San Sebastian

Statue of Jesus at the top of Mount Urgull.
Statue of Jesus at the top of Mount Urgull.

I needed a vacation from my vacation. A break from culture. Donostia-San Sebastian was just an hour’s bus ride from Bilbao.

If San-Sebastian and Bilbao were siblings, Bilbao would be the quiet, scholarly one who’s kind of boring and San Sebastian would be everyone’s favorite nonstop partier. The only reason 95% of people go to San Sebastian is to party.

I came there on Friday afternoon before the start of the Semana Grande, or “Big Week,” or, more accurately, “Week of Parties,” though I was told by the hostel staff that the parties go on all summer. Sure enough, here were all the people my age. The majority of the tourists, however, were Spanish. While America and Australia flocked to Barcelona, Spain vacationed in San Sebastian.

Alix and I spent two afternoons and one morning lying on the beach drinking 1.5L bottles of sangria for less than 2 Euros each. Sometimes we got up to find a tapas bar, and then went back to the beach, where Alix would try to convince me not to go topless like the other women and avoid looking at the sagging breasts of the fifty-year-old lady in front of us. Sometimes we also swam, when we could muster the energy.

If you ever want to go somewhere to feel self-conscious in a bikini, go to Spain. Everyone, men and women, have incredible bodies. It’s not fair, unless you’re Spanish.

 

Suffice it to say that San Sebastian is the most beautiful coastal city I’ve ever been to. All the buildings are this warm cream color and there are tons of bars. There’s that beautiful wavy church that makes me think of the open sea. The water is warm. Piers stick out into the water surrounded by schools of boats. There is a

One of the prettiest churches in Europe.
One of the prettiest churches in Europe.

of Jesus at the top of Monte Urgull overlooking the beach and a theme park at the top of Monte Igueldo (one of my biggest regrets from this trip was that my ankle was too banged up to hike over to these sites). You can find the ideal sunset here.

I  don't know about you, but this makes me think of the ocean.
I don’t know about you, but this makes me think of the ocean.

The first night I roomed with three girls from Barcelona. I’d been warned about how fashionable Spanish girls are, but that didn’t prepare me for their getting-ready-to-go-out routine. Each one of them pulled a suitcase full of clothes out from under her bed and changed from strappy sandals and sundresses into heels, runway outfits, and fresh makeup. Then they came back hours later, just as I was going to sleep, and changed into another set of clothes – different heels, different tops, different handbags – to go out for round 2. They were all fast asleep when I woke up at 9 to hit the beach again. Or maybe it was 11. 9 probably would have seemed like an unreasonable time to us.

The pier at sunset.
The pier at sunset.

After another long and tiring day of sangria and tapas, Alix and I walked to a pier to cool off. We sat there idly debating whether the very good looking guy some feet away from us was Italian or Spanish. Then he got butt naked and dove into the water. We erupted into the frantic squirming of caterpillars poked with a stick.Then he climbed back onto the pier, still naked, and dried himself off in the open air with no shame. I talked rapidly about anything else and tried not to watch him while Alix giggled uncontrollably, repeating “Ohmygod he’s naked!” many times. No one else around us seemed to think this was worthy of comment.

A romantic alcove of boats.
A romantic alcove of boats.

We headed back to the hostel to shower and change and walked right into a procession of hundreds, maybe thousands of people of all ages marching in the street, chanting in Basque. What I found most interesting was the reaction of many people to ignore it and continue on as if nothing were there, not like us, who jogged beside the line without beginning or end with our cameras out. It might have been the start of tonight’s festivities, but the crowd looked in no mood to party. Someone working at the hostel confirmed that it was “something political.”

Minutes after this died down, or snaked away, music started and a group of people in yellow shirts started parading around town, beating drums and dancing, attracting a following like snake charmers. The crowd in the main square was so thick I could hardly get back to my hostel’s front door.

A crowd awaiting the festivities of the Semana Grande.
A crowd awaiting the festivities of the Semana Grande.

Sometimes it pays to come to a hostel in person instead of booking online; on the busiest night in the most centrally located hostel, they gave me a bed when hostelworld showed they were booked. Though you risk getting turned down, often they keep a few spare beds open for drop-ins.

Missed the pirate memo...
Missed the pirate memo…

In my new room, I met two other girls, an Italian named Irene and a Canadian named Megan. I invited them out to dinner and the four of us had an awesome time, getting pizzas and splitting wine and talking about our lives. Then we wandered back outside, walking into a pirate party overtaking the streets. What is a pirate party? It is everyone in the streets dressed up as pirates and barefoot brass bands playing the Pirates of the Caribbean theme. It is people sitting hip to hip on the pier watching the sunset as boats with more people dressed up as pirates sail by and shout and wave. It is following the crowd onto a street covered in “pirata” banners and getting low when everyone else does though you don’t know why.

piratas
piratas
getting low
getting low
The best view of the crowd.
The best view of the crowd.

Once night fell, the most intense fireworks display I will ever see in my life officially opened the festivities. I have seen many Independence Day displays and none of them have come close to this half hour of bedazzlement. It was literally heart-stopping. The Spanish take their pyrotechnics seriously.

The fireworks display of my life.
The fireworks display of my life.
magic
pyrotechnics
fireworks
It was heart stopping.

Only well after 3 AM did the noise start to die. I stood on the balcony in the peace and looked over the main square, empty except for a few people. Come morning it was completely empty. As I took one last tour of San Sebastian, I found the streets completely trashed from the night before. They clean up as hard as they party, hosing down every street with blasts of water and driving trucks through the little streets sweeping the litter into giant piles.

Morning cleanup
Morning cleanup

The fact is, though, that at this time of year – mid-August – Spain is too hot. I felt it would be wiser to spend this time in the north, so I changed scene completely and went to Switzerland, where I had originally planned to be around now anyway.


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