Just a few hours from Pau, France, my train arrives in San Sebastian, Spain. Many people had told me I would love San Sebastian, but I was hesitant to expect too much and set myself up for disappointment, which often happens to me. It turned out that, indeed, I did fall in love with this seemly perfect coastal city.
Three steep forested hills jet out into the Atlantic Ocean, towering over two long, curving beaches and a river flowing out of the Basque foothills. Picturesque apartments, historic buildings, Gothic churches, bustling street life, and a university fill the rest of the landscape. The proximity of the surfing beaches, forested hiking, and a lively, small city, made San Sebastian unlike anywhere else I have ever been.
My guide for one evening was a student named Sam. He was a year long student who decided to stay through the summer sessions. We walked up a well groomed path towards the giant statue of Jesus which overlooks the city from the middle of the three ocean jettisoned peaks. On top, we could see the longest of the two beaches curving into the distance until it reached the other peak, creating a bay in between them. In the bay was a rock island with some sheer cliffs visited only by the hundreds of seagulls circling above.
In the protection behind the island was a harbor full of yachts and sailboats. Beyond the harbor, the city-lined beach was busy with people enjoying walks along the calm waters. Looking the other direction toward the third peak, we could see the surf beach filled with waves, surfers, and a river ending its journey to the Atlantic.
Most students, like Sam, chose to live in the neighborhood behind the surf beach. A short walk from their front doors, and they could catch some waves after class. There is even a surf class, supplying one transferable recreation credit.
Just as in Bilbao, the Basque have managed to build an extremely clean city, full of beautifully kept historic buildings, and a dotting of bold modern architecture. Attractive bike paths and frequent buses complete the parking-lot-free charm of San Sebastian.
Unlike the typical US city of spread-out, single-family homes with isolated shopping centers, here the 200,000 people have chosen to live in apartments, with shops and restaurants downstairs, keeping everything and everyone close. The streets and plazas fill up with people of all ages in the late summer evenings. Many students found in the first week of school that they had already befriended several locals in the plazas outside their apartments.
San Sebastian was the original USAC location founded almost 30 years ago, and still one of the best. Reno, home of the USAC headquarters, is a sister city to San Sebastian. USAC’s roots are tied in with the Basque people, and some of the interesting history between Reno, San Sebastian, and USAC can read about more in my post about Bilbao<http://leeandrew.net/2011/05/25/week-5-bilbao-spain/>. Working with the resident director Patricia was a treat, because she has been involved since the beginning and knows many great stories of USAC’s past.
Basque food is some of the best in world. Several of the USAC staff (Patricia, Tito, Asun) treated me to absolutely incredible lunches and dinners. If you’ve visited a Basque restaurant in Reno, you are familiar with traditional home-style Basque food. But in the Basque country the restaurants serve multiple-course, gourmet meals, combining flavors and textures beyond my ability to properly describe.
Foodies may be familiar with the Michelin Guide to restaurants, which gives rankings from 1 to 3 stars, any number of star being highly esteemed. Three stars are given to less than 100 restaurants around the world. The tiny city of San Sebastian is home to three three-star restaurants, which is unheard of outside of giants like Paris, Tokyo and New York. If a three-star restaurant’s out of your price range (like myself and most people), there are many other one and two-star restaurants to enjoy.
If you’ve been following my blog, you know I thoroughly enjoyed Viterbo. But San Sebastian is a close runner up for my favorite location of the nine stops on this trip. I hope to return for an extended vacation in the beautiful Basque country someday.