Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Donostia San Sebastian: a full tummy, a great view and a happy toddler too!

San Sebastian, what can I say. I think I've fallen in love with this pretty little city. We weren't even planning to go there (planning, what planning?), but a couple of weeks ago, when I mentioned that we were getting the ferry into Bilbao, my friend Sarah said that her husband had proposed to her in San Se (as the locals call it), and it was really pretty, and then I mentioned it to my uncle, Roger, who's pretty well travelled when it comes to Spain and he agreed. So that was it, we went to San Se.

View of La Concha beach at sunset, taken from the harbour

And what a treat we've had. Situated on the northern coast, with an uninterrupted view out to the Bay of Biscay, only 20km from the border with France, in the Basque region, San Sebastian enjoys a mild climate, and is a favourite holiday spot of the Spanish. It's mid November, and we've experienced temperatures of between 16 and 24 degrees. You can't often say much better than that for the Northern Hem at this time of year.

The city is sprawling; with three beaches and numerous suburbs. We stayed in the Gros neighbourhood, in a cool but spooky apartment overlooking the Zurriola beach, the one favoured by surfers, as it's out of San Se bay. I reckon it could give Bondi a run for it's money, and we enjoyed building, and destroying sandcastles there, as well as a quick and unplanned, fully clothed, dip into the surf by a certain miss Hobo, who stepped off an ankle deep sand shelf and landed in water up to her chest. It probably wasn't my best parenting moment when I laughed once Mr Traveller had whipped her up into his arms, but thankfully, true to character, she took it all with a smile.

The centre of the city is made up with a shopping district, with some pretty good shops (well, it was my birthday while we were there!), the working harbour/beachfront, and the Parte Vieja (old town) which was full of spectacular medieval architecture, and had me walking around with a crick in my neck, it was so amazing to look up at.

Looking through the Parte Vieja to the cathedral
But the Old Town has another reason to bask in it's utter brilliance, and that is one of the big reasons that SanSe is often referred to as the gastronomic capital of Spain: Pintxos.And loving food in the way that we do, us Travellers couldn't get enough of these magnificent morsels that we found on bar after bar after bar.

Jamon pintxos with huge legs of Jamon hanging behind the bar in the background

Most people will be familiar with tapas, and pintxos (pronounced pinchos) are the basques version of tapas - rumoured to be the best on offer. The bars in the parte vieja offer a veritable feast of pintxos; some just a simple piece of bread or a croissant filled with the delectable jamon, others much more elaborate, such as the Mackobe - a mini kobe burger in a ketchup bun served with plantain chips.

Classic pintxos include a piece of bread and a 'spear'to hold the topping in place. This one had goats cheese, walnuts, and, according to the barmaid 'sugared fruit', I suspect it was quince, but any pintxos expert who can verify would be most welcome!

The done thing in San Sebastian is a pintxos crawl - visiting a succession of bars, having a drink and one or two pintxos in each place. We took sandwiches for the Littlest hobo (no room for allergies at the bar, but children were very welcome) and managed three bars in any one session - I think we would probably be classified as pintxos lightweights.

The whole bar area was covered with pintxos - at a guess 20 varieties to choose from

San Sebastian was a really child friendly city. Not only did we enjoy the beaches, but there were play areas around every corner too, and the Littlest Hobo's particular favourite, a merry-go-round, built in 1900, complete with groovy Spanish pop music, right on the sea front. Handily enough, it was right next to the Parte Vieja, so everyone was happy! There are also a couple of great attractions for kids - the funicular railway, which we walked to, but sadly it was closed for refurbishment, and a hands on science museum that we read a lot of positive reports about, but didn't actually make it out to. The Spanish take their children everywhere, which means that they are always made welcome. The biggest problem we experienced was with timings - the littlest Hobo is used to eating dinner by 6 and being in bed sometime between 7 and 8, and the playgrounds are still heaving at that time; culturally, they just shape their day to the beat of a different drum. This wasn't a big issue per se, but it made eating out in the evenings near impossible; by the time the restaurants were open (it seemed to be 8pm onwards) the littlest Hobo was ready to flop into bed. This made me thankful again that we stay in self catering accommodation and we can make our days work for us. 

San Se merry-go-round
Romantic San Se takes you in and envelopes you in warm fuzzies. For somewhere that wasn't even on the radar until 2 weeks ago, I really enjoyed our time there. We originally only booked for three nights, but decided to extend after we arrived. I would definitely go again, although might book a different apartment next time, lest our night time visitor felt the need to return!

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