Tired of all those ultra-cool places where the next big thing lies just beyond a velvet rope?San Sebastián, on Spain's Basque Coast, is exactly the opposite—earthy, seductive, and anything but exclusive

Hugh Stewart
| Credit: 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."

I take her advice, sampling sublime smoked ham, sweet anchovies, and an extraordinary cod omelette at Bar La Cepa. Around me waiters are pouring txakoli, the gutsy local white wine, in the traditional manner—holding the bottle three feet above the glass. I move on to Casa Gandarias for shrimp ceviche, ultra-light fried squid, and the best potato salad I've had since my Aunt Fanny's decades ago in my Pennsylvania Dutch hometown. Virtually everyone eats standing up, but even in these noisy, smoky, raucous surroundings, there's something serene, almost Japanese, about the beautifully presented little dishes.

Although you could happily spend a week here dining on bar food, San Sebastián has some of the finest restaurants in Spain, many of which serve innovative Basque cuisine. Realizing that I am about to move into the kind of dangerously trendy territory I'd hoped to avoid, I nonetheless book a lunch table at San Sebastián's most renowned dining room, Arzak. I'm prepared to be dazzled (read: intimidated) by its three Michelin stars, but Arzak puts me at ease with its small—just 10 tables—and simple dining room. The staff of 12 works as seamlessly as a well-rehearsed corps de ballet. The meal is a nonstop exercise in self-indulgence.

I choose the tasting menu, which leaves me in the capable hands of the proprietor, Juan Mari Arzak. It begins with three amuse-bouches: a tiny potato crêpe, slivers of tender veal cheek wrapped in caramelized pineapple, and a few spoonfuls of lettuce soup with almond oil and a single clam (a classic Basque dish). Then come the appetizers: delicately fried crawfish in a pimiento and tomato purée, and squid with onion marmalade, sprinkled with toasted corn. My main dishes include smoked pompano, followed by squab with caramelized skin accompanied by a cluster of mini-asparagus. The cheese plate is a work of art, with slabs, dabs, and shavings of five local specialties. The selections become stronger as you move around the plate, the last so pungent that it burns my eyes. Dessert, if you're up for it (and you are), is a chocolate pudding with lemon sorbet on top and cassava paste on the bottom. Just when you think it's over, a tangy soup, made from a nutlike fruit called chufa, arrives with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.

After the meal I chat with Arzak, whose family has owned the house that his restaurant occupies for more than a century. His grandparents ran a tavern here; his parents, a catering operation. Arzak opened his current restaurant in the 1970's, after stints with Paul Bocuse and Pierre Troisgros. His dishes are firmly rooted in Basque culture. "We're constantly experimenting, of course, but all the products, and often the recipes, are from this region. That onion marmalade takes five hours to prepare, just as it did when my grandmother made it."

Another of San Sebastián's major-league chefs is Mart’n Berasategui. His is not a small family business, however, since he currently oversees six restaurants in the area, as far afield as the café at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, an hour's drive away. Berasategui's most famous establishment is in Lasarte, where he can usually be found in the kitchen. It is some 15 minutes outside San Sebastián, in a suburban villa surrounded by gardens. But after my mind-boggling lunch at Arzak, I decide to cool it and have dinner at Berasategui's vast glass-walled dining room in San Sebastián's new Kursaal Center.

At Restaurante Kursaal Mart’n Berasategui, with its blond-wood floors and beige tablecloths, I'm afraid I've finally landed in the kind of cutting-edge place I've been trying to avoid. But the views of the wonderfully flamboyant Victoria Eugenia theater and the Kursaal Bridge—a Modernist monument whose iron-clad white pillars support gigantic Christmas-tree-ornament globes—quickly take me back to the San Sebastián I've been falling in love with. The food is also extraordinary: garlic stir-fried squid, warm lobster salad with asparagus "noodles," classic Basque hake (a white fish served in a parsley sauce). The dessert sampler is a delight: six tiny servings of such delicacies as apricot ice cream and piña colada soup.

IT'S THE FIRST NIGHT OF THE CITY'S annual jazz festival, so after dinner I wander around the Kursaal Center and find myself surrounded by gospel singers, a Basque Dixieland orchestra, and the Barcelona Big Latin Band. In addition to the music, I am struck by the Kursaal itself. Designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, it resembles two enormous Noguchi lantern lamps—especially at night, when the lights inside glow through its thick opaque-glass sheathing. San Sebastián's answer to the Frank Gehry—designed Guggenheim Bilbao, the two-year-old Kursaal has been wildly controversial. Many locals felt that their city did not need a dramatic new building to put it on the map, particularly one that jarred with its Belle Époque essence. But as the Barcelona Big Latin Band begins blasting a salsa number, I can find no fault with this fantastic structure by the sea. If this is as close as San Sebastián comes to really being on the cutting edge, I'm not complaining.

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.


To reach San Sebastián, most travelers fly to the spectacular new Santiago Calatrava—designed Bilbao Airport via London, Madrid, or Paris. From there, San Sebastián is about an hour away by taxi, rental car, or bus. It's also just a half-hour from the French resort of Biarritz.

Hotel Mar’a Cristina 1 Calle Oquendo; 800/937-8461 or 34-943/424-900, fax 34-943/423-914; doubles from $245.
Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra 2 Calle de Zubieta; 34-943/440-770, fax 34-943/440-491; doubles from $105.
Aida 9 Calle Iztueta; 34-943/327-800, fax 34-943/326-707; doubles from $43. An attractive nine-room pension with lots of style and ridiculously low rates.

Arzak 21 Alto de Miracruz; 34-943/278-465; dinner for two $142.
Restaurante Kursaal Mart’n Berasategui 1 Avda. de la Zurriola; 34-943/003-163; dinner for two $74.
Restaurante Mart’n Berasategui 4 Calle Loidi, Lasarte; 34-943/366-471; dinner for two $130.
Kaia 4 Calle General Arnao, Getaria; 34-943/140-500; dinner for two $75. Getaria's top fish place—reservations are a must.
Iribar 34 Calle Nagusia, Getaria; 34-943/140-406; dinner for two $54. A good bet for freshly grilled fish.

Bar La Cepa 7 Calle de Agosto 31; 34-943/426-394; pintxos for two $10.
Casa Gandarias 25 Calle de Agosto 31; 34-943/428-106; pintxos for two $10.

Fundación Cristóbal Balenciaga 3 Parque Aldamar, Getaria; 34-943/327-180.
Museo Chillida-Leku Caser’o Zabalaga, 66 Jauregui Barrio, Hernani; 34-943/336-006.
Museo San Telmo Plaza Zuloaga; 34-943/424-970. Excellent displays and installations documenting Basque and San Sebastián history—housed in a 16th-century Dominican convent.

San Sebastián Jazz Festival 34-943/481-179; www.jazzaldia.com; held July 24—29 this year.
Quincena Musical 34-943/003-170; www.quincenamusical.com; held August 6—September 6 this year.
San Sebastián International Film Festival 34-943/481-212; www.sansebastianfestival.ya.com; held September 20—29 this year.

A hike up Mount Urgull, a mountain park at the edge of the port (it's a great way to walk off all those pintxos), followed by a thalassotherapy treatment at La Perla (Paseo de la Concha; 34-943/458-856), a large spa facility right on La Concha beach.