The Old Town of Donostia is the very origin of the city. Until 1863 it was surrounded by a wall which was knocked down to expand the city, transforming it into a gem of beautiful architecture and open green spaces for the enjoyment of locals and visitors alike.
The Old Town is naturally defined by Mount Urgull, the river Urumea and La Concha Bay. Consisting of a series of pretty streets lined with balconied houses, a walk through the city is like a journey back in time, always in a very lively atmosphere. This is the most popular area in San Sebastián, the place where you’ll want to wander through the Medieval streets.
My goal today is to visit the two oldest churches in the city. I’ve been told – ah, those marvellous chats with the Donostia locals – that you’re christened with the name of one of the two churches. Those lucky enough to have received the Sacrament in the church of San Vicente, the oldest temple in the city, are known as koxkeros/as, thanks to the stones protruding from the temple (koxka in Euskera). Built in the first half of the 16th century in Gothic style, the interior contains one of the best altarpieces from the Romanesque period, by Ambrosio de Bengoechea and Juan de Iriarte. The impressive stained glass windows give an incomparable light to the interior. On one façade is Jorge Oteiza’s sculpture, Pietà. And it is wonderful to listen to the organ, built by the renowned French artist Cavaille-Coll in 1868, at one of the music programmes held in San Vicente. I was lucky enough to be there for one of the concerts and was totally overcome by emotion.
However, in spite of all its beauty, there is just as much to offer for those who are baptised in the Basilica of Santa María del Coro. Known as josemaritarras (from Jose Mari, in Euskera), they are even mentioned in the San Sebastián anthem. Standing magnificently at one end of Calle Mayor, this basilica is an impressive 18th century Baroque building with and impressive elaborate Churrigueresque façade. Next to the baptismal font there is a cross-shaped sculpture by Eduardo Chillida. Here too, it is possible to listen to concerts played on another organ built for the city by Cavaille-Col. This one is even older, from 1863. After visiting the church, lost in my thoughts, I reached the heart of the Old Town, Plaza de la Constitución, surrounded by colourful balconies.
It was supper-time by then and the exuberant counters in the bars and restaurants packed with pintxos were waiting for me to go and get my strength back and enjoy myself at the same time. Lively bar talk of the sort I love, new people to meet, pure joy. As well as architectural beauty, this is part of the charm of this ancient and beautiful land.
Mount Igeldo watches over San Sebastián. This is one of the places with the best view over the city. I rode up to the top in a pretty red funicular railway which has been climbing the mountain since 25 August 1912. Except for a few modifications, it has hardly changed since then and still has the original wood. When I got out, an incredible view of Donostia opened up before me. I started to happily snap away, but there was much to see up there. For example, climb up to the Torreón, an ancient wood-fuelled lighthouse, from where the views of Donostia are even more spectacular. Built 180 metres above sea level, it is possible to see the Cape of Matxitxako in Bizkaia and the French region of Landes.
However, besides beautiful views and towers like the ones you see in pirate films, I had a mission to fulfil: visit Igeldo Amusement Park, with admission fee included in the cable car ticket. Opened in 1911, the people who told me that the park was unique were not exaggerating. In no other park can you get on a ride that takes you around the mountain, overlooking the Cantabrian Sea and La Concha Bay at the same time. Lovey-dovey couples cuddle up together on the roller-coaster, where the figureheads of the longboats we rode in are a reproduction of drakkars, the fierce Viking dragon ships that, according to legend, threatened the Basques in time immemorial. As the legend goes, three sorceresses from Basque mythology, Mari Zaharra, Mari and Mari Txiki, decided to catch the dragons by casting an extraordinary spell with the waves. This finished off the dragons and now they can only be seen, trapped in wood, in this park. As I walk through the park, I saw groups of young people laughing as they emerged from the Paseo de la Risa (Funny Walk) and children bouncing on the trampoline. I tried everything and liked it all, but as soon as I entered the House of Horror, it became my favourite. The park has an old world charm, the most incredible views – and even fierce dragons. What more can you ask for? To go back.
The centre of San Sebastián is almost completely flat, making it the perfect city to wander around by bike.
Thanks to a firm commitment to alternative transportation, today numerous tourists and locals have chosen this green means of transportation to pedal their way around the city. Moreover, San Sebastián has the first totally electric Public Bicycle system in Europe. The network of Bidegorris, or cycle paths, with more than 30 kilometres, makes the journey safe and easy. What's more, there are 590 bike stands where you can leave your bike and, for example, go to La Concha beach for a swim.
This is exactly what I did on my first stop after hiring a bike at one of the multiple shops available. Once dry, I collected my bike and headed off to the Peine del Viento (Wind Comb), the marvellous structure by Eduardo Chillida, where I love to stop and watch the waves breaking. From there, I decided to go up to the highest part of the city to visit Aiete Garden, designed by the French horticulturist, Pierre Ducasse. This is an exceptionally beautiful park with cosy places to sit and read or chat, watch the ducks and swans in the pond, or just listen to the sound of the waterfall. These gardens surround Aiete Palace, built in 1878 for the Duke of Bailén, and today a lively cultural centre. It is well worth the climb for the peaceful atmosphere that reigns there.
I got ready to go back down to the centre, feeling the cooler now on my face, and decided that this time I was going to wander aimlessly around Donostia to discover its thousand and one surprises.
With more than 300,000 visitors a year, the Aquarium Palacio del Mar de Donostia is one of the most visited places in Euskadi. The landmark building, constructed in 1928, has two floors dedicated to the maritime and marine heritage of Gipuzkoa.
Of note inside this museum is the impressive skeleton of a Right whale and more than 200 species of marine inhabitants, as well as the famous 360º tunnel that allows you to observe them from every possible angle. Of course, I was transfixed by the sharks. I decided to take a guided tour, one of many on offer, focusing on the Cantabrian Sea. Since there is such a close bond between the sea and the city of San Sebastián, I thought it would help me understand the city better. I was not disappointed, between stories and legends, I observed how special mention was given to the more threatened species in this sea, such as hake or deep-sea coral. I take off my hat to the admirable environmentally-friendly spirit that imbues Euskadi.
Another of the objectives of this tour was to underline the link between Gipuzkoa and the Cantabrian Sea, to convey the important role of the sea in creating legends and traditions. Environmentally-friendly fishing, life on the sea, the trainera regattas, the importance of the sea in art... everything is quickly revealed during this guided tour, which goes by too fast. By the way, families with children and school groups can find out about sleeping with the fish in the Aquarium, an experience which must be incredible. Oh to be a family with children or a student!
I finished the visit by going up to the terrace to look at the sea and then headed to the nearby port at the eastern end of La Concha Bay, at the foot of the statue of the Sacred Heart atop Mount Urgull. The port is small and triangular in shape, with a fishing area and a leisure area. It is the perfect place for a cone of boiled carraquelas and quisquillas (periwinkles and shrimps). A delicious taste of the sea spreads through your mouth like nectar. There are also small restaurants and bars where you can have a meal overlooking the sea. A delightful way to spend a day.