Coastline, cuisine and a lot of cider: Thomas Rees enjoys the fine pleasures and tasty treasures of the Basque Country’s new European Capital of Culture
There were walnut shells strewn across the table. Songs full of prickly Basque consonants – Ks, Ts and Xs – reverberated around the room and the cellar echoed to shouts of “txotx” (let the cider flow). My new friend Juancho grinned as he leaned up against one of the vast chestnut barrels, his hand on my shoulder: “Yo sé que volverias,” he said: “You will come back, I know it.”
It’s easy to fall for San Sebastián, or Donostia as it’s known to its Basque inhabitants. As a naval port close to the French border, the city spent much of the 18th and 19th centuries getting sacked, shelled and burnt down by forces belonging to Napoleon, the Royal Navy, and then local Cartels, who sought to change the rules of royal succession. But when peace prevailed and Spain’s royals started heading there in the 1840s, to trundle up and down La Concha beach in ox-drawn carriages and bathe in the tranquil waters, the city’s fortunes changed.
Palaces, bath houses and elegant seafront promenades sprang up. The fearsome batteries atop Monte Urgull fell silent and peace spread out across the bay. Nowadays, three of the best city beaches in Europe are within its limits: La Concha and Ondarreta – arcs of golden sand sheltered from the Cantabrian Sea by Santa Clara Island – and Zurriola, on the other side of the River Urumea. Here, surfers slice through the breakers and the air smells of salt.
More recently, San Sebastián has become just as well known for its pintxo (Basque tapas) bars, where glasses of Txakoll wine line the counter and plates of grilled octopus fly out of boisterous kitchens. It has a small constellation of Michelin-starred restaurants and more stars per square metre than anywhere else in the world save Kyoto, yet it’s healthy and active too. The local donostiarra seem as keen on cycling, swimming and coastal walks as lazy lunches washed down with rioja.
Each September, Hollywood comes to town for the glitzy international film festival. Modernist sculptures by Basque artists dot the seafront and take pride of place in the San Telmo Museoa, built around the honey-coloured cloisters of a Dominican convent. And, as if you needed another excuse to visit, San Sebastián has spent the past few years preening itself for its tenure as one of 2016’s European Capitals of Culture (ECC) – meaning it’s never looked better.
Throughout the year, the city’s programme of ECC events will be heavy on traditional Basque pursuits – everything from drumming to feasting. Which was how I ended up in a 16th-century farmhouse, drinking local cider from a barrel, eating walnuts and sheep’s cheese with Juancho and a crowd of locals, and promising that I would come back. It’s an easy promise to make. In truth, it was leaving San Sebastián that was the hard part.