Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Yesterday San Sebastian, today Donostia.

Is this the ultimate antidote to driver fatigue?  By visiting a place that insists on having two names, one Spanish, the other Basque, you get a sort of tourist bogof deal enabling you to visit two places without budging an inch. In the interests of cultural evenhandedness, today I decided we will visit Donostia, having had such a good time in the company of its Spanish identical twin yesterday. 

Before then, a few observations about where we are staying and our fellow residents. Compared to Spain's Mediterranean coast, 'Green Spain' has a shorter season. Many of sites on the coast, here, and in Cantabria and Asturias close in mid September. This results in the remainder being surprising busy, not just with sun-seeking grey-hairs from northern climes, but with young Spanish families with pre-schoolers, well-honed sporty types in bin-bag sized tents and cool, hipsterish twenty somethings in ancient campervans here to embrace Donostia's famed after-dark pintxos bar scene. This makes Camping Igueldo a more lively and interesting place than we are used to as out of season travellers. Any annoyance from increased hubbub is more than compensated by enhanced opportunities for people watching, which as connoisseurs of human absurdity kept us entertained for hours. 

It is an unusual mixture gathered here. Three pitches down, the young Rastafarian from Milton Keynes cut quite a striking figure among the ageing WASPs. He must be at least 6'4" and sports spectacular dreadlocks. I would have loved to have known what brought him here, travelling in a brand new Audi hatchback, sleeping in a beat-up looking tent with only his faithful Jack Russell for company. Perhaps it's not knowing the back story of your fellow travellers that is part of the charm, what Larkin called a 'frail travelling coincidence' where the lives of the strangers you observe seem insubstantial fictions, mysterious and slightly odd. 

Sometimes you do fall into conversation. The German couple in the pitch opposite greeted us each morning, politely enquiring if we had slept well and wishing us well for the day. We discovered they were awaiting the the arrival of their son who was part way through a cycling trip from Germany to Porto to meet his girlfriend. It did strike me that he could not have been too besotted, most ardent young men would probably have booked EasyJet. All these chance encounters - the man from Clacton, expatriated to La Manga whose strategy to befriend fellow countrymen involved trading insults. I think he fancied himself as a bit of a cheeky chappy. Harmless enough, I guess. And this morning, the young woman from down under reporting home on her mobile on the progress of her 'Yrup trip' with her boyfriend... Why do you need to shout? OK, the details of your route back to the UK, may be of some interest to your neighbourly eavesdropper, but your high decibel whispered 'relationship advice' to your friend back in Adelaide, I really could have done without that as I washed up the breakfast dishes. I was left pondering,, is our own normal inevitably someone else's slightly peculiar; and so are we the odd couple to all the others?

As for camping Igueldo itself, it is a good site for visiting Donostia. The buses to the centre are twice an hour - number 16. The stop is a few yards from the gates and costs €1.70. For being so close to the city the location is surprisingly rural, with views from the site over the hills and a quiet road opposite has views over the spectacular coastline. The downside is the narrow steep road from the city to Igueldo which takes a bit of care with a larger van. The facilities are modern and well maintained, but the single sanitary block can be a bit of a trek from some pitches on the steep terraced site. Most bizarre of all is the way some pitches have had trees planted in the middle of them for shade. This would have been fine in the era of the VW microbus, but somewhat of a challenge in a 7m van.

Why plant a tree in the middle of the pitch - why?

Great coastal views from the road opposite the site entrance.

I just liked the colour contrast between the berries and the sea.

Hmm,  all that was a bit of a digression, back to Donostia, again on the no. 16. This time, instead of heading to the seafront, we went eastwards to the riverside area. Aside from the rather grand theatre, which showed 'plateresque' influences according to our Lonely Planet guide book (could not see these myself), the riverside had a fair old smattering of Modernista apartments and an enormous and very ugly conference centre which resembled two giant multi-storey car parks wrapped in cling-film. 

Post-modern on the left bank,
Modernista on the right.
Once across the bridge you are in a commercial area called Gros. Before exploring this area we paused on the bridge partly to admire the interesting mix of facades on the west bank, but mainly to workout what was going on with the river. Upstream the water flowed seawards quite gently, babbling almost. On the beach side of the bridge it was a raging cauldron. We decided that the phenomena was the result of Donostia's unique location. The main bay we visited yesterday is protected by two headlands and the sea is calm, At Gros, where the river meets the Atlantic, big waves roll in providing a great surfing beach. At the river mouth breakers explode over a bar of natural rocks supplemented by chunky cubes of concrete. Even so, the big swell sweeps upstream for a few hundred metres. The bridge abutement provides another breakwater, and over time boulders have accumulated on the seaward side to form a tidal weir. The result, flat calm on one side, storm surge on the other.

Flat calm upstream

Atlantic swell downstream.
The Gros district seems like Donostia's busiiness centre
It still has nice wide boulevards
and attracts young families - the shock of the first-born!
Compared to the old town, the district of Gros does feel a tad corporate, which is in complete contrast with its beachfront. Just off shore the giant Atlantic rollers are dotted with wet-suited surfers trying to catch the big one. The beach itself has a youthful vibe, a mix of beach babes and surf dudes and the odd lone nudist just for good measure.

Zurriola Plage, - Donastia's surf beach.
It has some serious surf, even on a calm day.
and a relaxed dress code

a realm of beach-babes and surf dudes
and surf babes
and beach dudes...
A couple of days ago someone shared an article on Facebook proposing a spoof religion called Dudeism, which adopted, if not as its supreme being, then at least as its defining guru, the character played by Jeff Bridges in 'The Big Lebowski'. Whereas Buddhists seek nirvana, Christians, a state of grace, for Dudeists the transcendental state of consciousness involves being 'laid back, like totally, man'. As all religions require shrines and sacred places, where better than Donostia's Zurriola Plage as Dudeism's prime pilgrimage spot. From the look of people hanging out on the beach, most seemed to have reached a pretty advanced stage of laid-backness already. It also explains the stark naked guy, he simply was a Dudeist with dyslexia. 

Pintxos bars - Where?
We failed to find the emerging pintxos bar scene in Gros that our guidebook intimated was now the place to go for people in the know. Instead we headed back to the old town and after a a bit of wandering about settled on Bar Martinez, another establishment smiled upon by the dudes of Lonely Planet. If anything it was even better than yesterday in terms of the quality of both the food and wine. One thing we learned, the lunchtime rush seems to be between 1.00 -2.00pm. At 1.45, there's a queue out of the door, five minutes later, you get served straight away and can find a table. By 2.15 we were the only people in the place.

Back to the old town
Bar Martinez - great pintxos
I was planning an afternoon dip until I discovered I had failed to pack my trunks. Not having the figure these days to emulate the chap on Zurriola Plage, we headed for a bakery instead. A fine way to say goodbye to both Donostia and San Sebastian. It is a lovely city, convivial, lively and charming. I know our mantra as we travel is to always visit new places, but there are some special spots that you feel certain will tempt you back, and Donostia is one of them. We loved it.

You see, you can have your cake and tweet it...



  1. Beautifully written and observed. We visited the area very briefly and found it unbelievably busy. We really don't like big towns. Finding the right campsite and bussing in is indeed probably the right solution. Maybe we'll try again?

    1. Thank you. I suppose I like the contrast you get between empty places and cities. It is true though that mohos and foriegn urban driving is nnot a relaxing mix, so we prefer to camp somewhere nearby and use public transport...which can be entertaining in itself.

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  2. Beautifully written and observed :-)