Out and About (and Eating!) in San Sebastian, Spain

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As I mentioned in my earlier post, one of the goals of our trip to Spain was to visit the lands from which some of my Mom’s ancestors came to Cuba.  San Sebastian (or “Donostia” in the local language – Basque), in Spain’s Basque country, was perfectly situated to serve as our base to explore before heading out to Lourdes, France.  But San Sebastian itself was a destination!

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San Sebastian!

I had always heard about the great cuisine coming out of San Sebastian so it became a key stop at the onset of our trip.  We would stay there two nights, with the day in between being our day to explore the towns and hamlets from which the ancestors came.  That gave us one full afternoon to explore the heart of San Sebastian – and two nights!

It seems it was peak vacation time in early September, which was a bit unexpected, so there were no good hotels close to the famous La Concha Beach or near the Old Town.  However, I was not disappointed with the hotel I found, not even a mile from the old town:  Hotel Astoria.  The hotel’s theme revolved around famous movie actors and directors and had a very modern design.  It was located on a quiet street and had both a full restaurant and a cafe in the lobby.  We did not try the restaurant but did enjoy the cafe for our breakfasts.

Luckily not only were we close to Old Town but it was not hard to find (underground) parking right by the Hotel Maria Cristina or across the river by the Kursaal Center.   Old Town (or Casco Viejo) is the second oldest neighborhood in the city and it is full of bars and eateries – clearly the teeming social center of this great city!

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The Kursaal Center (has underground public parking)

When we first visited Old Town, we headed first to the waterfront to check out the beautiful waters of the Mar Cantábrico, or Bay of Biscay after a quick snack and trying a “carajillo,” coffee with liquor (rum, brandy or anything of the sort!).

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Beautiful waters surround San Sebastian

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Must be some good fish in those waters!

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Carajillo

Back in Old Town, we meandered through narrow streets.  Kalea (Calle) 31 de Agosto had many eateries offering the famous “pintxos” (like tapas).  We tried pintxos here and there as we kept exploring this part of town which is full of character.  We made it to the other side from which we had a glimpse of La Concha Beach and the rest of the same-named bay.

A distinguished gent (my uncle!) waiting to order while a distinguished lady (my sister) awaits

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Pintxos

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La Concha Beach in the background

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Bikes a great way to move around

We saw some neat churches (San Vicente, which was closed, and the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus, which charged for entrance so we skipped it).  Lots of neat structures and charming narrow streets all around.

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Narrow street in Old Town

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Entering Old Town from the river

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Buildings in Old Town

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Lots of character in this balcony

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Streets of Old Town

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At Plaza Constitucion

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Neat sights – walking “aimlessly” is the best way to explore!

And, as we meandered through the old town, we ran into the restaurant we had made reservations for for the following evening.  As I researched San Sebastian, one of my areas of focus was food.  I wanted to find one of the restaurants that make San Sebastian’s cuisine so well regarded.  After looking at a few places, I settled on Bodegón Alejandro.  Coincidentally, my uncle had done research and had read an article on the newspaper that also mentioned Bodegón Alejandro.  So, that was the place and, luckily, making reservations was super easy:  their website allowed for making them online!

Part of Bodegón Alejandro’s menu

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Delicious croquetas were one of our starters

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Dessert – phenomenal chocolate soufflé

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Another dessert – torrija with ice cream

The charm of San Sebastian did not only reside in its waters or in the old town – it was a beautiful and livable town all around.  I would love to spend a few months residing there and enjoying this northern Basque city – and maybe with my wonderful travel companions!

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Sister, Mom, and Uncle!

 

Exploring France and Spain around the Pyrenees

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My recent trip to Europe was centered on exploring a bit of Spain and France around the Pyrenees which serve as a natural border between these two countries.  I wanted to write this introductory post to the trip’s writings as the trip combined a few different objectives that neatly came together into a one-week trip.

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There is only one way to travel, especially with loved ones!

My mother and sister are both named after the Virgin of Lourdes who appeared to a peasant girl named Bernadette in a grotto near the town of Lourdes in the 1850s.  It has always been a dream to go visit this place that was so prominent in their lives given the tie to their name.  But, we also wanted to go to Lourdes as a religious pilgrimage to such a special place for us Catholics.  We wanted to go in thanksgiving for good health after illnesses suffered, and as prayer for continued health.

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Two Lourdes!

Another personal goal for me and everyone in the larger family is to visit ancestral lands in the Basque country of Spain.  These are not terribly far from Lourdes (about 3 hrs drive) so I saw the opportunity to connect these two destinations in one trip.  The specific towns were our ancestors came from (they left Spain for Cuba at the turn of the century near the year 1800) lay along the coast between San Sebastian and Bilbao, and inland from there with some ancestors coming from just west of modern Bilbao.  Ii had also always wanted to visit San Sebastian as I heard it had some of the most phenomenal cuisine in Europe.  Bilbao is an hour from San Sebastian, give or take, so flying into the larger airport at Bilbao made the most sense.  There we would rent a car that would take us around the Basque country and later to Lourdes.

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At the Bilbao airport headed to get our car

While getting to Lourdes from San Sebastian would take so little time, we decided to be sure to stop along the way or drive through small French towns that are easily accessible on the route.  We drove through charming Saint-Jean-de-Luz, stopped for a walk and lunch at Biarritz, and drove through impressive Bayonne (wish we had had more time to stay there and explore!).  Biarritz was a place my mom and her best friend growing up had always dreamed of so that was a bonus!

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At the edge of the pedestrian streets of Bayonne’s city center

After Lourdes, the most logical end points if we were not going to backtrack, were Toulouse, France or Barcelona, Spain.  Well, that was an easy decision.  I had been to Barcelona for the 1992 Olympics for three days but, really, was too focused on the Games to get to know the city (plus, I was sure it had changed!).  My mom has been to Barcelona decades ago but my sister had never been.  So Barcelona became the end point for the trip which, very conveniently, allowed me to drive through Andorra, the last of the tiny European countries for me to visit…  We split the drive from Lourdes to Barcelona by staying overnight in Andorra (which may have been a mistake, but who knew – stay tuned for that post!).  This allowed us, on the way to Barcelona, to stop at Montserrat to visit the monastery nested atop a mountain and accessible by cable car or train.

crossword puzzle

I always look forward to crossword puzzles on long flights

This plan sounded so good that my mom’s only brother opted to join us in this adventure.  Next came resolving the plane tickets to get there.  My uncle was headed there from Philly so he worked his itinerary separately.  My mom and sister, coming from Tampa, would naturally fly through Atlanta.  I had saved many miles with the local monster airline hoping to someday to do a fun trip with family and decided to go all in.  I lucked out in finding three seats in first class from Atlanta to Bilbao via Paris, and from Barcelona back to Atlanta on dates that would work for everyone.  My mom and sister got to do first class all the way from Tampa and back so no one was unhappy with the travel comforts!

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The four travelers awaiting the train in Montserrat

Once in Bilbao, we picked up a car.  I had under-estimated the trunk capacity and, though the four of us did very well in bringing a small roller bag each, I needed to upgrade the vehicle.  Unfortunately, the next level up was not available which meant I had to upgrade two levels with no goodwill from the rental company (I will name it for its lack of spirit:  Sixt).  This cost me dearly but, considering the plane tickets were free, and that this was a special trip, well, no regrets and all the way onward-and-forward!  The plan was to return the vehicle when we arrived in Barcelona as we figured we did not need there and I figured I would be tired of driving a large vehicle in Europe (it was a BMW X1).  I was glad to get rid of it, much as it was a great vehicle to drive!

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Our wheels in Europe

In terms of accommodations, we hoteled it everywhere except in Barcelona where we rented an apartment a block from Las Ramblas – prime location!  The owner, Carlos, was phenomenal and the apartment was spacious, comfortable and as-advertised (if anyone needs to find this apartment, just reach out and I can share).

So in the end this was the itinerary:

  • Day 1:  Arrival in Bilbao and head to San Sebastian
  • Day 2:  Drive the Basque countryside and visit ancestral lands anchored on the town of Andraka
  • Day 3:  Depart San Sebastian and head to Lourdes with a stop in Biarritz
  • Day 4:  Spend the day in Lourdes
  • Day 5:  Drive through the beautiful Pyrenees and explore Andorra la Vella in the afternoon/evening
  • Day 6:  Head to Barcelona with a stop in Montserrat, Spain
  • Day 7:  Explore Barcelona
  • Day 8:  Explore Barcelona some more
  • Day 9:  Head home!

I have to say that we packed a lot into 8 days but it was well worth it.  We had a mixture of lots of walking, lots of enjoying the food and resting, and just happy to be together going to all these special places.  Hope we get to do it again – salud!

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Salud!

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