San Sebastian, Exploring the Inland

We travel to the territory’s interior, to the highest landscapes and villages in Gipuzkoa, separated from San Sebastian by thirty kilometres, The Oria Valley has traditionally been the main communication axis between the North and the South; that is the reason why the N-I road is our particular guide in this journey. We do not need tc drive a lot to get to Tolosa, a highly noble town that, in the 19th century, was the capital town of Gipuzkoa during ten years. Before that time, it had already shown enough signs of its importance the Baroque palaces (Idiaquez, At4do…), the Gothic church of Santa Maria, or the precious arcaded structure of El Tinglado Market, on the banks of the Oria River. It would be an excellent idea to visit Tolosa on a Saturday morning, when we can enjoy the busy and colourful public market.

If you want to experience the same feeling in Ordizia, you should visit this town on a Wednesday: the market has been held for almost five centuries in the heart of the historic quarter, a Historic-Artistic Site. The palaces of Barrena and Zabala or the streets through which Fray Andres de Urdaneta, a 16th century seafarer, will say goodbye to us before leaving to Beasain. Now we are on the epicentre of the Goerri region, under the influence of magic Aralar Mountain Range and with the reference of the sharp summit of Mount Txindoki. The Igartza Site is the biggest monumental treasure in this place and the perfect key to travel to medieval Gipuzkoa, whether crossing the 12th century bridge, observing the mill working, or enjoying the stone and wood structure of the Igartza Palace.

We will get to Idiazabal, famous for the cheese -an Interpretation Centre explains the making process-, and we will drive to Segura through the GI-2637 road. The roots of this town are in the 13th century, the birth of one of the most graceful and beautiful villages in the territory. The small palaces (Lardizabal, Guevara, Ardixarra…) and the narrow streets are unique in Gipuzkoa, as well as the nearby Zerain Cultural Park. This town has been always related to iron ore mining and other activities closely linked to Anna Lur, Mother Earth. Going through Mutlloa, we get to Ormaiztegi, where we can visit the Zumalakarregi Museum. Located in the building in which the Carlist general Tomas Zumalacarregui was born, the museum reviews the life of this famous personality, as well as the 19th century Basque Country.


San Sebasitan, Festivals & Fiestas

 The Feria-Theatre Fair San Sebastian is an unavoidable event for the Performing Arts sector. July is the month of instrumental rhythm. Every year the Jazzaldia – International Jazz Festival, presents a brilliant and complete programme.

The good turnout at the Kursaal tickets offices around the time of the Quincena Musical (musical fortnight) demonstrate the love that the Donostiarran people feel for symphonic music. Concerts involving major musical artists and renowned orchestras bring together both old and young; the “no more tickets available” sign is inevitably displayed.

But the great cultural date which the city looks forward to with enormous anticipation every September is the International Film Festival. On those days the theatres overflow with spectators during morning, afternoon and night, and the city fills up with stars.

Another festival that is growing year by year is the Horror and Fantasy Film Festival that, with other activities, completes a year full of cultural events for all tastes. 

The festive calendar is inaugurated by the popular tamborrada, which takes place on January 20th, the Day of San Sebastian, the patron saint of the city. The fiesta starts on the previous night with dinners out in restaurants or gastronomi societies. At midnight the city’s flag is hoisted in the Constitucion Square to the rhythm of the San Sebastian march. In the morning an army of 5.000 children dressed as drummers take part in the children’s parade.

February marks the celebration of Carnival, the most important fiesta of the winter period. Carnival is announced by the riotous tinkers who, as the popular song goes, “come from Hungary”. The band of inudes and artzaias cavorting alongside (nannies and shepherds) recalls their entourage. And finally the Carnival fills the streets with colour, ushered in by the appearance of the God Momo.

The arrival of summer is marked by the festivities of June 23rd, the eve of the solstice, with the blessing of the Tree of St John in the Constitucion Square. This is followed by a performance of the traditional Basque dance aurresku and at midnight bonfires are lit throughout the city. Later on in the summer comes the principal fiesta of Donostia, the Semana Grande, which celebrates the festival of the Virgen de la Asuncion (Virgin of the Assumption) and takes place throughout the whole of the week of August 15th. A packed programme of street parties, performances and cultural and sporting events fill the day. But the most incomparable event takes place at night: The International Fireworks Competition.

In September, the feast comes with the Euskal Jaiak and their complete festive programme including sports and dances. It immerses the city into a big popular celebration. On the two first Sundays of the month, the celebration will be completed with La Concha Flag, the main rowing boats competition of the Cantabrian Coast.

Bringing the year to an end, the Santo Tomas fair, held on December 215t, is one of the most keenly anticipated of Donostia events. The fiesta commemorates the old market which used to be held in San Sebastian, when the farmers and ranchers of the province used to come down to the capital to pay their taxes and display the best of their produce.


San Sebastian, The Arts

If we talk about contemporary art in San Sebastian, we must evoke the figure of Eduardo Chillida. The sculptor not only projected the image of La Concha far beyond our frontiers, but he has also made his work one of the most recognised icons of our geography. As a sample, the Peine del Viento (Wind Comb), his most beloved creation, and the perfect starting point for following the artist’s steps through the city. We can feel them in the Pico del Loro -where we can visit the tribute to Rafael Balerdi-, in La Concha Promenade -“Homenje a Fleming”-, in Mount Urgull -with Pedro Arana’s bust in one of its hills-, and in the two main churches, the Cathedral of El Buen Pastor and the Basilica of Santa Maria, exhibiting two of his crosses. The Chillida-Leku Museum, five kilometres from the city centre, is the last work by Eduardo Chillida when he was alive: a green space inhabited by his works where the visitor can ‘get lost’.

Other big artists like Jorge Oteiza also “exhibit” their works in the streets of San Sebastian: we can find his ‘Empty Construction’ in Paseo Nuevo, defying the rough sea, and on the outside fal of the San Vicente Church, located in the Old Town, we can enjoy the sculpture of La Pieta. In addition, the city also offers a wide range of art galleries and exhibition halls such as the Koldo Mitxelena Cultural Centre, an interesting rotating exhibition by new art stars, or the Kutxa Kubo Hall, offering a continuous programming of temporal exhibitions with international projection. This artistic tour can be completed with “Tabakalera” the International Centre of Contemporary Culture, located in the old tobacco factory, where we can enjoy exhibitions periodically.


Tapas and Pintxos in San Sebastian

Pintxos, the pleasure of tiny food

It emerged as a simple and tasty way of killing time before having lunch or dinner. This custom was called “ir de pintxos” (go for some tapas) and, as time went by, it evolved, became sophisticated, and reached our days as a distinguishing mark of gastronomy not only in San Sebastian, but in the whole Basque Country. At present, the pintxo is not only for misleading our stomachs, but it goes far beyond, as we can see in the many bars and taverns of the city. Eating standing up has never been such a pleasure. From Spanish omelet or the traditional “gilda” (a hot, spicy kebab­type snack named in honour of Rita Hayworth and made with chili pepper, anchovy and olive), nowadays we can enjoy more complex and succulent recipes, giving place to the so-called miniature cuisine that is essentially tasted in the bars of the Old Town, the City Centre, the Gros Quarter, and other areas in San Sebastian. The dish diversity is endless and impossible to summarise in few lines: in order to know the idiosyncrasy you must visit the bars, brimming with gastronomy delights and, above all, being carried away. A piece of advice: do not forget the number of tapas you have eaten; you will be asked.


San Sebastian, Night Life

San Sebastian has three essential night leisure areas, each one with its own identity. If you want to enjoy San Sebastian at night, you can do it at weekends, although Thursday nights have been livened up in the last years thanks to the foreign students of the Erasmus Programme. One of the busiest places is the Old Town, which never seems to rest. Throughout the day, it is the place for the txikiteros-groups of friends going from bar to bar drinking small wine glasses- and, at night, it becomes a lively area with bars of all kinds and condition. The Reyes Catholics Street, located behind the Cathedral of El Buen Pastor, hides the chicest part, with modern places and bolder music proposals. Likewise, the young Gros Quarter is a place with scattered bars for those who like more relaxed and intimate atmospheres.

Some of the main pubs in San Sebastian are the classic Dioni’s, La Kabutzia -located in the highest part of the Real Club Nautico de San Sebastian-, the Museo del Whisky-with live piano concerts-, the Wimbledon Pub -next to the Peine del Viento (Wind Comb)-, the Sheraton Discotheque-calm surroundings and good music every day till the early hours-, Stick Cocktails -specialised in exotic drinks, in Errenteria-, or the ZM Zurriola Maritimo, for those who want to enjoy the night near Zuriola Beach. The discos Bataplan and La Rotonda -both with excellent views over La Concha Bay­are perfect for welcoming the new day after a dancing night, while the Rio Cabaret is a classic for the daring ones.


History of San Sebastian

King Sancho El Sabio of Navarra’s need for a clear route out to sea for his kingdom led him, to grant the Fuero (or privilege of self-governance) to San Sebastian in 1180, including a series of laws which we can assume to be the official foundation of the town. Maritime trade began to join forces with the traditional activities of cod and whale fishing.

Proximity to France and its position on the Road to Santiago route not only encouraged the development of this little coastal town, but also turned it into a key strategic point during times of war; for this reason it became a garrison town during the 12th century. Although it suffered numerous sieges over the course of centuries, the inhabitants always managed to save the city from its enemies; at least, until 1719, when the first capitulation of the town took place, falling into the hands of France for two years. In 1794, the city surrendered again to the French attackers until 1813, when it was liberated by Anglo-Portuguese soldiers. However, this battle sparked off the worst tire in the history of the town, leaving only a few houses standing, and forcing the citizens to reconstruct it almost from scratch, thus creating the Old Town that we know today.

Happier times were to follow, when Queen Isabel II, whose doctors recommended sea bathing to alleviate her skin afflictions, made summering in San Sebastian fashionable. This was back in 1845, and from then on her presence attracted the Court and numerous members of the aristocracy during the summer months. The city started to become famous Fototeca Kutxa.

Although theories abound as to earlier origins, the first written evidence of San Sebastian dates back to 1014, arising from the donation to Leire of the Monastery of San Sebastian, located in El Antiguo Quarter, by Sancho el Mayor, King of Navarre.

and needed space to grow and expand. The walls were demolished in 1864, and the urban development that took place gave rise to the Ensanche Cortazar, the current town centre. San Sebastian reclaimed land from the Urumea river and the marshes were turned into new neighbourhoods, giving birth to a new, more serviceable city.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, San Sebastian experienced a strong population surge and began a period known as the “Belle Epoque”, becoming the preferred tourist destination of the European upper classes. Queen Maria Cristina installed the court in the Miramar Palace during the summer months and luxury hotels, casinos and theatres flourished in response… During the First World War, moneyed Europeans took refuge from the conflict in San Sebastian. Much of the French influence which is noticeable in the town can be attributed to these visitors.

Not quite such happy times followed with the prohibition of gambling in 1925 and the Spanish Civil War in 1936, in spite of which the city continued to be a favourite amongst the upper classes. The following years of heavy industrialisation gave rise to a dark period to which several errors in urbanisation can be attributed. However, during the second half of the 20th century, San Sebastian consolidated its economic, cultural and tourist potential, encouraging new projects and, at the same time, preserving its natural and historical heritage, becoming, in the process, the magnificent combination of modernity and tradition that we know today.


San Sebastian (Donostia), Spain

San Sebastian is a city where the sea converses with the mountains, history with modernity, culture with humankind, and flavours with textures. It’s a big open-air contemporary museum, with the best of exhibition halls – La Concha Bay, which hugs the Cantabrian Sea in its outstretched arms: a gesture reminiscent of the friendly welcome with which its people greet visitors.

In San Sebastian (Donostia in the Basque tongue) you get a taste of the sea and of culture; but its best taste, the one which has made it world-famous with names as international as those of Arzak, Berasategui and Subijana, is that of its food. The world capital of the “pintxo”, San Sebastian is the Spanish city with the highest number of Michelin stars per square metre. Gastronomy is an art and a pleasure that can be tasted in the city’s many bars and restaurants, where the freshly-cooked food will make your mouth water.                                         

San Sebastian throbs with an intense cultural life that goes far beyond its international festivals such as the International Film Festival and Jazzaldia – International Jazz Festival, and has motivated the City to enter the European Capital of Culture 2016 programme. San Sebastian is a city that’s constantly reinventing itself, with ceaseless cultural activity that extends into all spheres of creativity, from contemporary art to urban culture. The diverse museums and the urban sculptures alone are a good excuse for visiting it.