Friday, June 24, 2011

SAN SEBASTIAN Morning in Donostia

20051111 Bondi on La Concha (4)

In 2005 I spent the month of November in the city of San Sebastian on the Basque coast of Spain.

To go there, Bondi and I had cut short a two-month stay in Salamanca where I was learning Spanish at one of its many language schools. It was that experience which gave name to this blog as El Loco & El Lobo since so many of the (much much younger) students thought I was basically a crazy guy with a wolf. A later, more delicate reading of the title might have rendered us as “lone wolf with his crazy big dog”. The blog was relaunched from its MSN-hosted predecessor on my first day in San Sebastian, starting with a few short single photos – all that Blogger allowed at that time. Looking back at my reportage from that time, I see that that posts were pretty terse in text and image, partly due to having little internet access.

Kursaal, Zurriola

The last time that Gustav came to stay I had planned a drive down to San Sebastian, but the weather diverted us to Bordeaux instead. After today’s 3 hour car journey, I’m glad of that decision as it’s been spectacular weather all day.  All in all perfect for Gustav’s first visit to Spain, and my re-entry to San Sebastian after five and half years. I really really really wanted to bring Munson, but I’m still driving a terribly clean rental car, so he’s at home with a very large bone to distract him.

It’s quite a compact city and yet I was staggered by the amount of new construction, particularly the high-rise apartments lining the auto-via as we drove in. Within ten minutes we were in one of the underground car parks close to the waterfront and it was just shy of 10am, many of the cafes putting out their tables and preparing for a long day.  We immediately crossed the mouth of the river Urumea into the Gros precinct, walking around the Kursaal congress centre and along Zurriola surf beach.

P1040108-109_stitch Gustav on Zurriola
Pukassurfeskola - Surf school  Zurriola clocksurf lingo
In the Basque language, San Sebastian is rendered as Donostia which means the same thing: Dono/saint + Stia/diminutive of Sebastian.

The table on the left shows a number of beach and surfing terms in Basque, Spanish, French, English and German. Unlike Spanish, Frence and Occitan, Basque (Euskara) is not a Romance language and in fact precedes other European languages. Reading signage here with the characteristic abundance of k,z and x characters, you are linguistically adrift, much like encountering the Magyar language in Hungary.

2011-06-24 San Sebastian
Crossing back into the old part of town, with the huge La Concha bay overlooked at its mouth by Mounts Urgull and Igeldo we passed some fresh produce markets and stopped for coffee and chocolate muffins oozing with berry jam.

San Sebastian - old part
We circled through the streets of the old part – me trying to unpack my memories of the place and take in the substantial changes. In off-season, rainy November there was a very different, less-friendly mood. A bonus for us was that hardly anyone here seems to smoke now – on a day like this in Toulouse, about 80% of the people outdoors have cigarette in hand, regardless of age or gender. Here you really have to look to spot the smokers. I remember that being quite different in 2005 when some of the bars looked like they were occupied by clouds with feet.

Near the rear of the quarter are stairs leading one up Mount Urgull, once heavily fortified and more recently capped with a 12m statue of Jesus, surveying La Concha much like its counterpart in Rio de Janeiro (whose patron saint is also Sebastian).

P1040132`-134_stitchP1040135-145_stitch La Concha

You don’t have to ascend very far to get quite spectacular views over the city, fishing port and bay. On the Atlantic-facing side I used to go to watch gigantic waves roll in across of the Bay of Biscay and smash into the sea-wall, but on a day like today the surf is gentle and one can approach the water’s edge without getting drenched.
Tucked inside the bay is the fishing port, which is now much slicker-looking than a few years back. It’s lined with seafood restaurants and is also home to the city aquarium. While there were a few fishing boats in the port, the only real activity I saw were hombres fishing from the dock with loose lines hooked with bread pieces. Dozens of large fish could be seen circling the baits but no takers today. The bay is clean and shallow enough to swim around here or possibly even walk out the few hundred metres from the La Concha beach.

San Sebastian

Downtown San Sebastian is greener than I remembered, although that may be a seasonal thing. I was curious about the pretty pink-fringed trees lining many of the squares. I thought they were a conifer, but they’re actually tamarisks or salt-cedars which are noxious invaders in the USA.

Believe it or not, everything I’ve posted so far was from our first two hours; I said it was a compact place! I’ll post our afternoon pictures separately.


  1. Stunning photos of what I've always heard to be a lovely city... and your pics would appear to support that.
    The seafood market looked wonderful.

  2. A great set of photos and text. You make the place look so inviting! I've only driven past in haste from France to Madrid in winter. And my Spanish is pitiful. Don't know if I could handle Basque.


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