Friday, 29 September 2017

San Sebastian - it's really civilised here...

Quite often there comes a moment in our travels, sitting in a café or on a park bench watching the world go by, when one of us says to the other, "it seems very civilised here." The other never disagrees, which must mean that over the years we have developed a tacit understanding of what we mean by 'civilised'. That we even think of the world in these terms probably places us on the cusp of becoming elderly. Civilisation feels like an old fashioned idea; it's not the way things are discussed these days. Our political leaders might promise many things, a more equal society, a more productive and enterprising one, or a greener, carbon neutral future,a great Britain beyond Brexit, but the only politician likely to suggest overtly that we need to become more civilised would be some swivel-eyed Tory in the mould of Jacob Rees Mogg.

I understand why the notion of civilisation has become fatally associated with elitism, because that unwittingly was my starting point. In 1969 the BBC screened Civilisation, Kenneth Clarke's 13 part series on the History of Western Art. Why this particular 14 year old working class kid from Northumberland was entranced by this I have no idea. The interest grew and I ended up doing a degree in History of Art. It soon became obvious to me that the narrative that Clarke pedalled was a deeply conservative one told from the standpoint of powerful political and religious elites. Whole swathes of humanity were under-represented, mis-represented or omitted altogether, such as women, the working class, the colonised, non-European cultures, minority groups of all persuasions. In the end contenious debates concerning exclusivity and cultural control by dominant elites predominated, and notions of consensus, community and liberal notions of social progress increasingly seemed naive, utopian or simply embarrassingly old fashioned. So we stopped talking about civilisation altogether; it became an awkward topic.

Two days in San Sebastian convinced me it's time to reopen the debate. I have never visit a more civilised place. That was my initial reaction, but why? Some silly Facebook quiz advised me yesterday that my philosophy of life was empiricist. So, I decided to have a go at trying to define what we mean when we declare a place 'civilised' by attempting to extrapolate it from the streets of San Sebastian itself.

Street life

A civilised city begins with the life on its streets, the kind of encounters encouraged, the sorts of interactions suppressed. The most important elements here are strolling and sitting spaces. San Sebastian is a saunterers heaven, a mix of stylish boulevards, shaded squares and grand plazas, old barios with tangled alleys, and one of Europe's great seaside promenades. However, the place has not been utterly pedestrianised, instead traffic is calmed by traffic lights and many pelican crossings so cars and people are rarely in conflict. There is no need to jay-walk, the traffic is managed to suppress the conflict. The same is true with the cycle lanes, they wend their way through the city in such a way that the kind of velodrome mentality found in London is discouraged. The bus network is cheap, regular, a mix of all electric and hybrid vehicles. The result - San Sebastian is a delight to be in, an urban habitat built around peoples' needs

 Style and Culture

However people's needs are not merely utilitarian. Why so much twentieth century urban planning produced such dismal results often can be attributed to municipal planners' cheapskate misinterpretations of Le Corbusier's concept of the city as 'a machine for living'. People are apes with complicated brains, they need a habitat not a machine to live in. So a civilised place has to be engaging both physically and psychologically. This comes down to question of culture and style. San Sebastian is interesting in this regard. Given its spectacular coastal setting and heritage as a late nineteenth century aristocratic resort, then obvious parallels are places like Nice and Cannes. 

You sense that the place does see itself in those terms. The San Sebastian film festival was in full swing while we were there, with all the razzamataz you would associate with the more famous festival on the Côte d'Azur. Red carpets had been rolled out in front of the main venues, pop up media tents were dotted about the main squares and promenade, and a stylish beer tent full of people wanting to be seen spread across the rear patio of the Kursaal Palais de Congress. However, there is a big difference between San Sebastian's festival and it's more renowned French counterpart. Whereas.Cannes prides itself on its exclusivity, you sense the opposite here. From giant street-side screens pumping out interviews and movie clips to open sided media tents set up as mini-news studios, the entire festival reached out beyond the world of celebrity and the red carpet to encompass the street life of the city itself.

The same goes for San Sebastian's most famous attribute, its food culture. Fine dining is available, the city's restaurants hold 16 Michelin stars between them, yet the place has a smaller population than York. However Basque cooking is not derived, as in France, from a tradition of haute cuisine, it is rooted in the communal tradition of members only gastronomy clubs. In other words good food is woven into the social fabric of the place. Though the clubs themselves are 'closed shops' the tradition of culinary innovation they foster is open to all in form of pintxos, bite sized bar snacks created to look like miniature sculptures and taste sensational. In Bar Azkena in the basement of Brexta market we paid about €2 euros for each pintxos, the cost of lunch with two delicious pintxos each, a glass of Rueda, and a cortado afterwards cost less than €15 for us both. My point is, San Sebastian is an inclusive place, its delights are available to all. To me that is a key attribute of a civilised city.

People Power

I began to wonder if the traditions of hospitality we experienced in Greece, Sicily, and now here, are all rooted in places with a very strong, uncompromising sense of identity. Perhaps generosity and self assurance are inexorably linked. The strength of Basque identify oozes from fly posters and graffiti daubed shutters and hoardings, usefully translated to ensure visitors are not in any doubt about the message. I had only just snapped this message scrawled across an information board on Mont Urgull's lower esplanade when the sound of chanting and shouting wafted across the fishing harbour. In the distance, around the corner of the city hall came a long line of people waving Catalan and Basque flags, a show of local solidarity with the forthcoming independence vote in Catalonia. We caught up with the demonstrators about an hour later as they wended their way through the grid of streets near the market. They were mainly students and in a very jolly mood. It's wonderful to behold young people interested enough in democracy to come out onto the streets to assert it.

Beach life

San Sebastian's setting is unforgettable, built around two sandy coves at the mouth of the river Urumea, each flanked by green forested hills. On the right bank Platge Zurriola, overshadowed by Mont Ulia, is the more open of the two bays. The Atlantic waves funnel in; it has youthful vibe, a place to surf not swim. Across the river, the wide sweep of Kontxa and Ondarreta beaches are more sheltered. Protected by the promontories of Urgull and Igueldo, with the cone of Santa Clara island in-between, Kotxa bay is almost a lagoon. Perfect for a gentle post lunch swim. It is a beach for everybody. Elderly residents, soberly dressed, take a gentle stroll, picking their way through sprawled beach-babes wearing very little at all. Kids play about, office workers on lunch bring a book, a guy in a wetsuit humps a sea kayak across the sand then paddles off through the gentle surf towards the open sea. However, this is Donastia, to use it the Basque name, and the beach is more than a place of recreation. It can be a place for protest and performance.

When we visited last year we notice some kind of political message scratched in huge letters in the sand. It was here again today, the protester was putting the final touches to it as we arrived. "What's all that about? we asked the young couple standing next to us on the promenade. "Oh, he's been doing it for years, it's some kind of campaign against the high levels of property tax in the region."

Fifty yards further down the beach, more mystery and intrigue. A young black guy in tee-shirt and denim cut-offs performed a strange solo dance, moving slowly, extending his arms in expansive Tai Chi style moves, then stopping and conversing with some imaginary friend. At first we thought he was drugged up. Then we noticed he was using a small stick to draw perfect arcs in the sand. An abstract pattern of interlocking ovals appeared, then a face. It was like watching a theatrical exposition of Paul Klee's adage that to draw is to take a line for a walk. A girl and her mum arrived; the child looked about four. She immediately twigged what the guy was doing. He gave her a stick she started doing her own giant doodle in the sand alongside his.

Food for thought

San Sebastian is a fascinating place. Like other fascinating places there is a danger that it becomes a victim of its own charms. When we mention we were heading this way to the French engineer who mended our fridge he commented, "Don't go at the weekend, it's full of the French!" We heeded his advice, but even midweek the place seemed crowded with tour groups from cruise ships docked in Bilbao and gaggles of Japanese wielding selfie sticks. The place has good looks and gastronomy, a combination guaranteed to attract hoards of short break visitors. The couple we chatted to on the promenade mentioned that the growth of airB&B style accommodation was driving up rents for locals. So it comes as no surprise that when there was an outbreak of graffiti daubing on tour buses in Barcelona a couple of months ago, there were a few copycat incidents here in San Sebastian a few days later.

Some of Europe's great cities have become Disneyfied parodies of themselves, Florence and Venice perhaps the most notable examples. San Sebastian is a long way from becoming such an urban theme park, but a few narrow streets in the Parte Vieja - around Konstitutio Plaza - have become somewhat of a foodies tourist trap. The area is dotted with a score of pintxos bars, each attempting to outdo the other in the pursuit of the tastiest morsel. At lunchtime the area is frenetic, not that the standard is poor, there are delicious snacks to be had at places like Bar Martinez. However to produce pintxos on a mass scale in this way inevitably results in it being prepared some hours previously, and that must affect the flavour.

What Gill values most of all in food are dishes made with fresh ingredients cooked to order. On Google maps she scoured the streets outside of the old town hunting for local pintxos bars with positive reviews in Spanish. The two she picked out were Bar Ciaboga, famed for potato dishes, and Bar Azkena in the basement of La Brexta Market, which specialised in traditional dishes made from seasonal produce. The differing experience we had in each was instructive.

Bar Ciaboga is a wardrobe sized eatery on Easo Kalea, a busy shopping street. We squeezed past the locals gathered by the door and seated ourselves at the bar. We ordered the potato and onion dish chalked up on the board and a mushroom and prawn concoction advertised on sign outside. The barman was a surly individual of few words. "Patates! Champiñón!" he barked at a half closed door, behind which, presumably, was a pintxos sized kitchen and a very petite cook. We decided to accompany the dishes with a glass of wine. "Dos vinos blancos, por favor," Gill said in her best Spanish. The bartender laconically reached for an open bottle stashed in an ice bucket, and raised his eyes heavenwards. What faux pas we had committed I have no idea. Maybe tourists were not particularly welcome here generally. maybe he took umbrage at our minimal Castillian. Both pintxos were delicious however.

The following day we spied out Bar Azkena at La Brexta market. The experience could not have been more different. San Sebastian's central market is based in two imposing buildings off Boulevard Zumardia. Originally the vegetable and meat market occupied the front building with a large fish market across a small plaza to the rear. These days the market halls themselves have been converted into stylish arcades housing boutiques and designer shops. The buildings' original function - a food market - has been exiled to the basement.

Bar Azkena occupies a slot among workaday vegetable, meat and sausage stalls. As if to assert the market's commonplace roots the basement of the old Fish Market now hosts a Lidl. Azkena bar injects a bit of style into its utilitarian surroundings. The busy decor has a slight 'fin del siecle' feel, a big heavily framed mirror at the side of the counter creating an illusion of of spaciousness in what is actually no bigger than a stall.

The presentation of the food adds a contemporary touch. Beautifully wrought pintxos displayed on slabs of polished wood and black slate like something precious in a jeweller's window. After a brief conversation with the customer next to us we chose a duck breast with an intense orange reduction and champagne foam, followed by an aubergine tuille with a spicy crumb. They looked and tasted sensational. I have no idea how such intense flavours could be squeezed from such simple ingredients. They hit some sweet spot in the brain, utter pleasure - rarely experienced, well at least in the vertical plane!

The staff took great delight in our delight. A young man was working behind the scenes. "Are you the chef?" Gill asked. "No," he replied, "My wife is."

"She's a genius!" I exclaimed. He nodded in agreement, adding, "l am a lucky man."

We finished our wine but felt like staying a little longer. Gill ordered 'dos cortados' and we perched on our bar stools with a big grins on our faces. No need even to say it, both thinking, 'It's really civilised here'.

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