For the longest time, San Sebastian, which now has some of the most expensive beach front properties in all of Spain, was a sleepy fishing village and no more. By the 12th century, it grew in status as the principal outlet to the sea for the kingdom of Navarra. The Castilians used the port in order to ship their goods to European ports and later to the Americas.
Eventually, the stunning location caught the attention of the Spanish royalty and they began to escape the searing heat of the central plateau during the hot summer months. The seafront was lined with beautiful belle époque mansions and stunning art-nouveau municipal buildings.
The events of WWII interrupted this glowing period but the city has recently begun to come back into the attention of both the jet-set and the more casual traveller. The best time of year to appreciate San Sebastian’s glorious assets is summer when the magnificent city beaches are where it’s all happening. Playa de la Concha is as good as any city beach in Europe and Playa de Gros is where the surfing action takes place.
For those not fixated on the sea and the sun, the charming streets and fabulous restaurants are attractions in themselves. They say it’s hard not to fall in love with San Sebastian.
Kapoors On The Road
We had been watching the weather forecasts for San Sebastian as we drove eastwards along the Bay of Biscay. We had started out with stormy weather in A Coruña, but as we crossed the north coast we were fortunate enough to have blue skies and mild temperatures for the most part. However, we really looked forward to San Sebastian, after all that we had read about its incredible setting and we could see that it was enjoying the warmest weather in the region.
We left Bilbao around 4:00pm and took the major highway towards the Pyrenees, knowing that San Sebastian was nestled up near the mountains that form an almost impenetrable border between Spain and France. I was astonished to see some incredibly high, rough and rocky peaks south of the coast as we drove east towards San Sebastian. I expected that the high mountains would be ahead of us, not to the right of us when the sea was on the left.
All along the route I kept thinking about the pilgrims who start their journey to Santiago de Compostela in Roncesvalles in France and have to cross over the Pyrenees at the outset of their 800km walk. The Camino Francés takes approximately five weeks to walk or two weeks to cycle. Over the centuries, millions of pilgrims have made the journey and today, it’s more popular than ever before.
To our dismay, the warm weather disappeared ahead of us and a low fog set in just as we entered the city and began searching for our hotel. Like so many other cities in Spain, the sidewalks were being torn up and replaced and many of the streets in the older districts have been converted to pedestrian-friendly passageways. We stopped the car and park illegally while I tried to get directions from a shopkeeper who was determined to give me detailed instructions in rapid-fire Basque.
At last I was able to explain to her that we were driving not walking and she threw her hands up in the air and took me into the street to try and find someone who could explain the intricacies of the one-way streets in the neighbourhood. In the end, we just left the car where it was and walked to the address of our hotel, got a more detailed map from the hotel and ran back to get our car before it was towed away.
When we got to the hotel we were stunned to learn that the nearby parking garage would charge 22 euros for a day’s parking. We were planning to stay for two days so that was quite a hefty charge. We learned that on-street parking near the University was free but that it was quite some distance from our hotel. We were pleased to get a parking spot on the street in front or our hotel for the night and planned to deal with the parking issue in the morning. I have to commend Fernando, the receptionist at the hotel for all the help he gave us sorting out the parking issue.
We awoke to light rain and low-lying fog but the temperature was relatively mild and there was no wind. We drove to the eastern headland of San Sebastian bay and stood looking back at the beach and the small island in the bay. There were very few other people venturing out in such weather but it was better than sitting cooped up in the hotel.
We had studied the map of the city and realized that the University was not all that far from our hotel, no more than an hour’s walk at most, and it was not far from the beach where we planned to explore anyway. We managed to find a parking space on a quiet residential street, left the car and set off back towards the center of the city. We loved walking along the streets filled with students and seniors out running their morning errands.
As we walked, I was telling Anil about a funny posting that our daughter-in-law Vy had made on Facebook, and we were laughing happily together. Suddenly a well-dressed matron stopped us and started speaking to us in Spanish while gesturing expressively with her hands. At first I thought she was a little off her rocker, but then I managed to catch a few words, especially when she clutched her hands to her chest and said “Me solo”, or something that sounded like that.
I began to realize that she was telling us she was alone now, probably a widow and then I caught the words “Mucho amor”. If I’m not imaging things, I believe that she was reacting to the joy and happiness we were sharing as we walked hand in hand together down the street. I think she was trying to tell us that we should continue to appreciate the love we have for each other, because she is now alone, probably a widow, but perhaps she too once had a loving husband in her life.
It was a very special moment for us, and one we will always associate with the lovely city of San Sebastian. There are those that would bemoan the fact that the weather was less than ideal, but we carried on after our encounter feeling like a million dollars and enjoyed the remainder of the day to the fullest. We strolled along the beach that seemed to go on forever but found that it was probably only 3-4 kilometres from where we parked the car to our hotel across the river in the district known as Gros.
We went for another stroll through the shopping district known as Centro Romantico later in the evening, but the shops were just closing and everyone was hurrying away home because of the cool, damp weather. The following morning, we retraced our steps, found our car and left the city to drive south towards Pamplona. The clouds were still low, it was drizzling slightly and there seemed to be no chance of a change in the weather at San Sebastian.
To our surprise, within an hour we had passed through the hills south of the coast and we left the coastal fog behind us. It was hard to believe that the weather could change so drastically in such a short distance. We felt like we had come out of a trance and were back in the Spain we had come to know and love once again. Perhaps it was just as well that San Sebastian was not the sunny beach city that we had expected, we will remember it all the more for how different it was on this visit during the late fall.