Originally created 04/09/00

Soaking up Spain



SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain -- It seems that everything about this nifty neck of Spanish terrain requires a wait. But when whatever you desire arrives, the wait seems well worth it.

Take, for example, the sun. When we landed in Madrid, the nation's capital, after a red-eye flight from Atlanta, local time was 7:30 a.m. and the sky was pitch black.

"Where's the sun?" I asked the greeters of plane.

"Oh, it'll come much later," was the response. "Don't worry."

In San Sebastian, a town six hours ahead of Augusta, five hours north of Madrid, the sun doesn't peek above the Pyrenees and adjacent hills before 8:30 a.m. But when it comes, you probably would prefer to be in one of three spots: atop Mount Urgull or Mount Igeldo -- both of which jut into the Bay of Biscay to give San Sebastian its crescent-shaped bookends -- or along the Playa La Concha, the two-mile stretch of beach created from the inlet that this city revolves around.

The sun illuminates this Spanish secret and makes you wonder why you've never read much about this densely populated city of 180,000 in your guidebook to Spain.

Certainly dinnertime is worth the wait. The inexpensive meal is rich with varieties of fresh fish. Show up at American dinnertime and you may find locked kitchens, though. Restaurants start to fill up after 10 p.m., with a steady flow of patrons to the tapas (appetizer) bars and tables.

Staff photographer Jeff Janowski and I arrived hungry at midnight Saturday, only to wait 30 minutes for a table.

That's a small inconvenience when waiting for fresh merluza (hake), bacalao (cod) or the town favorite, chipirones tinta (squid in black sauce). As far as its gastronomy is concerned, even the Spanish acknowledge San Sebastian as the country's gourmet capital.

And if you're the dancing kind, weekend parties are a source of great entertainment for many throughout Iberia. It's not chic to arrive at a dance club before 2 a.m., unless you'd like to be thought of as a tourist or something.

They take their time in Spain, not needing to be in any kind of rush, a sort of languid pace that is not hard to get accustomed to.

So it should come as no surprise that an American introduction to this aristocratic Spanish town bordered by France to the east and the Bay of Biscay to the north has come a tad late.

Well, better late than never.

We were getting acquainted with Spain's Cuidad jardin, its Garden City, thanks to two-time Masters winner Jose Maria Olazabal. Mr. Olazabal does not live in San Sebastian proper; he calls a small village named Fuenterrabia, about nine miles outside San Sebastian, his home. But he understands that for visitors to this remote spot of Green Spain, the first thing to see is the breathtaking shoreline.

"That is where you go to relax and take in the beauty," Mr. Olazabal said.

The Spanish appreciate the idyllic scenery of San Sebastian, where 12th-century roots meet 2000's new makeover. What started as one of Spain's most important towns for maritime commerce has evolved into the country's summertime getaway, thanks in part to several 17th- and 18th-century sieges and a burning of the city by Napoleon's troops in 1813, leaving just two churches in the Parte Vieja (Old Town).

After lengthy discussions, the city was rebuilt with this Old Town in mind. This is where you'll find the city's nightlife, its restaurants and markets, all in a compressed grid of streets almost too narrow for anything but a motor scooter.

The city's revival began in 1845, when Queen Maria Cristina sent her daughter, Isabela II, to San Sebastian and its La Concha beach for her skin ailment. She soaked in saltwater baths, was cured, and created a Spanish phenomenon. The queen did exactly what the city's slogan now asks: "Come and pass the word."

She talked about the natural beauty of San Sebastian's shoreline, its three beaches, its potential for growth, and -- voila! -- the Spanish Court followed her, as did the wealthy from Madrid, Barcelona and Seville.

It was decided that if tourists from across Spain and Europe were flocking here, then the city must expand. And it did. The architecture you see now dates to the early 1900s.

The resort town basks in its Basqueness. It is very much the social, shopping and cultural center of the Basque Country, an autonomous region of Spain, much as Quebec is to Canada.

While still upholding many of the Castillian and Spanish customs, the Basque people have established themselves with a new language (Euskera) and their own culture and festivals. So you might see a map that reads Donostia instead of San Sebastian. They're the same place.

Euskera may be a bit overwhelming to comprehend, especially when you see store signs and read names full of tx's and k's, and you think, they didn't teach me this in seventh-grade Spanish. Never fear, though. Some comprehension of Spanish is all you need to survive here; leave the Euskera to the locals to understand.

They cherish their beaches, their food and their sports in San Sebastian. Futbol (soccer to you and me) is king here, as it is throughout Spain, and when we visited, Real Sociedad, the local club, was in the midst of a slump and in danger of dropping from the country's first division. Spirits were quite low indeed.

In a town with a population comparable to Augusta's, much is invested in sports. Not only is there a modern futbol stadium, there's an indoor velodrome for track and cycling events, a basketball/team handball arena, an ice rink, an outdoor track with fields for soccer and rugby, several jai alai frontons and a bullfighting arena with a retractable roof.

How could one go to Spain and not see a bullfight? We did just that one Saturday night. Cost was 4,000 pesetas -- about $25 -- for the arena's best seats.

There is a certain majestic quality to bullfighting that counters its barbaric closure. Watching young men with pink and red capes control and outthink a charging animal weighing more than 990 pounds is what draws the Spanish here.

So you've seen the beach. You have climbed the hills to take in the panoramic vistas. You have even gone to a bullfight or futbol game.

The other draw to San Sebastian is its proximity to France and the French wine country of Biarittz and Bayonne, both less than an hour's drive away.

And then there's the city's industrial Basque neighbor, Bilbao, 45 minutes away. Here you'll find the new Guggenheim Museum. Opened in 1997, it's housed in what locals call the "metallic flower" building. The permanent collection has work by artists from 1960 and later. The building's exterior alone may be worth the drive.

So we're a little late in finding San Sebastian on our travel itineraries. Isn't that totally Spanish of us. They don't mind that here because they know that once you find them, you'll begin to spread the word about this remote spot along the Bay of Biscay.

If you go

Delta has daily nonstop flights from Atlanta to Madrid. Visitors can rent a car in Madrid and drive through the mountainous terrain, or commute by train to San Sebastian.

Iberian Airlines fly out of Miami and New York to Spain.

There are Spanish tourism offices in Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.

Spain's Web site is www.tourspain.es

Attractions

In mid-January, San Sebastian celebrates its Patron Saint festival.

In early February, there's the Boilermakers' Masquerade.

June 23 and 24 is the St. John's Feast.

The San Sebastian Jazz Festival comes in July.

In Pamplona, about 40 miles from San Sebastian, the San Fermin fiesta, with its traditional running of the bulls, is July 7-14.

The week of Aug. 15 is San Sebastian's Semana Grande, the big week of cultural and regional celebration. There is also an international fireworks contest.

The first two Sundays of September are reserved for rowboat races.

September's second fortnight sports an international film festival.

Santo Tomas' fair comes in late December.

Hotels

Built in 1914, the five-star Maria Cristina hotel is the center of San Sebastian's film festival.

Hotel Londress provides four-star accommodations and is located near the beach.