1 San Sebastian
We’d explored a lot of Spain together over the years and I suppose with some inkling of the future Dee suggested we should go somewhere we hadn’t been before and so I started planning a visit along the north coast with a couple of injunctions: not the usual one night here and move on Raggett itinerary; not two weeks in the same place; explore new areas at a leisurely pace. The compromise reached, and fully endorsed, was three three-night stays in San Sebastian, Cangas de Onis, Vilalba and a final five-nighter in Baiona to chill. And so on August Bank Holiday Monday we set off for Biarritz. Yes it’s in France, but it was the most convenient destination for flight times and it’s under an hour to San Sebastian by coach from the airport for just seven euros each. As we approached the toll booths and border control Rafael the coach driver did the most amazing set of manoeuvres and lane changes to speed us through well ahead of where we had any right to be. Respect Rafa! He also had to deploy the windscreen wipers briefly as we approached the border but we never needed them again for the next two sun-filled weeks. Soon we’re in the middle of San Sebastian disappearing into an underground bus station from which we were able to take a lift to the taxi rank and were swept up by Jon Andoni Uson who spoke a little English and with my Spanish – no Basque I’m afraid – we got on fine and he offered to be our private taxi service for the time we were in San Sebastian. He came up trumps within twenty minutes of being called on both occasions we needed him.
He delivered us swiftly to the Astoria 7 Hotel where we were shown to the Charlton Heston room – I might have preferred the Sophia Loren next door – which was very comfortable and funky with quotes and posters from his films. The lobby has a sofa where you can sit next to Alfred Hitchcock and the whole place is filled with film iconography – even your bill comes in a film can.
The hotel is a bit out of the centre but the number 28 (and several other buses) whisk you up to the main shopping area and the beach in five minutes – sorry Jon taxista, we like buses. We found a good place for lunch and sat outside, but the interior of Bideluze was fantastic with wood panelling and glass display shelves behind a great bar. It’s well known for its pintxos – the tapas equivalent in the Basque country – something we discovered a bit later from a guide book or online, must be that PM nose. We then walked across Guipuzcoa Square and found stop number 3 of the City Tour sightseeing bus and decided to get ourselves oriented with the town. The narration was a bit awry in places and repeated in others but gave us good snippets of history and culture. It also told us of the festival held on 31 August to celebrate Wellington leading Anglo-Portuguese forces to liberate San Sebastian from the French – hey there’s somewhere Brits are still welcome – and we’ll be here.
We got off the bus on the main beachfront the Playa de la Concha and during our evening stroll came across La Perla a thalassotherapy spa originally opened in 1912. We enquired about times and prices and determined to visit next day. We then walked north into the old city centre where a number of pintxo bars had been noted from Tripadvisor or the guide book.
There’s a whole street named for the 31 August which is lined with excellent bars and restaurants. It was the only street that survived when the Brits and Portuguese sacked the city and drove out the French. The bars didn’t disappoint with hams hanging from the rafters, cider being poured from a great height into tiny glasses, glass cabinets displaying mouth-watering delicacies and crowds of people having fun. It had been a while since lunch so we just had to try a few. A stroll along to the harbour and then the bus back to the hotel for a break before deciding what to do for dinner. With an early start, travel and a new city to absorb we decided on a snack at the hotel which was perfectly fine – the restaurant and bar were both very pleasant places to sit and plan.
The upshot of the deliberations that we would spend a couple of hours at La Perla and then go up Monte Igueldo which is at the west end of the bay – Jon and the guide books said the fun fair was indeed fun and the view of San Sebastian fantastic. But first thalassotherapy. What a delight – warm sea water with jacuzzi like jets toning your body at different positions all indicated on signs above – feet and ankles; knees and calves; thighs; waist; back or chest and shoulders often in combinations. It was great. And then we found the underwater gym – exercise bikes, cross-trainers, treadmills all for use while half submerged in slightly less warm but very pleasant salt water. After all the energetic stuff, we were also able to laze in a warm pool looking out onto the bay. Our two-hour session ended all too soon but we dried off, changed and then had a coffee at La Perla’s café up on the promenade. But not before booking a repeat for tomorrow.
Energized by our watery workout we walked the length of the promenade passing Queen Cristina’s Miramar Palace – La Perla was also built for her benefit when she decided the court would spend its summers in San Sebastian. They even built a tunnel for traffic so the palace lawns to extend right down to the beach without the inconvenience of crossing a road. Isn’t royal prerogative a wonderful thing? The Miramar marks the point at which Playa de la Concha stops and the next bay – Playa de Ondaretta begins. There a fewer hotels and restaurants on this stretch but more beach volleyball pitches, sailing and surfing outlets and a pleasant park. By the time we reach the elegantly tiled façade of the Igueldo funicular, we were thinking about lunch.
As we rise up the views become more spectacular with the island and sweeping bays and the mountains beyond all with bright sun, blue skies and golden sand – the temptation to cancel the trip westward and stay in San Sebastian was growing stronger.
The top of the mountain is a giant fun fair which we had been expecting – tacky, touristy but hey we’re by the seaside. We looked around and then spied a cafeteria which we thought would be good for lunch but no it was 3:30 and they were closing. Are we still in Spain? Now quite peckish we turn tail, descend in the funicular – we decided against the walk down – and along the promenade again looking for a suitable late lunch location. I think I mentioned this area was less populated with hotels and restaurants – devoid might be a better term. Leaving the main drag we entered a warren of side streets and hit upon Bar Pepe a good old-fashioned family neighbourhood bar with no pretensions or tourists. All the staff seemed to be engaged in a twenty-strong table enjoying a family lunch to which people came and went at random with at least four generations involved. A lovely spectacle to observe. They did however find time to take our order and serve us a selection of tasty tapas. It was after seven when we left so we took the bus back to the hotel for a quiet evening in preparation for the big day tomorrow.
San Sebastian is renowned for having more Michelin stars (14) per square kilometre than any other place on earth – it’s just been supplanted by Kyoto where we’ve also eaten very well. It would be foolish not to sample the delights of one of them wouldn’t it? But which one? Not realising the festive nature of 31 August we had tried to book Arzak, Akelarre and Martin Berasategui, all of which have three stars, from the UK several weeks before. Polite refusals from all except Martin Berasategui who regretted dinner was fully booked but that we might enjoy lunch even more given the location of his restaurant out in the hills behind the city. So we jumped at it, fixed on 14:00 and come Tuesday 31 August headed off for a work out at La Perla prior to our faithful taxi driver coming to sweep us out through confusing suburbs to the imposing entrance stairway of the restaurant. It may have his name in wrought iron beside us but for Dee it would always be ‘Martin’s gaff’ well his surname is a bit of a mouthful but what delightful mouthfuls would await us inside? Well plenty. Service was amazing from the moment we entered the door. We were offered a choice indoors or out and of three unoccupied terrace tables and chose one that would furnish a full view of the whole restaurant so we could see what was going on. Attentive wait staff provided a pouffe for Dee’s handbag and a sommelier offered a glass of cava as an aperitif. Our waiter and waitress donned white gloves to turn our glasses upright ready for pouring a divine glass of Juvé y Camps Reserva de la Familia, not a cava we’d ever had before, but which made a great start to the afternoon, quite citrussy and light. Dee’s appetite has been greatly diminished of late so she decided not to join me in the 15- course tasting menu but was guided to a number of selections which would interlace with mine quite nicely. As it was the service was seamless but unhurried, the food magnificent and the only blot on the landscape was when I exclaimed ‘Oh this is real caviar’ and then didn’t give Dee any to taste. So different from the lumpfish roe served in our own sweet home! I just got carried away honest!
A couple of hours later the chef himself appeared to greet most of the diners and posed for a treasured photo with Dee and myself after a chat about the menu, the area and his continued presence in the kitchen. He can’t be there all the time as he has also other restaurants to attend to – another three Michelin stars at Lasarte in Barcelona, the two-starred MB in Tenerife and six others in the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Costa Rica – and his reputation as the chef with the most Michelin stars to maintain.
During our time dining our attention was drawn to a woman in red sitting across the other side of the restaurant from us. Dee was convinced it was Laura Mvula, featured in a recent South Bank Show and speculated as to where she might be performing next – Paris in two days’ time (thanks Google) so it could be. We never approached her or asked the staff – celebs deserve their space too. But she did attract a lot of attention from the staff and had a long chat with Martin. After a wonderful and peaceful afternoon with outstanding food and well-matched wine, we called for Jon and were soon heading back to the hotel in his taxi. Dee took a sensible siesta while I, overexcited I suspect, went walkabout round the neighbourhood with my camera. We later got the bus back into the centre and witnessed the great parade and musical festivities of the 31 August Festival, packed streets in the old town, choirs and bands, poets declaiming and everybody having a good time.
Walking about and standing watching were tiring but finding bars with somewhere to sit down was quite tricksy but eventually we managed a couple and rounded off a fabulous visit to San Sebastian with a bus ride back to the hotel which neatly exhausted our three-day travel cards. A quick pack and so to bed, dreaming of warm oysters with iced cucumber; red mullet with fennel, saffron and squid and drifting off with Martin’s selection of ‘The local cheeses that I like’.