San Sebastian – a Bit of the Basque Country…

photo courtesy of inguide travel & bing images

You’ll not see signs in English and Spanish in San Sebastian. The population in this small seaside town on the NE corner of Spain has a hard time being lumped into the generalized conception of what is ‘spanish’. They are Basque, inordinately proud of that distinction and while they may exist inside the borders of the country – San Sebastian feels like a tiny country all its own. The street signs are in Basque and Spanish – which did Will and I little good since our spanish is ‘muy limitada’. Our basque? I looked up a language translator on the web and found a site listing what are considered useful Basque phrases. Hello, good bye, where’s the toilet, my name is…… and – get this – “my hovercraft is full of eels” which translated to “Nire aerolabangailua aingirez beteta dago. As you can see if you check out the link – being fluent in french, italian or spanish will help you not. So remember that key phrase if your hovercraft is indeed full of eels when you find yourself in the best kept secret in Northern Spain.

This lovely view greeted us when we exited the station after about 6 hours on the various trains from Paris. Interestingly enough – The platform canopy of Estacion del Norte was designed by the same Gustave Eiffel who also designed the Eiffel Tower.

The walk along the river to our pensione was beautiful and just kept getting better as we rounded the corner and took in the expanse of the bay. It got even more wonderful when we got to our room, shrugged off our backpacks and stepped out onto the balcony. Right on the water – our view was stunning. Over the next five days we got to hear the surf pounding the breakwater and witness the huge wave plumes when they hit, watch the sunrises in the morning, sunsets at night and a couple of incredible lightening shows in the wee hours. When the night sky was clear – the stars were absolutely amazing. It was hard to conceive that this was it – the last week of my journey. Warm, sunny and languid – it was the perfect spot with even more perfect company to wrap up these months of travel.

As I have done in previous posts – the following are some highlights, thoughts and observations in no particular order of significance. Just what comes to mind…

Before I launch in – here’s a general observation. I find it incredibly unfair – when recording those precious moments on a journey – that men have the advantage of being able to suck in their stomachs before the ominous ‘click’. We women can’t exactly suck in our thighs now can we?? Noooooo. I have become an expert in figuring out poses that either removed all evidence that I am NOT fashionably thin or created the illusion that I was just a little less of the total me. Either insisting on ‘shoulder and up only’ and when that wasn’t possible – an artfully drapped coat or scarf. Trees, statuary, railings, etc. have all been employed these last few months in an effort to disguise. As I write this all I can think in retrospect is “Good god – get over yourself!” As if I’m not going to know the truth when I take a wander down memory lane. I used to delight in waiting for my five brothers to breathe before snapping. Ok, maybe not fair but it felt like a tiny bit of retribution. My Beloved came up with the perfect solution after hearing that story – see above. All you guys reading this – take heed. Ladies – we all know their memories can be like goldfish some times – once around the bowl and poof… so wait for the breath and snap away.

Will and I found the concept of the evening promenade wonderful. After dinner – usually around 9 or 10 – it seemed the whole town turned out to walk the square or the tree lined central avenue. Lovers – old and young – were arm in arm. Elderly gents in basque berets puncuated their thoughts with with a carefully timed cane wave. Families shared gelato. We noticed – much like a traffic circle – there was a natural flow with the outside moving in one direction and the inside meandering in the opposite. What a great way to check out the babes over and over again without appearing too obvious. What a great way to mingle with your community rather than holing up in your house in front of the TV or computer as is the fashion where I come from.

Kids. I have never seen this many kids in one town – ever. I don’t think it’s because San Sebastian is small. I’ve been in plenty of little towns and cities these last few months. I have no idea if these folks are just into progeny generation – it is a catholic country – or an inevitable result of warm sultry nights most of the year. We enjoyed watching the antics and listening to all the ‘little kid’ giggling – not so much the restaurant fits….

Pintxos (pronounced ‘pinchos’) is a delightful basque tradition much like tapas. You belly up to a bar lined with little sandwiches and other morsels like marinated beans on a skewer with olives. The tavern keep would finally acknowledge your existance and hand you a plate. You made your selections and he/she would keep a running tally. Locals ate standing up at the bar which had handy waste bins bolted right onto the front. Another delicacy was the shaved boar shank – their version of prosciutto but oh so much better – in my opinion.

There was an unusually high number of people who were either walking with a single cuffed cane or – more frequently – two. The average age seemed to be in the 60s to 70s. Polio back in the day? Also a rather large amount of wheelchairs.

We decided to be big kids ourselves and head to the aquarium. It was a combination maritime museum showcasing the rich sea going history of the area and aquarium. The seahorses were a personal favorite of mine. Will enjoyed the sharks especially watching them glide over the tops of our heads while walking through the plexiglass tunnel that ran through this enormous tank. It housed all manner of animals and we spent a fair amount of time just sitting and watching. One poor little tyke about had a heart attack when a shark swam right past him at his own two foot eye level. We didn’t dine at the Cousteau cafe. Pity.

Having seen my fair share of castles and attendant history, lengends, etc. – I found it refreshing that San Sebastian houses the Queen’s Palace. No man bashing here just appreciating something out of the ordinary…

Edifaces honoring god were as plentiful here as elsewhere in Europe – sigh… Enterprising homeless or jobless greeted us at the entrances with cup or hand outstretched. By the third time I was just not in the mood however much I wanted to see the interior. I do regret not going back when I felt more open minded. In this worldwide economic situation the global community finds itself immersed in – it seemed – in retrospect – a harmless way to make a few euros for pintxos.

It seems a blog post of mine on this journey wouldn’t be complete without a hill of some kind to climb and San Sebastian did not fail to provide the opportunity. Kind of like Rio, Santaigo and other bastions of christianity ( I’m just sure) – You’d find atop the highest hill was – at least – a ridiculously tall statue of Christ or that statue plus a castle or fort. This town opted for both and – ever curious – Will set out. I followed. He was fresh – I’d been climbing hills for months. I would have been happy with just a picture but he was into the vista so – ever the grumbler – I followed. Urban switchbacks – seemingly hundreds of them – and I look up. Yippie Skip! Half the way there. Lo and behold – a cat! Hanging out in a cleft in the side of the cliff and saying – to me – “act like you’re just taking my picture and I’ll give you the gift of rest in return”. I’m snappin’ – let me tell you…

At the top – as always – it was worth the trip, the breath, the screaming quads. Who’d have thought this little sleepy idyllic spot on the planet was once such a hotbed of political intrigue, agenda and ploy. The views were unsurpassed. I hear a voice in my head saying… “of course they were! They were picked centuries earlier because of the ‘view’ – what are you…New? – Though not for quite the same agenda…” We hung out – I caught my breath (again) and headed downhill – yeah! It’s so unfair – Will was hardly breaking a sweat. Well, he is from the South…..enough said.

One of our favorite things to do after a hard morning’s sightseeing was to find a table at one of the numerous outdoor cafes lining the beach – order cocktails or sangria – and just people watch. It’s a European beach so – yes – topless women were plentiful. Will is too much the gentleman to oogle but he was polite enough to point out his sightings perhaps thinking I might enjoy them too. I was just jealous. I don’t belong to the buxom crowd in this lifetime and I know if I were to go topless there would be no need to employ props to hide any generous configurations in this regard. Sigh – again….. I have other attributes… And I digress. Surfers, duck dodges with boats tipping over in a strong wind while rounding a bouy marker, happy dogs chasing balls, kayakers and crewing practices were some of the other entertainment we enjoyed while kicking back in the sun. I managed one afternoon to leave my camera on the table. Ok, so it was AFTER cocktails. I was able to retrieve it after freaking out that it may have been stolen – of course it couldn’t have been My fault…. When going through the day’s pics later I noticed several I didn’t recognize as taking. The waitstaff had actually taken pictures of themselves. Too funny – I have a record of my camera’s rescuers.

If we were to pick out our most favorite of all the sights and experiences we enjoyed in San Sebastian it would have to be the Combs of the Winds. Most sites like Trip Advisor will give you the low down and plenty of visitor commentary which parallels our own. Suffice to say – the sound that came from the blow holes was the most primal either of us have ever heard. We spent what seemed hours just listening – transfixed. I was able to capture some of it on video but unfortunately it was competing with the high wind above ground. While the sculpture is worth the walk – it was the possibility of hearing that haunting sound again that drew us to do the walk a second time. We weren’t so fortunate since the tide and winds weren’t quite right but we at least have the first time anchored in our memories.

As always – there are so many more stories, experiences, pictures. Some funny, some poignant, some boring, some not so pleasant – and – all part of the journey. I am an incredibly happy woman sitting here by the sea. I am living the dream – finally. I don’t plan on waking up any time soon…..


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