The very first time I stepped off the train in San Sebastián-Donostia (Donosti) in March 2010, I knew I was stepping into an incredibly special place. Each subsequent trip has solidified that gut feeling I had. As one of the tour books I read before going said, Donostia is not a place with a lot to see but instead a place that is must-see. What other city has a beach as part of their downtown? From their annual film festival to three beaches in town to stunning architecture to world-renowned gastronomy, the capital of Gipuzkoa has something for everyone. I have been there several times now, and each time I love the city just a little bit more. And coincidentally enough, it has always been 22ºC and sunny every time I have gone. So much for that Basque rain, right? (I see on my Apple Weather app it does rain there even more than Bilbao. I’m just lucky. And now I use that app to know when it’ll rain and when it’ll be cold.)
Gipuzkoa is one of the three Basque provinces located on Spain’s north coast, or, to listen to most Basques, the part of the world located between Spain and France on the Cantabrian Sea. While it seems that Gipuzkoa is in a bitter rivalry with neighbouring Basque province Vizcaya (Bizkaia) , there is no reason as both places are amazingly beautiful with many unique places to visit and a fascinating history. Gipuzkoa is also the smallest province in both the Basque Country and Spain. It’s small size just means there is a lot of beauty in a small area.
As I’ve been to Donosti, as the locals and lovers of the city alike call it, several times, I sort of have a routine going on now that includes a walk along the picturesque beach of La Concha (Kontxa in Basque), sitting on the walls close to Plaza de 31 de Agosto (my mom’s birthday, so I love this part of the Old Town!) and watching the waves crash where the Bay of Biscay meets the River of Urumea, a pintxo or two in the Parte Vieja, and a “relaxing café con leche” at Pokhara near the Buen Pastor (Good Shepherd) Cathedral. If I have time, I walk out past the Palacio Miramar to see el Peine del Viento (Comb of the Wind) sculpture by Chillida and a hike up Mount Urgull to see (a statue of) Jesus. This hike provides some of the best views of the city, although I have to admit my days on the Camino de Santiago coming into the city from Pasaia last summer and this summer leaving the city on Mount Igledo also offer amazing views on what I think might just be the most beautiful city in the world.
There are three major downfalls about “the posh neighbourhood of Bilbao”, as the people of Bilbao refer to it. One is the weather. The Atlantic Ocean can get rather mad and drops a LOT of rain on the North Coast of the Iberian Peninsula. Number two is despite being a city of less than 200,000 people, it is one of the most expensive cities in the peninsula. Bilbao is a lot cheaper for being a lot bigger. The third is the surprising bad conditions of the bus station, which is more accurately called “parada de autobuses” in Spanish, or bus stop. I don’t know why the three province capitals in the Basque Country have such horrible bus stations when everything else related to transport is top-notch. Also, my friends who visited Donostia a little bit okay mentioned that they think the Kursaal Palace, which is lit up for different festivals and where the film festival is housed, was an eyesore. I don’t mind it, but I do understand why someone would feel that way.
By the way, the photo that serves as the heading of this blog is from the Paseo Maritimo. And although I have already seen seven wonders here, I know whenever I get to see the flysch beaches near Zumaia, the medieval town of Tolosa and the small village Getaria, these wonders may have to change. But for now…
1. Donostia y La Kontxa
One of the most incredible beaches I’ve been to in one of the most incredible cities I’ve visited.
2. Peine del viento
The steel sculpture by Eduardo Chillida is one of the most famous symbols of the city, although they were just finished in 1976. Located at the edge of the Kontxa Bay, these sculptures are where the wind and water meet. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see some waves crash upon them. Just be careful not to stand on those grates too long or you will get wet!
Hondarribia (formerly known as Fuenterrabia) is a quaint village of around 16,000 habitants on the Bidasoa River that separates Spain from France (or South Basque Country from North Basque Country). It has a fantastic medieval part, complete with a castle that is now a Parador (the chain of Spanish hotels made from old castles). However, the most famous pictures all include the brightly painted houses that look something out of a Swiss village. Hondarribia also has extensive beaches.
Orio is a small fishing village of 5000 people along the Camino de Santiago. I first found out about this incredible place when I was on a bus to Zarautz in 2012. I took note of the name and went back my birthday weekend last year, and I also revisited it on day two of the Camino. I like how the church is built with a bridge across to the building nearby. Anything to make the churches of the peninsula stand out from each other! It also has ton of natural beauty and a great beach, of course.
Pasaia is a very short day trip from Donostia five kilometres from the Gipuzkoan capital, just on the other side of Mount Ulia. It’s a stop on the Camino de Santiago and houses an albergue. My favourite feature of this town that sets it apart is the water taxi. For the price of 75 cents, you can make the passage (guess what Pasaia is Basque for) between two of the town’s neighbourhoods. San Juan is the prettiest part.
A medieval town of 15,000 habitants located in the mountains of Gipuzkoa, Bergara is a nice getaway and super “Euskaldun” or Basque. It’s a nice getaway from it all and well communicated between the three Basque capital cities.
Zarautz is world-famous for surfing. The population nearly triples in size from its normal 22,000 habitants every summer because of its 2,8 kilometre-long beach. Even Queen Isabella II of Spain and Queen Fabiola spent their summers here. It has a nice city centre, but the beaches are the main attraction. It’s also a stop on the Camino de Santiago, and most guide books for the Camino suggest Zarautz as the end of the second day.