The city that combs the Cantabrian Sea
The most famous image of San Sebastian (Basque Country, Spain) is undoubtedly that of La Concha, widely regarded as “the prettiest urban beach in Europe”. And in the world, if you ask any Basque native. The city is witness to a healthy competitiveness between La Concha and Zurriola, the other beach in the centre of town, and a favourite with surfers. They’re bathed by the Cantabrian Sea, a reflection of the strong sense of identity felt by the city and its inhabitants, known as Donostiarres. The name comes from Donostia, the city’s name in Basque (the joint official language in the Basque Country).
In the north of Spain, and just a half hour drive from France, San Sebastian has less than 200,000 inhabitants, but boasts a range of cultural and leisure options more commonly found in a city with several million people. It was named European Capital of Culture in 2016, while film and music festivals now provide the prestige enjoyed by the city in the late 19th and early 20th century during the Belle Époque. A few buildings survive from the city much favoured by the Spanish aristocracy back then, like Hotel María Cristina, the city’s only 5 star establishment, or City Hall, built in a style described by its authors as “modern, light renaissance with a little extravagance”. In its early days it was home to the old Grand Casino, where high society amused themselves in illegal gaming rooms and danced to the rhythm of the Foxtrot and the Charleston.
Dates for 2017
San Sebastian is used to hosting big stars at its jazz and film festivals. The first, Jazzaldia, is held in several setting across the city every summer. 2017 will be its 52nd year (20 to 25 July). The International Film Festival will be taking place from 22 to 30 September.
Breaking away from the classic aesthetic, the Kursaal Palace is an example of contemporary architecture, which also has its place in San Sebastian. The work of architect Rafael Moneo, it consists of two cubes – the Auditorium and the Conference Centre – arranged as “stranded rocks” opposite Zurriola beach.
In terms of gastronomy, few big cities can rival San Sebastian. Within a radius of 25 kilometres you’ll find a cluster of nine Michelin starred restaurants: Akelarre, Arzak, Martín Berasategui and Mugaritz with three each. This makes it the city with the highest number of Michelin stars (16) per square metre in the world. A world away from the tasting menus, San Sebastian is also a place where you can eat standing up in one of its many bars. Clutching a ‘pintxo’ (an individual tapa) and a ‘zurito’ (beer in a small glass) or ‘txikito’ (small glass of wine) in the other.
Gastronomy plays such a huge role in the Basque Country and more specifically in San Sebastian, that it’s home to the very first Faculty of Gastronomic Sciences in Spain. The organisation in charge of elevating the culinary art to university academic level is the Basque Culinary Center, which includes not only a training facility but also a Centre for Research and Innovation in Food and Gastronomy. A unique project in Europe based on a 15,000 square metre campus.
Another emblem of this city, known as the Pearl of Cantabria, is the Wind Comb. The three-piece sculpture was created by one of the most important artists ever to have lived, Eduardo Chillida. It’s actually model number 15 from a series he worked on over several decades of his life. This trio of sculptures on the beach of Ondarreta, on the western side of the city, is one of the most popular spots with visitors to San Sebastian. It’s even better on stormy days, when waves crash against the cliffs. Wind and water rush through a system of pipes, making a peculiar sound and producing jets of sea spray. That’s the power of the Cantabrian Sea for you.