“Have you been to San Sebastian? It’s amazing!”
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a variation on that, I would be rich. This small city in the Basque country of northern Spain seems to be a perennial favourite amongst anyone that had ever been there, so when I noticed that it was only a few hundred kilometres from where I was in La Coruña the decision wasn’t hard to make. I was going to San Sebastian.
The 11.5 hour, 53 euro train ride there seemed a little excessive in terms of both price and length, but it passed enjoyably and quickly in the way that train rides usually do and flights never will. It’s getting to the point where I’ll just about walk somewhere instead of heading to the airport, but that’s a rant for another day.
Within seconds of leaving the station I knew I’d made the right choice. The air seemed fresh after the air-conditioned train, the late evening light glistening off the river. I walked towards the old town with a spring in my step, ensconced in a blissful travel moment.
Locals and tourists alike enjoyed a beer on the street, a dozen languages filling the air. The famous cathedral loomed above the nearby buildings, grandiose yet still dwarfed by the hills that flanked the harbour. Glimpses of delicious-looking pintxos beckoned from the counters of small bars as I passed, reminding me that it had been a long time since breakfast. It was all unfamiliar yet enticing, the wafting smell of early summer hinting at long days and lengthy siestas. I was already falling in love.
Navigating through the crowd of revellers I found Roger’s House, my cozy little home for the next couple of days. People were crowded into the kitchen enjoying sangria and those random travel conversations we all love to have. I had a shower, made a friend and headed for the bars. Yes, this was indeed my kind of place.
With only a day or two to explore the city I knew I was going to be busy. Apparently the weather had been cold and rainy for a week prior, but San Sebastian seemed determined to show me its best side. I squinted into the bright sunshine as I walked out onto the empty streets the following morning, dawdled along the rocky promenade and headed for the hills.
Up Urgull I climbed, chosen for no good reason except it happened to be right beside the old town. The view was spectacular, a panorama that took in historic buildings, a sparkling ocean and one of the best city beaches I’ve ever seen. I knew my time was limited, I knew I had so much more to see. And despite knowing that, I just … stopped. I stretched out on a stone wall and lay there for ages, sunbathing above the city while hundreds of others did the same on the stretch of sand a hundred metres below.
I was content.
The promise of a medieval castle further up the hill eventually provided the energy to move on, the eight-hundred year old building in surprisingly good condition. In the middle of last century an enormous statue of Christ was built atop the turrets, the familiar figure easily visible from ground level in the city. Insects buzzed past my ear as I climbed, and with few other visitors around it often felt like I had the whole place to myself.
Even the local pigeons seemed relaxed, tolerating my presence with little more than a cautious glare.
I must have spent three hours up on that hill, and even then it was only hunger that drove me back down again. Of course it’s not exactly difficult to find something good to eat in a town renowned for its cuisine, and as I enjoyed a baguette beside the water I felt like I was going burst with happiness. An old couple sat alongside, nodding to me with smiles that needed no common language. Boats bobbed in the marina. The sun gently warmed my back.
See this, this right here? This is why I travel. It’s almost never the big things that blow me away these days. It always the simple things, the little slices of everyday life in a place far from home. This was one of those moments.
Right then I decided to extend my stay for another day. Not because I wanted to see hundreds of other things in San Sebastian necessarily, not really even because I felt like I was running out of time. No, I pushed things back because I just couldn’t bear to leave so soon. And then I went to the beach.
With the hostel – and seemingly the entire city – fully booked for the weekend it took me close to three hours to find somewhere to stay the next morning. I didn’t care. My feet were aching after several hours walking on cobblestones in flip-flops. I didn’t care. I had to get up at 6:00am to catch a bus to Bilbao airport, joining the last drunken revellers on the streets as I watched the sun rise over the hills. I didn’t care about that either.
I’d had another day to explore, to eat and drink, to soak up the beauty. I would have put up with a whole lot worse than sore feet and an early start for an extra 24 hours in this wonderful little city.
San Sebastian, you’re really something special.