Julie spent a couple of nights in San Sebastián about 30 years ago. It was early spring and she remembers three things: the rain, the beautiful beach empty in the rain and the pintxo bars heaving with customers avoiding the rain.
Now it’s mid summer. The beautiful beach is packed with holiday makers basking in the sunshine.
San Sebastián’s landmark La Concha Beach is a perfect 1.5km arc of golden sand. Catch a funicular to the top of nearby Monte Iguelda and it’s easy to see why it’s one of the most famous urban beaches in Europe.
But wait, there’s more. With child-friendly Ondaretta Beach next door – that’s it on the right hand side of the photo – and surfer’s favourite Zurriola Beach over the headland, San Sebastián has something for anyone wanting to get wet.
In 1813 almost the entire city was burned to the ground during the Spanish War of Independence. San Sebastián’s oldest church, 16th century Gothic style Iglesia de San Vincente survived.
Undoubtedly this was due to divine intervention. The church is home to the forearm bone of Saint Vincent de Paul encased in silver and conferring benediction on the devout since being brought here from Rome over 400 years ago.
Miraculously, the stunning Baroque masterpiece, the Basilica de Santa Maria del Coro also survived.
All round these churches, frenetic reconstruction of the destroyed city resulted in what is still a largely intact neoclassical enclave now known as Parte Vieja (Old Town).
Turn your back on Basilica de Santa Maria del Coro to look down the avenue and there is Cathedral de Buen Pastor just outside the Old Town. Built toward the end of the reconstruction era, it is the tallest building in the city courtesy of its spire.
At the centre of the Old Town is Plaza de la Constitucion. The 2,000 sq metre plaza was originally a bull ring. Look closely and you will see a number above each window, corresponding to the spectators’ box numbers from that era.
In 1893, Maria Christina of Austria, consort to King Alphonso XII of Spain, moved the royal summer court to San Sebastián following her husband’s death. She was told the sea air would be good for her infant son, who would assume the crown when he grew up. She commissioned Miramar Palace, a surprisingly modest English style residence overlooking the junction of La Concha and Ondaretta Beaches, where the family spent the next 27 summers until her death.
The royal presence transformed San Sebastián into a fashionable summer resort for the aristocracy and other wealthy families.
Built in 1887, the Gran Casino attracted clientele from across Europe including such diverse characters as Mata Hari, Leon Trotsky and the Shah of Persia. The casino closed when gambling was banned throughout Spain in 1924 and the local government wasted no time in transforming it into the Town Hall, which it remains to this day.
For another view over the beaches, a popular local stroll is up Mount Urgull, topped by old castle walls and an oversized statue of Jesus keeping watch over the city.
For a more strenuous work out, there’s a forest path over the hills to the twin villages of Pasai Donibane and Pasai San Pedro.
It’s around 10km with views out over the Bay of Biscay.
The path is part of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. We’ve walked a few sections of the Camino in different places. Coincidentally, its always in the wrong direction. According to John this is only right and proper, although “either way, there’s not much chance of us being mistaken for real pilgrims”.
Our reward was more temporal than spiritual. The villages are small. A water taxi with a maximum capacity of 17 people shuttles between the two. There are some very nice, relaxed seafood restaurants along the water’s edge in Pasai San Pedro. And most conveniently after a few glasses of wine, a local bus straight back to San Sebastián
After Tokyo, San Sebastián has the greatest number of Michelin starts per capita of any city in the world. At last count, 14. But for most visitors the real drawcard is the pintxo bars.
Pintxo (pronounced peen-cho) means ‘spike’. Quite simply, it’s a bite sized snack skewered with a toothpick to a piece of bread. Pintxos are to the Basque region what tapas is to the rest of Spain. It’s the toothpick that distinguishes them from a tapa, or at least that’s how it started.
It had long been a tradition for Basque bars to serve little plates of anchovies, pickled chillies and olives as a snack with beer. As the story goes, in the 1940s a regular patron of a bar called Casa Valles in San Sebastián picked up a toothpick, skewered an anchovy, chilli and olive together and popped it in his mouth. The movie Gilda starring Rita Hayworth had just been released in Spain and the customer thought his creation was just like her character in the movie, “green, salty and little spicy” so he called it a gilda.
It became so popular every bar in San Sebastián started serving them. Nothing has changed. Every bar has gildas. And we can see why. We tried loads of other pintxos over our time here, but the gilda is still our favourite.
Initially most pintxos were cold. Trays of tiny morsels were lined up along the bar.
That photo, by the way, reflects the situation in the mid afternoon during set up. By evening, every bar is packed. Once secured, a position at the bar is not surrendered easily. For those behind, fighting to get your pintxos is The Hunger Games in more than name only.
The night becomes a marathon as it’s traditional to have a drink and a couple of pintxos at one bar, then move to another and repeat. San Sebastián’s Old Town has one of the highest concentrations of bars per square metre of any precinct in the world.
In past times, patrons would help themselves, keep the toothpicks and pay at the end. The toothpicks counted as a tab. That was still the practice when Julie was here in 1993 but it’s less common now. With increasing popularity among tourists, it’s pay when you order in most establishments. And many are behind glass, a legacy of Covid, perhaps.
The pintxos have also become more elaborate over the years.
And now there’s often a selection of cooked-to-order hot ones as well, and they don’t always have a stick. One of the best we had was a grilled piece of foie gras atop a dollop of apple puree served on a plate. There was seafood, beef cheek, suckling pig. The choice was endless. With a few exceptions, they were all delicious. Who needs Michelin fine dining when snacking is this good?