Saturday, October 18, 2014

Basque-ing in the Cava in San Sebastian

Don't even think about giving me grief about my font choice! It's the only font the Basque are aware of!
From Barcelona we drove northwest, through the beautiful countryside of Aragon and Navarre, roughly following the border with France. After 5 hours on the road we ended up in Basque Country, where our destination was the city of San Sebastian. We rented a room in a B&B, a historic villa that used to belong to a countess. Tired from the road, we were quite happy to be met with this view from our private balcony.

It looked even more festive in the morning, as we took in our surroundings before making our way down to a very regal breakfast.

Staying in chateaux is definitely a highlight of traveling to Europe. This place is called Far Out Inn, in case you are looking for a place to stay on your next trip here.
San Sebastian is small and strikingly beautiful. Think "very toned down mini-Rio". The city sits on a hill overlooking two of the most lovely sprawling beaches you could ever hope to see near human habitation; the main one, La Concha, and a smaller one, Zurriola, separated by a channel formed by the Urumea river.

A view of the channel, with Zurriola beach in the background.
The beaches are wide, near-perfect arches. Waves arrive in uninterrupted giant crescents spanning the whole length of the beach. In the mornings, at high tide, the water is deep at the city walls. Deep, and so gemstone-clear, you can watch fish chasing each other several feet below the surface. Happiness is strolling here on a clear morning, after a hearty breakfast.

Early morning sunbathers choose a strategic spot.
Exploring the promenade along the beach.

Photo op during a stop on our way to Mount Urgull, a hilltop fort on a peninsula jutting into the bay in the city center. The panoramic views are really spectacular from here.

Us on mount Urgull
Urgull has been a fort since the city's founding in the 12th century, a defense point overlooking both the city and the sea. There are remains of barracks, cannon towers, a military cemetery, and various old weapons you can explore. Getting there requires hiking a mile or so through a beautifully wooded park with views on the sea to be glimpsed through the pine trees. There's also a giant statue of Jesus, if you're into that sort of thing.

The Old Quarter of San Sebastian is much like that of Barcelona, with narrow winding streets framed by stone facades done up in curly details, the lower floors of each building home to either a cafe or a store selling something that might appeal to tourists. Though it's not really so old, the Old Quarter - much of it was destroyed by a fire in the early 19th century and has since been reconstructed. But it is, nevertheless, the heart of the city, where everyone gathers, where tourists flock, and where festivities take place.

One of the facades of the city's main square - Plaza de Constitucion. This is the historic and administrative part of the city, and in the olden days hosted bullfights. The large balconies that face the plaza from all sides allowed residents to watch from above. Today they all have to be painted yellow and numbered. Looks like a hotel, but it's not.
Wall detail of the San Telmo museum extension.
 San Telmo museum is an interesting stop to find out more about the history of the Basque region from ancient times through modern day. It gives an enhanced glimpse into why people living in the different regions of Spain feel so strongly about their local identity. The original museum is a 16th century Dominican convent, with a new wing opened in 2011 as part of a full scale renovation.

View of the San Telmo museum addition with the original building on the left.
Inside the original museum
The church, part of the original convent, now part of the exhibition. Most striking are the 16 monumental sepia murals (created using cuttlefish ink) by Josep Maria Sert showing scenes from Basque life.

It's easy to get sucked into the precious European Old City wormhole, but the new part of town should not be overlooked! We rented a couple of bikes and explored that area on 2 wheels, and it has its own charm, one I could describe as "small-time cosmopolitan".

We decided to dedicate one of our days to a road trip, to see some surrounding towns and villages. The area is so picturesque, it's almost too tempting to spend the entire stay in one place and risk missing the beauty surely hiding around the bend. We didn't even have much of a plan when we set out, we just drove west, along a most scenic and idyllic road through small towns and lush green hills, and stopped anywhere that caught our fancy. The first such place was Getaria.

A cute little fishing village. Fishing port, cozy historic center, quiet semi-open cafes.

we watched one of the trawlers come back to port under a cloud of seagulls and unwind their net. 
The kind of scenery you can expect along the way. Suck it, Highway 1!
The next stop was Zumaia, for a completely different reason. Here, the coastline changes dramatically. The soft rolling hills give way to jagged striated cliffs known as the flysch. Formed a 100 million years ago, these cliffs are part of the longest uninterrupted strata of rock in the world. The area is a big deal for geologists for its richness of fossil material. 

The day we were there, the surf was intense. 20 foot swells rose and crashed in the distance, sending spray so far and wide that the whole beach seemed to be in a haze. And - it goes without saying - the setting is stunning.

One of the waves did sneak up on us and drench us from the hips down. It really was some angry surf that day. The cameras were fine though, thanks for asking.

Our next stop - Loiola - is best known for one of its historic inhabitants - Ignatius de Loyola - who founded the order of Jesuits. He was the son of a nobleman turned ascetic monk and wondering theologian - and his hometown is now the site of a massive Jesuit sanctuary complex and museum devoted to his life and teachings.

Facade of the St. Ignatius Sanctuary
The complex is impressive, and so is the natural setting. Loiola remains a tiny town, set in a bowl between imposing hills, resulting in some impressive scenery.

Inside the sanctuary. 
I wonder if the ascetic Jesuit would have approved. Hmmm.

This was followed by a two hour lunch in Loiola, in what seemed at the time like the only restaurant open in the middle of the day.  There were 4 other people dining besides us in this fancy white tablecloth establishment. It was delicious though!

And so we enjoyed the day, moving along at a horse-and-buggy pace that seemed only appropriate given the setting. But before the day was over, we decided it was imperative that we visit Bilbao. Everyone knows I'm partial to Frank Gehry, and the Bilbao Guggenheim is one of his most favorite creations of mine. So, we got off the buggy, hopped on the highway, and hauled ass to Bilbao just as the sun started to dip towards the horizon.

In retrospect, I do wish we had more time in Bilbao. Immediately upon entering the city, I was quite smitten. It reminded me of Lyon, and I wished we could linger and explore. But, the afternoon was winding down, and we had a destination in mind, so to the museum we went.

How cool is this building? Love bold architecture!

Outside the museum, an entire plaza invites you to stroll, dine, drink, listen to live music, and relax.

The Day Trip.
What else is there to say about the Basque country? You have probably heard that it's world famous for its cuisine. I won't claim that we made it a point to seek out transcendent culinary experiences, but we ate well, it was all very good. We also drank a whole lotta cava. I've "rediscovered" cava during my time in San Sebastian, you could say.

We really enjoyed the pace. Not resort-slow, not city-fast, just a "take it as you go, at your own rhythm" kind of casualness. And the place is small enough that you can absorb it quickly, and then take some time to just enjoy it, and linger over a cappuccino, as you might not in - say - Rio or Paris. It was nice.

It was nice to walk barefoot along the beach in the late afternoon, (oh yes we did) - and watch kayakers launch into the water pulling out of the bay with the tide.

It was nice to take a boat ride through the harbor.

Or to simply meander the streets and stumble upon spots to take a break with a view.

If you're looking for a lovely summer interlude destination, the Basque Country fits the bill. Now I want to see what else Spain has to offer!

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