It’s old. It’s new. It’s rugged. It’s gentle. It’s shabby and chic, and it’s all deliciously delightful. It is San Sebastian, in the autonomous Basque region of Spain and where Basque, the oldest language in Europe, is still spoken.
I arrived tired at night, after a full day’s drive across the south of France on the Trans-European Motorway, and drove directly into one of the city’s underground parking lot, where I parked the car for $25.00 a day, never to retrieve it until I was ready to leave. This is not a city for cars. Upon exiting the garage, I was dazzled by bright lights illuminating two towers at the entrance of the Maria Cristina Bridge over the Urumea river. The spectacular, belle époque style, five-star hotel Maria Cristina stands majestically opposite the bridge. It is the holiday season and every street sparkles with decorative lights as far as the eye can see. Lights are strung from building to building across every street, throughout town. A walk to my three-star hotel was pointed with exclamations of oohs and aahs at the festive mood all around.
The following day began with a stroll on the promenade of the Concha Beach in the center of the city. The eponymous shell-shaped beach ends with Monte Igueldo to the south and Monte Urgull to the north. Both peaks offer spectacular views from the top. While it is possible to hike the peaks, it is best to take the funicular to Monte Igueldo, where the views are best.
San Sebastian is one of the city’s in the world to hold the highest Michelin stars per square meter, more than Paris. The old town is the hub of social life and comes alive at night when the tapas (pintxos as they’re known here) bars open. This is also where you’ll find the highest concentrations of the best restaurants. I strolled Old Town with the intention of having dinner at one of the Michelin rated restaurants, but the rows of tapas bars displaying their culinary creations on windows and counter tops drew me in. The bars are packed, inside and out. I must wait for my turn to the front of the line.
Going out for pintxos is a social event, so I look at the crowd around me and strike a conversation with a couple from England. They come to San Sebastian often, and they gave me some pointers on ordering pintxos. “Just have one in every bar with a drink. And you must have the gin tonic.” The gin tonic is made from an endless variety of gins and mixes and is served in a glass big enough to be a gold fish bowl. The gin is paired with fruit, spices and herbs and chilled with dry ice. I pointed to a pintxos displayed on the counter for its appetizing combination of color and textures. I don’t know what I had, but I had to have more. So, to the next bar I went.
I have overfilled my capacity for pintxos and drinks long before I covered one side of one street out of the many streets in Old Town. Pintxos is San Sebastian’s miniature haute cuisine at its best, and dinner at the Michelin rated restaurant will have to wait for another trip.