San Sebastian, or Donostia as it is known in the Basque dialect, is a city with an enviable reputation and I have long wanted to experience everything it has to offer. In the morning I want to enjoy the large natural bay that is home to a beach voted the best in Europe. In the afternoon I should be tempted to flit in and out of the many high class independent shops to be found in this affluent city. In the evening I really must hop between hostelries in the gothic quarter where the pinxtos and tapas have attained legendary status, even by Spanish standards.
Our December arrival has coincided with a stormy weather front that will hover over the city for precisely the 4.5 days of our visit. The pandemic has closed most bars and restaurants, plus many shops. We are going to have to find some alternative aspects to appreciate this week. The truth is that we only have the opportunity to be here thanks to a quirk of ferry re-scheduling so just being here at all is a bonus.
Our gratitude starts with our accommodation. We have exchanged a hilltop Costa-Brava flat which was all about the views and outdoor space with a city centre apartment that is all about the luxury and indoor space. There are things that need to be said about our latest rental…
This 2 bedroom 4th floor apartment with its high ceilings sits bang in the centre of the main thoroughfare, 2 minutes from the bay and 10 seconds from the shops. It has been beautifully renovated and modernised to a high specification and the owner has made some bold choices of decor. It has style as well as substance.
I count 27 light switches and 7 electric roller blind switches. Over the course of our stay I will totally fail to work out what controls what. Our neighbours will wonder why there is a constant flickering of lights and partial blind movements as I curse from room to room trying to work out how to activate any particular device. Perhaps the owner controls everything via Alexa over the superfast broadband that my tablet measures as 300MB/s.
It is clear that the kitchen has been designed and equipped for people who subsist on champagne and canapes rather than anything that might have been prepared on site, let alone actually cooked in the oven. Presumably anyone who can afford 500k euros to live here isn’t going to be fussed about cooking when surrounded by an entire industry dedicated to producing award winning meals. This is a flat for the instagram generation.
Cosseted in this luxury it is hard for us to mask up and drag ourselves down to floor level where an interminable rain is raging in off the Atlantic. We need food supplies and the shop opening hours are as medieval as the city. We spy an endless queue and join it in the hope it is for the bakery and not the hat shop next door. It is indeed for the bakery and it’s a relief to discover that the queue attests to the quality of the bread and is not simply because everywhere else is closed.
Our exploration of the old town is not limited to queuing in the rain. We also get to walk in the rain, past all sorts of beautiful things. Here’s a snapshot of the bay looking moody when I want it to look cheerful. I’m going to explore the seafront more intimately in the coming days once the weather has finished beating me up.
One of the highlights we have been looking forward to since our arrival in Spain is a traditional Christmas market. We have swept into town just in time for the opening day and so we stroll (through the rain) along the tree-lined banks of the river Urumea that winds down out of the Pyrenees into the Bay of Biscay, only find ourselves pretty much the first visitors to the festively intentioned wooden huts. Only a sleigh ride with Noddy Holder and a crate of mulled wine could make this feel Christmassy, but hey – we’re here!
By mid afternoon the sun has decided it’s not even going to bother trying anymore and a gloom descends forming a seamless transition into the night. At least this accentuates the lights on the river. It’s all very classy.
I try to imagine how gorgeous this colonnaded square must be in the heat of summer. There is no bad architecture in this part of town
You can live very well in this city if you are blessed with wealth and many high end independent shops will do their best to relieve you of that wealth. The shop fronts are all decorated tastefully to tempt you into the dry.
The evening is already upon us and the main streets are extremely quiet. It’s not clear whether this is due to the weather or the pandemic. Either way our damp day of curtailed exploration has run its course. I have tracked down one of the few bars that has remained open for takeaway food. We step out of the rain into a space that should be throbbing with people talking and laughing over a drink and a bite. Some chairs are up on tables and the joint looks closed except for the bartender who appears to be cleaning glasses in preparation for some version of normality in the middle of next year. We order some dishes to take home and enjoy a conversation with – another human being!
Back in the flat we dry out and I spend 15 minutes flicking various switches until I find a balance of mood lighting that might improve the grumpy mood that the last 15 minutes of switch flicking has incurred.
We eat fabulous take-out food. We enjoy a dessert every bit as exquisite as the ones we sampled recently in Catalonia.
With all alternative options involving us getting wet, we opt to sink into the comfortable furnishings with a drink of choice and truly relax for perhaps the first time in 3 months. The full San Sebastian experience has so far eluded us but I feel that we have a little insight into Donostia. Not every visitor could say that.