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Enjoying Traditional San Sebastián

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Photo: Javier Salas

A few days later, we rent a car and drive toward Getaria, a tiny fishing village 15 miles away. We are joined by old family friends, including a nun who spent most of her life in Tokyo but has now retired to San Sebastián, and her nephew, and they take us to the Museo Chillida-Leku, an outdoor sculpture park devoted to the work of the artist Eduardo Chillida. It’s a sparkling day, and we wander across the sloping lawn among the imposing stone and iron pieces, statements of Basque identity in their own abstract way. (The most famous of the artist’s sculptures is a semicircular work set in the rocks at the far end of the Concha beach, and you see its shape reproduced all over, as an emblem of the town.) Back in our cars, we continue out of town and down the coast, and are soon passing through fertile farmland, and then driving along the coast at the foot of rocky cliffs, rounding curves to find abrupt changes in scenery—bays, islands, fishing towns, lighthouses.

Our hotel—Carrington’s just-opened Iturregi—is set in the hilly vineyards outside Getaria and has only eight rooms. We can see the ocean in the distance from our window. It’s lunchtime, and because Iturregi does not have a full-service restaurant, the staff points us to San Prudencio, an old-style family place just down the road. It is here, outside on the terrace, that we have what may be the best meal of the entire trip—a perfectly timed antidote to three-star-cooking overload. The tomatoes in the tomato salad are from the garden out back, and they are ripe and perfect. We have langoustines roasted on a skewer, and magnificent, tender squid in its own ink, crusty ham croquettes, and, for our main course, roasted turbot. The white wine—a Txacoli, the local specialty—is from grapes grown right here. It’s ever so slightly effervescent. There’s nothing fancy about San Prudencio, and yet it’s a wonder of simple, traditional methods and local ingredients.

Getaria’s dock is active, full of fishing boats, and overlooking it are numerous fish restaurants, which all have large outdoor grills where the catch is cooked in oblong metal baskets over the white-hot coals. That evening, the steep, tiny roads down to the sea are crowded with locals talking loudly, drinking wine, and eating pintxos; kids riding bikes and skateboards; grandparents keeping an eye on things. We’re on our way to dinner at Kaipe, one of three famous fish places run by the same family. It’s eight o’clock, and the sun is setting.

On a whim, we push open the heavy door of the town’s 15th-century church, grand and simple at the same time, which straddles a few of the narrow streets. It’s dark inside, but a choir is singing. The church is empty, and obviously they’re practicing: every so often the singing pauses and a soloist will retry a section. We can’t see any of them—they’re in the choir loft just above us—but we can see the conductor’s arms giving time to the music, large shadows before us on the walls of the church. It’s a magical moment, and we sit in the pews quietly for a long time, listening. There’s a model ship hanging from the ceiling, another sign of the closeness and elemental role of the ocean here. Soon, we’ll be eating roasted squid and sea bream, but now we close our eyes.

Luke Barr is T+L’s news director.

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