A little slice of paradise in Northen Spain

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November 2nd 2006
Published: November 27th 2006
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It was finally time to move on to Spain, and so I took a train from Bayonne to Hendaye -- the last town in France before the Spanish border. From there, I hopped on a commuter train to San Sebastian. It was weird crossing the border the way I did. Every other border in Europe that I've crossed has been on a long distance train. This one just kind of slipped by on the "EuskoTren".

It was immediately obvious that I was in Spain -- everyone was suddenly speaking spanish. I took four years of spanish in high school, and as I sat holding my bag in my lap on the packed train, I started picking out words. Small things mostly, but it was a start. It took a few days in Germany before I even was able to pick out people saying thank you and please. So, things looked a bit more promising.

The train took forever to get to San Sebastian (SS), and it was stuffed with people the entire time. They were mostly teenagers, so I think I happened to arrive when school was letting out. When the train finally arrived in SS everyone poured out and I followed the crowd into a large, shaded square. I had no map, and the guidebook wasn't particularly helpful in providing directions to the tourist information office, so I picked a direction and started walking. After 10 minutes or so the street opened up onto a broad plaza adjacent to the beach. And what a beach it was.

SS is quite famous for its beach -- it's shell-shaped, sandy, sunny, and gorgeous. Plus in summer it's filled with rich europeans sunbathing topless. What more could you want? I stood at the railing looking down on the beach below for a good 10 minutes before I set off again to find a map. I ended up walking around for more than 30 minutes with absolutely no luck. Finally, I came across the train station, which had an outdoor map and I used that to track down a tourist office.

At the office, I got myself a proper map, as well as directions to the only hostel in town. The hostel is not listed in my guidebook so I was pretty happy to discover that there was one in SS. The hostel, as it turns out, is on the far side of the bay that SS is built around. Not one to take buses or taxis to hostels, generally, I set off on foot. It was such a gorgeous day that I didn't mind the 40 minute walk around the bay with my pack on.

After checking in, I met the 2 people who were in the room when I arrived. One was a guy from the Czech Republic (who went by Czech since it was easy to say) and a Kiwi dude named Matt. The three of us decided to walk over to the Parte Vieja back on the far side of the bay to find some food. SS is pretty famous for its tapas in addition to its beach, and so that's what we ended up tracking down. We ate at a couple places and then found some more substantial food for dinner. After dinner we moved on to some bars where we stayed out until 1 or so. Since the hostel had a 2am curfew, we decided not to risk making it back too late and we grabbed a cab. The cab was insanely cheap at only 5€ and it got us there in about
The CaminoThe CaminoThe Camino

On the trail
5 minutes (the guy drove like a maniac).

When I woke up in the morning, and saw that the weather was basically the same as the day before -- sunny and warm, I decided to book another 2 nights to make it 4. Czech left, and so Matt and I did the tourist thing and took the funicular up the nearby hill. The view from the top was breathtaking. There was a bit of a haze that hadn't burned off yet, so my pictures don't do it justice, but trust me it's gorgeous up there.

We walked down from the hill and walked around until 3 when they let us back in the hostel (stupid lockout). At the hostel we grabbed our swimgear and headed for the beach. Now, it was about 70 degrees out and sunny, but the water was a tad chilly. I think we only ended up staying in the water for maybe 5 minutes because it was a bit too cold, but still it was pretty fun swimming in november (in the northern hemisphere).

When we got back to the hostel, we had a new roommate -- Roberto from the Canary Islands. He spoke extremely limited english, and so I tried the (really) rusty spanish. It actually worked relatively well. He's a really patient guy, plus he made an effort to figure out what I was trying to say. It turns out he was planning to go for a hike along a portion of the Camino de Santiago the next day, and so we decided to join him. The Camino is a famous pilgrimage route that runs through northern spain, eventually ending in Santiago.

We got up pretty early for the hike and took a train and a bus to get to the trailhead. We also went through a couple small towns in the heart of Basque country. Seeing tons of political graffiti there reminded me a little bit of Belfast. The Basque region has it's own language, and it's culturally different from the rest of spain. There is a reasonably strong separatist movement there, and it was pretty obvious that speaking spanish immediately labelled you as an outsider. In two of the towns we went into tourist offices to get directions and info, and Roberto did the talking while I stood around listening as best I could and Matt just looked lost (he spoke no spanish at all).

Eventually we made our way to the "trail", which was almost a road where we picked it up. I was expecting a more typical trail, but instead we had to contend with cyclists freewheeling down from the mountains we were walking up into. The Camino did pass through some fantastic scenery, though, and it was amazing walking through the Spanish countryside. It did eventually turn into a more typical trail as we got up into the mountains and the number of people dropped off. We made it up to some old mines, and that's where we stopped for lunch before turning around and heading back. When we got back down, Matt decided he didn't want to continue on to the ocean, and so we left him at the train station and Roberto and I hiked from there all the way to the ocean (and up a massive hill with fantastic views of the surrounding country and ocean). It was dark by the time we got back, and we ended up walking 20 miles or so, but it was well worth it. I had a blast and it was great talking with Roberto

The view as we finally made it to the ocean.
even if our conversations were pretty limited.

The next day, Matt and I walked over to Mount Urgull, which has a massive statue of Christ built on top of it. When we reached the summit we unwittingly realized the statue is actually built on top of a church. I say unwittingly because we walked into sunday mass and had to make a hasty retreat. I'm sure we're not the first tourists to make that mistake, though.

On the way back to the hostel, we walked by a bar that had rugby paraphernalia all over the wall. I found that a bit unusual for Spain, but it made Matt happy because the All Blacks were due to play England in the evening and he was worried he wouldn't be able to find a place to watch. I also found an internet place, and so we decided we'd get some food and come back in time for the match.

When we walked back to the bar later that afternoon, we found the door shut. Welcome to siesta time in Spain. I was pretty surprised, though, because it was a big match and I figured they would be open regardless
At nightAt nightAt night

San Sebastian at night
of the siesta. To make matters worse, the window just above the door was open, and you could just make out that the game was actually on the tv in the corner. Matt stood there in frustration trying to make it out, but the angle was pretty bad and there wasn't any audio. After a couple minutes he gave up and we went to the internet place where I sat around uploading photos for a while. He went back to the bar after 30 minutes or so, and it had opened and so he got to catch the last half of the game, which was pretty sweet. The All Blacks won fairly convincingly, so he was pleased.

We didn't do much that evening, and the next morning the weather was fantasic yet again. In fact, it was a bit warmer than it had been, so we decided to head over to the beach again. When we got there it was low tide, and a huge area of rocks had been exposed so we walked over to check it out. It was really cool to see the little sea anemones and brain coral in the tidal pools. The whole area was awash with sea life and it was fascinating, especially since I've never seen most of that stuff outside an aquarium.

The water was still quite cold, but it was perfect for wading and so we walked the length of the beach in the water. We also sat on the beach for quite a while enjoying the November sun, and I even built a sandcastle.

In the evening we met up with an english dude, who was traveling around northern spain doing some research for a business he wants to start. Basically, he's looking to guide rich (American) tourists on the Camino de Santiago. I think that with good marketing it could work -- the trail is certainly beautiful, although I hardly think that it needs a guide. We hung out drinking until the wee hours of the morning before calling it a night.

The next day we spent running errands. I grabbed a reservation to go to Madrid, and also found a spanish intructional book for 10€. I figured it would help me remember the tenses that I've completely forgotten. As I write this entry several weeks later, I think it was a good purchase, so I'm happy. The evening was spent drinking (what a surprise), and then the english guy and I got up early to catch trains the next morning. Matt decided to stay for a couple more days before heading north to Anglet (he's a surfer).

That's it for San Sebastian. I planned to spend 2 nights there, and I ended up spending 6 -- more than any other place so far. I had a hard time convincing myself to leave, but it was hard to justify spending much longer in one place no matter how nice. I would seriously consider living in SS if I could find a way to make a living. The people are so nice, and it's such a beautiful place.

Stay tuned for Madrid.


28th November 2006

Happy Thanksgiving!
Hi Andrew! Hope you had a great Thanksgiving! San Sebastian sounds like my kind of place. Sounds beautiful! I'm still so jealous. Glad you're having a good time while we continue to slave away. :) I ran the Richmond marathon again a few weeks ago and the weather was horrible for running. 80 degrees and sunny! J. Kelleher ran it with me and we actually managed to finish it despite the weather. We miss you! Stephanie
28th November 2006

I'm glad to hear that you both managed to finish! 80 in November...sheesh. Of course, it was that warm in souther Portugal, but we went to the beach!

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