San Sebastian, Part II: the travel guide

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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.

The former casino now houses City Hall. The casino’s opening in 1887 sealed San Sebastian’s status as a luxury resort.
The city’s famed La Concha beach is lined by an elegant promenade. San Sebastian boasts no less than three sandy beaches.
Zurriola beach is popular with surfers.
“Swanning” about in a city park.
San Sebastian’s port sits at the base of Mount Urgull, from which a statue of Jesus watches over the city. A climb to the top of Mount Urgull, one of two mountains capping the Bay of La Concha, rewards with spectacular views. The port houses an impressive aquarium which is a popular family attraction as is a nearby naval museum.
An old funicular takes passengers to the top of Mount Igeldo, the other mountain which bookends the Bay of La Concha. Fantastic views are to be had from this site and young kids will enjoy the kitschy, retro amusement park there too.
A view of the Isla Santa Clara in the bay of La Concha and behind it, Mount Igeldo.
Kursaal, the convention and performance center built by Rafael Moneo, “the architect’s architect,” in the words of design patron and hotelier, Ian Schrager. It was conceived to blend into the environment by emulating the shape of the boulders piled up against the sea wall below. At night, the convention center lights up like a beacon. The Kursaal sits at the mouth of the Urumea river which cuts through San Sebastian and empties out into the Atlantic ocean.

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.

The Hotel Maria Cristina is ideally situated in the center of San Sebastian and pleasantly positioned on the banks of the Urumea River. If it looks familiar to European travelers, it’s because it was designed by Charles Mewes, the architect behind the Ritz hotels in Paris and Madrid. A who’s who of the past century has enjoyed the hotel’s hospitality- everyone from movie stars to royalty to rock n’ roll legends. A few more guests include: Coco Chanel, Gloria Swanson, Barbra Streisand, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain, Barbra Streisand, Catherine Deneuve, Meryl Streep, Gwyneth Paltrow and Helen Mirren.
Ladies gathering on the hotel’s terrace ca. 1920.
A lively crowd on the hotel’s terrace in the 1920s.
The view from our room at the Maria Cristina looking out over the Teatro Victoria Eugenia, a main venue for the San Sebastian Film Festival as well as for concerts and theatrical productions. The city has hosted several important events in the history of cinema including the international premiere of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and the European premiere of George Lucas’ Star Wars. The Victoria Eugenia is separated from its modern counterpart, the cube-like Kursaal, by the Urumea River and the Zurriola bridge.

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.

Michel Nader, the Maria Cristina’s General Manager.
Our room at the Maria Cristina. Mr. Nader had told me that during the renovation, the hotel, in an uncharacteristic move for modern refurbishments in the hospitality industry, was careful to maintain the generous original footprint of its 136 rooms and suites. Indeed, our junior suite with a separate sitting room could easily have passed for a suite elsewhere.
The hotel’s foyer.
Two Giovanni Boldini reproductions in the foyer depicting members of the Belle Époque beau monde.
The lobby.
A glimpse of the hotel’s glittering bar.
The “Dry” bar is an homage to Bette Davis, pictured here on the cover of the menu, smoking and drinking in the hotel’s watering hole just a few hours before her death. This is the last picture taken of the actress while she was alive. She had been in town attending the Film Festival in 1989 where she was being honored. Mr. Nader offered an interesting tidbit: Bette Davis died in her room later that evening. But, as hotel officials did not want it to be known that she had died on the premises, her body was whisked across the border and the official story remains that the legendary actress died in France.

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.

Generalissimo Francisco Franco in San Sebastian. The Spanish dictator had thoroughly succumbed to the city’s charms, summering there for no less than 35 years. Throughout the 20th century, this cosmopolitan city has been a haven for a number of internationally renowned figures including Mata Hari and Leon Trotsky.

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.)

A busy street in the Parte Vieja. As you can see from the photos, it was a bit chilly when my husband and I were there at the end of May – unseasonably so. Of course, the day we left, it was warm and sunny.
Constitution Square lies in the heart of the Parte Vieja. It was the original setting for San Sebastian’s bull fights and as such, the balconies overlooking the square are numbered as they used to be rented to spectators.
San Sebastian’s picturesque lanterns.
A baroque Roman Catholic parish church and minor basilica, the Iglesia de Santa Maria was completed in 1774.
An elegant brass doorknocker in the Parte Vieja.
The offerings at Noventa-Granos, a chic shop and hair salon in the Parte Vieja.
Another view of the statue of Jesus from the Urumea river. The red, white and green flag is the Basque “Union Jack.”

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.

Cristóbal Balenciaga in San Sebastian in 1927.
The Cristóbal Balenciaga museum in the designer’s hometown of Getaria, located a short distance from San Sebastian.

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.)

The Hotel du Palais in Biarritz was originally built as the summertime retreat of Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie.
The Grande Plage in Biarritz. Much more laid back than glitzy St. Tropez, Biarritz has been a surfers’ mecca since the arrival of American screenwriter and surfing enthusiast, Peter Viertel, during the filming of The Sun Also Rises in the 1950s.

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.

Looking out onto San Sebastian’s Bay of La Concha.

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