Does San Sebastian have anything else to offer besides gastronomic greatness? You bet. For one thing, Donostia, as it is called in the Basque language, is blessed with natural and man-made beauty. Situated on a scalloped bay ringed with shimmering beaches and surrounded by verdant mountains, it is a thrill to behold.
And then, there’s the architecture. New life was breathed into this fishing village when royalty and aristocracy began flocking to it at the end of the 19th century in the wake of Queen Maria Cristina. The widow of King Alfonso XII spent her summers there seeking the newly-discovered therapeutic benefits of sea-bathing. The sumptuous Belle Époque buildings, wide boulevards, waterfront spa and promenades are a reminder of San Sebastian’s past as a seaside resort where the great and the good came to see and be seen.
That’s not to say that San Sebastian is preserved in amber, however. Bold modern buildings juxtaposed with their stately counterparts along with ongoing cultural activities keep San Sebastian with one foot firmly planted in the 21st century.
Not only has San Sebastian been named the European Capital of Culture in 2016 ensuring the staging of numerous events including concerts and exhibitions over the next few years, but every year, it is also home to a world famous jazz festival which takes place in July. That’s always followed up by a classical music fest in August and a month later, there’s the San Sebastian International Film Festival which has drawn scores of movie stars to the city since its inception in 1953. Everyone from Audrey Hepburn to Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Julia Roberts Woody Allen, Richard Gere and Brad Pitt have consequently passed through the city’s portals. And where do these glamorous festival attendees stay when they’re in town? At the Hotel Maria Cristina, the city’s only five star hotel, of course.
Opened in 1912, the Maria Cristina, named in the Queen’s honor, recently underwent a $25 million gut renovation which was completed in time for its 100th anniversary. The results speak for themselves. Swathed in soft pastels evocative of Ladurée macarons and adorned with sparkling crystal chandeliers and mirrored surfaces, the hotel is unmistakably feminine. But it is no wilting flower. Pops of color here and there, particularly in the bedrooms, are a nod to female power, revealed Michel Nader, the hotel’s General Manager.
San Sebastian, like the Maria Cristina, is an elegant place. Situated in Spain’s industrial north, it is also a wealthy metropolis. The Basque Country, in fact, has the lowest unemployment rate of all the Spanish regions and has maintained comparatively lower levels for decades.
San Sebastian doesn’t look quite Spanish and it doesn’t look quite French, despite its proximity to the French border which is only 12 miles away. Indeed, a sign in the Parte Vieja or Old Town reads: “Tourists beware you are not in Spain, nor France, you are in the Basque Country.” Even the drive there from Madrid lets on that this is a destination apart. The flat plains surrounding the Spanish capital give way to rolling green hills dotted with sheep reminiscent of the English countryside which in turn lead to lush mountainsides speckled with slope-roofed chalets very much suggestive of Switzerland.
The Basque language, Euskara, which shares space with Spanish on street signs and menus alike and which is the oldest European living language predating the ancient Roman era by thousands of years, bears no resemblance whatsoever to Spanish or French or Latin. (The recently refurbished San Telmo museum in San Sebastian sheds light on Basque culture and history with its collection of art and artifacts.)
It is perhaps not surprising then that Donostia, like Barcelona, is part of an autonomous community that is home to a Basque separatist movement. Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain with an iron fist from 1936 until his death in 1975, had certainly done his best to squelch any moves for independence in the region. The bombed city of Guernica located between San Sebastian and Bilbao attests to his brutal suppression efforts.
In the last half of the 20th century, the Basque drive for autonomy has also been bloody at times as a result of the militant group, ETA’s terrorist activities. But with little public support, all of that is now in the past. ETA announced an end to its armed struggle in 2011. Recent history has made natives of San Sebastian a cautious lot however, as Michel Nader explained to me. With the extortion of “revolutionary taxes” from businessmen still a recent memory, you won’t see the city’s wealthy inhabitants splash their cash or bling out in any way. Discretion is the name of the game.
Given San Sebastian’s understated elegance, it is fitting that the city was the site of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s first shop. The eminent couturier hailed from nearby Getaria which is where the recently opened museum honoring his life’s work is located. Nearby attractions also include the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Marques de Riscal winery with its own Gehry edifice — a luxury hotel. An additional day trip, one which my husband and I opted for, is a hop across the French border to another glamorous seaside resort — Biarritz — only 40 minutes away. (Although we were in another country, we were still in the Pays Basque for the region spills over into France, encompassing Biarritz.)
Did my husband and I linger on in Biarritz as beautiful as it is? No, for the dinner hour was fast approaching. Even the inhabitants of southwest France flock to San Sebastian to eat. The city is, after all, in the estimation of none other than El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià, the best place to eat in the world. And for someone who has been repeatedly hailed as the world’s greatest chef, he ought to know.