|San Sebastián, seen from Mount Urgull|
But who are the Basques? Before I got interested in Spain or Spanish history, I had never heard of this people group before, but, come to find out, they’ve been interacting with Europe and the world since before the time of the Romans.
In short, the defining feature of the Basque people is that they speak, well, Basque—a language with no discernible link to any other European language that has resisted competition from Latin, French, and Spanish for thousands of years. The Basques straddle the western edge of the Pyrenees around the Bay of Biscay and have fiercely guarded their independence throughout history…with mixed success. As of late, however, they have had better luck in gaining autonomy and preserving their mother tongue.
Back to San Sebastián. Called Donostia in Basque, this city re-introduced me to Spain after Christmas in France. There couldn’t have been a better welcome mat for the country possible.
See you never, Bayonne
|Mount Igueldo, seen from Mount Urgull|
I celebrated New Years’ Eve with a Korean girl I ran into at the train station who was just as helpless as I was; she found a room in the hotel I was staying at and then we had dinner at KFC, basically the only place open.
The next day, I was going to take the train to visit Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port—a pretty little village in the French Basque Country and the starting point for the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage—but because of the strike, there was only one
In retrospect, it really shouldn’t have surprised me how much I ended up loving San Sebastián, but I guess when it was juxtaposed with the cruddy experience I had across the border, perhaps I was just ready for anything better.
San Telmo Museoa
|Basques were the original hipsters;|
they wore TOMS (alpargatas) before they were cool
What I enjoyed the most, however, was the temporary exhibition called “Badu, Bada: Basque Language in a Multilingual World.” Through the creative use of bright colors, corrugated cardboard, sticky notes, and the font Helvetica, they made a simple yet visually pleasing presentation not only about the Basque language but also about multilingual societies in general. I appreciated getting to see how Basque has flourished in the years since the Spanish dictator Franco died, whether via TV, radio, newspapers, or books, and also getting a peek into the sometimes-awkward social dynamics that occur when only some people in a group speak Basque (a minority language)…they automatically have to switch to “neutral” Spanish. Interesting.
|Crazy cat lady|
Around the castle, I ran into her again, this time with a *ahem* clowder of cats, at least a dozen strong, trailing her around as she fed them. When I decided to head back down, I was not surprised to see a number of feral cats just chilling on the side of the mountain.
|La Concha Beach|
The aquarium really stood out to me, then, not because of the actual fish in its tanks, but because of how well they integrated the Basque connection to the sea with standard aquarium fare.
The old town
|Font, San Sebastián Cathedral|
The main draw to the city is the pintxos scene (see below), but I loved simply strolling around the old part of town and enjoying being back in Spain again: brushing shoulders with fur-coat-wearing grandmas out for their afternoon stroll (paseo)…speed-walking past shoppers out to catch recently-marked-down bargains…seeing all angles of the municipal nativity scene (belén)…inhaling the cool, humid air of the quiet, coastal sidewalk…and feeling oddly comfortable back in my temporary home.
Enjoying pintxosThe Basque Country in general, and San Sebastián in particular, is famous across Spain for its exciting, creative cuisine. Nowhere else is this more evident than in the endless places you can eat pintxos (also spelled pinchos) across the region.
|Pintxo of mejillones tigres|
Instead of sitting down and having a big meal at a restaurant while in the Basque Country, the thing to do is go find a happenin’ place, pick up a pintxo, and rinse and repeat. Usually three or four can combine to make a meal (but try and go to a different establishment for each one!). Pintxo-hopping will give you a fun and tasty look into the essence of Basque and Spanish cooking.
Pintxo count* mejillones tigres (“tiger” mussels in a spicy tomato sauce)
* txangurro (crab-based sauce spread on bread)
* pickled anchovies with blueberry sauce on toast
* grilled foie gras with apple jelly
* beef cheek meat in a savory sauce
Have you been to the Basque Country before? Have you ever fallen madly in love with a city? Talk about it below!
For more pictures, check out my set on Flickr here.