San Sebastian

Trip Start May 04, 2006
Trip End Mar 05, 2007

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Everyone knows that when you travel, a lot of times you end up needing a vacation from your vacation.  I managed to string together four nights off "work" and jaunt off to the north coast of Spain to visit el País Basco and the wonderful city of San Sebastian on the Bay of Biscay.

First of all, let me reiterate this point.  I love train rides.  Well, I love pleasant train rides.  The distinction has to be made because if you recall from some of my earlier entries, I haven´t had the best of luck with my night train experiences.  Before heading off on my 8 hour day trek across the north of Spain to San Sebastian, it had been about two months since I had proper train travels, and to be honest, I was quite excited for it.  Train rides are a great time almost anything.  Its better than planes.  Way better.  You can arrive literally A minute before you have to leave.  You can get up and move around whenever you want.  They usually have a bar/cafe car.  You basically have a lounge on wheels where you can chill out and watch the world go by.  I brought along a book, my ipod, journal, some food, wine etc etc etc.  Luckily the train wasn't that full and I had my own row to spread out my things and settle in for the trip.  Most guide books tell you that if the train ride is over 6 hours then you should take a night train.  Given my luck with those, specifically Spanish night trains, and my desire to have the ride to relax and kick back, I took day trains both to and from San Sebastian...and loved every minute of it.

I arrived at 9PM to a brisk Thursday night in San Sebastian. I had not made any accommodation plans given it was off season but had a hostel in mind that I was hoping would have vacancies. As usually happens at most train stations, I was offered accommodation a few minutes after getting off the train. My own hotel room with a TV for €20 a night. Instead of wandering around town in the cold looking for a place I decided to take the easy road. San Sebastian is not a very big town, only about 180,000 people, and so we arrived to the pension (hotel-sh place) after a short walk through the center of the beautiful old city. That short walk really set the tone for my whole trip, a stroll through the tranquil night down twinkling streets lit with Christmas cheer.

After checking in I dropped my bags of in my room, took the map I was given, grabbed the rest of my bottle of wine and hit the streets to see what I could find. I spent the next few hours meandering aimlessly through the festively lit streets sipping on wine and taking photos of my new surroundings.

After my map rant about Salz burg I feel it is my responsibility to share this before I go any further. As I mentioned earlier, San Sebastian is a small town BUT they have a small map with just enough detail to be effective. The city does not try to compensate for its small stature with an overbearingly large map. Also, the map was quite durable allowing as many folds in whatever direction you like, a feature rendered mostly useless due to the already fittingly sized map.

San Sebastian´s old city claims to have the most bars per square meter of anywhere in the world. Is that actually true? Who cares? "Let´s go check it out" is what I´m thinking. So after a few hours of wandering I found myself in the heart of the old city surrounded by people out and about and of course, tons of tapas bars. That is one beauty about hitting the town in these parts, you dont really need to know where to go to find places because if you just head out, the places find you. Most establishments have some representation on the streets on the weekends, meaning that there are usually people in the squares and on the streets handing out flyers that get you free entrance, free drinks or food to any of a number of places. All you have to do it walk around, gather your options and then pick what fits the bill for the evening. I did just that and my night unfolded as I bounced around to a few bars, sampling the local beverages while enjoying some tasty tapas treats and listening to music.  A splendid first night in a splendid city.

My "hotel room all to myself" didnt end up being all it was cracked up to be.  Big surprise?  Not really given some of my other experiences throughout my travels.  I did in fact have my own room with 4 single beds in it.  Me being only one person, I could only use one, although it did cross my mind to take turns sleeping in each one for a few hours at a time just to get my money´s worth, or even better, move some furniture and push them all together to form one massive bed.  It turns out that that actually would have been the best option because I am a bit larger than the average European and I slept all night with my feet dangling off the end of the bed.  Oh, and the heat didnt work so it was like an ice box in my room, but hey, I had my own room!  What are you gonna do?  You cant win ´em all.

I decided that one night of luxury was enough for me so I checked out the next morning and went to find accommodation for my next two nights. I found the initial hostel I was looking for and ended up with my own room for the first night and a hostel full of only girls. That´s right. My own room for a night AND surrounded by girls from several different countries...and for only €14 a night! Who´s living luxury now?

With my accommodation set for the rest of my stay, I hit the streets to see what San Sebastian had to offer. San Sebastian is such a contrasting city to Barcelona in many ways. Its much smaller and portrays itself as almost a little perfect town where there are no problems and everyone carries on with smiles on their faces and a bounce in their step. For lack of a better example, it kind of reminded me a little of the town from the movie The Truman Show with Jim Carrey where everything is happy-go-lucky and perfect.

The streets were super clean and there were so many people out and about being active and enjoying their days. I saw so so so many people out jogging with friends, riding bikes, frolicking on the beach, walking their dogs, roller blading, surfing...anything active. The city really puts off a positive vibe and the people seem that at that exact moment, there is no other place in the world they would rather be.

The town itself is drastically beautiful with two beaches on each side of the Urumea River that splits the town down the middle. The surf beach lies on the east side of town and at any time throughout the year is occupied with eager surfers waiting to catch a good wave. The sunbathers beach is shaped like a shell that fans out across the meandering boardwalk lining the edge of the city. Towering over each end of the beach are mountains granting beautiful views back down over the city and its surroundings.

The border of the Basque Country (El País Basco), the state where San Sebastian is located, is lined with mountains, giving it and San Sebastian a unique and isolating landscape. Looking inland from the mountains on the water´s edge, before you are rolling hills and mountains as far as you can see in every direction, except north, where all you see is the Bay of Biscay disappearing into the horizon.

The landscape is not the only unique characteristic of San Sebastian and el País Basco. Similar to Barcelona and its state of Cataluña, San Sebastian and El País Basco has their own language that is spoken among the locals. Unlike Catalán which resembles a mix of Italian, French and Spanish, the language spoken in the The Basque Country, Basco (Basque), has no similarities to any other language. The only thing I noticed is that they seem to use a lot of x´s. The originality of their language seems to point to the Basque people as the original settlers of the Iberian peninsula which grants them a great deal of pride and depending on who you talk to from what region, everyone has their own take on it all.

I had an absolute blast in San Sebastian.  Its a truly beautiful city and while I was there in the "off season" I still found plenty to do and loved the tranquility and positive nature of the town.   I can´t imagine visiting in July or August because I am certain it is jammed with beach-goers lusting for some time away in this magnificent haven strategically tucked between the mountains and the bay. That being said, I would absolutely love to revisit in May or September when the weather is a bit warmer and the town is alive with the feel of sun and summer. 
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