September 22, 2013

Towards Basque country: San Sebastian

Some friends were on the bus that morning out of Madrid, asking about my unlikely date but like me, they were hardly surprised that it had fell through. On the way to San Sebastian we were made aware of all of the little differences that separated the middle of Spain to 'Basque country'. The fact that they had a completely unique language, on land with a financially separated administration from the french and Spanish authorities that have jurisdiction over the small provinces. In Madrid, they had tapas, in San Sebastian they would have pintxos instead of tapa (the main difference being the toothpick stabbed through the bread, deriving the name), zurito instead of cerveza and kalimotxo for the half half mix of win and beer you would often find at bars.

Back in Madrid, Katie had told me about this place she was staying in San Sebastian so having not booked anything until the bus ride over, I thought I would give it a shot. Katie and I got off the bus together, heading to Rodger's hostel, well away from the Busabout options (which had really gotten some horror story reviews). Katie's sense of direction was simply rubbish though, taking wrong turns almost as soon as we got off the bus. I ended up having to take the helm, going in to a couple of shops with our tiny map, pointing and using a couple of words in Spanish before realising that they really did just speak Basque in many places. We finally found the place, stealthily hidden behind an apartment building door with a little name tag on the doorbell directory. We were in the old town while the rest of the Busabouters were in the mass market hostel a good deal north of us. After asking Katie where she had taken me to, she explained that most of the hostels in the old town took this format, composing of 4-6 rooms on a single floor of a building. I could only end up getting the first couple of nights in the place but there was always a good chance of spaces emerging as people changed plans and left their bonds in the hands of the owners.

We went out to find some dinner and joined up with some of the busabout group who had taken the recommendation of the guide. The food looked incredible and the format was somewhat different to what I had experienced elsewhere in Spain. Tbe pre-prepared pintxos occupied the bar counters, ready for individual selection and purchase. At 3EUR per piece with some going for more, it was not a place for a big evening meal. Katie and I retreated to a bar we had seen on the way with a Thursday night special on pintxos. Back at bar, we stocked up on tasty morsels and the beer to wash them down with. There was just enough space for some desert quality art food at the first place before we headed out to find some night life.

I followed the crowd over the river and we ended up at a crowded strip full of life. Bowing to a bus load of pressure, I gave busking a shot. I hoped that there were no Italians to boo as I started reeling off standards from the baritone repertoire. Coins started dropping in to a borrowed hat from people on the bus but soon I got the attention of some locals, not knowing what to thing about this random guy singing at the top of his lungs in the middle of the square, surrounded by a rowdy bunch of Aussies. The change ended up going to some communal drinks. I figured out why this place was so popular when I passed my mountains of coin shrapnel over the counter to a sighing tender in exchange for 6 beers. A smaller group of us wandered around for the next hour trying to find some place to kick on, finding ourselves eating birthday cake under lite rain. Finally, we ended up at this packed little one roomed place called  be bop bar. I ended up saying hi to a bunch of local architecture students who I hung around for most of the night. Some drinks later and with tired feet from dancing, I made off with on of them, re-joining her cajoling friends an hour or so after to say farewell.

Katie and I traded stories of love and conquest from the last night over a late, absorbent breakfast. There was one thing I could think about doing that day to bring back consciousness and that was to go for a swim. San Sebastian is known as a prime location for surfers and it didn't disappoint. Cold and refreshing with some great waves to catch.

That was about all we could manage that night before the evening began once more. In that small 40 person hostel, the kitchen was small and homely and Marco would cook up a brilliant paella every second night. Drinking games too and it was just a stone's throw to Ezpala. Courtney and I met and had a very energetic night on the dance floor of that dark underground bar.

Another second hung over morning and I caught up with Katie for a familiar breakfast before heading up to the tall Jesus statue that watched over the old town from the peak of the adjacent hill. We found it best to walk off the spirits, urging each other to take more steps up the hill face. We were rewarded with panoramic views over both sides of San Sebastian, the beaches and the island sitting in the western bay. On talking about the last night, we decided to catch up with Courtney and her friend by the beach bearing street side candy but mobilelessness struck again and we just missed them.

The hostel opening I was hoping for didn't end up opening up, leaving me to move around the corner to an even smaller hostel composing of 4 quad bed bedrooms and an even smaller kitchen. Rodger's hostel seemed like the surfer's choice with paraphernalia scattered over the walls but to me, it was just a bed for that night. I already had my people over at my old hostel.

It was a weekend night and hunting for affordable food in such a food capital became very difficult. Delectable pintxos adorned the bar tops of every bar we saw and having missed lunch, we were up for a big meal. San Sebastian is such a wonderful destination for food with each bite being a pleasure and the sight of the next taste to come being even greater. On the down side, it is not a cheap place. With drinks being a good deal more expensive than your average over Spain and the preferred pintxos style being on a per portion basis, it is somewhere I would definitely come back to on a more adult budget. This being said, we settled for the franchise fixed prices of McDonalds.

Stocking up on a bottle each of 4EUR vodka (not intending at first to finish them...), it was back to the old hostel where Marco had another night in store for us all. We ended up at a nice little place which had a bit of a festival, open air concept, based on tokens. Either way, once the Macca's lining broke down, Katie and I were pretty out of it, finding ourselves preferring not to stand up for some time. We both met again the next morning at 7am while trudging in land to the bus pick up point. We had both unused tokens in various pockets and concluded eventually that I'd managed to lock myself in an automated bathroom, mistaking the 'delay exit' button for the one that lets you out, for the maximum 20 minutes while Katie headed back with Marco having not been able to find me.

By the sounds of it, San Sebastian had been more of a party stop than a cultural one for most of the others too. I felt like I knew the place and it was now on my re-visit list with the next destination now on the horizon. The bus ride over the boarder marked the end of my time in Spain with a new found fondness for this country that has so many more facets than I had expected. Having only had a glimpse of this country, it is now a top place to explore in the future. Having learned about the completely different regions in Catalonia, Valencia and Basque country made Spain a real surprise to me. With a national identity being to me a mix of creative flair, laid back life style and great food, I felt I had a lot to learn from the place. Till next time Spain.

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