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Visiting San Sebastian in Northern Spain

Hugh Stewart

Photo: Hugh Stewart

I recently suffered a minor professional crise. Perhaps it was battle fatigue brought on by too much time spent in the trenches of trendiness. All I knew was that after years of tracking down the newest, the latest, the hottest, and the coolest hotels, resorts, restaurants, and neighborhoods, I could not handle one more designer dinner, minimalist hotel room, or black-clad doorman with a catwalk attitude. Quite simply, I had had it with hip.

At the height of my disenchantment, I landed a plum assignment: Check out San Sebastián, a legendary beach town in the Basque country of northern Spain, where Spanish royalty summered in the 19th century and Hemingway characters chilled out in the 1920's. By all accounts, San Sebastián was still delightfully old-world—old-fashioned but not stodgy, stylish but not flashy, sophisticated but not pretentious. It sounded like the perfect antidote to my world-weary state. But old habits die hard. I automatically check to see if there's a hip new hotel I should know about. Thankfully, there isn't. In fact, the town's two best places to stay have been around for ages. The grandest is the 1912 Mar’a Cristina, designed by Charles Mewes, the French architect who created the Ritz hotels in Paris and Madrid. Overlooking the Urumea River and next door to the Baroque wedding-cake Victoria Eugenia theater, the hotel has opulent rooms and suites, a stunning marble-columned dining room, and a classy wood-paneled bar. (Despite the absence of Philippe Starck chairs, the Mar’a Cristina is still a favorite of celebs like the Rolling Stones and Robert De Niro; it's also where the A-list stays during the annual San Sebastián International Film Festival.) But it is fully booked at the time of my visit, so I drop down one star and get a room at the Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra. Built in 1887, it's not quite as grand as the Mar’a Cristina, but it makes up for that with its stellar location on a four-mile sweep of the famed La Concha beach.

The porter opens my curtains to reveal a magnificent view of the beach and the Bay of Biscay, anchored by mountains at either end, a lumpy green island at the center. It's almost midnight by the time I unpack, but I have no interest in sleep. Instead I head down for a stroll along the elegant La Concha esplanade, with its white wrought-iron balustrade. Despite the hour, the walkway is teeming with well-dressed families, couples in love, in-line skaters, backpackers. On the beach itself, young people are having impromptu cocktail parties. Not far from the hotel I come upon a pretty park with formal gardens and wispy tamarisk trees where street musicians and poets are performing. A vintage carousel is still running, and its handsomely caparisoned camels, lions, pigs, and horses, as well as mirrored rocking carriages, are delighting children and their parents. The merry-go-round music is strangely muted, and the whole scene is surprisingly mellow, almost surreal, like a scene from a Fellini film. Hip?Hardly. Hip implies aggressive, hard-edged, exclusive. Judging from this brief nighttime glimpse, San Sebastián is something else entirely.

IN THE MORNING, I HIT THE BEACH BEFORE EXPLORING THE TOWN. ON A SUMMER day, La Concha is a kind of upmarket Coney Island, packed with chaises, beach umbrellas, and people cheek by jowl. The sea has very small waves and the swimming is easy, but the tides are deceptively fierce and frequently soak unsuspecting sunbathers, including me. The best thing about the beach is the view of San Sebastián, its lineup of fin de siècle apartment buildings backed by lush mountains.

Some of the city's finest architecture lies in what is called the New Town, much of which actually dates back to the 1800's. Carefully laid out on either side of the broad Avenida de la Libertad, this compact quarter is heaven for lovers of grandiose architecture. Enchanting buildings sprout towers and turrets, domes and steeples, and gravity-defying, glassed-in miradors, balconies that command spectacular views of the town below. Styles range from columned Neoclassical to mansard-roofed French Revival to Art Nouveau—especially notable along Prim and Reyes Católicos Streets—with elaborately carved wooden doorways, stunning stained-glass panels, and unusual ceramic-tile touches. In the New Town, plazas and loggias, vest-pocket parks and gardens, constantly surprise.

If the New Town is known for its architecture, San Sebastián's old quarter, the Parte Vieja, is all about eating. Most of its tall, skinny buildings with wrought-iron balconies have a restaurant, café, or pintxos bar (pronounced "pinchos," it's Basque for "tapas") at street level. Pintxos-hopping is a major pastime here, and while certain bars are long-standing favorites, it's hard to go wrong. Before taking off on my trip, I consulted a food-critic friend who advised me not to drive myself crazy trying to dine in every good restaurant in town. "There are simply too many," she said. "You're much better off hitting the pintxos places in the Parte Vieja. Just check out what's displayed on the counter. If it looks good, it probably is."

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