Riding the last wave

San Sebastian really has done its best to keep its secrets from me. A combination of December weather and Covid closures have limited our experiences and so, with just a couple of days of our lengthy Spanish sojourn remaining, I’m determined to at least walk the coastline and enjoy some of those famous views.

It is clear the rain is not going to let up and for all of my explorative tendencies I know M isn’t going to pass up on Christmas shopping for a day at the mercy of the elements. It’s just me, my camera and a wide angle lens that I want to fill with that definitive panorama of the bay. How hard can that be?

The view I would like to capture!

It turn’s out that it’s really quite hard. I have heard that the best views of the world famous crescent bay are to be found atop Monte Igueldo, the elevated peak at the south of the bay.

There’s a funicular railway up to the best viewpoint but I believe it is closed and there is some doubt how easy it will be to access the viewing platform. No worry, I will walk the bay and climb the peak of Urgull at the other end of the bay. With dreadful light conditions flattening out the landscape today isn’t going to be great for photography but I’ll do my best…

Urgull in the distance

Concha bay (every rounded bay in northern Spain seems to be named Concha) is deceptively wide. Attractive old flats line the bay and a wide promenade bustles with pedestrians and cyclists, one peddling tentatively while gripping a surf board. There are a smattering of surfers and hard-core bathers on this December morning, with a high tide obscuring most of the luxurious sandy beach. Low tide in the summer must resemble the Copacabana.

Views all year round

I stop to watch construction workers digging a hole in the beach. What can they be doing? Are they making a sandcastle with the mini digger? An elderly gentleman shares my curiosity, sidles over and speaks with passion about the (apparently bad) thing the council are doing, gesticulating angrily. He’s speaking Basque which is of no help to me and I explain to him in fluent Spanish that I do not speak Basque or Spanish. He nods his head, pauses and then continues to engage me in Basque for a couple more minutes until he has got “it” out of his system. Glad to be of service. In these times of social isolation perhaps it’s enough just to babble incoherently at somebody. It certainly made me feel a little more human.

High tide and low clouds. Better in black and white

The sizeable rocky outcrop of Isla de Santa Clara is unmissable from any point along the bay. I walk through a concealed harbour adjoining the old town from where a popular summer ferry service departs for the isle. Visitors can climb to the lighthouse on the summit for panoramic views in all directions. One more treat I’m going to have to save for my next visit.

The Bay of Biscay can be notoriously rough

A service road follows the coast at the foot of Urgull and regular signs highlight the dangers of being swept out to sea by powerful waves – a warning or attraction depending on your disposition. I veer off up the hill along a windy path that looks like it might not be officially open, eventually breaking out into the grounds of a castle.

A military past

Old steel field guns point impotently into the bay to threaten some imagined foe. They would probably lose in a knife fight these days but provide a little insight into former times.

A view of sorts

I still don’t have the elevation to do justice to the view across the bay but there are more steps to climb yet. The view begins to open up nearer the summit but still I can’t quite nail that iconic wide angle picture I was aiming for.

View of Isla de Santa Clara

The drizzle is falling and there are only few people out today exploring the hilltop fortress. It is hard to make out the profile of this structure due to dense woodland and a lack of signage leaves me retracing my steps on several occasions. There is some kind of statue at the peak but I’m out of patience and so descend back down a hairpin footpath down into the medieval old town.

The river Urumea dissects San Sebastian and I stop awhile on the iron bridge to watch a captivating battle between the outgoing waters and the incoming tide. This is an attraction of its own and I have to drag myself away and on towards the fabulous imposing Kursaal concert hall that looks out over San Sebastian’s other beach – Zurriola.

Surf school in front of the Kursaal

This overlooked sibling to la Concha has a lot going for it. A rocky breakwater curls out into the sea creating a protected inlet that channels the surf onto another expansive sandy beach.

The last land before North America

The surfers are here in sizeable numbers on a day where, to the untrained eye, the surf is challenging without being treacherous. I wonder how Covid restrictions have affected sea-goers. On the face of it not at all.

No social distancing in the sea

I’m always drawn to surfers and I can’t resist trying to capture the action on my zoom lens, despite the low light. I could watch this for hours. In fact I do.

A timeless attraction

There always seem to be a minority of boarders trying to catch a wave. Many of the neoprene clad youngsters seem content to bob together in groups just chatting. There are worse ways to spend a day

Man vs Nature

As daylight recedes the water is streaked by lights from seafront properties yet there is no exodus from the ocean

Still time to catch that last wave of the day

Very gradually people emerge from the surf and drift off up the beach to, well who knows. There must be somewhere for surfers to rinse and change. The beaches I have seen in northern Spain have generally been very well equipped with facilities.

Surf’s up

I like to imagine people heading off together to relive the action somewhere over a steaming coffee, though presently only takeaway drinks are permitted.

Time for a hot drink

It is dusk by the time I haul myself off the beach and onto the promenade. It’s still raining but I haven’t really noticed it since arriving at Zurriola. Nor have I dwelled on my failure to capture that perfect view of la Concha. My senses have been filled with the raw power of the sea.

There is a hum of early evening traffic as people finish work. The bay is illuminated in an evocative crescent of light culminating in the soft welcoming glow of the Kursaal. I would love to return here for some live music on my next visit.

A welcoming sight

This lengthy Spanish odyssey is almost at and end. I have traversed the arid flatlands, explored nature in the Costa Brava, navigated through a blizzard in the Pyrenean foothills and sampled a taste of muli-faceted San Sebastian. Not bad work during a pandemic.

Adios EspaƱa y gracias por todo el pescado. So long and thanks for all the fish.

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