Travel: Sunshine in San Sebastián

Full set of photos

I spent a day or so transiting from Seville through Bilbao, spending a night feeling nostalgic for my youth at the clean and charming Quartier Bilbao Hostel. Hit a bit of snag the following morning trying to get from Bilbao to San Sebastián. I had assumed that I’d be able to buy a ticket on the bus, but when I turned up, they told me I had to buy one in advance, as the seats were reserved. Unfortunately, the next bus with available seats was three hours later. As I was laden with luggage, I couldn’t go far, so I hunkered down in a nearby bar to read. I was eventually on my way, and it was a relatively short ride to San Sebastián. After checking into my hotel, the modern and stylish Pension Peñaflorida, I spent a quiet evening wandering old town, munching on pinxtos, hoping the clouds would clear the next day (though I was a bit of leery of the forecast that threatened rain).

Thankfully, I awoke to sun shining, so I was excited to get out there and soak it all up. San Sebastián is a beach town (indeed, my hotel was minutes from Playa de la Concha, the main beach), and I fully intended to get my requisite rays in. I took a leisurely stroll along the boardwalk, admiring the ocean views and handsome cityscape bathed in morning sunlight. I eventually popped off onto the beach to grab a croissant for breakfast, enjoying the relative quiet before the throngs of beach-goers arrived.

Playa de la Concha
Playa de la Concha

I soon reached Mount Igueldo, one of the two large hills that bookend San Sebastián’s beaches, and rode its charming little funicular up to the top for some striking views of the town and its surrounds. The funicular actually takes you up to the Parques de Atracciones, a bizarre, slightly tacky little amusement park that apparently dates back to the 1930s.

view from Mt. Igueldo
view from Mt. Igueldo

The clouds were starting to roll in, and I was a bit worried it would actually start raining, so I made my way back down to the beach via the funicular and started walking back to my hotel. I’d planned to get in my MPC workout, and now seemed as good a time as any. The boardwalk was bustling at this point, alive with tourists, beachgoers, runners and cyclists, and the strains of music from busking musicians filled the air. Naturally, when I finally started my workout back at the hotel, the sun returned, so I finished up quickly, got on my bikini and headed back out to the beach. I snagged a quieter spot in the sand and settled in with my book. The cool breeze coming off the ocean made for a very relaxing time, and it wasn’t long before I was thoroughly baked. I did notice upon returning to my hotel that I was developing an odd tan line on my back. The perils of self-applying sunscreen I suppose, though its bizarre shape is still a bit of a mystery.

I did appreciate having a centrally-located hotel, as it was easy to pop back and forth to drop things off and freshen up. I headed back out in search of some pinxtos (I really love how readily available delicious and speedy food is in Spain). After a quick bite, I meandered my way through Parte Vieja (old town) and across the bridge into the Gros district, a primarily residential area, walking along Zurriola beach and watching some fairly impressive surfing. I walked back through the quiet streets, largely devoid of tourists, and wandered along the Urumea Itsasadarra, admiring  the colourful and stately buildings that lined its banks.

IMG_5015

I had at this point fully embraced the siesta, which was sheerly practical as one had to often wait past 7 or 8 pm for restaurants to open for dinner. I wanted to try a particular spot, La Cuchara de San Telmo, that came well-recommended from a variety of sources. I arrived about 10 minutes before it opened and so waited in what soon became a lengthy queue. There were 4 large tables outside, or one could stand inside at the bar, but I was fortunate enough to grab a seat. They turned out to be communal tables, which ended up being a lovely thing, as the English couple and Swedish fellow (pictured below) I found myself sharing the table with became charming dinner companions. We all got to chatting whilst perusing the menu. Because the place had been inundated with people upon first opening, it was unsurprising that it was a bit of wait for our orders to be taken. I was in no particular rush, particularly now that I had people to chat with. It turned out that the Swede, Stephen, was writing a book on Basque wine, and so had spent a fair bit of time in the area. It was interesting to chat about the local wine, txakoli, a slightly sparkling dry white wine which I’d already planned to try that evening. Because we were sitting outside, the dishes were larger portions than the pinxtos one would get at the bar, so I had to make some hard decisions. I eventually settled on veal cheeks and, surprise surprise, the foie gras. I had actually intended to deliberately not order the foie gras, thinking I might try the suckling pig in an effort to diversify, but Stephen had particularly recommended it, and well twist my arm.

IMG_5020The food was superb, and it was nice to be able to linger over the meal for several hours, chatting with people, rather than powering through and heading off. Stephen made sure to have our server pour our txakoli at the table (rather than at the bar), so we could witness its dramatic pouring. Typically, it’s poured from a height, which I learned was to generate bubbles, as its not naturally terribly bubbly. We ended up all sharing a tasty local cheese dessert, topped with a pretty little flower that we “fought” over to try (it was surprisingly delicious). Stephen suggested grabbing another drink, and we were happy to oblige. Funnily enough, he claimed that the gin and tonics at the Whiskey Museum were particularly excellent (not what I would have expected). Being such a fan of gin and tonics, I was obliged to investigate. The bar was small and charming, lined with hundreds of bottles of Scotch, some of which were very very old. Our bartender let us smell several different gins to decide which we wanted. In order to pass the time, he provided us with a series of brain teaser bar games, much to our amusement/consternation.

mind teaser games at the bar
mind teaser games at the bar

The owner, who Stephen knew, was so tickled at seeing our attempts to figure them out, giggling as we turned, prodded, shook, and tried all manner of things. Many of them were distressingly easy, though one would think difficult to actually figure out on one’s own–for example, the wooden game with the toothpick-like stick pictured above required one to remove the red object from its wooden encasement (without just tipping it over). We all of course assumed that the toothpick thing was essential to this process, but it turned out to be a red herring. All you need do is blow on it, and it pops right out. In any case, it made for an entertaining activity. We eventually finished up our tall drinks and parted ways for the night, as they all had relatively early mornings the next day. I headed back to the hotel, pleased at the unexpected turn my evening had taken. One of the joys of travel–you never know who you’re going to meet and where that might take you!

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