I Heart My City: Marti’s San Sebastián
Marti Buckley Kilpatrick, an American journalist and cook, has called San Sebastián home for the past three years. This food aficionado with a passion for Basque culinary culture–whether in pintxo form or at a five-hour lunch–points to an ancient local proverb that translates to ”Wherever your thoughts go, your feet will follow” as her motto. Here are a few of Marti’s favorite things about this distinctive center of culture.
San Sebastián is My City
When someone comes to visit me, the first place I take them is a pintxo bar. This way of eating, on foot at a bar laden with tiny bites of food there for the taking, is both unique and fun. One of my all-time favorites is Hidalgo 56. The first thing I order is their incredible volcán de morcilla, a cone of blood sausage with an egg yolk perched on top, studded with raisins and accompanied by a swipe of apple compote.
Summer is the best time to visit my city because the sun is almost guaranteed to be out and the days are the perfect length for enjoying an aperitif on a terraza during sunset.
You can see my city best from the top of Monte Urgull, known as locally as the “Jesus mountain.” The rounded peak, which butts up to the old part of the city, is full of nooks and crannies to explore, like an ancient soldier’s graveyard and offers incredible views of San Sebastián, the island of Santa Clara, and fishing boats in the Cantabrian Sea.
Locals know to skip ultra-modern, expensive pintxo bars and check out the less-fussy neighborhood spots instead. On Thursdays you can find them packed in the bars in the Gros and Amara districts for pintxo pote, where a pintxo and a drink costs two Euros. Everyone goes.
In the past, notable people like abstract sculptor Eduardo Chillida and star soccer player Xabi Alonso have called my city home. Ernest Hemingway liked to vacation here when he was based in nearby Pamplona.
My city’s best museum is Museo de San Telmo because the exhibitions have a notable local flavor, and the building itself is a work of art, combining an old cloister with a new, modern wing.
If there’s one thing you should know about getting around my city, it’s that walking is the ideal way to experience San Sebastián, but you should be careful to avoid the bidegorris–”red paths” in Basque–which are for cyclists only.
The best place to spend time outdoors in my city is Zurriola beach. The most bustling and lively of the beaches, it’s where the locals go. There are always surfers to watch and it’s even more beautiful when there’s stormy weather.
My city really knows how to celebrate Basque culture. They take immense pride in the culture and the language, celebrating the Day of Euskera, ending ceremonies with the traditional aurresku dance, and taking the txilibito (a tiny penny whistle) to just about every celebration.
You can tell if someone is from my city if they are speaking Euskera, the native language of Basque, which has absolutely no relation to Spanish.
For a fancy night out, I pick one of the many Michelin-starred spots for dinner, finish with a gourmet gin and tonic from Atari on the steps of the Santa Maria church, and then head to the beachside terrace of Bataplan where nightcaps are set to the sea breeze and the dance club is conveniently located right downstairs.
Just outside my city, you can visit the quaint fishing village of Getaria, which is tiny but happens to be the birthplace of Balenciaga, home to a museum about his couture, and the place to get to one of the best grilled fish in all of Spain (at Elkano).
My city is known for being a difficult place for foreigners to figure out, but it’s really open if you know a few words of Basque and aren’t afraid to ask questions.
The best outdoor market in my city is the azoka of farmers from neighboring hills. Basically it’s a pop-up market that is in a different city square every Saturday, and there is everything from bread to yogurt to herbs and vegetables.
Oiartzun bakery, with its great people-watching location and incredible brioche served warm off the top of the espresso machine, is my favorite place to grab breakfast, and Va Bene, serving only no-nonsense hamburgers and no french fries, is the spot for late-night eats.
To find out what’s going on at night and on the weekends, read donostiakultura.com.
My city’s biggest sports event is the Derby, when San Sebastián’s soccer team, Real Sociedad, plays neighboring Bilbao’s (Atlético). Watch it at the Anoeta Stadium, if you can finagle tickets. If not, tuck into one of the raucous bars of Calle 31 de Agosto.
When I’m feeling cash-strapped, I stroll along the three beaches, ending up at the Peine de Vientos, an incredibly beautiful iron sculpture By Eduardo Chillida set into the sea wall, where I sit and watch the waves crash with a to-go coffee from the bar at the end of the promenade.
To escape the crowds, I take a ten-minute walk and disappear into the forest on one of the many trails that winds through the mountains bordering the city.
If my city were a celebrity it’d be Sean Connery because it’s classic and classy, with a very distinct accent. And it’s so darn good-looking.
The dish that represents my city best is kokotxas pil-pil, a dish that is omnipresent in the dining societies that dot the city and consists of cod jowls cooked slowly in nothing more than olive oil and garlic. And the gin and tonic is my city’s signature drink–it’s an after-meal drink, taken to levels that are bewildering to foreigners, with the use of many garnishes, premium tonics, and sometimes even dry ice. Even hole-in-the-walls have a decent gin selection with a few top-shelf options.
La Bretxa is my favorite building in town because the façade, which towers over the old part of the city, still suggests the bustling, important food market San Sebastián once was.
The most random thing about my city is the seemingly spontaneous protests. If the weather’s good, it’s not unusual to find yourself walking down the street with people marching, holding posters, and chanting. For higher wages, for the return of political prisoners, or for animal rights; Basque people love to exercise their rights.
The Tamborrada (held on January 20 during the feast of San Sebastián), a festival that consists of 24 hours of drumming by gastronomic societies and groups of revelers, could only happen in my city.
In the spring you should wear rain boots.
In the summer you should take the ferry (which only runs for three months) out to Santa Clara island in the middle La Concha Bay and focus on soaking up the sunshine and enjoying the long days.
In the fall you should attend the San Sebastián Film Festival, one of the biggest in the world. There are blockbusters as well as small Basque films on show at the city’s nicest venues. Even if you don’t see a single movie, the city is buzzing that week in September.
If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you won’t want to miss the funicular ride up Monte Igueldo, whose destination is an ancient theme park with a rickety roller coaster.
The best book about my city is an old paperback called Life and Food in the Basque Country. Technically it’s about the entire region, but it does an incredible job of explaining the culture. Because food is life in Basque Country.
When I think about my city, the song that comes to mind is ”Paradise“ by Coldplay.
In 140 characters or less, the world should heart my city because it’s got it all: beach, mountain, culture, and amazing food. But always with a laid-back vibe and authenticity.