“I was framed.”
These words would usually be spoken by a guilty party making excuses but, in the case of San Sebastián in Spain, they describe the city to a T.
The twin peaks of Mount Igueldo and Monte Urgull form a perfect frame for the semicircular Concha Bay.The bay also lends its name to the beach, which our room at the Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra directly overlooked.
The beautiful sandy stretch has been a playground for Europe’s jet setters since long before anybody had any idea what that meant.
Watch: The view from our room.
The hotel was glad to welcome them. Queen Isabella II hid away here during a revolution in 1868, and a few years later King Amadeus I of Savoy stayed a while.
This was before it officially became the Hotel de Londres in 1902, but since then Henri Marie de Toulouse-Lautrec and the notorious spy Mata Hari have also been guests.
We’re pretty sure (but can’t be completely certain) that Helen Mirren was one of our fellow guests (who’d ever thought we’d ever say that?). Otherwise, she has an eerie doppelganger. We didn’t have the guts to move in close enough to confirm our sighting.
Checking out the Old Town
As inviting as the beach was, we figured it could wait, so we walked into the old town for a look around with a first stop at the Ayuntamiento, or City Hall. This stylish building was originally built in 1882 as a casino hall, where Europe’s bourgeoisie and aristocracy came for parties during their summers in San Sebastián.
As we wandered through the narrow passages of the old town, throngs of fans were busily carousing after the morning’s rowing competition. It was among these revelers that we got our introduction to pinchos.
Pintxos, as is spelled in Basque, are a typical snack of the Basque Country and are generally made with small slices of bread topped by a mixture of ingredients.
A toothpick holds things together, which is where the name comes from, “pincho”, meaning spike.
One thing we tried was not spiked, but it can sometimes have a kick, was pimientos de Padrón.
These pan fried peppers are to die for. Most are mild, but every now and then a hot one sneaked up on us. As an added bonus, they were served with crispy, fried Iberian ham.
Shut my mouth, that’s some good eatin’!
A late afternoon beach visit topped off our day, an almost the perfect way to end a day.
That is until we experienced sunset, THEN it was perfect.
Let the Walking Begin!
The next day began our official VBT walking tour, and we met our fearless leaders, Txaro and David, as we prepared for the morning’s walk.
The plan was to cover the entire arc of La Concha Beach all the way from Mount Igueldo on one end, to Monte Urgull on the other.
Along the way we passed by the Palacio Miramar, which was the former summer residence of the Spanish monarchy but is now used for summer classes of the Basque University.
The palace was built in English style to give a nod to the help that the Brits gave in driving Napoleon out of the region, and the fact that the royal family was summering here helped turn San Sebastián into the popular resort that is today.
There is Art in Nature
On the rocks at the base of Mount Igueldo we took a look at a large iron sculpture, the Peine del Viento, which means the Comb of the Wind. The piece was designed by local sculptor Eduardo Chillida to interact with the wind and waves, making sounds from their vibrations.
Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—since it meant we got to stay dry—the seas and breeze were too calm to create any resonances.
Taking the Easy Way up
Moving along we found that the easy way to the top of the mountain is by funicular, so we voted for that.
The old, wooden cable car has been ferrying folks to the summit for over a hundred years.
At that same time an amusement park opened up at the top and it remains one of the oldest in the Basque Country.
We took a turn on the little flume ride that skirts along the top of the mountain, but the real attraction up here is the panoramic view of Donostia, the Basque name for the city of San Sebastián, that spread out before us with the Pyrenees Mountains as a backdrop.
The return walk took us back past our hotel and into la parte vieja, the old city, where we eagerly anticipated the reward of some pintxos.
Txaro led us into Bernardo Etxea and introduced us to the first of many great Basque meals.
We begin with typical pintxos, made with several varieties of seafood on bread, followed by salad and an assortment of vegetables prepared to perfection with garlic, shaved almonds, and our new must-have ingredient of the trip, jamón Ibérico, Iberian ham.
Climbing the “Other” Mountain
Feeling fortified enough to make the climb up to the fortifications at the top of Monte Urgull, we set out again.
La Mota Castle dates back nearly nine hundred years to when it was built by King Sancho the Wise of Navarre, the founder of San Sebastián.
Along with its surrounding battlements, the fortress played a major role in defeating Napoleon’s troops, so its place in history is held in high regard.
In 1950, in an effort to seize some of that good will, Generalissimo Francisco Franco commissioned a giant sculpture of the Sagrado Corazón, or Sacred Heart, to stand atop the ancient citadel.
This has led to some mixed feelings among the residents, due to the overwhelming dislike of the deceased dictator in these parts, but the appreciation of the Christ statue overseeing the city.
On the way back down the mountain we got to see San Sebastián framed once again.
This time looking at the picture perfect city from the outside looking in.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com