Temperatures reaching nearly 102 and the “Grand Dames” play musical chairs. Constantly leaning one way then another, changing seats, moving left or right, they seek slivers of shade at the Concha Café. Situated at the top of cement stairs that climb straight up from the beach the café overlooks the horseshoe bay dotted with red buoys.
Europe’s finest ensembles topped off with eloquent silk scarves punish their owner’s mercifully. Blue Bloods; sweat droplets trickle deliberately into creases of well aged skin. Creeks quickly become streams that eventually run down embarrassed cheeks like the Bulls in Pamplona.
The strongest willed continue to resist the tortuous temptation to blot. They wish not to join the ranks of the blotchy, those unsightly remains of the weak. Torrents of make-up mud threatens annihilation of the entire table of eight, yet protocol demands continued gossiping as though they were sipping cappuccinos on the frozen arctic tundra. A lifelong lesson learned well, dignity and tradition are displayed proudly despite the day’s unusually high, record-setting temperatures.
But alas, adjusting to the suns every movement, caring for the wounded and sick finally proves too much as they flee the umbrella littered battlefield. Not a single woman is spared multiple sun scars. Disheveled, escape route right past my table I engage looks of dismay and exasperation as they hurriedly seek refuge from the enemy.
Here on this picturesque patio the enemy is my friend. I’m an old man of the sea. Freshly rinsed by the Atlantic and showers at the base of the stairs, I enjoy a cool Zurito (half a glass of beer) and a couple of fresh seafood Pintxos (small appetizers out – of – this – world.) Perhaps lounging seaside in Quicksilver surf trunks and a T-shirt is not dignified but it surely is cooler. Large clocks on boardwalk towers distract me from my goal of forgetting the time of day altogether.
Today is characteristic of late spring and early summer – faultlessly beautiful. Refreshing breeze, brilliantly blue, cool clear water, and fine sand. Radiant sunshine pours out of a cloudless sky creating a serene scene with a handful of tourists, just a few Americans.
I knew within my first five minutes of being in San Sebastian that I belonged. At first I couldn’t put my finger on it, like I had been here before which was not the case. This place arguably the most beautiful coastal city of its size anywhere in the world reminded me of a super mini Rio De Janeiro, Brazil with a completely different vibe. It wasn’t until the following morning when I first opened my eyes that I realized it actually was Zihuatanejo, Mexico that connected me so deeply to this favorite destination of Spanish Royalty.
La Concha Beach connects to Ondarreta Beach and stretches invitingly around the perfect sized-shaped bay. A horse town, the first lifeguards of La Concha Beach assumed their duties in the most amusing of costumes in 1865. In 1905 San Sebastian became Cable Car town. No coincidence in 1911 one noticed bathing houses on the Beach for Royalty. Apparently Royal feet are best not touched by sand so they brought their own beach/bathing houses.
The Queens beach house was the only one that rode on private cable car rails that literally ended in the sea. No doubt moving the beach house back and forth depending on the tide helped to keep the queen happy all through out the day. Other less fortunate royals (the royal court) were forced to jockey for position to her Majesties immediate right. Each Royal strived to be closest to the water with their horse-drawn beach homes. The degree to which they were successful was dependent on their position within the family. Stacked side by side and one behind the other they had no choice but to stay a good distance back from the water’s edge to allow for changes in tide. The Royal family of Spain still frequents San Sebastian today.
How is it that American travelers are just now finding out what the Spanish people have known since the late 1800’s? The same thing the French figured. San Sebastian is sweet. From the shallow, clear calm water, wide-breathtaking beaches, to the unparalleled cuisine, a lengthy boardwalk (cement promenade) complete with bathrooms, showers, lockers, sports club, faucets to rinse one’s feet, cafes, marinas, parks, churches, plazas, bike paths, gardens, rivers, museums, shopping, cultural events, everything is organized and within easy walking distances making travelers welcome and comfortable.
San Sebastian’s size is deceiving with population of 200,000 it feels more like 2,000. Frommer’s once described San Sebastian in 2005 as simply a side trip from nearby Bilbao. I would skip Bilbao altogether. I don’t consider San Sebastian a tourist trap yet many tourists do visit in the summer. For me it escapes this degrading definition by virtue of its physical lay-out and superb infrastructure designed for visitors. The absence of any tawdry in your face tourist pitches is icing on the cake. The key is timing one’s visit properly. I recommend the months of Mid May, June, Mid September and October.
San Sebastian is the capital of the province of Guipuzcoa. Half of the residents of San Sebastian speak Euskera a language of mysterious origins. The city is central to Basque nationalism. This has caused problems in the past but a new more balanced approach to governance seems to have somewhat improved things politically.
This symmetrical horseshoe bay is punctuated by an Island (Isla Santa Clara) and is enclosed by green mountains on all three sides staring out to sea. San Sebastian is super clean. Even the white trash trucks are spotless. The streets, the beach, the town’s sidewalks are clean. The air is fresh. Incredibly I could detect no foul odor of any kind anywhere I walked. San Sebastian is safe, the perfect place to wander, get lost in, and discover something new and unexpected.
This jewel on the Bay of Biscay is engraved with 17thcentury architecture. The vibe is exceptional. Visitors will find it relaxing, and comfortable. One easily finds themselves mesmerized by San Sebastian’s sheer beauty, hypnotized by out-of- this- world food, and willingly held captive by the over-all romantic ambiance.
The Royals got it right long, long ago. This truth still holds true today. Armed with a beach towel instead of a rolling beach house one can still tap into greatness. This Spanish jeweled crown provides the everyday traveler with great pleasure, comfort and maybe even a little dignity.