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Visiting San Sebastian in Northern Spain

Hugh Stewart

Photo: Hugh Stewart

San Sebastián is a city of festivals. Early August brings a month of classical music, called the Quincena Musical, with big concerts in the Kursaal and smaller performances in churches, convents, and plazas. But the largest and best known of the city's bashes celebrates the cinema. Now in its 49th year, the 2001 San Sebastián International Film Festival kicks off September 20 and runs through the 29th. The participants are kept secret until the last moment, but last year's event brought Michael Caine, Robert De Niro, John Waters, Pedro Almodóvar (who first came into the international spotlight when his early films screened here), Morgan Freeman, Ang Lee, and artist-filmmaker Julian Schnabel (who is married to a woman from San Sebastián and has a vacation house in the area).

With little of the hype that surrounds the film orgies in Cannes, Berlin, and Venice, San Sebastián's festival is extremely popular among celebrities, who find they can explore the city without being hassled. Nonetheless, star stories abound. Orson Welles famously pigged out on pintxos. Claudette Colbert called San Sebastián "one of the loveliest resorts in Europe" and was particularly entranced by its fin de siècle lampposts (a miniature version of which is used as the festival's Donostia prize statuette). And any movie buff knows that in 1989 Bette Davis made her last public appearance here. Despite the fact that she was dying, the frail 81-year-old film diva—perfectly made up and decked out in designer gowns—did all her interviews on time (chain-smoking, naturally) and managed to keep her star power operating right up to the glittering final ceremony at the Victoria Eugenia, where she was presented with the Donostia, the festival's lifetime achievement award (after the Basque name for San Sebastián). The next week, she took a turn for the worse and was flown to the American Hospital in Paris, where she died.

Another star associated with San Sebastián is the legendary couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga, who was born in the Basque fishing village of Getaria, about a half-hour west of the city. Balenciaga went to Paris in 1937 and became one of the 20th century's most acclaimed fashion designers, known for his restrained, elegant style and his fine fabrics and finishings.

With its staircases, steep cobblestoned streets, and strange tunnels, Getaria makes an idyllic day trip from San Sebastián. Both in town and down at the tiny harbor, restaurants grill fresh fish right out front.The designer's humble birthplace at No. 12 Aldamar has probably changed little in the past hundred years. Up on the town square, one storefront has an amazing display of the local hero's gowns and accessories. By 2003, however, the Balenciaga Foundation, headed by Paris designer Hubert de Givenchy, plans a permanent museum in the Getaria mansion that belonged to the local marquesa, who recognized Balenciaga's talent when he was still in his teens.

Meanwhile, San Sebastián's newest museum is dedicated to another local legend—the sculptor Eduardo Chillida, whose work can be seen at museums around the world and whose monumental steel Comb of the Wind rises from the rocks at the far end of the Bay of Biscay. The museum, which opened in September, is 10 minutes from San Sebastián, in the mountain town of Hernani. Here a beautifully manicured hillside is studded with some 40 Chillida monoliths. At the center of the property, a 16th-century Basque farmhouse has been redesigned by the artist to display his smaller pieces: jigsaw sculptures of marble, steel, and iron; Mayan-like stone blocks; translucent alabaster statues; delicate hanging paper "gravitations," which are somewhere between a collage and a mobile.

"I spoke to the house," the 77-year-old sculptor says, "to see what it wanted. It needed light, so I opened it up and made it more of a cathedral than a house." Chillida encourages those who visit his "cathedral" to do something almost unheard of in an art museum: "You can touch the sculptures," he says. "Sculptures must be touched." That says a lot about the earthiness of the man and this place.

When I return from the museum to my hotel, there's a fax from my editor in New York. Seems a new designer hotel has just opened in the south of England. Could I cover it?Very hot, very hip. Fortunately, after a week of unwinding in the comforting time warp of San Sebastián, I'm almost ready to hit the trenches once again.


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