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San Sebastián

Thursday, November 9, 2006

San Sebastián, in the Spanish Basque country, forms a half-moon around the Bahia de La Concha. It is the capital of Guipuzcoa, Spain's smallest province. Formally known as Donostia-San Sebastián, the beautiful and sophisticated seaside resort is surrounded by green hills, and it has good vibes.

In the 19th century, royals and gentry made San Sebastián their holiday destination — it's just 21 kilometres from the French border — and since then, it has been one of Europe's holiday hot spots, as well as being the culinary capital of the country.

The city's inhabitants are chic, and they parade along graceful avenues in elegant groups. San Sebastián's Parte Vieja — the old town — has an enormous concentration of bars, small inns and restaurants in its narrow and winding streets. The charming area is the heart of the city and where traditional Basque life is most evident.

Parte Vieja is also home to some of Spain's finest craftsman and artisans who specialise in creating leather works and basketry, unique to Basque country.

It was once a walled town packed with wooden houses and then later stone buildings. It has been destroyed 12 times by fires occurring between the 13th and 18th centuries.

The neoclassical Plaza del la Constitucion first housed the old city hall and later the city library. It now holds historical archives and proudly displays the City Coat of Arms. In the daytime you can see numbers on the balconies, a reminder of when they were rented out as spectator boxes at bullfights. Fortunately, bullfighting has long gone and given way to alfresco dining.

The cathedral is a neo-Gothic structure, built in the 19th century. Its 75-metre spire can be seen from all over the city.

Most visitors hop on the funicular railway to take the ride to the summit of Monte Igueldo. From the gazebo at its peak, you will enjoy a sweeping view of the bay and Cantabrian coastline. The funicular runs between October and February.

From the top you will see the Miramar Palace, an English-style mansion built in 1893 as a summer residence for the Regent Queen Maria Cristina. It is surrounded by a velvet blanket of lawns and gardens, and has views over La Concha, one of Europe's most beautiful beaches. Juan Carlos I studied there when he was a young prince and now it is the headquarters of the University of the Basque Country and Eusko Ikaskuntza-Basque Studies Society summer courses. The garden is open to the public.

San Sebastián's most famous beach, La Concha, is quite crowded during July and August when Spanish and French holidaymakers arrive. The beach is covered with pretty striped canopies and waterfront bars and restaurants buzz. One side of La Concha Bay is still used by local fisherman. In the centre of the bay is the tiny Santa Clara Island with a lighthouse and small wharf.

There are sculptures by local artists all over the city. There are also several parks and gardens, wide open green spaces, manor houses and water features. Cycling is encouraged and paths are ever-growing to accommodate clean and healthy transportation.

The best evening entertainment in San Sebastián is tapas-tasting in the old quarter. The ritual is known as poteo-ir-de-pinchos. People spear tasty morsels with toothpicks, which are counted at the end to determine how much is owed. Pinchos are usually accompanied by chilled white wine.

Groups of young people often spend their evenings on some 20 streets in the Old Town, each leading toward Monte Urgull, the port, or La Brecha marketplace. Alameda del Bulevar is the most upmarket of these streets, and Calle Fermín Calvetón is one of the most popular. There are loads of bars to choose from — Vergara, Gandarias, Bernardo and La Cepa.

Txokos Clubs are gastronomic societies, just for men who love to cook. In these simple clubs, whose name in the ancient Basque language means "corner", attendance is by invitation only. There is no menu and the members share the cooking among themselves. The clubs are often nestled amongst rows of restaurants and indistinguishable to those not in the know.

Txokos were established in the late 19th century in the elegant seaside resort of San Sebastián as a means for Basque men to abscond from their female-dominated homes.

Hotel Maria Cristina, San Sebastián's first five-star hotel, opened its doors in 1912, and the Regent Queen Maria Cristina was the first to cross the threshold. A wing was added in 1948 and in the 1960s it was adapted to modern society, without losing its Belle Époque glamour. Bathrooms were added to guest rooms and other rooms were extended.

The hotel is surrounded by promenades and gardens, and is just blocks from the beach and close to the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum. Classical balconies allow beautiful ocean and Urumea River views. The 136 guest rooms are decorated with fine furnishings, marble, exquisite lighting and extravagant rugs. All beds have luxurious pillow-top mattresses for sublime comfort.

Easo Restaurant serves Basque delicacies and is open for all meals, every day. Caf— Saigón offers Asian cuisine for lunch and dinner, which is a pleasant alternative to local food. Gritti Bar and Terrace is where you can enjoy morning and afternoon tea or a cocktail while being entertained by gentle music from a Steinway long piano.


In Spain's Basque area.


Hotel Maria Cristina rooms start at around $315 a double a night.

Emirates has return flights to San Sebastian. For sale and travel until December 15, 2006. Fares from;

  • Melbourne, $3168
  • Brisbane, $3170
  • Perth, $3170
  • Sydney, $3185
  • Adelaide, $3796
  • Darwin, $4451

Prices quoted are correct on November 9, 2006.

More information

Hotel Maria Cristina
San Sebastian
Calle Oquendo 1
San Sebastian, Spain E-20004
Ph: 0011 34 943 437 600
Fax: 0011 34 943 437 676

Ph: 1300 303 777

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