San Sebastian Trip Report

Sep 22nd, 2009, 09:29 AM
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San Sebastian Trip Report

I'm finally writing a short trip report of our trip to San Sebastian last month (Aug.) We spent four nights in Barcelona and then had to get to San Sebastian for 5 nights and then get back to Bcn for the plane home to the States. We took a train which was about five hours. The trains in Spain are great and the trip seemed much shorter. Getting off the train on a sunny day we went to the Tourist info booth where they were extraordinarily helpful with providing maps, directions to the hotel, and any other questions we wanted to ask ( I wanted to know where the best beaches were. It's a small city so you can usually walk to your hotel from the train station. Upon crossing the bridge to the older part of town we were stunned by the majestic beauty of the city. I've never seen anything so beautiful with the exception of Paris. San Sebastian really feels like a small section of Paris only it's on the ocean, has better food and is Basque. we stayed at Pension Bellas Artes based on it being number one on trip advisor. The rooms are very small but everything about the place was excellent. This is a place to stay on a budget (it's not the Maria Christina) and we soon realized why it is rated number one on tripadvisor. the owner Leire and her mother MariCarmen are some of the nicest people I've ever met anywhere. They love what they do and they go out of their way to make sure everyone has a great time. The owner was mildly embarassed about the number one rating but they certainly deserve it for customer service. We stayed in a room on the street and wouldn't you know there is a disco across the street. Even with earplugs I couldn't get to sleep until around 5 am, not good. after 2 nights they kindly transferred us to an interior room where we slept peacefully. Not being able to afford Arzak or Mugaritz (lunchtime tasting menu $180 per person) we spent our evenings strolling to the parte vieja where all of the famous tapas bars are. If you like food and culture this part of town is truly amazing. I had seen Anthony Bourdain do a show on this neighborhood so being there was just awesome. It took a while to get used to helping myself to the tapas lined up on every bar. You save your toothpicks so you can show the bartender how much to pay at the end. I won't list them all as Maribelsguides is the Bible for tourists eating in San Sebastian and they are all listed in many books and articles Ganbarra, La Cepa, Cuchara San Telmo etc. Sunny days (one out of every four they say) were spent at the beach right in town, there are two of them and they're incredible. After 3 days in SS we knew we had to go somewhere else. I've read that the best fish meal in the world is in Getaria where Kaia Kalpe or Astillera cook it over wood coals in a manner that makes the fat melt into the flesh unlike anything anywhere. We took the Euskotren on a short half hour trip to Zarautz. Along the way I marvelled at how beautiful the Basque country is. Small green mountains rise from the sea as you cross valley after valley with the sea on the right side and green mountains on the other. I used to live Sevilla so let's be honest most of Spain is not geographically pretty. It looks like Southern California, dry and orange. The north coast is completely different. Anyway Zarautz is a small beach town with an excellent beach (I'm from Cape Cod so I know from beaches). We walked along the beach and then found that we could walk from Zarautz to Getaria in 30 minutes along a stunning oceanside walkway. Arriving in Getaria we found that all of the restaurants were closed. all the way from Massachussetts for grilled turbot and I was out of luck. We had tapas at a local cafe then took the bus back to san Sebastian. The bus and train system are excellent in the Basque country. Well we had one more day in SS and it was a chilly rainy day in August so we took the bus to Bilbao because how can museum lovers go all the way to the Basque country and not go to the Guggenheim? Well we walked to the bus station and were thoroughly confused as to what bus to get on. This is where it helps to speak Spanish or have someone at the hotel explain exactly where to buy tickets, what bus to get on etc. After figuring out what bus to get on the driver told us he could not sell us tickets so we had to run down the street and find the ticket booth and run back, stressful. We got to Bilbao, walked a block to the train station, had to figure out what train to get on, how to buy tickets from the kiosks etc. It's actually a quick two metro stops to the Guggenheim stop but then where is the Guggenhiem? There's no signs so you have to find a kind stranger to ask them to point you in the right direction. Again it helps to speak Spanish. The outside of the building is incredible. The museum itself is dedicated probably 75% to the featured artist at the time so if you don't like the featured artist I could see not liking the museum. During our visit it was Cai Cuo Chiang the brilliant Chinese genius who designed the opening fireworks of the Beijing olympics so the museum was worth it. I heard Bilbao was very industrial and ugly so I expected it to look like the NJ turnpike but it did not. After our last day in San Sebastian it was back to the bus station to find the bus to the Bilbao airport to fly us back to Barcelona. Interestingly the train bcn to ss was $75 and the plane back was $29. I have to say thought that getting to the airport and all that was much more stressful than the train trip. I am also done with these "trips within trips" because it is so much more relaxing to spend a lot of time in one or two places nearby and absorb the fascinating culture of the great spanish cities. Why couldn't they design cities like that in the US? It's bad enough to have to fly JFK thru Heathrow to Barcelona and back again without having to get to the airport 2 hours early in order to fly around Spain, too stressful. I know americans will not change their travel habits of packing as many cities as possible in a 7 day trip but that's not for me. If I could do it over again I would have skipped Barcelona altogether and spent more time in Northern Spain. Oh I forgot a great food tip from the owner of our hotel. If you can't afford to eat at the world's best restaurants in SS the restaurant at the Guggenheim is "directed" by the famous Basque chef Martin Berasetegui. Make a reservation and eat lunch before you see the museum. At around $16 per person you get to choose three courses and sample a small taste of cutting edge Basque cuisine which is quite different from tapas. Yes the chefs in the Basque country can actually be "famous". San Sebastian is an incredible city and I could easily spend a week there before venturing out into La Rioja, Asturias, Galicia and all the other incredible places on the north coast. In fact San Sebastian may have surpassed Seville and Granada as my favorite small city on the planet.
Egbert is offline  
Sep 22nd, 2009, 09:56 AM
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Thanks for your report, I enjoyed it. It would be helpful though if u could do some paragraphs to make reading it a bit easier.
yestravel is offline  
Sep 22nd, 2009, 10:03 AM
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We were in Santader last year ( also visited Bilbao and Santiana del Mar), I am sorry we did not go to SS but we were also using public transit and did not feel like "pushing it'
Norther Spain is lovely.
danon is offline  
Sep 22nd, 2009, 10:03 AM
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sorry... Santander
danon is offline  
Sep 22nd, 2009, 10:05 AM
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Thanks for the helpful report.

Just curious--what percentage of Americans have the travel habit of packing as many cities as possible into a 7-day trip, as opposed to spending a more time in fewer places?
Paul1950 is offline  
Sep 22nd, 2009, 11:10 AM
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Just curious--what percentage of Americans have the travel habit of packing as many cities as possible into a 7-day trip, as opposed to spending a more time in fewer places?

American here, we beleive in seeing a few places well, as opposed to many poorly. There are, however, tourists from assorted countries who travel as if seeing many cities were akin to sexual conquests.
Aduchamp1 is offline  
Sep 22nd, 2009, 11:15 AM
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Adu, I agree!

Sexual conquests would (probably) be less stressful!
danon is offline  
Sep 22nd, 2009, 11:37 AM
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It seems, after talking to my American guests, that they do not get so much vacation time as us Europeans. So they have to, or at lest feel the need to, hit as many locations as possible.
ribeirasacra is offline  
Sep 22nd, 2009, 11:49 AM
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Egbert...

Thanks for posting this report. Very timely for me since I am starting to plan a week in SS for next May. Sounds like an wonderful place!
LowCountryIslander is offline  
Sep 22nd, 2009, 12:33 PM
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Yes thank you for reminding me to write in proper paragraphs. Just because it's the internet doesn't mean we should abandon proper grammar.
Egbert is offline  
Sep 22nd, 2009, 12:35 PM
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I also say "well" way too much.
Egbert is offline  
Sep 22nd, 2009, 12:39 PM
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Thank you for your report, I enjoyed reading it! I have put SS again at the top of my list for when I go back to Spain. To me Northern Spain is the most special area of Spain. I could go back again and again
cruiseluv is offline  
Sep 22nd, 2009, 02:03 PM
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Don´t praise SS too much...we Basques like to keep our country to ourselves......
mikelg is online now  
Sep 23rd, 2009, 07:33 AM
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I know mikelg, I was going to title this "Don't go to San Sebastian"
Egbert is offline  
Sep 23rd, 2009, 07:39 AM
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As you probably know the United States is the only indutrialized country without legislation regarding vacation time. Additionally, American business prides itself on aggressive practices and many people cannpt separate their professional activities from their private ones. It is probably one reason why we have a lower life expectancy than most industrialized countries.
Aduchamp1 is offline  
Sep 23rd, 2009, 07:44 AM
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" Not being able to afford Arzak or Mugaritz" --

I still would prefer to eat tapas in the old town, even if I were a multi-millionaire.

Just as a side note, my experience of eating in the Guggenheim museum was not good. The menu may have been formulated by the celebrity chef, but the food was microwaved. And it tasted like it was microwaved.

Just yesterday I was wishing I could go back to San Sebastian. I'm glad to have your personal good report of the Pensione Bellas Artes, because I didn't think the Nizza was as good as the hype would tend to make you think.

As for the issue of ants-in-their-pants American travelers: Some don't know how to relax, some really are committed "sightseers". Their focus is on "seeing sights" and seeing, seeing, seeing. They aren't attuned to experiencing, savoring, sinking in, etc. Recently they've added tasting, but again, it's a frantic hop-around to sample everything. At the risk of sending the trip report up in flames, I will say that many American travelers aren't aware of what a shallow experience they end up having treating Europe as if it were New England, and the point was to go quaint town hopping and shopping all the time.
zeppole is offline  
Sep 23rd, 2009, 07:57 AM
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and only Americans are like this??? somehow I doubt that. I believe to each is own. Everyone has different values and goals not to mention resources which include time & $$. Each approaches travel from their own unique perspective.
yestravel is offline  
Sep 23rd, 2009, 08:26 AM
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>>and only Americans are like this???<<

No, but they've made themselves outstanding for the large numbers who behave like this, in contrast with other cultures.

Cultural observations of tourist behavior are valid and possible. Americans -- by and large -- have a habit of taking great umbrage at any assertion that they might have a unified culture, and shared mindset, and aren't all rootin' tootin' one-of-a-kind, broke the mold individuals. They are kind of like the people who listen to Jesus in Monty Python's Life of Brian, who turn every new thought into something familiar, and the opposite of what was said.
zeppole is offline  
Sep 23rd, 2009, 08:28 AM
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'As for the issue of ants-in-their-pants American travelers: Some don't know how to relax, some really are committed "sightseers"."

"and only Americans are like this??? "

Probably not.
I have a friend who 'sees" European cities in the way
Zeppole described. She goes to Rome , or Vienna or..., hires a private guide ( with a car),stops to " see" attractions and take pictures, but unless it is a restaurant or a shop, she seldom goes inside. It is not the question of time or money - just interest.
danon is offline  
Sep 23rd, 2009, 08:43 AM
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Of course culture observations of tourist behaviors are valid and interesting and amusing to do. But they are just that observations and seen thru one's own prism.

I guess I don't see that as a less valid experience than someone elses. While it might not be my preferred way to travel, I wouldn't sit in judgement and say its bad or wrong.

Anyway, as I said, enjoyed reading the TR and look forward to visiting San Sebastian in the Spring.
yestravel is offline  

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