left the bus and traced back the shore. I could easily have gone back to my hostel then, but I had booked the pintxos tour of Hotel Maria Cristina, and I got 15 mins to walk there, without a map. I asked people for direction, fortunately Hotel Maria Cristina is popular so many sellers on the street knew it. I kept asking after each 200m, to make sure I didn’t head the wrong way. I ran and I sweat. Finally I reach the hotel 5 mins before time 🙂
Our guide was a young local guy, just like a student. But he knew about his town and his food, I was delightful to hear that he also knew his cooking in Basque gastronomy. He was surprised when knowing that I wasn’t American: almost all of his customers were. I told him that an American (is it?) had recommended the tour to me. We talked for a while before another couple turned up – that’s all of our tour. I told the guide which pintxos I ate the previous day, he said he would adapt the tour to avoid repetition. The couple told him what they were allergic to, that also required him a lot of adapting, but the guy was doing great. He was extremely charming, and the couple were very nice people too. I don’t know what we talked about, but at the end of the tour we already discussed about the guide’s girlfriend and why he should marry her immediately 😉
We tried 6 bars, many different pintxos, the beverage to go with it and some cheese cake at the end, which was exquisite. The guide promised to send the cheese cake recipe to us, which he hasn’t till now, but I don’t blame him, he has a very hot girlfriend to deal with.
One of my favorites of the tour is “Gilda” pintxo, which is supposed to be a sexy bite. Look it up and you’ll see why.
I admit, that night I couldn’t sleep because I ate too much.
I had another morning to explore San Sebastian before going back to my normal life. I decided to go to Mount Urgull for another bird-eye view, the giant Jesus statue looking over the bay, and the military stronghold at the top which played a part in the Siege of San Sebastian in the aforementioned wars. The nice Church of Santa María lay at the Mount’s feet. The weather was excellent for my whole stay in the town.
Once again, I lost my way on the Mount, but luckily it’s not a big hill. I ran back to the hotel, check out with 6 bags of Basque food, ran to the train station and still have 10 mins to buy ticket. Phew.
Reluctant to leave the town, but I’ll come back some time. I’ll never forget the generosity of this trip.