During my semester abroad, I heard the phrase “España es diferente” dozens of times. Originating as a criticism of the dictatorship, this phrase was used to describe countless aspects of Spanish life. However, it was not until I visited coastal Basque country that I realized how “diferente” Spain really can be -- and I mean this in the absolute best way possible. The culture, food, and natural beauty that my boyfriend and I experienced in just five days was unrivaled. Our stay was so lovely that the ever-present rain did not faze us at all. Arriving in San Sebastián on the train from Barcelona, we were struck by the lovely juxtapositions of rural and urban landscapes, natural and man-made beauty, traditional and modern lifestyles, and luxurious and low-key experiences.
No area better accents these fascinating differences than the Old Town neighborhood of the city. The beautiful chapel honoring the patron saint is surrounded by the lush green backdrop of Mount Urgall. This picturesque setting displays a culture rooted in Catholicism. The narrow, winding streets are speckled with shops, bars and restaurants. The sea surrounds the area, filling the neighborhood with perfectly salty breezes and unbeatable views. Despite these attractions, the area does not feel overrun with tourists, and retains its Basque originality. Regardless of the beauty of Old Town, we prioritized our budget and stayed on the other side of the beach. We had a fantastic B&B host, Jorge, who kindly lent us bikes. This shortened the 30-minute walk to Old Town to a nice, 10-minute ride. Jorge’s neighborhood was much more residential and quiet, but incredibly charming (with delicious pizza)!
No experience better illuminates the charm of San Sebastián than the pinxto bars. Pinxtos, the Basque version of tapas, are rich in flavor and color. They provide a delicious amount of spice that other Spanish food often lacks. We embraced the local gastronomy by sampling squid, shrimp, and all kinds of fresh seafood. A waiter at the first spot explained that “cold” pinxtos are pre-made and ready to grab right at the bar, whereas the “hot” ones needed to be ordered like a regular tapa. Noticing that most people were sticking to the cold, we only sampled two “hot” plates. Splitting pinxtos and getting drinks at each bar, we hit four local spots in three hours and spent less than 30 euros. Everything we tried was exquisite and exciting. Being the dessert junkie that I am, I was most intrigued by the “Old Town cheesecake,” a delicacy available at each bar that was absolutely delightful.
The previously mentioned natural beauty of northern Spain is best enjoyed by hiking along the coast. Mount Urgall can be reached by an easily accessible trail from Old Town. With historical monuments and sites all the way up, this path is shrouded with lush greenery and unbeatable sea and city views. Additionally, a bar near the top provides a relaxing refreshment break. The former military base and massive “Sacred Heart” statue, which are both located at the peak, are must-sees.
Forever aching to explore more, Roi and I embarked on a separate hike the same day we did Mt. Urgall. Unfortunately, our research was not thorough enough, and we ended up getting a little lost on the St. James Way, an ancient Catholic pilgrimage walk that has been converted into a hiking trail. The cliffside views, which we stumbled upon accidentally, were perhaps the best of my entire time in Europe. After enjoying them for awhile, we found our way and returned to Old Town.
My goal in writing this love-letter to San Sebastián is to inspire readers to visit Basque country and northern Spain. The stark contrasts to the rest of the country provided me with opportunities to reflect and enjoy the gorgeous, yet often overlooked, region. The ease, beauty, and accessibility of the city make any stay, even a rainy one, magical. San Sebastián is defined by its authenticity, and will persuade just about anyone to fall in love with it.
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