A Solo Weekend in San Sebastian with a Bilbao Day Trip

Last Wednesday morning, I got up so early that I’m sure some people were still out for the night to catch a flight to San Sebastian, also known as Donostia in the Basque language. After a couple weeks of traveling in a crowd, I was ready for a little alone time, and I was really excited to see San Sebastian, a town I’ve been longing to visit for years. (I think it started with The Sun Also Rises…)

The main attraction is food–San Sebastian is second only to Kyoto in the number of Michelin-starred restaurants per square kilometer, and I had reservations at two of them, Arzak and Mugaritz, both of which also feature on the World’s 50 Best list. The early flight, in fact, was made in the service of lunch at Arzak–I couldn’t get a dinner reservation, but it’s the same menu. And beyond the super fancy, San Sebastian is also famous for its pinxto bars: tiny restaurants that serve delectable small plates, which you eat standing up.

Beyond food, there’s not a lot going on. It’s a small town with three great beaches–even a surf break at one of them. The photo below sums up San Sebastian’s beach life; the dogs run free in that town. Unfortunately, three out of four days I was there were cold and rainy, so I spent a lot of time catching up on Netflix. There’s a museum, an aquarium, and loads of cute shops, but since I’m living out of a suitcase for a year, I took the time to recharge.

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On Saturday, the sun finally came out, and I attempted to cram a long weekend’s worth of tourism into a day. First up, a trip to the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim in Bilbao, which is an easy hour and fifteen minute bus ride from San Sebastian, a drive that winds through beautiful mountainous countryside.

The Guggenheim, like so many things, was smaller than I’d imagined, but lovely. The building itself is fascinating; every angle gives you a fresh perspective:

The main exhibition was Abstract Expressionism, and they had some interesting and significant works, though I have to admit that period leaves me a little cold. I was listening to the audio guide as I browsed, and while I’m fascinated by the artists’ processes, and I can intellectually understand the idea of creating a reaction through color or shape, rather than specific forms, it just doesn’t do much for me, much in the same way that I don’t like house music–my book-obsessed brain longs for narrative.

But I always look for at least one new painting to fall in love with, and at this museum, that was Anselm Kiefer’s The Renowned Orders of the Night. The photo doesn’t do it justice; it’s breathtaking in its scale.

Back in San Sebastian, I braved the hordes of children heading up to the rides at the tiny, rickety amusement park at the top of Monte Igueldo to get this breathtaking view of the city.

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It was interesting–I don’t know if it’s because it was Saturday, or it was finally sunny, or the combo of the two, but I’d been thinking that San Sebastian was the sleepiest little town, just some surfers and a lot of old people, all of whom seemed to know each other, and hundreds of adorable pups. But then the sun comes out, and all of a sudden, the beach walkway is packed, and I’m fighting my way through the streets of Old Town like it’s Times Square.

I went to a pinxto bar recommended by none other  than Anthony Bourdain, La Cuchara de San Telmo. Really, you’re supposed to do a pinxto crawl, but I only had it in me to elbow my way through one insanely crowded bar. It really is a bit of a fight, and then you’re left standing up eating gourmet food as if it were a bad canape at a reception. But I had delicious veal cheeks and pig’s feet in romesco sauce and suckling pig with an apple sauce (all the food my mom would refuse to eat, basically) and called it a night.

It was a slightly disappointing weekend, if I’m being honest, just because I’d built the city up so much in my mind–the difference between travel expectations and reality is something I think about often. And it was definitely one of those times, where if I hadn’t been flying solo, I might have been pushed to do more and explore further. But sometimes travel can be about recovery as much as discovery.

The only truly sour note of the weekend came as I was trying to leave at 7 AM on a Sunday morning. There were no taxis at the stand (you can’t hail one), and the promised 7:15 bus didn’t arrive. The taxi companies weren’t answering their phones. One group of people, just going home from the bars, promised to call me a cab from another town, but then they took the first one, and their drunk friends surrounded me and shooed me down the street, mocking me from the windows of the taxi that was supposed to be mine as they drove by.

Back at the taxi stand, another group of men came by and started talking to the girl standing next to me. In Spanglish, they offered me first a ride, then the open containers of beer they were holding–for obvious reasons, I accepted neither. I finally got through to a company and mustered enough college Spanish to communicate, “Necesito un taxi. Voy a aeropuerto. Estoy a Idiakez.” Not the most elegant turns of phrase, but a taxi did appear–which the other girl tried to take, since she was next in line. We communicated, insofar as we were able, and agreed that the taxi would drop her home first and then take me. Luckily (who has ever thought this?), my flight was delayed an hour, or I probably would have missed it.

So I suppose all’s well that ends well, and I never felt like I was in real danger–but it was a slightly dicey moment for a solo female traveler with only a moderate grasp on the language.

Nevertheless, I’m happy I saw the town and ate (some of) the food. It’s changed a lot from the quiet fishing village Hemingway visited, but it still has a certain charm.

 

 

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