San Sebastian day 3

Sunday 16 June 2013

For our last day in San Sebastian we decided to walk to the Western end of Bahia de la Concha to see the iconic sculpture Peine De Los Vientos (‘Comb of the winds’), and then ascend the funicular railway up the hill for what promised to be more amazing views of the city and surrounds. The weather was beautiful so we stopped at a kiosk half way along the beach, bought a coffee and a cool drink, and enjoyed watching the Sunday crowds enjoying themselves.

The funicular railway was funky, rickety, and thoroughly charming. It hauled us up to a lookout with a panoramic view of the beaches of San Sebastian. Bordering the lookout, we were surprised to find a miniature, artificial canal that channelled a fast-flowing stream of water driven by a huge green paddle wheel. You could hire a small boat and go on a joy ride along the rim of precipitous cliffs (the insurance companies would have put an end to anything like this in Australia years ago). It was ideal entertainment for thrill-seeking grandparents and their grandchildren. Since we don’t qualify for either social category, we pulled up a space on a park bench with a picture-postcard view to the west up the Cantabrian coast in the direction that we were heading on our journey, and we savoured a simple packed lunch of bread rolls with cheese and fresh tomato that we had carried with us. This was a premonition of many similar—if not more dramatic—views that lay ahead.

After lunch, we climbed to the top of the monte where the views opened up onto the steep hills that rim the southern outskirts of the city. There was an old-fashioned amusement park up there which had been characterised rather unkindly in the Lonely Planet guidebook. It features a small rollercoaster ride, a house of horrors, a merry-go-round, and more of the usual trappings of a cheesy old-fashioned amusement park. But that to us seemed the perfect destination for a funky old-fashioned funicular railway. The centrepiece, moreover, is a tower which can be ascended for the modest sum of two euros. This is the highest point of the city, and it affords 360° views of the rugged Cantabrian coastline to the west, verdant mountains to the south, the steel blue Bay of Biscay to the north, and the coastal fringes of San Sebastian below and to the East, laced with graceful buildings in cheerful pastel colours. As luck would have it, Susie and I got to enjoy this view for a while in total solitude, with the wind whistling in our ears and seabirds crying out in spiralling thermals around us.

After we had taken in the views, we rode the funicular railway back down to the beach and walked back to told city, where we sampled the pintxos in two different bars in the quiet of the early afternoon. We then returned to the pensión for a siesta. In the evening we walked to La Gaviota, the beach that borders the neighbouring district of Gros. We took our shoes off and enjoyed the wet sand between our toes as we watched surfers work the break at the eastern end of the beach. The scene got prettier and prettier as the sun went down and beach shelters were packed away and life guards collected their flags and went home. Susan enjoyed watching a game of beach volleyball, but at length we felt the call of the old city again, and decided to return to La Cuchara for our very favourite pintxo of molten beef washed down with a glass of fine rioja.

On our last night at the Pensión Amaiur, Susan watched TV and I sat up in the communal kitchen, ostensibly to write this recount; but I got chatting with one or our hosts. Both of our hosts had been incredibly helpful and had given us excellent advice and information, which ensured that our stay in San Sebastian was utterly memorable. Moreover, they understood that we wanted to communicate in Spanish rather than English, and they tolerated our broken Spanish with magnanimity.

That evening, my interlocutor was happy to chat at length about Basque culture and the current economic situation in Spain. My Spanish was not always up to the task, but I appreciated the chance to hear about things that are generally hidden from tourists. Susie and I had no idea that the Basque language was suppressed in Spain as recently as the 1980s. There was evidently a degree of cultural pride expressed by many of the workers whom we met in the course of our carousing—not only our hosts at the pensión, but also workers behind the bars, and taxi drivers. San Sebastian is clearly in the midst of some kind of renaissance of Basque culture but, notwithstanding its well-deserved reputation as a tourist magnet, it has also been affected by the European Economic crisis, and by a history of repression about which we are largely ignorant. My host gravitated to these two themes: the suppression and renaissance of Basque culture, and the difficulty experienced especially by young people in the wake of the economic crisis. I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity to glimpse something of the gritty political, historical and economic realities that lie beneath the shining surface of San Sebastian.

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