When foodies mention San Sebastián, they will rave about the many culinary delights this Spanish port city has to offer.
But despite having more Michelin stars per capita than any other city in the world except for Kyoto in Japan, it has much more to offer than stomach-expanding food.
For starters, there’s the gorgeous view of the city, which sits on three beaches, the most impressive of which is the sprawling La Concha, with its mile of fine golden sand.
Dominic Midgley thinks that San Sebastian (pictured) may be a city of culinary delights, but “there’s a lot more to it than stomach-expanding food.”
Walk down the La Concha promenade and you’ll see dozens of surfers catching the waves pouring in from the Bay of Biscay, although the biggest curlers can be found off La Zurriola’s eastern beach.
San Sebastián sits on a floodplain between green hills that were once protected by the Castillo de la Mota, a fortress whose original ramparts date back to the 12th century.
But it wasn’t until 1845, when Queen Isabella II of Spain visited San Sebastian, convinced that the healing properties of seawater would ease her skin problems, that it became a fashionable resort for Madrid’s elegant crowd.
I stay just over a mile inland from La Concha at Villa Soro, a carefully renovated 25-room boutique hotel with stylish decor and a fleet of free bicycles available 24 hours a day.
Aside from the Michelin restaurants, there are dozens of pintxos bars, the Basque version of tapas, in the old town of San Seb.
“San Sebastián sits on a floodplain between green hills that once enjoyed the protection of the Castillo de la Mota (above), a fortress whose original city walls date back to the 12th century,” Dominic writes
Our guide for the evening is Eskerne Falcon, who holds a Masters in ‘Gastronomic Tourism’ from the Basque Culinary Centre. First stop is Casa Urola, where we will be introduced to the art of cider pouring – and Basque cider is a very different beast than Magners.
It’s so shallow that you have to pour it into the glass from a good 3 feet to give it some fizz – not an easy procedure even when sober. Once there were 6,000 cider houses in and around San Sebastian, today there are only 800.
Regional cuisine has long been a hallmark of Spanish cuisine and nowhere has a stronger sense of local identity than in the Basque Country.
San Sebastian’s beaches attract surfers, with the biggest waves being found “off the east beach at La Zurriola (pictured)”.
Above is a sculpture at Museo Chillida Leku, “a unique open-air gallery just 15 minutes outside of San Sebastian.”
For decades, the paramilitary group ETA waged a violent campaign to achieve independence for the region. But in 2011 it gave up the armed struggle and today support for independence is below 20 percent.
San Sebastián also offers a festival of art. There is the On Basque Society museum, dedicated to the works of two Basque sculptors: Jorge Oteiza and Eduardo Chillida. The latter was Real Sociedad’s goalkeeper in the early 1940s and was persuaded to join Real Madrid until a tough tackle ended his career.
Real’s loss was the art world’s gain. Chillida became a world-renowned sculptor, whose pieces have been exhibited around the world, including at Unesco headquarters in Paris and in the courtyard of the World Bank offices in Washington.
The best place to see his work isn’t the Basque Museum, but the Museo Chillida Leku, a unique open-air gallery just 15 minutes outside of San Sebastian.
“There are dozens of pintxos bars (one pictured) in Old San Seb, the Basque version of tapas,” says Dominic. He learns about the city’s cuisine from his guide, Eskerne Falcon, who has a master’s degree in ‘gastronomic tourism’.
Double rooms at Villa Soro start from ¤250 (£212) per night B&B, hotelvillasoro.com. British Airways has direct flights to San Sebastián. EasyJet and Vueling fly to Bilbao, about 60 miles away. Brittany Ferries have two weekly sailings from Portsmouth to Bilbao, brittanny-ferries.co.uk. For more information about San Sebastián, visit sansebastianturismoa.eus/en/.
The largest of the 40 works on display is a 54-ton monster originally intended for a location in the British port city of Whitehaven.
In 1996 the Cumbrian City Fathers invited Chillida to create something in the spirit of his sculpture El Peine Del Viento (Comb of the Wind), made of three pieces of iron embedded in rock, on the San Sebastian coast.
Chillida duly went to Whitehaven, put on oilskin for protection against the inclement weather, and identified a location.
But his resulting vision proved a little too outlandish for local tastes, with one arguing that his proposed design suggested “a prototype of the first total hip replacement”.
Chillida – known as “the man of iron” – made it anyway and it now stands in the park of the museum he created in the Basque Country.
The work of another local sculptor, Inigo Manterola, takes pride of place in the center of the circular lawn at my hotel, where a single line on the room service breakfast menu tells you all you need to know about the attention to detail: guests order cooked Eggs are invited to indicate not only how many minutes they want their eggs in the pan, but also how many seconds.
They certainly take their food seriously in this part of Spain.