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Beautiful Basque Coastal City

June 1-6

We had a nice train ride from Madrid to San Sebastian, a total of about six hours. As we left the rolling plateau around Madrid, our train went through some nice mountains before continuing on through more plains. Things changed abruptly as we entered the northeastern region of Pais Vasco -- land of the Basques. We were very surprised to see heavily-forested emerald green mountains, surrounded by ethereal mist. The Pais Vasco seemed to be a place that was perpetually wet and green.

San Sebastian is the largest city in the Basque country, a region which covers this section of Spain as well as the adjacent portion of France. The Basques have always had a very independent streak about them, and in fact, there is still a small percentage of the population pushing for independence from Spain. IRA-style terrorist bombings occasionally occur in the Pais Vasco (never directed at tourists) when this minority wants to really make themselves heard. In fact, while we were in San Sebastian, a major political figure was assassinated on the streets of a nearby city. Most people, though, don't want independence from Spain and considers this terrorist minority a nuisance. The national government actually gives the Basques quite a bit of autonomy, allowing them to rule themselves for the most part. Signs here are usually in the Basque language, quite a departure from the Castillian Spanish we were used to reading in the rest of the country.

Bajia del la Concha

View of San Sebastian and Bahia de la Concha, from Monte Igueldo.

San Sebastian is situated in what has to be one of the prettiest natural settings in the world. Barely 20 miles from the French border on the northeast coast of Spain, itīs very different from the warmer, drier cities we had visited to the south. The city is built around the Bahia de la Concha, a spectacular crescent-shaped bay with a long, golden beach safe for swimming. An island in the middle of the bay and natural rocky shoals protect the beach from harsh Atlantic wave conditions, and two tall hills (or small mountains, if you prefer) stand like sentinels to each side of the bay, further protecting the its interior from nasty weather.

Even so, it rained off and on practically the entire time we were in San Sebastian, reminding us that it was still springtime in Europe and that we were now facing the cool coast of the Bay of Biscay. Everything seems to be perpetually damp and green here, although we hear that July and August are spectacular sunny months. At first, the cook, damp weather was refreshing. The saturated marine air added a surreal, misty quality to the entire city. It was very beautiful. But after a few days, we began to wish for sunshine again. Here we were, in this beautiful coastal city with an excellent beach, but it was always too cool to go for a swim, or even hang out on the beach for very long! This was not a big problem for us, though. The city and its beach were still beautiful, no matter what the weather was like. This just gave us more of an excuse to hang out indoors, eating and drinking with the locals!


Inside one of our favorite tapas bars!

Speaking of eating and in the rest of Spain, food and drink is important here. Perhaps even more important that in the other cities to the south; the Basque region is considered by many to produce some of the finest cuisine in all of Spain. As in the rest of Spain, tapas bars are everywhere. We found ourselves snacking in San Sebastian's tapas bars constantly (hey, it was raining, what else was there to do?). Unlike in Madrid and Sevilla, where the tapas are displayed in large trays under glass, the tapas bars of San Sebastian have huge varieties of small plates spread out across the bars. You simply take what you want to eat, then tell the bartender what you had at the end of your meal so he can ring up the bill. What a way to dine! Washed down with glasses of the locally brewed Sidra (cider), San Sebastian's tapas make a great meal.

View from Monte Urgull

On top of Monte Urgull

On our third day in town, we decided we needed a little exercize (other than the usual walking around town to find something else to eat). So we headed up the path behind the Old Town and hiked to Monte Urgull, one of two tall hills at each end of the Bahia de la Concha. At the top of the hill are the ruins of an old castle, with a more modern statue of Christ at its peak. From the top of the castle, the view is spectacular. The fog and mist once again made for a surreal and beautiful setting. To the right was the big Atlantic Ocean and the Bay of Biscay, to the left the placid waters of the Bay of la Concha. But, as usual, it soon started to rain again, so we quickly headed downhill to find shelter.

Despite the gray weather, we really enjoyed our five days in San Sebastian, this most Basque of Basque cities. Unique, beautiful, and relaxed, it is, like Essaouira in Morocco, "our kind of place." We know we'll be back again one day. Hopefully in better weather.

On June 6, we took an overnight train to Barcelona, the stylish Capital of Spain's other main autonomous region, Catalunya.

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