Going for a stroll is a favourite pastime for the people of San Sebastián. We follow their footsteps to discover a beautiful city nestled between mountains and overlooking the roaring Cantabrian Sea.
Green mountains and the Cantabrian Sea, with its changing colours, watch over San Sebastián like a treasure. And it is a treasure. This pretty, elegant city, capital of Gipuzkoa, one of the historic territories of Euskadi, rises up from the bay and reveals its charms. The city has been blessed with a spectacular natural setting that provides the perfect frame. Just 20 kilometres from the border with the French Basque Country, its influence is notable in the streets while its proximity creates a constant flow of travellers in both directions. Many say that it reminds them of a smaller version of Paris by the sea. Nevertheless, in spite of the evident French influence in some of the gardens and buildings, San Sebastián is unique because of its culture, its tradition and, of course, its people. San Sebastián locals are, first and foremost, happy with their city, sharing their passion and love for their city with visitors from around the world. The constant flow of foreigners has defined the character of the inhabitants, making them open and welcoming.
I ask Joseba, an acquaintance, about the history of the city and he immediately starts talking with obvious pride. He tells me that it used to be a small fortress town until 1863, when it decided to break down the city walls and turn its gaze to the sea. That's how the construction of the new splendid city we see today got started. Since the beginning, it has been geared towards tourism, a wise decision with an extraordinary vision towards the future. The people of San Sebastián knew how to make the most of the gifts that nature gave them to build a city in perfect harmony with the land and the sea. The Spanish Queen Regent, María Cristina, quickly chose it as a summer residence and the perfect place to take the healing waters that would improve her skin. Accompanied by her court, the relationship lasted from 1893 to 1928.
With the arrival of the queen and her court, the city was equipped with all sorts of infrastructures intended for the visitor without ever forgetting the needs of its citizens. Amusement parks, casinos, golf courses, clay pigeon shooting, nautical activities, restaurants, shops and bars: there was plenty of everything at the start of the 20th century. And so the city became a pacesetter tourist destination, the place everyone used as a yardstick. Since then, the number of visitors has only grown. And best of all, it has never outgrown its size. It was built on a human scale, an expression that defines Donostia well. This is one of the reasons why its inhabitants (less than 200,000) enjoy a high standard of living. You can get everywhere quickly, without traffic jams or huge crowds – a key factor, they say, for happiness. To prove it to me, Joseba suggested a walk to discover what he calls the 'sweet', not only delicious on the outside but on the inside too.
The walk starts by climbing aboard a cable car more than a century old which takes us to the top of Mount Igeldo. The journey is worth it in itself but the best is on arrival, when a spectacular panoramic view of San Sebastián opens up before you, the view that is captured in so many photos and postcards. The beaches, the sea and the city shine brightly. From here we can see the walk we are going to follow, always to the east along the edge of the coast until we reach Mount Ulía, passing by three beaches in the city and some of the most representative buildings and areas. We get ready to go down, but first I make a mental note to come back to Igeldo because there is a beautiful amusement park that I do not intend to miss.
As we go down, we walk barely 200 metres until we get to the Peine del Viento (Wind Comb), the majestic sculpture by the renowned artist, Eduardo Chillida. I feel that I am before a symbol and that these three iron sculptures attached, almost melted to the rocks, immersed forever in the sound of the waves beating without mercy against the stone, say much about the stoic character and deep attachment to the Cantabrian Sea of the inhabitants of this land. My companion smiled when I said this. Perhaps I am not so far off.
Heading east, we reach Ondarreta, the first of San Sebastián's beaches that we pass on our route. Now there are lots of walkers about. The people from Donostia like walking and, at any time of year you can see them enjoying themselves on a leisurely walk. The awnings and canopies on the beach with their typical blue and white stripes give the beach a retro air of elegance. I half expect a group of people dressed from the Belle Époque to go past at any moment. It's hard to resist a dip in the sea, but we have to carry on as there is lots to see.
The Pico del Loro (parrot's beak), a small isthmus, separates this beach from the next at high tide. The pretty Miramar palace stands here, with great views and a beautiful garden that you can visit. This was the city's gift to Queen María Cristina, for being such a great ambassador for the delights of Donostia. Today it is a public building with exceptional views.
Beyond the palace, in all its splendour, lies what is considered to be one of the most beautiful urban beaches in the world: La Concha, majestic, with fine white sand. The beach huts are silhouetted on the horizon. I am not surprised they are so proud of it. It is very well looked after and I think it is the most chic beach in the world. I cannot imagine people shouting on the beach and I would find it hard to eat a sandwich there. This is a majestic beach, surrounded by tamarinds. The access paths to the beach are crowned with sun dials and a characteristic railing. An overhang at the bottom part, almost on a level with the beach, allows you to get close without getting wet in bad weather. It is all very carefully thought out. The buildings on our left are the most expensive per square metre in the whole country. The views are worth it.
At the end we have the Alderdi Eder gardens, right on the beach, giving the city even more of an air, and the former casino now converted into the attractive City Hall. It is worth spending a few minutes in the gardens, going down into the shade of its trees. If you visit with your partner, it is a romantic spot, and if you go with children they will surely enjoy the pretty roundabout there.
We carry on with our walk and our chat until we reach the fishing port, yet another of the city's treasures and its most protected area. Even though it is cold, it is always a degree or two warmer in the harbour because it is so well sheltered. There are also small restaurants and bars. Want a tip? Buy a cone of boiled carraquelas and quisquillas (periwinkles and shrimps), delicious and refreshing. With a txakoli or cider, take a seat in the port facing the sea, and while you eat, watch the traditional boats painted the characteristic red, green, blue or black. It is truly enjoyable. By the way, there is a boat trip that leaves from the port and visits the different beaches. The name of the boat is Ciudad de San Sebastián. Another that will take you to the Isle of Santa Clara.
From the port you can now get to the old town of San Sebastián, the military fortress, but we leave this for later. We continue along the coast as far as the Aquarium, another favourite with the youngest members of the family and the most visited museum in Donostia. Loads of fish swim in different pools. The Shark tank is spectacular. The history of a city open to the sea is explained in this museum. Afterwards, we climb up to the upper esplanade for another beautiful view of the Bay, from yet another angle.
We continue along the Paseo Nuevo, going round Mount Urgull along the coast, a tall urban park crowned by the monument to the Sacred Heart. We arrive at the Construcción Vacía (Empty Construction), an imposing structure by Jorge Oteiza, located at the other end from the Peine del Viento, where the semicircular bay comes to an end. This is the point where the typical photos of San Sebastián on a stormy day are taken, showing waves of up to 15 metres. One of the most impressive sights is with a heavy sea when the waves beat ruthlessly against the breakwater. Watch out, the waves might soak you and if it is a really heavy storm it is not a good idea to be too daring. You are coated in the smell of salt and it sticks to your lips.
We continue along the coast until we reach the mouth of the river Urumea, which crosses San Sebastián. Across the Kursaal bridge we can see the Kursaal Conference Centre, an impressive work by the architect, Rafael Moneo. The two cube-like buildings their inspiration from the square rocks at the mouth of the river. These organic shapes break away from the Frenchified San Sebastián to give the city a futuristic image. The contrast is spectacular. This is where the great cultural events take place in Donostia.
Once across the bridge, at the foot of the building you can discover Zurriola beach, Donostia's third beach, known as the surfers' beach. There is no island in front of it and the waves break freely. Mount Ulía seems to protect it from one side. The top of Ulía affords another stunning view: Zurriola beach, in the background the cubes, the old quarter and the bay, which is visible behind everything. Like in a beautiful painting, the surfers add spots of colour to the blue and white of the sea; it is not called San Sebastián Surf City for nothing. We close the kaleidoscope of the city on this view, a city that is always beautiful, always different.