Barry Stone discovers the region’s tourism appeal extends well beyond the popular beachside playground of San Sebastian
The Hotel Maria Cristina, which triumphantly opened its doors in the northern Spanish town of San Sebastian in 1912 and has been the city’s premier address ever since, has a single Belle Époque rooftop cupola that rises above its northeast corner and which, like the hotel itself, has been a city landmark from the day it was finished. But from my perspective it was more than that. It was the roof over my oval-shaped living room. Evocative of a town once declared by the hotel’s first-ever guest, Queen Regent Maria Cristina of Spain, to be the “summer capital of Europe”, the cupola adorns the Royal Terrace Suite, the grandest hotel room in one of Europe’s most desirable resorts.
The room, though, comes with a twist. Here, where Queen Cristina herself must surely have slept, I had a decision to make. There were pintxos (a subtle variation on tapas) bars to visit, alleyways around the old port to wander, and the sweeping white arc of La Concha beach to stroll – and to be seen to stroll. But doing all that meant forsaking not just the suite, but two quite spectacularly furnished north and east-facing private rooftop terraces.
Sometimes having the best room in a city can be a real impediment to exploration. A good problem to have.
San Sebastian sits on the Bay of Biscay in the independent- minded Basque region of northern Spain where the Basque language is still spoken by almost one in three of its inhabitants, which explains all the dual signage. e language, including five historic dialects, is the oldest in Europe with no known links to any other spoken tongue – what linguists call a language isolate. Its prevalence has grown since the 1975 demise of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who saw it as a threat to Spanish nationalism.
Any attempt at understanding its peculiarities and the odd mingling of the letters k and z will benefit the visitor. For example, there are no swear words in Basque, so if you hear two locals vigorously disputing, say, a traffic infringement, it’s likely they’ll eventually revert to Spanish, which has swear words aplenty.
It’s also handy for filling in linguistic gaps. For instance, there’s no precise Spanish word for ‘very light rain’, but in Basque it is sxirimiri. San Sebastian itself is Donostia, and erdera – with a barely disguised sense of primacy – is simply any language in the world that is not Basque.
Gastronomically San Sebastian punches way, way above its weight with several Michelin-starred restaurants including the three- starred Arzak, considered by many to be the finest restaurant in Spain, and the two-starred Mugaritz, still in the World’s Best Top 10 after 10 years. With the exception of Kyoto in Japan there are more Michelin stars here per square metre than any city in the world.
And then there is Mimo, a luxury cooking school attached to the Hotel Maria Cristina established by English expat Jon Warren. Now a local celebrity, Warren arrived here in 2008 with nothing but a suitcase and, realising visitors wanted help exploring the region’s culinary terrain, began his own pintxos bar tours. In 2009 he founded San Sebastian Food – now Mimo – and you can spend a day here cooking under the guidance of a specialty chef in its stunningly appointed cooking school, a concept that has been awarded the Starwood Innovation Award for Europe, Middle East and Africa.
At the other end of the sophistication scale, but lying at the very heart of the city’s gastronomic life are, of course, its famous pintxos bars, a greater concentration of which you’ll not find anywhere else in Spain. Pintxos, from the verb ‘to pierce’, uses toothpicks to skewer myriad delicacies onto pieces of bread, and at places like La Viña at the back of the old town you’ll find Spanish classics like boquerones (pickled anchovies high on diced garlic) and a bar as crowded as a Tokyo subway. But the best way to experience pintxos is not to focus so much on the famous ‘must-see’ bars, but rather dive into the maelstrom and follow your senses.
Beyond San Sebastian, medieval Laguardia is a 10th-century fortified hill town surrounded by the vineyards of the Rioja Alavesa, first planted here by the ancient Phoenicians, a wine known for its pronounced vanillas. Laguardia’s balcony-laden alleyways are charming, its defensive walls still intact, and behind them its residents live relaxed and connected lives in an enviable example of the concept of ‘close living’. A historically dry country, Spain’s scarce water sources meant towns developed in proximity to each other, which laid a foundation not only for communal living but also for communal eating. In an interesting social quirk people rarely have friends to their homes for meals, preferring instead to gather in large and often impromptu groups at the town’s cafes and restaurants, which sit above the more than 250 wine ‘caves’ that lie beneath the town’s cobbled streets.
And there is some weighty art in the Basque region too, though I’ve always considered large-scale public art to be the poor cousin of the ‘correct’ sort you see on museum walls and such. And what an impoverished view that was, I thought, as I came face-to-face with the legacy of the great Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida and the 150 confronting examples of his work at the Museo Chillida Leku, 20 minutes’ drive south of San Sebastian.
Born in San Sebastian in 1924, Chillida’s monumental abstract sculptures in stone, steel, cast iron and alabaster burst forth with movement, tension and energy, and to walk through it all was a transformative experience: subtlety, lightness and grace in objects that need cranes to move them. Chillida’s open-air museum, on the site of an old farm, was his personal vision, a space where people could walk among his works, as the artist himself put it, “as if strolling through the woods”.
Further west is the historic city of Bilbao, founded in 1300. e Basque region’s largest metropolis, Bilbao has been enjoying a tourism renaissance since 1997 thanks to one of architect Frank Gehry’s nest creations (and home to several works by Chillida): the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.
Further west is the historic city of Bilbao, founded in 1300. The Basque region’s largest metropolis, Bilbao has been enjoying a tourism renaissance since 1997 thanks to one of architect Frank Gehry’s nest creations (and home to several works by Chillida): the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.
Years ago I happened to visit Gehry’s family home in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, which he ‘embellished’ in 1978 – when almost 50 years of age – using chain-link fencing, corrugated iron and a mix of other elements years before he achieved widespread fame. Now here I was, on the banks of Bilbao’s Nervión river, looking at the fanciful ribbons of titanium that prompted architect Philip Johnson to call it “the greatest building of our time”. How does one, I wondered, go from Santa Monica … to this?
The way the Guggenheim Bilbao has so spectacularly reinvigorated a decaying port area once full of shuttered factories to the point where it has repurposed even the city itself now has a name. City planners the world over call it ‘ e Bilbao E ect’.
If you come here just to see this building and its contents, your time would be entirely justified. And the best place to stay if you do is the Gran Hotel Domine directly across the street with Guggenheim View rooms that guarantee Gehry’s shimmering masterpiece can be the first thing you see when you wake up, and the last before you go to sleep. And I’d defy even the inventive Basques to come up with a word to convey the sheer joy of that.