Travels in Spain: San Sebastián (Donostia)

Jesse’s aunt, uncle, and cousin came to visit us in early March, and after a few days of showing them around Gijón, we decided to all pile in the rental car and visit the Basque city of San Sebastián, or Donostia (in Basque). Jesse and another cousin visited the Basque city of Bilbao early on in our Spain travels, and when we returned and told people we had been to Bilbao, they immediately asked, “how was San Sebastián?” and when we told them we did not go there, they said “you must.” So we did.

We arrived on St. Patrick’s Day, and saw no one wearing green or celebrating, well, besides us (we wore our only green clothes), as it drizzled. We rented an apartment that was located right on De Biteri Plaza, facing the Church of St. Ignatius (San Ignazio parrokia).

The View from our window

As we arrived late in the afternoon, Jessica, her cousin, and I left the apartment at dusk, and the rain had increased, so we walked under our umbrella down the slick, wet streets to the Tabakalera, which is the city’s Contemporary Cultural Center, where they have art exhibits, offices, an observation deck (where the picture at the very top was taken) and a restaurant.

The entryway of Tabakalera

We strolled through a couple of the galleries, took a rainy look out at the city from the observation deck, and had a drink at the restaurant, where I was able to have a fun conversation with the wait staff in Spanish. We talked about where we from and what they knew about the States. They were not aware it was St. Patrick’s Day. After we left, still under rainy clouds, we went looking for an Irish pub, and found one, but, besides the bartender, no one was wearing green or celebrating, which was unsurprising, as we are not in Ireland.

We finished our beers and went in search of pintxo (pincho) bars, which are very popular and a Basque tradition. Pincho’s are are small dishes served on a piece of bread, that consist of two or three bites, for usually 2-4 Euro per pincho. We found an excellent one nearby, proceeded to eat pinchos and drink beers until we were satiated, then made our way back to the apartment, with the clock on St. Ignatius’ tower showing the way.

Our second day began with Jesse and I heading out on our own to explore the city; our first stop was at a cute spot outside as the weather was just warm enough to sit outside with a jacket, and we enjoyed a much more modern take on the typical menu del dia; it consisted of poke and tacos followed by sliced duck and a pulled pork sandwich. We spoke with the waiter a bit about our travels, and learned he had family in California, and told him about how much we liked living there, all in Spanish. After eating we decided to visit the Museo San Telmo, which is devoted to the history of Basque Country or Pais Vasco. It is similar to the Pueblo d’Asturias in Gijón, that we visited on one of our first outings in Gijón.

Museo San Telmo

It is located in a former Abbey, with a grand Cathedral and large courtyard, made of ancient stone. The Cathedral is the first room we encountered. It is dim when one enters under the short ceiling, but soon the short ceiling ends and the enormity of the Cathedral can be seen under the dimly placed lights. The walls of the Cathedral are covered with murals done (much more recently than the Cathedral was built) in the 1930s by the painter Josep M. Cert, and depict great events in the history of Man. On the gothic ceilings are the remains of the original church frescoes, dating to the 16th century.

There were also exquisite, carved sculpture of a 16th century artist and his wife (their tomb) that were so detailed that gave off a creepy and cool vibe all at the same time. If you visit, take your time in the cathedral.

The museum continued through the stone courtyard, with ancient family headstones lining the walls, some dating back to the second century. The next gallery was full of medieval family crests, tools, weapons, armor, a massive jar to hold whale blubber, a model ship and many other interesting items.

The second floor was devoted to more recent times, which had many posters used in propaganda in the past century, as well as advertisements of products, betting tables, examples of how Basque lived, the fishermen and farmers, and seamstresses, all presented in a very logical and easy to follow way.

The top floor was the fine arts gallery, which had paintings from Basque artists as well as other artists, mainly from the 15th to 19th century, and some more recent ones as well. The scene painting was done by Elena Brockman de Llanos, an 18th century bourgeois woman that studied all over Europe and was able to study the anatomy of the human body, which was, at the time, prohibited for women to do. The painting below right is of Brockman painting, done by an unknown artist.

Our two other favorites are below; on the left is Ramón Zuriarrain’s “Retrato de pareja” and the right is José Villegas Cordero’s “Señorita sevillana.”

On the way out there is one more chance to check out the Cathedral, so of course we did. There are many translations in English, and entry per person was 6 Euros and was worth every penny.

If you look back to the picture of Museo San Telmo, you will notice a staircase to the right of the Museum, which leads up to the Baluarte de Mirador, an old, unused fortress that provides excellent views of the city below. So we climbed the steep-ish path, to the top of the fortress. We could see both major city beaches (the picture below is of Zurriola Beach, the Good Shepard of San Sebastian Cathedral (the far right steeple), church of St. Ignatius (far right steeple), the San Bizente eliza church, which is in the foreground (and faces the Museo San Telmo). If you zoom in, to the left of the Good Shepard steeple, you will see a white disc, and it looks like a spaceship. We would figure out what that was the next day.

Even under cloudy skies the city was impressive from such a height, and with only one other couple to share the view with, felt special all the same. We returned to the apartment where Jesse’ uncle cooked an excellent dinner, and we relaxed the rest of the evening, preparing for our jam packed next two days.

Published by Phil Barrington

Currently living in Spain, Accountant by Day, Writer by Night. Lover of baseball, travel ,and spreadsheets. Check out my blog:

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