(This post is part of my series on the Basque Country. Click here for Bilbao, here for San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, and here for the Vizcaya Bridge.)
San Sebastián is a city much unlike Bilbao. For one, it is noticeably smaller, with a population of less than 200,000. But more conspicuously, it is not at all a city of industry, commerce, or manufacturing. Rather, it is a place of tourism. The streets are full of foreigners, squeezed into the narrow streets, filling up the parks, covering the beaches with their bodies. The city is also remarkably pretty. As I strolled along the beaches I was reminded of Cádiz; and as I wandered through the streets, Oviedo came to mind. But the strongest and most persistent impression was surprise at the number of tourists. They were all over the place; every restaurant was full, every shop was crowded. The shoreline was an unbroken wall of hotels. I had no idea San Sebastián was so popular.
Some of this probably had to do with the city being (along with Wroclaw in Poland) one of the European Cultural Capitals of 2016. (Each year, a city or two in the European Union gets designated a European Cultural Capital, which means it will host several Europe-oriented events during the year.) This may have attracted even more tourists than usual. Even so, it is clear that San Sebastián is a major tourist destination, because its whole economy is oriented around visitors. This is fitting, for the city is undeniably charming. Its location is a good one, too, being only 12 miles from the French border, and northerly enough so that the temperature is nearly perfect in summer.
We were hungry when we arrived, so our first order of business was food. Our Airbnb host recommended a restaurant in the center. The restaurant was the Bar Aitona, and it was excellent. We ordered the steak and the octopus. Both were served on a huge bed of fries, both were amply portioned, both were well seasoned, and both were scrumptious. Added to that, the prices were very reasonable. We left very full, and very satisfied. I recommend it with great enthusiasm.
When we were back on the street, we decided to start exploring the city. This inevitably led us to Monte Urgull, the most conspicuous landmark in San Sebastián. Urgull is a hill that overlooks the bay. Nowadays, it is covered in trees, and is basically a park; but in the past it formed as a military fortification, since its high elevation at the bay’s edge made it well suited for defense. And these fortifications were not just for show; they were used in several important battles. Probably the most significant of these was the Siege of San Sebastián, in which the British forces, led by Wellington, ousted Napoleon’s troops in the Peninsular Wars. Of course, I didn’t know any of this at the time, but was instead attracted by the gigantic statue of Jesus—12 meters, or almost 40 feet tall—that looms over the hill.
We began walking up, and quickly found that it is a delightful place. Old walls, broken battlements, obsolete canons, and other aging fortifications still stand, some in ruins, some overgrown; and for me there is something remarkably romantic about the sight of weeds and trees reclaiming the abandoned dwellings of past times. The hill is divided into several levels, and as you ascend you get a progressively better view of the city. From the top, the whole shore is spread before you, with its azure water, crowded beaches, and the rolling green hills in the distance. We got to the top, where we could stare up at the towering figure of Jesus, and then descended on the other side of the hill.
This part of was a wooded area. But as we climbed down a rocky path, something caught our eye. Right below a cliff, surrounded by roots and trees, was the old memorial erected by the British army after the conquest of San Sebastián. A broken and discolored plaque, bearing the royal insignias of England and Spain, bore a message in both English and Spanish honoring the fallen soldiers. Further on, we noticed another plaque, this one on the side of a rock face, honoring the unknown soldiers lost in the campaign. I know these must be well known, but at the time, with only the two of us, it felt like coming upon an archaeological treasure. This illusion was quickly dispelled, since at the bottom of the hill we encountered a map showing where all the different war memorials, graves, and mausoleums could be found on the hill. In any case, it’s a lovely area, both for its history and its views.
The rest of our day was rather uneventful. We strolled around San Sebastián, enjoying the ocean, the river, the crowded city center. But we did not really visit anything in particular, since we couldn’t find anything to visit. It seems that San Sebastián is a lovely place if you want to eat and go to the beach, but it does not have much in the way of cultural tourism, which is mostly what I’m after. In any case, it was late. We had arrived at around noon, and by now the sun was setting. So we walked along the river to our apartment, and the next morning we said farewell to the Basque Country. But I hope to return, the sooner the better.
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