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Welcome to San Sebastian, Spain

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Sculpture of famous Spanish Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in San Sebastian Spain
Sculpture of famous Spanish Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in San Sebastian Spain

San Sebastian, Spain Travel Guide

San Sebastian, Spain, is that rare city where you can chose among three 3-star Michelin restaurants and many other lesser-starred eateries for some of the best culinary experiences in the world. Afterward, you could bar-hop your way through almost any neighborhood on a pintxos crawl (pintxos are the Basque version of Spanish tapas) for creations nearly the equivalent of the tasting menus you sampled earlier. And all this happens among genial groups of mixed generation families and friends sharing the experience with you. Then, between meals the city is awash with culture, in all shapes and sizes, vying for your attendance. San Sebastian is a city to be alive in.

Food in San Sebastian Spain
Food in San Sebastian Spain

On a recent too-brief visit to the Basque region of Spain’s elegant beach town of San Sebastian, I found myself with a warm late spring afternoon free to take in the city by foot. It was the last Saturday of May and the whole city was alive. It’s as if all 180,000 residents were in the streets dancing, singing and watching dancers and singers. The beaches were packed, one with footballers and bathers, the other with surfers and kite boarders, and both had pet dogs running wild with the children on the sand.

San Sebastian Spain Seafood
San Sebastian Spain Seafood

Under the promenade along one beach was the weekly flea market, a hippyesque amalgam of colorful crafts and alternative lifestyles. Above, on what South American countries call a Malecon, those children not below on the sand were making origami and decorating pottery and climbing on everything, while packs of pubescent youths insouciantly circled – the girls dressed older than their years and the boys seemingly unaware, yet constantly lurking nearby. With earbuds in, both sexes moved on joints like well-oiled springs, curating the music to their own coming of age.


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More Fun in San Sebastian
More Fun in San Sebastian

Nearby, the carousel – its two stories colorfully populated with animals and fantastical creatures all ridden by little ones, their parents hovering nearby – musically turned, while at the bandstand on the other end of the plaza there was a steady mix of talent moving to canned music – couples in a tango display, groups dancing to popular tunes and lip-singing singles – performing one after the other to an appreciative crowd. Then, over in the park, couples of all ages and sexes were doing an elaborate mime together to instructions called from the stage. I watched transfixed, but couldn’t figure it out – the Basque language is foreign to me.

Tourists at San Sebastian Square
Tourists at San Sebastian Square

What is great about the people is the mix of ages, from babies in strollers to seniors in walkers and wheel chairs, and everything in between, all coming together as a community.

All this takes place in the nexus between the beaches, where the serpentine river that bisects the city meets the bay. As threatening clouds rolled in obscuring the blue sky, I filled my lungs with the citrusy scent of spring and mingled with the crowds, admiring the warmth and naturalness of the Spanish people.

Sculpture of famous Spanish Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in San Sebastian Spain
Sculpture of famous Spanish Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in San Sebastian Spain

Down pedestrian-only cobblestone streets I wandered, guided by the crowds and the sounds of celebration. In what in any other Spanish city would be the Mayor’s Square, a large orchestra ably played while lines and circles of dancers filled the open spaces, moving to the calls of a man in a red shirt dancing in the middle of them. I was amazed yet again at the mixture of ages dancing together. If I knew their language I’d follow the calls and dance with them.

Overlooking San Sebastian
Overlooking San Sebastian

Eventually the clouds won, and the rain in fits and spits signaled the imminent arrival of the threatening storm. Slowly the band packed up and the area cleared. Family groups, couples and individuals drifted under the shelter of the arched promenade surrounding the square.

The Pubs in San Sebastian
The Pubs in San Sebastian

As elsewhere in the city, the pubs came to life and the generations came together to share their hospitality. Suddenly the extraordinary day became an ordinary family evening of pintxos at the pub, as the rain and wind washed the celebration inside.

I’m told that this is a normal Saturday in San Sebastian, except sometimes it doesn’t rain, or it rains earlier, (this is the green coast of Spain, after all) but everyone spills out of their houses and apartments anyway and the city pulses in an intoxicating celebration of life. The night brings films and plays and operas and symphonies and poetry readings staged throughout the city. There is seemingly no end to the cultural events planned for this day and for the entire year. Welcome to San Sebastian, the 2016 European Capital of Culture.

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