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

Donostia San Sebastian

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.

Give us our daily bread. Ooh, and a slice of chocolate cake please

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.

Cheer up, it’s almost Christmas

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!

I’m dreaming of a wet Christmas

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.

Wet and subdued but always 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

Right place, wrong time

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.

Attractive all year round

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.

The final word on today.

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.

Trans España

Back in early October it was a relief simply to arrive in Spain amid the uncertainty of travel at the peak of Covid. Since then we have appreciated every single day of our “workation” regardless of any local restrictions. We recognise our good fortune.

With a week left on our Costa Brava apartment lease it’s time to plot the trip home to the UK – and things are getting messy. Our inward ferry route via Bilbao has ended for the season and the alternative departure from Santander isn’t a road trip we want to make in one day. To further complicate matters long distance travel within Spain is currently forbidden at the weekend.

In keeping with our current mindset we look to turn this cloud into a silver lining, with a rather wonderful solution. We will travel to San Sebastian on Monday and then make the short hop to Santander the following Saturday. We have ALWAYS wanted to visit San Sebastian…

Booking the ferry was simple enough but accommodation is in short supply and the parking prices are insane. Eventually we fall lucky and find a stellar apartment right in the centre of SS at a good rate. Let’s just not talk about the parking tariff. Fingers in ears – I can’t hear you!

In the days before our departure my only stress is witnessing all of the shopping we are accumulating for our trip home. Where is it all going to fit? I’m doing mental gymnastics through to Monday morning where my former elite level of Tetris accomplishment finally pays off. In one of the greatest achievements of my life I manage to pack everything into the car. The space under the seats is crammed with wine and olive oil. Door pockets are full of chorizo. I’ve filled the narrow space under the boot liner with computer gear. A little crevice beneath even that, where the battery sits, is now stuffed with bags of rice harvested in Pals just up the coast. The rest of our capacious boot and rear space is crammed to the hilt with everything you can imagine and some things you cannot.

Remarkably we leave by 10am as planned following a quick exchange with our landlady who has driven up from Barcelona. The car feels heavy! My thoughts turn to travel psychology. Instead of a depressing 9 hour drive to catch a ferry home we have 7 hour drive to go to an actual holiday destination following the end of our working stay. A serendipitous solution.

It’s a little sad to say goodbye to our sunny home from home but we are onto the next adventure. The forests and foothills of Catalonia roll by in a slow farewell eventually giving way to an undulating agricultural landscape that is greener than the arid plains we crossed on the way in. That’s because we are taking a more northerly route on toll-free roads that run the length of the Pyrenean range.

Road trip!

It has been raining for a while when our route juts off to the North and we begin a gradual ascent into the foothills. Roads become narrower and windier as they carve through an increasingly rocky landscape. We stop to fill our lungs with cold mountain air next to a steeply banked river that looks so fresh and inviting.

Fresh air!

A towering mass of rock looms into view. Two improbably vast stone pillars dwarf a village settlement. They beg to be carved into kingly middle-earth figures from Lord Of The Rings. Any sense of travel fatigue is left behind as each corner unfolds some new rugged beauty

Into the mountain kingdom

I’m forced to check the route as we traverse a river on single lane bridge. There’s a dusting of snow. Can this be right?

Well this is getting fun

Soon the road sides are white and still we continue up hill, stopping briefly to feel the icy flakes on our faces. This is a dream inside a dream!

We weren’t expecting this when we set off

The snow is coming down harder now and is beginning to settle on a road that has seen almost no other traffic in the past 30 minutes. Do not break down here. Do not slide off the road here. Fortunately with 4WD and heated seats there is nothing much to do other than crawl along and enjoy the ride.

OK, this is getting serious

The road eventually turns out onto the beginning of a new looking mountain highway that weaves us west-bound quickly and efficiently, through tunnels and over wooded valleys in a long gradual descent into the heart of Basque country, toward the legendary city of San Sebastian. We emerge into Donostia as it is known here with the sun receding and navigate our way through busy streets into the heart of the Old Town and directly to our underground car park. Thank you Google Maps.

A lift takes us up to street level where we emerge into frenzied gusts of salty wind that blow in off the Atlantic just a stones throw from our base in the old town. The massive crescent bay opens up right in front of us. White surf stands out in the early evening gloom as sea-front lights begin to form an arc around the bay. I want to inject this but there’s a host to meet and a car to unpack.

The world famous bay

It’s a mere 2 minute walk from the bay to our block where we meet Edu who is stylishly mummified beneath a long coat ruffed up scarf and brimmed hat. He leads us up out of the squall to our 4th floor luxury apartment – home for the next 5 nights. There’s a well-rehearsed canter through the formalities with Edu promising some recommendations before disappearing into the night. I make a couple more trips to skim the surface of our packing from the car and then we sit with a drink relishing the warm metropolitan comfort that we have signed up for, and in particular beds that will allow us the first truly restful sleep since our arrival.

With food on the mind (when was it not) we head out for a little exploration in the dark, wrapped up warmly for the first time since setting foot in Spain all those weeks ago.

The cold diagonal rain is a shock to the system after the polite weather of the east coast. It’s not just the weather that is smacking us in the face, it’s the change of pace, from our sleepy backwater bang into the heart of a bustling city. I’m reminded of my first blast of Manhattan back in 2010, exiting from the subway straight into the shadow of the New York Times office and yellow cabs. In this case we are transported into a hive of shoppers holding onto their hats as they navigate the busy streets lined with high class shop front windows, each tastefully decorated for Christmas.

From sunshine to Christmas in one day

An extensive nativity scene sprawls across one of the squares accompanied by piped carol music. No caganer in sight here for we have most definitely exchanged Catalonia for the Basque country. We have become unaccustomed to such crowds of people and it is a battle to keep our distance. Everyone wears masks but I don’t sense anyone thinks it is more than a formality. The restaurant recommendations ping onto our phone from Edu but we have neither the time or energy for further exploration and decide to make a dash to an unnervingly busy supermarket for food and retire to our nest for the evening.

What a surreal day. From autumn in Catalonia through dramatic snow covered wintery foothills of the Pyrenees and into the stormy bay of San Sebastian wearing its festive clothing. Tomorrow a new adventure begins…