San Sebastian – Basque Country, Spain
A Coastal Belle Epoque Setting Fit for a Queen
Along with Biarritz, its French counterpart across the border, San Sebastian is the great Belle Epoque resort of the Basque coast. The potential of the lovely city and its crescent-shaped La Concha beach must have been obvious to the Spanish queen-regent Maria Cristina when in 1866 she decided to make it her summer residence and the royal court’s summer capital, thus raising it to the pinnacle of fashion.
Most of the turn-of- the-century architecture has remained intact, though its function may have changed: the classic horseshoe-shaped opera house is now home base for the well-known San Sebastian Film Festival, held in late September.
During the festival, the aristocratic Hotel Maria Cristina, which sits like a queen on the west bank of the Urumea River, serves as headquarters for the film-world aristocracy. Once the destination of every titled head in Europe, the 1912 landmark still dazzles with its opulent lobby of ormolu, intricate marquetry, onyx columns, and Carrara marble floors.
For dinner, guests should make every’ effort to secure a table at Arzak, the gastronomic star of Basque country. A notoriously independent people of distinct ancestry, the Basques are fascinated with food, and their culinary traditions are a source of deep regional pride, as a visit to the awesome La Brecha food market will confirm.
The Basque region (Euskadi, in the Basque tongue) is home to one third of Spain’s top-rated restaurants. And no one is more beloved for his culinary genius than Juan Mari Arzak. This local celebrity began gamering stars in the early 1970s, and is credited as the originator of the nueva cocina vasca—a revolutionary movement that changed fine dining throughout Spain in the 1980s the way nouvelle cuisine did in France.
From heavy and traditional to innovative and light, from roasts to seafood, cooking is a masculine art in the Basque region, passed on from father to son. So it is curious and refreshing to see Arzak now sharing his kitchen and legend with his daughter, Elena. After an unforgettable repast at Arzak’s, you’ll want to hug them both and exclaim, “Eskarrikasko!”—Basque for gracias.