Spain/France Trip: San Sebastian (Days 1-4)

Season:  Spring (Late March over Easter)

Length of Trip:  16 days (1 overnight flight, 14 hotel nights)

Cities/Areas Visited:  Basque Country, Bordeaux Wine Region, Dordogne Valley, Andorra, and Barcelona

Itinerary:

Flying Day: Overnight flight from DFW to BCN (layover in MIA)

San Sebastian (Days 1-4):

Male DINK and I had wanted to visit San Sebastian for quite some time due to its world-renowned food scene.  When looking at what other areas we could visit on a trip that included San Sebastian, we couldn’t help but zone in on the Bordeaux wine region (a few hours’ drive to the north).  To keep flight costs down, we decided to fly into, and out of, Barcelona since it is a major city for flights.  Also, we had not been to Barcelona yet.

We arrived in Barcelona on a Sunday morning and picked up our rental car from Sixt.  Our car for this trip was a red Mercedes  A class with what seemed to be an out-of-balance wheel (only a problem on the highway).  We immediately began the long drive to San Sebastian and quickly realized we were going to spend a small fortune on tolls!  The major highways were all toll roads; however, the roads were at least in very good condition with little traffic – and they all took credit cards!  When planning a trip with a long drive after an overnight flight, we always say we can handle it and it won’t be a big deal.  I guess we are just eager to get going, get to our first destination, and start seeing the sights.  However, once we are there, the story is always a little different.  Ironically, both times we have visited Spain we hit the road right away, staring down about a five-hour drive.  And, both times I have fallen asleep when I said I wouldn’t!  Male DINK normally drives everywhere on our trips, and, in exchange, I promise to stay awake and keep him company.  Soon enough though, I find myself dozing off.

This particular drive – from BCN to San Sebastian – was quite flat and boring for the majority of the drive, which didn’t help my proclivity to nod off.  We had tentatively planned a stop in Zaragoza for lunch and to see a few attractions, but we both quickly decided we weren’t up for it and would rather drive through to San Sebastian and get settled.  Approaching San Sebastian, though, was very scenic and mountainous, with the temperature dropping drastically as we climbed into the mountains.  We arrived in San Sebastian in the late afternoon after about five hours of driving.

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View of La Concha from our terrace

Our hotel for this leg of the trip was the Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra, which is right on La Concha beach.  We had booked an “Attic with Terrace Sea View” room, and the view certainly did not disappoint!  Feeling exhausted and happy with our room, we decided to stay in for the night and enjoy our terrace.  We ordered room service and turned in early to get rested.

We spent our first full day walking around San Sebastian in somewhat dreary weather.  We made our way toward the Old Town to explore (not a very large area) and also to visit Iglesia de Santa Maria.  The large church stands at the end of a main pedestrian-only street, making for a nice photo-op of the Old Town.

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Doorway at Iglesia Santa Maria

The church doorway is beautifully ornate with carvings and is worth taking some time to admire.  Visiting the church itself does not take a lot of time, but is worth peeking in to complete the picture from the outside.  After wandering around Old Town for a bit, we decided to make our way to the river, and we were greeted by choppy waves crashing into the man-made barriers.  It was a fun sight that we couldn’t quite capture on our cameras (our timing was never right).

After heading across the bridge over to Playa La Zurriola, we made our way back to Old Town to scope out a tapas bar for lunch.  Admittedly, walking into a tapas bar for the first time is a little intimidating.  Everyone seems to know the protocol, and we didn’t want to seem overly out of place.  Obviously, we are tourists, so some slack will probably be given, but we also don’t want to be annoying or ignorant.  After walking around for what seemed like forever (there are numerous tapas bars – it’s just hard to pick one!), we finally decided to try a place that looked like it had a good selection from the window.   We walked up to the bar, looked around for a minute, and started asking for – and pointing at – random bits of goodness.  Tapas are a fun concept, especially when traveling, as it allows you to try so many different bites at once!  We each ordered different tapas from the other and shared bites to maximize our tasting opportunity.

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La Concha sunset looking west from our terrace

Feeling nourished enough to continue, we walked around the town some more (generally meandering towards our hotel) and sought out a supermarket to buy some snacks and wine to enjoy on our lovely terrace.  We came across a Super Amara in FNAC Donostia and found some Spanish meat, cheese, and wine, as well as a few chips and snacks to have handy over the next few days.  We headed back to the hotel, enjoying our snacks and wine on our terrace, soaking in the beautiful sunset over La Concha!

This being the one night we did not have a dinner reservation, we wanted to experience the tapas culture in all of its glory at night.  We read up on a few well-reviewed tapas bars, freshened up, and headed back to Old Town.  A few of the places we wanted to check out ended up being closed that night, but we found Atari Gastroteka, located on the small square that also houses the Iglesia de Santa Maria mentioned above.  This place was super busy, but we walked up to the bar, figuring we could just eat there.

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One of the tapas from the specials board!

I will admit, we have a huge benefit with Male DINK knowing Spanish and being able to converse rather easily with locals.  We had no problem ordering a few tapas and drinks, remaining standing at the bar to eat.  The first few tapas were delicious, which inspired us to order a couple more from the “specials” menu board.  When it was time for dessert, Male DINK then asked the bartender what a typical drink would be to have with dessert.

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Dessert Tapas

The bartender happily proceeded to make a sweet vermouth drink and explained the contents as he made the drink in front of us.  Both of us enjoyed the drink (we forgot what it was called – if it even had a name), which is saying something because I generally don’t drink cocktails (I prefer beer and wine).  We had planned on trying a few different places, but we were very pleased with our experience here and decided we didn’t need to go anywhere else.  I’m sure there are plenty of good places, and we probably should have explored more.  But, given the rainy weather and lack of “top-rated” options open, we were content to stick with the one place.

For our second full day in San Sebastian, we had initially planned to visit Bilbao.  However, waking up to blue, sunny skies made me want to stay in San Sebastian and push Bilbao to the third day (which looked like rainy weather again).  We got a little bit of a later start (around 10am), making the most of the great weather by walking south along the beach and going to both Monte Igueldo and Monte Urgull.  We started the day walking at a comfortable pace next to La Concha making our way to Monte Igueldo.  The weather was perfect, and we took in all of the sights and beauty of the bay, listening the sounds of the ocean and beachgoers as we walked.  We eventually made it to the funicular that would take us up to Monte Igueldo.  As we were visiting during shoulder season, we had to wait a few minutes for someone to show up at the ticket booth.  We purchased our tickets and shortly thereafter were on our way up to the peak.  Unfortunately, there was major construction going on for the amusement park at the peak, so access was somewhat limited on where you could go.  Fortunately, though, the spectacular view over Bahia La Concha was perfectly accessible.  There was something special about the view at this time of year.  The beach and surrounding area looked like a tropical paradise, yet there were snow-capped mountains just in the background.  I cannot say if the snow is always there, but it made the sight that much more picturesque and unique.

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View over La Concha from Monte Igueldo

After taking tons of pictures hoping to capture a few good ones, we made our way back to the funicular and down to the beach.  We decided to walk around on the beach for a little while and had fun watching dogs (accompanied by their owners) play fetch in the water.  On our way back to Old Town (headed towards Monte Urgull) we made a quick stop at Miramar Palace, which has a nice grassy area and wonderful views.  One tip:  There’s also a water fountain here to fill up your water bottle.  By this point, we were pretty much starving from all the walking, so we walked to Old Town and went to Bar Sport for more tapas.

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Bar Sport

We were lucky to snag a table in the corner (vs. standing at the bar), so we were able to rest while we ate.  Here, we learned that the protocol was to place your order at the bar, and then they would get your attention when each of the successive tapas was ready.  Everything here was great, and we’d recommend it for a quick refuel stop.  Wanting a little bit of dessert, and being the gelato lovers we are, we made a stop at a gelato shop nearby and sat on a bench in the park area along Boulevard Zumardia while we enjoyed our favorite European snack.  Happily fulfilled, we started on our way up Monte Urgull.  This was a much more strenuous climb, as it has a steep incline.  We decided to go all the way to the top by the fort and were rewarded with more beautiful views overlooking the city and the bay.

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View of La Concha from the fort at Monte Urgull

Having ascended Urgull, we decided to descend on the other side of the peak for a different view.  We made a short stop at Baluarte de Mirador, which you will recognize by the Basque flag standing tall, and then kept on our way back through town.  Since we’d seen a large cathedral from the peaks (Artzain Onaren Katedrala), we headed that way.  There were beautiful flowers planted out front, and we enjoyed going inside and seeing the vibrant stained glass windows.  The colors were so vivid with the sunny weather, and it was definitely worth a quick stop.

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Lobster with bee’s pollen at Arzak

Back at the hotel, we ate a snack with a glass of wine and relaxed for awhile.  That night we had a reservation at 3 Michelin Star restaurant Arzak.  We had been looking forward to this dinner for quite a while, as Arzak has been a top food destination for years.  While you can read our forthcoming review soon, we were somewhat disappointed in our experience, as it did not live up to the high expectations we had for it.  Still, we enjoyed the experience and are happy to have gone.

The next morning, our third full day, we woke up early for our day trip to Bilbao.  We mostly wanted to visit Bilbao to see the Guggenheim Museum, and when the drive is only about an hour, why not?  We again had rainy weather, but it seemed to let up when we needed it to.  We parked in a parking garage under Euskadi Plaza and walked to the Guggenheim.  The building is so unique

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Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

with curious sculptures around (the Spider was my favorite even though I’m terrified by them in real life).  We walked along the river admiring the exterior of the museum and decided to take a chance on the funicular up to Artxanda since it had stopped raining for the time being.  We walked briskly to Puente Zubizuri, crossed the river, and found the funicular.  The view from Artxanda was definitely cloudy and hazy, but it still offered a perspective of Bilbao from above, as well as an interesting fingerprint sculpture.  We didn’t need much time up here, and made our way back to the funicular after taking a few pictures.

We walked back to the Guggenheim where I insisted on seeing Puppy before going inside.  Puppy is a giant sculpture of what looks like a West Highland Terrier made out of thousands of flowers.  I was quite excited about Puppy, while Male DINK tolerated my enthusiasm for a few pictures and then told me it was time to go to the museum.

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Puppy

In the interest of full disclosure, we are not huge contemporary art enthusiasts, but we still like to partake in important museums to see and understand other types of art.  That said, we had high expectations for the Guggenheim.  Perhaps it was the awesome exterior, or just the name itself, but we were both pretty disappointed in the actual contents of the museum.  For such a large museum, it didn’t seem like there was very much in it.  We kept double checking to see if we missed anything, but we had seen all the areas open to the public.  We had a little bit of fun walking in the sculptures of the Matter of Time, but that was about the extent of our enjoyment.  I’m very happy we saw the building itself – and it is an amazing piece of architecture – but the actual museum was probably not worth the money spent on tickets, at least for us and our interests.

We ate lunch at the museum café (mainly because we wanted a quick and easy bite) and then took a stroll around Parque de Dona Casilda de Iturrizar.  The park has a pond with ducks, swans, and geese, as well as a fountain.  It was a nice place to walk around for a little bit before getting back in the car.  We took the scenic route (or at least a longer, more local route) home.  We wanted to see San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, if possible.  The roads were slow, windy, and wet, but we got to see local towns and get a general idea of non-tourist areas of Basque country.  We did find San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (barely), but since it was raining heavily and the road down to the walkway to the island did not look safe, we took a picture from above and headed to the main highway back to San Sebastian.

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Entrance to Restaurant Martin Berastegui

We rested, freshened up, and headed out to dinner at 3 Michelin Star Restaurante Martin Berastegui.  The restaurant is in Lasarte, about 15 minutes away.  You can read the forthcoming review soon, but, as a spoiler, I would highly recommend going here, as it was one of my favorite meals I’ve ever had.

Thursday, the fourth full day, meant it was time to leave San Sebastian and head toward the Bordeaux region.