Arlene Reich

El Pais Vasco: San Sebastian & Bilbao

A trip to San Sebastian worked to solidify an immutable thought that had been swirling between my ears since my arrival in Spain: Well, there is no way that I am boarding my return flight.

Hemingway wrote of Pais Vasco in his infamous novel The Sun Also Rises, which includes scenery from San Sebastian, Pamplona, and other cities of the northern coast.  Throughout the trip, I looked for hints of Hemingway’s Spain, the Spain that is “the only country in the world that hasn’t been shot to pieces”.

This weekend’s destinations, San Sebastian and Bilbao, are nestled in Pais Vasco, the northern region of Spain bordering France.  Known as Euskada in the regional tongue, the people of Pais Vasco speak a language so unique that its origins are untraceable.  Our tour guides attempted to transform the four hour bus ride into a mobile discoteca despite the fact that almost every passenger was sleeping.  The bus brought us directly to a short walking tour along the seaside cliffs of San Sebastian.  For a small fee, we boarded an incline leading to a now defunct amusement park overlooking the shore and small city.  The cliff offered a breathtaking view of the waves interacting with the city.  The deep blues of the ocean relented for pictures for only a few minutes when a deep fog creeped over and smothered the city.  The very smell of San Sebastian is intoxicating, its air textured and fat with salt–cool and delicious.  It is understandable why San Sebastian has become world renown as one of the most spectacular vacation spots.  The surfing is supposed to be incredible; we watched as some obviously enamored surfers braved the January temperatures to take advantage of their time in San Sebastian.

A number of restaurants occupy the prime real estate, due to San Sebastian’s equally outstanding gastronomical standing among experts in the international foodie scene.  Three of who are considered to be the ten most talented chefs alive today hail from San Sebastian (while four others are from greater Spain).  I was particularly impressed by my lunchtime pinchos (snacks), calamares crudas (garnished raw squid), which attested to the area’s reputation for unbelievably fresh seafood.

The streets are similarly clean and well-kept as has been the general trend in northern Spain.  However, the colors and style of the buildings were keener to those associated with vacation spots: whites, blues, and yellows, less gold enamel, and more simple class.  The streets are interrupted by palm, orange, and rose trees, and maintained by the more obvious general wealth of the city’s population.

I readily enjoyed my first hostel experience, in which the Temple students took over an eight-person suite and built a pillow palace complete with wine, brie, and playing cards.  (We have become inseparable.)  It was amateur night in San Sebastian, with most of our classmates starting to “ir de juega” (party) a bit too early and remaining true to the image that college-aged American tourists have terrorized much of Europe with.  Most notable was the girl swinging around on the ledge outside the bathroom window screaming “Espana, te amo!”.  Yeah, don’t do that.  The people we met on the streets were of a more international variety than can be found in Oviedo, with representatives of California, Australia, Italy, France, and Germany hastening to use their English with the beautiful tourists from Philadelphia.  The hostel staff gave us a tour of the nightlife in San Sebastian, which slows until the summer vacation season though I still enjoyed it and was comforted by the loop of ten songs that has been playing since our arrival.  Overall, the unbeatable price and location of the hostel and the ability to meet other travelers is enticing, despite the limited personal space.

Bilbao, more inland, proved to be astonishingly well planned, with gorgeous buildings lining the river running centrally through the city.  We met up with Maider and Elena, friends of my friend Phil who studied in Bilbao this summer, and they graciously gave us a tour of the city’s highlights.  I myself fell for its old city, with narrow and charming alleys, an open air flea market showcasing records, books, and war antiques, fountains, street performers, and crowded plazas. It proved to have a more vibrant youth culture with a heavier influence of alternative style.  People dressed with more funk/punk than in the more conservative Asturias.  Furthermore, the music and art born and housed in Bilbao present a more cohesive and mobile impact by university students.  Our friends brought us to a spot known for its sautéed champinones (mushrooms) and regional white wine.  I am no longer indifferent to mushrooms.

To tourists, Bilbao is most commonly associated with the highly unusual Guggenheim modern art museum and its surrounding exhibits.  It rises into the Bilbao sky snaking its metallic spires through the clouds of fog in a mechanical manner.  It is surrounded by its loyal mascots: a giant flowered Chia-pet style dog and a swollen futuristic spider.  This museum is embedded in the recent transformation in Bilbao.  Many people compare its development to that of Pittsburgh’s—an industrial city renovated and scrubbed of its oily residues to rise to prominence as a true gem.

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