What's in a name? Donostia/San SebastiánMarch 28 in Spain ⋅ ⛅ 20 °C
After three sunny days of traveling through Belgium and France we reach the northern coast of Spain and arrive at our first real stop in the autonomous region of Basque Country. It’s a small town with a big reputation: Donostia (in Basque language), San Sebastián (in Spanish language), or Little Paris (its nickname).
Basque, the language actively spoken in this region, is a unique language unrelated to any other language in Europe and has been spoken for more than 2000 years. Hello is not “Ola” but “Aizu”, thank you is not “Gracias” but “Eskerrik asko”, and to order tapas in Basque region one asks for “Pintxos” instead. The language is one of the beautiful characteristics of this region that has kept its autonomy for centuries: Vikings, Romans nor dictator Fransisco Franco could break the nationalism of Basque Country. As a result of Franco’s oppression, however, Basque Country could not obtain independence from Spain. While regaining significant autonomy after Franco’s death in 1975 some wanted full independence and turned to violence and terrorism: the armed organisation of ETA (“Basque Homeland & Liberty”) has been responsible for more than 800 deaths including Franco’s successor, Spanish military, police personnel, other political administrative figures, and 340 civilians. The now so peaceful streets of Donostia / San Sebastián and other cities in Basque Country were filled with riot police and locals were living in fear for decades. ETA only stopped their attacks after (not their first time) calling ceasefire in 2011, and have said to completely dissolve and dismantle the organisation as recent as 2018. Yet a drive for Basque independence remains, and peaceful Basque nationalism is very much alive amongst the locals.
As we arrive in the afternoon we start off with a 8 KM walk through the hilly coastline right outside of Donostia / San Sebastián. The surroundings are beautiful and quiet; a silence that’s only interrupted by the bells of grazing goats on steep green slopes and an occasional cow mooing. The surroundings are exhausting, too: all the sitting we’ve done the past three days is rightfully compensated by some serious leg work going up and down the paths! Coming back to the tiny town of our camping for the night we join the regulars for some pintxos and a glass of wine in a local cafe. Life is good.
Donostia / San Sebastián is most known for two things: its beautiful beaches and its food. In the morning we decide to first explore the sight of beaches. We take the local bus to mountain Igueldo and ascend with a funicular train to the summit to enjoy fabulous views of the La Concha bay. After taking it all in, we descend and take a walk on the boulevard along the beach and towards the old centre of the city. This old quarter starts with the magnificent Town Hall, situated in a building that was originally built as a casino in 1887. It was the extravagance of this type of buildings that contributed to the city earning the nickname “Little Paris”. The rich and wealthy of Europe came to this place for spectacular parties. During the First World War the casino was home to European political refugees and spies, including the Dutch Mata Hari. In 1947 the building became the city’s Town Hall. The rest of the old quarter is no less beautiful. We walk the cobbled streets, past various churches and Plaza de la Constitución. This is where the Town Hall used to be and where people would pay the government for a seat on one of the numbered balconies to watch bull fights. As we are walking we are soon welcomed by the scents of that other thing the city is famous for: food!
Donostia / San Sebastián is ranked #1 as “best food destination in the world”, before Tokyo and New York. The city of just 180.000 people has nine (!) Michelin-star restaurants and on every corner you find a bar serving delicious pintxos (tapas). Therefore it’s no surprise we see some food loving Singaporean tourists walking around! Tim and I skip the Michelin-star places and go for the small local pintxos bars instead. For both lunch and dinner we indulge in a variety of little bites and some wines, including the local Txakoli wine. What a feast!
Between lunch and dinner we do some more leg work and hike up another mountain. Here we find the ruins of a castle, a sunny terrace for drinks, and views that might be even prettier than those from Monte Igueldo. Definitely worth the climb! Ending the day with a stroll past the city’s river and collection of bridges and into the newer part of town, one day of visiting is enough for us to understand why so many people are raving about this place. No matter the name used, and aside from political aspirations, as per Shakespeare’s wisdom: “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet”.Read more