Evening of July 2, 2009 and July 3, 2009
Let’s start with just a bit of Basque history. All the towns/cities have two names – the Spanish name and the Basque name. San Sebastian is Donostia in Euskara (the Basque language). Hondarribia is Euskara, with the Spanish name Fuenterrabia. On the roads, all signs have both names listed. Another interested tidbit about the Basque part of the country – most signs in Spanish have been painted over so only the Basque language signs can be read. They are ferociously nationalistic.
The Basque people are known for being feisty and industrious, as well as nationalistic. The towns are all full of bright, white, chalet style houses, with shutters painted deep red or green or blue, and flowers pots filled with colorful flowers in every balcony and every window. The Basque language, which few speak and even fewer understand (they say it is spoken by only about half-million people), is called Euskara. Traditional stereotype had the Basque with long noses, heavy eyebrows, floppy ears, stout bodies and a penchant for wearing berets. With widespread French and Spanish immigration, the only part that still holds true is the berets. Today, if you speak Euskara, then you must be Basque. Signs however are in Euskara (for example, street is Kalea which is on all the street signs).
We are spending four nights in Hondaribba, using it as our base for visits to the different Basque towns. Hondaribba, like almost all of the towns here, is made up of its upper, hilly walled Old Town and its lower port town. Across the bay is France. Old Town is typical of European old towns, with narrow, cobblestone streets, houses with balconies filled with flowers in flower pots. There were few shops, a few restaurants, mostly residential and hotels (including a parador which was Charles V’s austere, squat castle). The newer part of town had a few more shops, small grocery stores, bread shops (bakeries), fish shops with fresh, fresh fish, meat shops (with all the pork you could possibly want), and bars and restaurants. Most have outdoor seating, but not so much in the rain. We had lunch in the Old Town in a bar where we had several small (tapas) sandwiches. By the evening, the rain had stopped and we were able to sit outdoors eating tapas from one of the bars that has seating. Many of the bars are standing only, with the locals having a drink while they grab a bite.
Breakfast at our hotel, the Rio Bidasoa, is scrumptious. The bread has just the right amount of crunchiness on the outside with flavor that makes you want to keep chewing so you can listen to the sound, and smell and taste the dough. The tomatoes here are so full of flavor that you realize you had forgotten what real tomatoes should taste like. The cheese – ah, the cheese –– so flavorful, that like the cows that you want to bless for producing milk that can be turned in to such cheese – you wish you too had two stomachs. The eggs that taste like the chickens must be in the back laying them just for you – with a rich deep yellow yolk. Have I said enough? Are you hungry? We just wish we could have eaten and eaten and not stopped. Luckily, common sense got in our way.
One of the best parts of this part of Spain is watching the people. The beret-wearing Basque men who sit at the bars, or on benches, just enjoying each others company over a glass of cider (a special, popular drink here, which to us tasted sour and rancid – must be an acquired taste. They pour it from up high as if to aerate it. As far as we could tell, it didn’t help). Children are everywhere, either strolling with their parents, or in camp groups with matching backpacks. You see them playing soccer in the squares while all around couples, young and old, sit and enjoy their coffee, not minding if a stray ball comes their way. You see them at the beach, all lines up, jumping up and down, getting ready to go swimming, and playing soccer there too.
And the beaches! Today we spent the day in San Sebastian which has its Old Town with its Mount Urgull and new town with its Mount Igeldo Mendia, separated by a beautiful, shell shaped beach, lined with a two-mile promenade. The whole promenade is lined with Tamarisk trees – so beautiful that Andy and I want to plant one in our yard (or at least we think that is what kind of tree it is…) San Sebastian is described a the city where the sea converses with the mountains, as basically it is two mountains separated by the Bay of La Concha, which hugs the Cantabrian Sea.
The Old Town, the original San Sebastian, was a walled town at the foot of Mount Urgull. Today it is the usual, narrow cobblestoned streets, swarming with people, shops and bars. Did I say swarming? Well, this morning it was raining and the only thing swarming around Old Town were trucks delivering their wares to the bars/restaurants. We arrived with our trusty Gwendolyn (for those of you not reading all my communications, Gwendolyn is our GPS), parked our car and began our walking – at about 9:30. Way too early by Spanish time. Shops were just starting to open, cafes had not yet put out their tables (and in the rain, we were not sure they ever would), and people were no where to be seen. We walked in-between the cars and trucks (Phyllis and Ben – this reminded us of Orvietto!) and made our way around the old town. Our prescribed walking tour map suggested a hike up Mount Urgull to see the view. We were pretty sure we wouldn’t see much through the thick clouds. So we took the crescent shaped promenade, around the beach, to the other side of town. The beach was beautiful, with views of both mountains, with chairs and umbrellas (all closed) lined up like soldiers. And with groups of children, even in the rain, playing their beloved soccer. We arrived at the other side about 20 minutes later, and our trusty walking guide suggested the funicular up to the top of Mount Igeldo Mendia – again not such a good idea given the weather. So it was onto the bus, back to the Old Town side of town. And before we knew it, the clouds had cleared and sun was out. The beach filled with people, the trees shimmered with the sun reflected in the rain drops on their leaves, the ground warmed and the people appeared. Now the streets were indeed teeming with people. Although we had our swim suits with us, we had left them in the car (remember – it was raining when we parked) – and we were too lazy to go get them. So I rolled up my pants, took off my socks and sneakers, and waded a bit (Andy watched and took pictures). The water was luscious.
We stopped for a coffee in the Constitucion Square, in the heart of Old Town, which was once a bull fighting ring. The colorful balconies surrounding the square all have numbers painted on them as they were once the viewing stands. Today the square is still the nerve center of San Sebastian as all festivals take place here. The monumental buildings of San Sebastian are all characteristic saffron yellow because they were built of sandstone from the two mountains flanking the city.