Last month I was waiting in a very crowded tapas bar in Barcelona for my two friends to meet me. I found a small space at the corner of the bar and tried to stake out some space for their arrival. I stood next to an old man who, after a few minutes of pointing at delicious looking food sitting in front of us and shy smiles, struck up a conversation. As it turns out, his name was Jesus and he was a lovely Spanish man with a doctor son in my hometown of Boston. We got to talking about my trip and where I had been. Jesus was adamant that San Sebastián was the place I must see – a destination I kept hearing about which was never a part of my intended itinerary. He pulled out his phone and showed me pictures; I was immediately enchanted by the spectacular beaches mixed into the downtown area. When my friends finally showed up, Jesus bought us a round of local sparkling wine and chatted with us for a bit longer before giving us his spot at the bar. I thought to myself – if this man is any representation of San Sebastián, I want to go there.
San Sebastián is on the northern coast of Spain in Basque country. It is an area I really knew nothing about before I got there, but my initial perception was that I had found the perfect combination of stunning Parisian architecture and Portuguese laid-back surf culture. I stayed at (surprise!) another surf hostel called Surfing Etxea, which was located both downtown and one block from the surf beach. It was new, clean, modern, social, and had rental surf equipment. I originally intended to stay for three days, but then loved the city so much that I decided to spend a full week there.
I don’t think I’ve ever taken to a foreign city so quickly. It looks like a postcard, but it has culture and sophistication. There are people running all hours of the day and night. The bike lanes and paths are beautiful and safe and you’ll commonly see people cycling with their surfboards tucked under one arm – a skill I will never master. You can walk on the boardwalk to get into Old Town or across one of the three bridges to cross the river and enter the business and shopping areas. The city is centered around a beach called La Concha because it is shaped like a conch shell. People swim in this beach everyday. There is an island with a mountain out in the bay of La Concha and a lighthouse which shines out across the Bay of Biscay. This region of Spain is known for their “pintxos,” which are like personal tapas. You can get a glass of local Txakoli wine and a delicious pintxo for 3 Euros.
I was able to rent a wetsuit and surfboard from my hostel to take my first solo surf excursion since surf camp a couple of weeks earlier. Aritz, the head of the hostel, surfs everyday and, for someone who is constantly working, he is probably the least stressed person I’ve ever met. He assured me that it was a perfect day for a beginner and got my set up with the equipment I needed. I went to leave and realized that I shouldn’t bring anything to the beach – it might get stolen. I left it all at the hostel and was instructed to leave my keys at the cafe next door. So I walked through downtown San Sebastián with bare feet, in a wetsuit, holding a surfboard. I kept thinking – this is what everyone does? This would never happen in Boston or New York. But I loved it. It was clean enough that you didn’t find glass shards on the main streets and I noticed many other surfers and bodyboarders doing the exact same thing I was. The surf was perfect. I loved waiting for waves and looking back to see a full city right behind me.
On Sunday, I ventured out on a semi-hike with four friends from my hostel. There is a figure of Jesus sitting atop a mountain which sits on one side of La Concha. He overlooks the city and there is a stunning view of the countryside. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to see it in Spain, but it felt kind of perfect that I had Jesus watching over me while in San Sebastián, both figuratively and literally.
In the end, my grand plans to rent a bike and explore, surf a few more times, and take some other hikes I had heard about were foiled by the built-up exhaustion of traveling for two months. I got sick for the last few days of my trip, which is something I have been dreading. Being sick is pretty much the worst thing to deal with when you’re traveling alone. You aren’t in your own bed, no one is automatically going to take care of you, and you don’t have any privacy. My next destination would be Paris and there was no way I would risk bringing sickness with me if I could avoid it. So I stayed in PJs and wrote for a couple of days and, to my surprise, felt completely comfortable and taken care of by those around me.
I would absolutely recommend San Sebastián to anyone heading to Europe or looking for a unique city to visit. I would have gladly stayed for another week, had I not had abutting plans. I will come back here someday for longer, hopefully as a better surfer. Maybe I’ll even see Jesus.