Wednesday, May 10th (continued)
The drive was uneventful, but for the scenery. Like yesterday’s drive, the variety of scenery was amazing, but also, whether heightened by emotion or not, our arrival in the Basque Country heralded an abrupt change in topography. Now, it felt like we were in the Alps. Lots of steep mountains, very lush and green, yellow flowers in profusion – these were all over this beautiful countryside.
We arrived in Donostia-San Sebastian about 4 PM and checked into the hotel. After a brief rest, we headed out, within an hour, to take a look around.
Let me begin by talking about the name “Donostia,” the Basque name for San Sebastian. I read that the city now officially carries both names, but I have yet to find anyone who uses both – most either call it Donostia or San Sebastian. The origin of Donostia is a curious story. As I mentioned, it is the Basque name for the city. Still, there is a connection to Saint Sebastian: The saint was martyred in Ostia (the port for the city of Rome). By some accounts the “don” part refers to the “man” of Ostia, and in others it refers to “dom” the “sainted man” of Ostia.
Our hotel, the Tryp Orly is almost directly centered along the beach walk that lines the entire bay around which the city has grown. It is located on the bigger beach called “La Concha” or Seashell, because of its shape. We were walking eastward – toward Monte Urgull passing several beautiful parks and reaching the impressive Belle Epoque building used as the City Hall. Now our walked skirted along the port area to one side and the old city to the other. Once past both of these, our footsteps headed outward carrying us along the Paseo del Muelle (the Wharf Walk) passing the Aquarium and the Plaza Jacques Costeau to a point.
Behind us we could hear thunder, and again, fantastically dark skies created a dramatic contrast to buildings along the beach lit preternaturally by the setting sun. We headed back toward the old town, worried about the approaching storm – a storm that was already dumping water on the opposite side of the bay.
Like the night before, our walk was cut short by a downpour. It had been threatening all afternoon and it was only a matter of when, not if. Running in from the rain only meant that we would start our pintxo experience even earlier!
Close at hand was Bar Atari, so we rushed in and found a table. (At a table you get waitress service, but you can also be served at the bar and stand near one of the many tables to talk and taste.) Here we tasted Txakoli, a Basque region white wine; and an albariño that was very good; we sampled tosta de foie (liver pate on toast), brocheta de langostino (a little skewer of langostinos), and a plate of guindillas (little peppers), bonito (a boney fish), anchovies (fresh) and olives. Everything was very good.
It was hard to leave and go to the next place, but it happened to be right next door: A Fuego Negro. Here we had another couple of glasses of Txakoli with razor clams, tigretón de mejillones (served in a glass, there was a topping of crumbled fried pork rind, some sort of cream, and a tomato sauce at the bottom with the mussels); and bakaliu coliflor y curry migas (steamed cod with a cauliflower puree and crumbs flavored with curry). A Fuego Negro is known for its originality in creating pintxos.
If you have been to Spain, you have probably heard of “raciones” or what we in English call “tapas.” Just looking at the menu, often written on the walls or the columns inside the bar, it was hard to tell what the difference was between a pintxo (pronounced pin-cho, like the Spanish word for skewers or shish-kabobs) since the pintxos on the menu were not all skewered items, and the raciones which we understood were little plates of food. The answer: Pintxos are simply smaller servings than raciones.
Each bar has a distinct vibe. Atari was packed and there were people with reservations who were obviously going to settle in for some extensive sampling, as well as others like us who were bar hopping. A Fuego Negro Bar, we noticed the same thing, but much less frenetic and more people standing to eat, suggesting a shorter time horizon. After these two, we decide to walk for a while. From the old section of town we walked east toward the river and along the river until we got to the Maria Cristina Hotel, and then we cut back toward our hotel covering some of the back streets. Eventually we ended up at Narru, a well-recommended restaurant near our hotel. There was no room for us in the restaurant proper, but Narru also had a more casual restaurant and bar upstairs. Upstairs you could order dishes from the downstairs’ menu, which is what we did. I sampled a plate of tiny green peas with asparagus and artichokes which was excellent; Gerry had a risotto with morcilla topped with pine nuts and balsamic vinegar (wow) and something called Secreto Iberico (Iberian secret) which turned out to be … really good, but we can’t remember what!
Honestly, by this time we were really tired, so thankfully the hotel was nearby. But, so easily distracted, we had to walk out onto the beach promenade and take pictures of the splendid lightning that was flashing every minute or so out beyond the bay.
Thursday, May 11
Thursday we woke up late, had breakfast and finally left the hotel, taking a long walk on the beach promenade in the direction of Monte Igeldo (also written Igueldo), the opposite direction from the one we took last evening. The sun was out and, despite the pleasant breeze off the beautiful Bahia de la Concha (La Concha Bay) with its perfect seashell shape (say that 3 times fast!), it quickly became hot and we were stripping off our jackets.
The tide had gone out late last night and was still very low this morning, leaving an enormously wide swathe of flat, sandy beach. There were plenty of beach walkers, many with dogs, taking advantage of the beautiful morning, but there was less than a handful of courageous swimmers braving the still chilly waters of early May.
Mid-way between our hotel and the Monte Igeldo funicular is Miramar Palace. This was the beach house for Queen (consort) Maria Cristina and her family. The house was built in 1893, after the King had died. Queen Isabel II was the first royal to patronize this beach town, but it was Maria Cristina’s summer palace that really fomented its tourism boom. That boom has yet to fizzle … Unfortunately the palace is not open to the public, but the view from the gardens and even the front porch is wonderful.
In many ways, the life of a royal in early 20th century is hard to imagine, but late in the day (at the San Telmo Museum) I would see a photograph of the family’s changing “tent”. This was actually a small cottage, erected on the beach where the royal family could change into their bathing suits. The picture was just of the structure itself and didn’t show how it was located on the beach. Even as I describe it, I have to wonder what was all around it. The beach is quite large, so it would not have been outrageously out of place, but was it close to the water’s edge or set back, say where the promenade is now?
Another curious fact about the building of this beach house is that a tunnel had to be built under the gardens so that the road and tramway could still run.
Further down the beach, we are still walking westward, we started to see signs for the funicular that takes you to the top of Monte Igeldo. The tramway is actually behind the tennis club that stretches along the last bit of the beach. The building and the railroad date from the 1920s. Though it sounds rickety, it appears solid – and one can only trust that it is safe, because the route upwards is quite steep! As you board the train, don’t worry about being able to see the view as you go up or down, you really can’t, and you will probably find your companions in the little cars far more interesting anyway!
At the top there is a children’s amusement park, a plethora of related tourist kiosks, all of which was thankfully closed when we were there. For us, it was all about the view anyway! It is from here that all the most iconic photos of Donostia-San Sebastian are taken. The wide sweep of the sandy beach is a perfect contrast of blue and tan. The city of San Sebastian provides textural contrast with the smooth water and sand, and the entire scene is bracketed with gorgeous green mountains all around. To your left is the Atlantic Ocean, but the city is nestled into its safe and beautiful harbor right below you. Take your time to admire it.
We took the funicular back down to beach level, but you can walk up and down, and drive up and down if you are so inclined. Driving isn’t recommended in San Sebastian at all, to be honest. It is very easy to take public transportation everywhere, if you are not a walker, so leave your car in the hotel garage.
At the base of Monte Igeldo, beyond the tennis club properties is the sculpture by Eduardo Chillida called el Peine del Viento, or the Comb of the Wind. The shapes are abstract, and in trying to find something of a comb in them, I would suggest you think of a plastic comb that went through a hot dishwasher cycle leaving the teeth curving every which way. But perhaps, that is too literal. Chillida’s own words talk about the calming of the wind as it enters the bay off the Atlantic, just as a comb untangles hair, these strange wind combs untangle the wild winds of the ocean and convert them to the manicured breezes of the bay?
They are interesting. Be sure to look for pictures of them at different times of day – ours were all taken mid-day and lack the drama that you might see at dawn or sunset. There is more open air sculpture by Chillida in San Sebastian. (Below I will talk about another one.)
And yes, it was mid-day – and we had a long walk back to the hotel in the hot sun.
We made it back, taking a slight detour to walk through the neighborhood of Antiguo (I was hoping for some shade!) and of course, we had to walk back through the pedestrian tunnel that also goes under the gardens of the Miramar Palace. It is decorated inside to feel like you’re underwater. There are large metals tiles that line the tunnel colored in blues and whites and greens, like water and then at the lower edge there is real sand and coral. It is a great use of public art – imagine how different is the feeling of walking along the sea and then through a sea-themed tunnel – versus walking through a dank, dark cement one.
We had lunch at a restaurant right on the promenade, the Café de la Concha. We sat inside, as the weather was beginning to threaten, and the terrace seemed like an unlikely place to be able to finish one’s lunch! The food was good – but I have never tasted bad food when I am hungry and thirsty. (Is that an evolutionary/survival aspect of human behavior?) The cold caña (tap beer) really hit the spot.
A couple of Aussies at the table next to us struck up a conversation…they were on a four week 50th birthday trip through Spain. It got me to thinking about the way people’s lives touch for just a brief moment, leaving everyone involved happier and more fulfilled by the encounter. It is amazing what we gain from these crossings of paths, impermanent though they are.
After a long walk in the sun and a good lunch with a cold beer, the only reasonable afternoon activity is a delicious nap.
Once awake and refreshed, we ventured out again for a short excursion (we had big plans for dinner – reservations at Arzak at 9:15pm) to the San Telmo Museum. The museum is located in an old monastery, rehabbed and enhanced with modern additions. The permanent collection is mostly the history of the País Vasco and its people. The exhibit is very well displayed and the captions are in English, Spanish, Basque and French. There are some really interesting parts, though most of the history in not unexpected. I was intrigued by the exhibit of Basque headdresses – lengths of white cloth tied into these interesting shapes. The women of each town had a particular style that identified which town she was from, and the amount of cloth used spoke of her social status. (I am going to come back to this tomorrow, so just hold this thought in your head.)
I was immediately drawn to the artifacts labelled as Basque funeral stele…because of a reference to them in another sculpture we saw by Chillida along the promenade. Chillida’s sculpture is a homage to Alexander Fleming, the Scottish scientist who discovered penicillin, done in 1990.
The main exhibition of the San Telmo Museum is about Basque history and culture. As I said, there were not a lot of surprises, though there were some memorable new facts to learn. What was missing, from the point of view of an outsider, was an explanation of the “troubles” – what we in the Western hemisphere only knew as terrorism by Basque separatists. I didn’t find anything that enlightened me as to the why, who, what and when of this period of history – not even so much as explaining it the way a Basque nationalist would understand it. Just not talked about at all. Instead we got a lot of confusing information on the Carlist Wars … which I think is where the trouble really started.
I cannot say that in San Sebastian we felt any of the nationalism that we might have expected from our limited knowledge of the situation…you know – when the story fades from the front pages you have no idea what the status is. But once out in the country (where we went the following day) we saw banners hanging from windows indicating that in the small towns, the fervor for an independent Basque country has not gone away.
Dinner that night was at the famed three-Michelin-starred restaurant Arzak. We were both nervous that we would be under-dressed because, though we were dressed nicely, we did not have the suit or jewels we imagined the restaurant patrons might all be wearing…Well, the man of the couple who entered right before us was in jeans and a down vest! So much for clothing anxiety! Inside, in fact, people were dressed in all manner of formality and informality. We saw no other jeans and vests, but certainly we were neither over-dressed nor under.
However, I don’t think it would have mattered if we were. The service was so effortlessly relaxed and welcoming, so efficient and skilled, that the experience was the epitome of what a restaurant can hope to achieve. And the food? I will spare you the bite by bite. It was delicious. Yes, all very fussy. Yes, tiny portions. But good! Really wonderful tastes that made me philosophical as to why we cannot recall the specific tastes of foods we eat. We can recall things we see and things we hear and even reproduce them, and though we can identify tastes when we taste them or smells when we smell them, we cannot (or I cannot) conjure up a taste or a smell from memory…only the impression it made.
We rose from the dinner table at midnight, soul satisfied and not hungry, if not full. It was back to the hotel to sleep and dream of our fabulous dinner at Arzak. This was also our first and only meal in a Michelin-starred restaurant…to date.