24 Hours in San Sebastian

October 3, 2012

The cloud cover had returned the morning after the ITU World Championships in Vitoria but Derek and I only had one day to dig into the Basque Country properly so we started the day with an alarm, a cafe au lait + croissant, and a train ride north to San Sebastian. In true form, as the train wound its way out of the Alava capital, and into the western Pyrenees, headed for the Atlantic Coast, the sky began to clear and by the time we were standing on the sidewalk, just steps from the Bay of Biscay the sun was shining bright, inspiring every inch of adventure in our bodies. We had less than 24 hours to soak up all the surfing, pintxos, and cafe culture bursting from this very dynamic, yet relatively tiny port.

It hasn’t been since I was a journalism intern in Italy that I have been to Europe in the summer and there is something really special that emanates from the beaches, cafes, side-streets, squares, and sleepy corners during the vacation months; carefree nature that seems to be contagious, a relaxed attitude towards the to-do list that makes you all but forget that you have nothing to worry about all day besides where you will have your next gelato cone, and whether your bikini top is tied properly (and even this last item is optional.)

It was so wonderful to watch my husband – new to Western European summers – unwind into this pace of life and I know I speak for the both of us when I say we would go back in a heartbeat with our big appetites for kind surf, good food, and a bigger handful of afternoons to spend drinking and chatting in cafes, hunting slices of cheesecake and gelato cones. Here is how we spent our brief, yet brilliant, day in San Sebastian:

Donned our sunglasses and set out to wander our way to the surf, winding way through the southern reaches of the historic center, past the Cathedral of the Good Shepard. for a light dose of history.

Sipped and dipped croissants into our au lait, (as one must do when in Europe for breakfast) simultaneously plucked tips from our digital devices (and, um, updated Instagram…)under the awnings of La Vaca at 40 Avenida de la Libertad – one of the most proximal cafes/wifi shacks you’ll find near the beaches.

Made a beeline for the beach and the breaks with boards rented from Zurriola Surf Eskola. Not only was the staff young, friendly, and fluent in English surfspeak, but they had boards perfect for both more experienced Derek, and still perfecting my left Lentine. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to recover from 85 miles of racing put in the day before than a paddle + sesh in the sea.

Air-drying and sunbathing along the sea wall overlooking Zurriola was a wonderful way to capstone our session; European people watching just doesn’t get much better than this, nor is the sun more kind to cheeks. Next time we’ll take a mini-picnic assembled from La Brexta Market…

Getting down to the business of lazy, long lunch in the Parte Vieja. Any meal after breakfast in the Basque is all about pintxos, or tapas (small plates served up with whistle-wetters of wine, beer, or other libations.) Half of the fun of exploring pintxos culture is having this little plate here and that little plate there, like the locals do, poking your head into each haunt for a drink and a taste, meeting up with this person and that person as you navigate (literally) your meal. We used this method for our explorations and it worked out quite nicely (la hoguera at Zeruko, black pudding and apple brick at Alex …) but be warned – the journey IS the meal you have arrived at.

Full of pintxos, yet not ready to move onto the next culinary adventure we set off on foot again, this time to earn a view rather than a bite to eat. Up to the statue of the Christ between beaches we went, failing to stop at the bar between, but certainly gaining some perspective on the city while our fellow tourists finished their lunch.

Hungry again? Or at least set with homework, we headed out to find the fabled cheesecake recommended to our friend Adrienne as “the most delicious cheesecake she has ever eaten.” Which was really saying a lot. We found it, eventually, at La Vina, and walked away with a souvenir – the recipe. (Coming soon!)

Tantalized by the ocean yet again, we made our way down the boardwalk in search of some more boards – this time, stand-up paddle. Fortuna is an underground (literally) club deportivo renting kayaks, paddleboards, windsurfers, and even guides to explore the Bay. We enjoyed their locker and shower facilities as well. And, their beachfront location on La Concha means that you needn’t weave through the throngs of topless sunbathers for miles with your oversized board.

We paddled out amongst the wetdocks and to little, uninhabited Santa Clara Island, sitting in the middle of Bahia de la Concha. Besides a beach that reveals itself only at low tide, a tiny bar, a tiny port, and a seemingly ancient lighthouse, there is little to explore here, but in terms of places that you can get to on a paddleboard, this tops my list. We had a drink, took a few shots with the GoPro, and popped back on our boards, paddling (and, pretending we were American Gladiators, knocking the other off their balance and into the refreshing sea) as we went.

If you’ve paddled properly, you’ll be hungry again and dinner (or really) more pintxos, wouldn’t begin for another couple of hours. We were literally aiming to fit in as many gelato cones as possible before leaving Europe (as should you), AND because I had a big calorie deficit from the day before I had to fill, we headed out to explore the gelato scene. Our favorite was at Gelateria Boulevard (several locations all over the city but we licked our cones at 1 Avenida de Zurriola,) where big scoops of passion fruit and blackberry ice creams were scooped up and savored. Nothing says Europe in the summer like a gelato and a little walk through town as the sun sets.

Being that we had both a train and a plane to catch, we had to skip diving into the nightlife portion of our trip in earnest. However, we did have one last excellent meal at A Fuego Negro and a peek into the club Kabutzia as it was winding up. Just one dance? Ok. But then I was about ready to turn into a pumpkin….

If you’re plotting your own escape to San Sebastian, here are a few resources to help you plan your trip:

  • the Totopintxos page has several suggested pintxos routes to choose from and will save you several hours of hunting and pecking through over-mayonaissed or over-priced small plates all over town.
  • As always, the New York Times Travel page is a useful resource for tips on where to stay and where to eat. Their guide entitled 36 Hours of San Sebastian is helpful for those more interested a few extra cultural high points.
  • San Sebastian was recently recognized by National Geographic as one of the best surf towns in the world and their guide to the hottest breaks is an impeccable resource for those headed to Euskadi with a jones.

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