Donostia – San Sebastian – is there more to it than just top restaurants and pintxos? In the past (here and here and here) I’ve raved about its legendary pintxos – helped by the fact that San Sebastian famously claims the world’s greatest number of bars per capita. But so great is my gluttony, I haven’t written much about the rest of the city’s enticements.
One good reason is the weather. Quite often it’s greyish, rainy-ish, aka zirimiri (that’s ‘drizzle’ in the enigmatic Basque language), so generally ideal for a companionable cruise of the pintxo bars. But last weekend the end of summer sun blazed. The result? Most of San Sebastian’s population of 180,000 were out strolling on the Playa de la Concha, that scenic half-moon beach that curls around a glittering bay dotted with sailing-boats and backed by 1970-80s highrises. And in a sure sign of their dynamism (which puts them top of Spain’s wealth table), few were actually sunbathing, as it was all about exercise. Given the warm salty air, I happily joined them.
OK, early on one gentleman was immobile, plunged into his newspaper, with Monte Urgull and the old town in the background. And one older lady was clearly concentrating on her tan…
Otherwise it was all about keeping fit, wading through the shallows, swimming or playing football. But as the tide advanced (the Bay of Biscay / Atlantic has momentous changes in water-level, among the world’s greatest), the beach was almost swallowed up, leaving a tiny strip of sand jam-packed with sun-worshippers. Maybe this was the younger generation who’d just slept off a long night’s txikiteo (bar-crawl)? But it was also the turn of joggers, dog-walkers and men playing pelota.
In the old town adjoining the harbour you can’t help admiring the stunning façade of Santa Maria (below) a baroque church abutting the slopes of Monte Urgull, on which the tortured, arrow-studded figure of Saint Sebastian himself takes pride of place.
From here, I managed to ignore some of the city’s best pintxo bars on Calle 31 de Agosto, only to stumble upon one of those more intimate temples to Basque gastronomy – a txoko. Now a txoko is a cultural institution that mirrors Basque gastro-obsession, with a touch of machismo thrown in. In fact it’s a private eating club, for many years reserved for men – some say to escape their wives, others for them to practice their culinary skills and/ or talk politics / play cards. As visible below, an impressive kitchen backs rows of tables – and dedicated eaters.
It’s thought that the tradition goes back to the late-19th century, but that it really flourished under the repressive (anti-Basque) Franco regime, when such private venues helped maintain language and culture. As there is only one woman among the Basque country’s top chefs (Elena Arzak, daughter of the great Juan Mari Arzak), the Basque male head-start has clearly paid off. There I go – back to food, inevitably.
To end, here’s a photo of some banners on balconies, showing the Basque flag (red, green and white) above a symbolic black map of the Basque country surrounded by incoming arrows; this symbolises the last demand of former ETA supporters, i.e. to bring ETA prisoners home to the Basque country to facilitate family visits. It seems a perfectly reasonable demand, and I hope it happens.
Next Donostia – San Sebastian rendez-vous? 2016, when the city becomes European capital of culture. See you then – or maybe before.