She didn’t know where we were going. I did not tell her until we got on the train. But when I said we were on our way to San Sebastian in the Basque Country, I knew she still had no clue. So I showed her a map and the Google pictures I had saved for this moment. Taking my mom on a vacation was something I had dreamt of since moving to Spain two years prior. Not only did I want her to cross the pond so she could visit one of her top dream destinations, but I also wanted to show her why I LOVE Europe as much as I do! I wanted to treat her and spoil her in the same way she has done with me all her life. Once I showed her the Google pictures of San Sebastian, I unplugged from social media and turned my cell off for the weekend. My time was now for my mother.
We arrived at Donostia/San Sebastian train station in the afternoon. Our kind AirBnB host was right outside to drive us “home”. Our AirBnB was in a residential area outside the Gros neighborhood. According to our host, Gros is a young neighborhood with increasing popularity, which has given competition to the more traditional old town (El Casco Viejo). If you are a little lost on the map about San Sebastian, here is orientation: It is in the Basque Country (País Vasco) region of Northern Spain, just to the West and bordering France. The Pyrenees mountain range divides the Spanish side and the French side of the Basque Country.
The Basque Country has its own language, called Euskera. “Donostia” is the city name in Euskera, which is “San Sebastian” in Spanish. Other regions of Spain have their own language, too! Just to clarify, The Basque Country is a region, not an actual separate country. The word “Country” is just part of its name. But that does not mean they don’t want to be! For decades, the Basque Country has tried to become independent from Spain.
Their organized, nationalist group called Eta has been fighting for independence, killing hundreds in the process. But that does not mean all Basques want to become independent at the cost of people’s lives! So don’t be afraid of them, even though they have this tough vibe about them, which pairs well with the frequent thunderstorms of the region.
While in Spain, when talking to Spaniards, I found the independence topic controversial and best to not have an opinion but to observe both sides of the argument with interest. During Franco’s dictatorship (which only ended in the 70’s) the Basque people suffered a lot. Their language was banned, and their carefully preserved culture was oppressed. Now, you will not see a Spanish flag flying high in this region. This is not the only part of Spain that has fought for independence, but to keep the blog entry consistent with this trip, I am narrowing down the history lesson to this Northwest corner.
Back in Donostia/San Sebastian with my mother, our AirBnB room felt luxurious! The white curtains, the terrace, the bottle of Cune wine waiting for us on the night stand, and the toiletry stocked bathroom were all classy touches from our hosts. They were certainly matching this glamorous city, known for its Michelin star restaurants and celebrity filled International Film Festival. San Sebastian is one of the most expensive cities in Spain, with a population of 185,000 and the Cantabric sea within beach lovers’ reach. It is a small place, but with enough to do to keep yourself occupied for more than a weekend! Can you already tell I wished our vacation was longer? With so little time, so much to do, here is what we fit into our getaway:
This was the real star of our first day! We climbed up to get beautiful views of the city and sea. At the very top, you can spot a giant Jesus statue, which was added in 1948 and makes you confused, thinking maybe you are in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As we were reaching the very top, the summer day began to fade into gray clouds, and within a few minutes, it was no longer okay to be in shorts and a tank top. It went from hot to freezing, and the wind picked up a nasty speed that sent us running downhill before getting blown off the Mount!
Once in the city, everyone was seeking refuge in bars or fighting for public transport. My mom was a taxi warrior, and we headed back to the AirBnB for the night. We learned that what we had experienced was a phenomenon called La Galerna: a typical wind of the Cantabric sea when the days are too hot. Locals and tourists stay indoors while it goes away. “¡Bienvenidas al País Vasco!” said our taxi driver.
Now that you know the sun is a luxurious gift from nature in this town, you may begin to wonder why this is a popular vacation spot. I have a four-letter-word for you:
The Basque Country, especially San Sebastian, is widely loved for its food! I begin to salivate just thinking about its pintxos accompanied by a good, chilled cider. Me-oh-my will you want to eat it all!
I am no culinary expert, but the Michelin star fame of this city will do to convince you. On our second day in the city, we discovered a pintxos bar that had us going back! It is called Mesón Martín, and you can find it near the Plaza de Gipuzkoa on Elkano, 7. Check them out at http://www.mesonmartin.com
A famous bar-lined street to go pintxo hopping is Fermín Calbetón Kalea (the word “kalea” means “street” in Euskera). My mom was too hooked on Mesón Martín to explore all the bars on Fermín Calbetón, but we did get to try Bodega Donostiarra, which we felt had pretty good prices for pretty good food!
Another memorable flavor was the chocolate with cider inside, which we bought from Txokolate on Narrika Kalea. Even if just for the cool pictures you’ll get here, stop by. But I bet you won’t leave without dessert!
A little FYI, the “TX” in Euskera has a “CH” sound. So when you read things like “Txokolate” or “Pintxo” make sure you give those letters a good CH! If you are still wondering about what a pintxo is…Here is an in illustration for lack of better words:
My family is made up of beach lovers, and my mom has seen her fair share of waves. With San Sebastian’s incredible beach weather, completely unusual in this city, our getaway became even more unforgettable. My mom and I had not spent this kind of quality time alone in a very long time. The view and the company enriched our relationship, which is why I will always remember this trip.
We got a peek of Zurriola beach, which is a surfing beach. But we soaked up the sun at the more famous La Concha Bay, with its white fence along the Paseo de la Concha, and great view of the Town Hall, Mount Urgull, Mount Igeldo, and Santa Clara island right in the middle.
Our AirBnB hosts did recommend Ondarreta Beach (next to La Concha) and going up the Funicular at Mount Igeldo (on opposite side of Mount Urgull)…But we swapped those activities for a day-trip to…
Going from San Sebastian to Bilbao is an easy, breezy, low-cost trip. By the Maria Cristina bridge, you can find the underground bus station, and get a roundtrip ticket for 12€. The bus ride is a little over one hour, and you will get to see gorgeous, green, lush mountains all the way to the city.
In the 19th century, Bilbao became a super industrial city with its port activity. I hear that it used to be pretty plain, but with the addition of modern art along the river (even the bridges are cool!), and an outstanding bar scene, it really is a fun place to see. Its most iconic, modern symbol is The Guggenheim museum (1997). I have not been inside, but hear it is not a top thing to do when you have limited time. However, I will say that no matter
how short your stay is, you should really go up the Artxanda Funicular. This is an uphill railway that links the city to a summit where you can appreciate the most stunning city view I have seen in Spain. What does it for me is the way the mountains hug the city in a fresh, and vibrant green embrace. The buildings are mostly a reddish, copper tone and the contrast of colors with fresh air is magnificent. I love spotting the Guggenheim. Near the right side of the stadium, you can also see a building with a giant sign on its wall that says, “SOÑAR” (DREAM) in big black letters.
With just a few hours away from returning to San Sebastian, we decided to spend the afternoon walking around the old town area. But more importantly, we went to eat! Yes, remember the Basque Country’s main attraction is FOOD! My favorite F word.
We walked to Plaza Nueva, which is my favorite square in Spain (again with the green motif). It is intimate, you get a nice breeze, and there are so many bars to choose from. I did not even take note of where we went, and I don’t think it matters. You have to literally walk into all of them and see what tickles your fancy, what looks good, what you are craving. All the pintxos look great, and you can sip on that local cider and typical txakolí wine while you make up your mind!
Another lovely plaza where you can eat really well is Plaza Unamuno, right outside Plaza Nueva. Plaza Unamuno seems a bit more lively with locals. The metro stop “Casco Viejo” is also right there. It was neat to end our visit here because then we could just breeze to the metro stop “San Mamés”, where the bus station is.
Something I really love about Bilbao is its unique color scheme. It mixes well with the modern art peppered along the river. Bilbao is very photogenic, and can quickly become a photographer’s favorite. I just couldn’t get enough! Here are some pictures I love from our day-trip.
Our train ride back to Madrid was quick on the AVE – Spain’s bullet train. My mom and I made wonderful memories, and we bonded beyond what I thought possible. She loved and enjoyed every part of Spain, finding the differences, and embracing the old and the new. During my mom’s visit in Spain, we did have some challenges with customer service. When in contrast with American customer service, it can be frustrating to be in Spain. I have an unlimited number of reasons why I LOVE Spain so much. But I am always open with my guests, and letting them know this country is not great for its customer service is something I say to help them enjoy their time here. Rude customer service has brought me (and friends) frustrations over the last two years. However, that is the wonderful thing about travel! You get to visit places where people live a different life, and value different things than you might have been brought up to value. A smile goes a long way almost anywhere, and if that does not work, keep smiling…Not for their sake, but for yours.
The Basque Country is such a culture rich place. The food is not just art, but a huge masterpiece. If you are a nature person, the stormy weather could be a bummer in terms of spending time outside, BUT…the lush, green mountains will without a doubt transport you. There’s almost too much oxygen in the Basque Country! I swear, my lungs want me to move there. And perhaps my stomach, too. This is a place for all the senses to be pleased. Let every part of you, including lungs and stomach, love the feeling of being here! Maybe when you leave, you’ll be a little Basque, too. 😉