May 18. I woke in the chill sea air of Donostia-San Sebastián (hereafter referred to as San Sebastián), took a photo and broke camp in case I’d be found out. As I drove down into town, I saw droves of pilgrims headed to Santiago de Compostela. I’ve considered doing the pilgrimage myself and have several friends who have walked a portion of the Camino, one who started from near his home in Netherlands. I decided to drive west along the coast to explore the nearby coastal towns of Getaria, pretty seaside towns full of history. I wandered along their cobblestone streets and found many lovely ateliers with artful displays of artisanal hand made crafts on display. I also viewed a dramatic seascape depicting Juan Sebastián Elcano, a seaman born in Getaria who was well-known for being the first man to circumnavigate the earth. He was captain of the Nao Victoria, the one ship in Magellan’s fleet which completed the voyage. I discovered that Getaria may be derived from the Latin word cetaria, meaning “a place where fish is canned”. Evidence of Roman facilities for canning fish has been indeed been found. Another possible origin of the name is “guaita” in the Gascon language which means “lookout”. During the Middle Ages various villages on the Basque coast were colonized by Gascons, including Getarias. The town’s name could also be the result of a mix between “guaita” and “–ari”, a suffix that is used in the Basque language for professions and would mean either the town of the vigilant. True to its name, I climbed a small lookout turret in the old town to admire the view of the sea.
I headed onward to Zumaia, a tiny town dissected by the Urola and Narrondo rivers which had its origins as an ancient monastery. In the Middle Ages, the people who lived in the Sehatz valley endured continuous attacks by pirates and pillagers, and fortified the city in response. The church retains a defensive appearance. Along the coast are steeply-tilted layers of flysch, a sequence of sedimentary rock layers that are deposited when a deep basin forms rapidly on the continental side of a mountain building episode. The home and museum of painter Ignacio Zuloaga houses the likes of El Greco, Rivera, Zurbarán, and Goya, while across the street there is a museum of the Laia, a foot plough used for farming in Basque Country and later used in races. Within the city center I found the Basque-style Gothic church of San Pedro with its temple of magnificent reredos (also referred to as a rood screen) by Juan de Antxieta. I love reredos. These intricately carved wooden facings would divide the polity (rabble) from the well-healed in the sanctum sanctorum. They were prohibited by the Reformation and very few still exist. I have seen another lovely one in St. Bernard de Commingue, not far from here on the other side of the Pyrenees.
After my visit to Zumaia, I headed back to San Sebastián and parked in the old town. The town is nestled on the lovely Bay of Biscay, only 12 miles from the French border. Locals, both Spanish and Basque, call themselves donostiarra. It is a very walkable city, and the river bisects the Basque side of the city (Donostia) from the Spanish side (San Sebastián). A Basque family friend who traveled to San Sebastián in the 1970s, said that the difference between the people was palpable. On the Spanish side, women walked displaying their finest jewelry and rich clothing, while on the Basque side people wore much simpler clothing and seemed much more concerned about political freedom and justice. I kept my friend’s perspective in mind as I crossed the stately stone bridges across the Urumea River. I walked along the seashore along the promenade to the terminus marked by architect Ganchegui’s landmark The Comb of the Winds at the western tip of the bay. On my hike back, I was overcome by the aroma of tapas from the bars lining the cobbled streets in the center of town. Throngs of people stood waiting in a queues. It was a Saturday, and families were out in full force. I was tempted to stop for a bite, but didn’t want to “waste time”. When traveling, I’m averse to spending the time required to eat out, and instead buy food at grocery store. I occasionally order food to go when I want to treat myself.
As it was museum day (a special day when all museums are free), I decided to go to the oldest museum in Basque country, the beautiful San Telmo Museoa, located in the ancient monastery of San Telmo at the foot of Urgull. The museum is devoted to the exploration of Basque society, focusing on its culture, arts and history. The Basque Society of Friends of the Country decided to found a municipal museum following the success of exhibitions in the city during the late 19th century.The museum was opened in 1902 and moved to San Telmo monastery in 1932 when the collection outgrew the original building. After serving for decades as an ethnographic museum, it was reopened in 2011 as a museum of Basque society and citizenship.
The items in the permanent exhibit range from ancient artifacts like funerary stele and Boabdil’s sword to Ignatius of Loyola’s spiritual exercises and more modern items like bicycles, a Seat 600 car, and soccer jerseys from Real Sociedad and Athletic Club Bilbao. The links of the Basques to the ocean, whale hunting, iron extraction, and manufacturing have a prominent place in the museum, along with the domains of religion and art. “Challenges for Our Society” is an multi-media presentation summarizing the key challenges for the Basque society in the near future, particularly sustainability, inter-culturality, equality, and human rights.
I spent the rest of the day in the museum, emerging at dusk to see some kids kicking a soccer ball around on the hardtop surrounding the modern museum building. When it got dark, I returned to my guerrilla camping spot in a field overlooking the official campground and settled in for the night.
The following is a partial history of San Sebastián, which I include to assist in better understanding the city and greater Basque Autonomous Community.
In 1014 the monastery of San Sebastián, located in the town of Hernani, was donated to the Abbey by the king of Pamplona. It was known for its apple orchards used to make cider. By 1181, the city of San Sebastián was chartered on the site of Izurum, having jurisdiction over all the territory between the rivers Oria and Bidasoa. In 1200, the city was conquered by Castile, and as soon as 1204 (or earlier), the city nucleus at the foot of Urgull started to be populated with Gascon-speaking colonizers from Bayonne and beyond, who left an important imprint in the city’s identity in the centuries to come. In 1265, the use of the city as a seaport was granted to Navarre as part of a wedding pact. The large quantity of Gascons inhabiting the town favoured the development of trade with other European ports and Gascony. Up to the 16th century, Donostia remained outside of most wars, but in 1489 a fire devastated the town. After burning to the ground, the town began a new renaissance by building up mainly with stone instead of bare timber. The advent of the Modern Age brought a period of instability and war for the city. New state boundaries were drawn that left Donostia located close to Spain’s border with France; thicker and more sophisticated walls were erected, with the town becoming involved in the 1521–1524 military campaigns that formed part of the Spanish conquest of Navarre. The town provided critical naval help to Emperor Charles V during the siege of Hondarribia, which earned the town the titles “Muy Noble y Muy Leal”, recorded on its coat of arms. After these events, Gascons, who had played a leading role in the political and economic life of the town since its foundation, began to be excluded from influential public positions by means of a string of regional sentences upheld by royal decision. Meanwhile, the climate of war and disease left the town in a poor condition that drove many fishermen and traders to take to the sea as corsairs as a way of getting a living, most of the times under the auspices of the king Phillip II of Spain, who benefited from the disruption caused to and wealth obtained from the French and Dutch trade ships. After a relatively peaceful 17th century, the town was besieged and taken over by the troops of the French Duke of Berwick up to 1721. However, San Sebastián was not spared by shelling in the French assault and many urban structures were reconstructed, e.g. a new opening in the middle of the town, the Plaza Berria (that was to become the current Konstituzio Plaza).
In 1728, the Guipuzcoan Company of Caracas was founded and boosted commerce with the Americas. Thanks to the profit the company generated, the town underwent some urban reforms and improvements and the new Santa Maria Church was erected by subscription. This period of wealth and development was to last up to the end of 18th century. In 1808, Napoleonic forces captured San Sebastián in the Peninsular War. In 1813, after a siege of various weeks, on 28 August, during the night, a landing party from a British Royal Navy squadron captured Santa Clara Island, just offshore in the bay. Situated on a narrow promontory that jutted out into the sea between the waters of the Bay of Biscay and the broad estuary of the Urumea River, the town was hard to get at and well fortified – “it was the strongest fortification I ever saw, Gibraltar excepted”, wrote William Dent. Three days later, British and Portuguese troops ransacked and burnt the city to the ground. Only the street at the foot of the hill (now called 31 August Street) remained. Construction of the city was commenced in the original location with a slightly altered layout. A modern octagonal layout as drafted by the architect P.M. Ugartemendia was turned down and eventually M. Gogorza’s blueprint was approved, then supervised and implemented by the Ugartemendia. This area, the old town, has a neoclassical, austere and systematic style of architectural construction. Constitution Square was built in 1817 and the town hall (currently a library) between 1828 and 1832. Housing in the old town was built gradually alongside the rest of the area.
The liberal and bourgeois San Sebastián became the capital of Gipuzkoa (instead of Tolosa) until 1823, when absolutists attacked the town again (only 200 inhabitants remained in the town when the offensive troops entered). It was designated again as the capital in 1854. In 1833, British volunteers defended the town against Carlist attack, and those who died were buried in the English Cemetery on Mount Urgull. At the beginning of the 19th century, the local government was still ruled by the principle of nobility, while inhabitants of foreign origin or descent had always been ubiquitous in the town, especially among the trading community. Although San Sebastián benefited greatly from the charter system established in the Southern Basque Country, with borders in the Ebro river and no duties for overseas goods, the town was at odds with the more traditional Gipuzkoa, even requesting secession from the province and annexation to Navarre in 1841. In 1863, the defensive walls of the town were demolished (their remains are visible in the underground car park on the Boulevard) and an expansion of the town began in an attempt to move on from its previous military function. Jose Goicoa and Ramon Cortazar were appointed to oversee the work. They modelled the new city according to an orthogonal shape in a neoclassical Parisian style, and Goicoa designed several elegant buildings, such as the Miramar Palace and La Concha Promenade. The city was chosen by the Spanish monarchy as a summer retreat following the French example of nearby Biarritz, and Spanish nobility and the diplomatic corps opened residences in the town. As the “wave baths” at La Concha were in conflict with nearby shipbuilding activity, the shipyards relocated to Pasaia, a nearby bay that had formerly been part of San Sebastián.
However, in 1875, war came to the town again, and in 1876 shelling over the city by Carlists claimed the life of acclaimed the poet Bilintx. From 1885, King Alfonso XII of Spain’s widow Maria Cristina spent every summer in Donostia along with her retinue, staying at the Miramar Palace. In 1887, a casino was built, which eventually became the current city hall, and some time later the Regional Government building was completed in Plaza Gipuzkoa following Jose Goicoa’s design. Cultural life thrived in this period, giving rise to various events that still take place in the city, such as the Caldereros or the Tamborrada, and journalistic and literary works in both Spanish and Basque.
After much debate in the city over whether to pursue an economy based on tourism or manufacturing, Donostia developed into a fully-fledged seaside resort, but some industry developed in the district of Antiguo and on the outskirts of the city. Following the outbreak of World War I, San Sebastián became a destination for renowned international figures of culture and politics, including Mata Hari, Leon Trotsky, Maurice Ravel, and Romanones.
San Sebastián was one of earliest towns hit by the 1918 Influenza epidemic, dealing with a first wave outbreak in February of that year. Officials feared for the city’s reputation and attempted to keep the disease’s spread quiet, to no avail, and the outbreak soon spread throughout Spain. Various rationalist architectural works, typically white or light-coloured, were built in the 1920s and 1930s, such as La Equitativa, Nautico, and Easo. In 1924–1926, canalisation work was carried out on the Urumea river at the southern edge of the city. However, after the city’s Belle Epoque in the European wartime, repression under de Rivera’s dictatorship was not favorable for the city. In 1924, gambling was prohibited by the authoritarian regime, causing existential problems for the Grand Casino and the Kursaal (1921).
In 1930, Spanish republican forces signed up to the Pact of San Sebastián, leading to the Second Spanish Republic. Unrest and repression did not stop with the new political regime, and large-scale industrial action was called several times by the growing anarchist, communist and socialist unions. The 1936 military coup was initially defeated by the resistance, led by the Basque Nationalists, anarchists, and communists, but later that same year the province fell to Spanish Nationalist forces during the Northern Campaign. The occupation proved disastrous for the city’s residents. Between 1936 and 1943, 485 people were executed as a result of show trials by the Spanish Nationalists. It has been estimated that extrajudicial executions (paseos) by the occupying military forces accounted for over 600 murders in the area during the first months of occupation. Many children were evacuated to temporary safety in Bilbao, with the city’s population falling by an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 inhabitants.
In the aftermath of war, the city was stricken by poverty, famine and repression, coupled with a thriving smuggling trade. Many republican detainees were held at the beach-side Ondarreta Prison in grim and humid conditions, until the building was demolished in 1948. However, industrial development paved the way for urban expansion in the Egia and Amara Berri districts, on the marshes and riverbed of the Urumea, at the end of the 1940s and beginning of the 1950s. In 1943, the first Basque language schools were established by Elvira Zipitria, who taught in Basque from her home in the Old Town. In 1947, the Grand Casino was converted into the City Hall. In 1953, city businessmen organised the first San Sebastián International Film Festival to stimulate the economic life and profile of the city.
Mass immigration from other parts of Spain, spurred by growing industrial production, greatly increased the population, initiating rapid and chaotic urban development on the outskirts of the city, yet social, cultural and political injustices followed, setting the scene for popular dissatisfaction. A general climate of protest and street demonstrations followed, driven by Basque nationalists, the armed separatist organisation ETA, and various underground unions, triggering the first state of emergency in Gipuzkoa in 1968. Several more were imposed by the Francoist authorities in the period immediately preceding Franco’s death in 1975. Amid the fragile economic situation and real estate speculation, the Kursaal and the Chofre bullring in Gros were demolished in 1973. The 1970s to the mid-1980s were years of general urban and social decay marked by social and political unrest and violence. In 1979, the first democratic municipal elections were held, won by the Basque Nationalist Party, who held office along with splinter party Eusko Alkartasuna until 1991. Odon Elorza of the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party took over as mayor from 1991 until 2011, when he was defeated unexpectedly by Juan Carlos Izagirre (Bildu).
From the 1990s, a major makeover of the city centre began, aimed at enhancing and revamping the neoclassical and modernist side of San Sebastián’s architecture. Other regeneration projects included the reshaping and enlargement of Zurriola beach and promenade, the opening of the Kursal Palace cubes (1999), the new university campus and technology facilities in Ibaeta, the creation of a wide network of cycle lanes, underground car-parks and significant improvements to public transport. Districts of cutting-edge design have been erected, such as Ibaeta and Riberas de Loiola.
May 19. I awoke and returned to San Telmo Museoa, expecting to pay, and was pleasantly surprised when they let me enter for free because I had a ticket from the day before. Some museums give you 48 hours per ticket to view the collection. I spent the entire day there, and was especially moved by the religious art, especially paintings by El Greco, Rivera, and Goya, as well as exhibits of peasant lifestyles like the old Basque kitchen. The cloister was stunning and I sat for a while gazing at its columns. I wandered through the city at dusk and for a third night camped in the field overlooking the bay and organized campsite, trying to be as quiet as possible to not attract unwanted attention.
May 20. In the morning I headed to Bilbao. I had heard a lot about the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which houses an impressive collection of modern and contemporary art and was designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry. Inaugurated in 1997 and built next to the Nerving River in the decrepit former main port of Bilbao, it is one of the most admired works of contemporary architecture. It has been hailed as a signal moment in the architectural culture, because it represents “one of those rare moments when critics, academics, and the general public were all completely united about something”, according to architectural critic Paul Goldberger. The museum was the building most frequently named as one of the most important works completed since 1980 in the 2010 World Architecture Survey among architecture experts.
I’m not a big fan of modern art but wanted to see the museum for its architecture. After wading through giant metal statues and a strange tunnel on the ground floor, I got an unexpected treat: a temporary exhibit on Chinese society and culture. I chastised myself for spending most of the day there, and left before dusk to explore the old town of Bilbao, exploring its narrow streets and walking along river. I had the good fortune of happening upon a tapa restaurant that offered take out, and happily munched away at the bite size appetizers while watching the sun fall behind the hills and birds begin their ascent to surrounding rural scapes. After satisfying my hunger, I drove for an hour searching for a place to camp, finally settling upon a dirt road on a steep incline.
May 21. I awoke to the sound of male voices just outside my tent, and wondered whether there was going to be trouble. I hadn’t realized that I’d inadvertently parked on the camino de Santiago de Compostela. I said hello to the pilgrims who had already begun their morning walk, and packed my things. As I drove up the dirt road in search of a place to turn around, I realized that the track only got narrower. Rather than backing down the hill, I made the mistake of trying to turn around at the narrowest point, only to hit a sharp rock. The tire went flat within seconds, and I drove down the dirt road to the paved one on the rim. I emptied my trunk and got out the jack, and attempted to change the tire but to no avail. I waved down two hikers and asked for their assistance, but they were impatient because I didn’t park car where they wanted me to and dismissed me with a wave. I felt completely helpless, and waited for another hour or two. Finally I saw a police car and flagged it. They contacted emergency services who were very nice, changed the tire for me, and sent me to a tire repair place about 5 miles down the hill. I rushed to the tire, and they said I would have to wait a day as they had to order another one from Madrid. I called Citroen Europass and they said they’d put me up in a hotel. I searched for a hotel and found one, called them back, and they said it was too expensive, that they’d only cover 65 Euro. I found a place for 69 Euro, double parked in order to unload items I needed for night (including beddings and laundry, which I hadn’t done in weeks), then parked across the river where I had to pay 18 Euro to park as the hotel had no parking. I returned and organized my things, took a shower and washed my clothes at the same time, took a long walk through the city, ordered tapas to go, then came back to my flat and enjoyed my floor to ceiling windows overlooking the river.
May 22. I had a leisurely morning and called the tire place when they told me they thought the tire would be ready at 11:30. They told me they closed at noon (all businesses seem to close between noon and 3), so I ran to the car, drove back and threw my things inside, arrived by 11:50am, got the tire changed, headed to market and bought veggies and cleaned car, then headed to Oviedo, Woody Allen’s favorite Basque town. Oviedo was hosting a festival, and there were lots of people in the park, crowded around a stage with a funny MC who kept cracking jokes (he must have been speaking Spanish not Basque because I understood him). Bagpipe music wafted across the plaza, and I realized that I was near Gallicia, the northwestern most part of Spain, where Celts had settled centuries past. I have a blond fair skinned friend whose family is from Galicia. Case in point.
Oviedo is the capital city of the Principality of Asturias, and is due west of Basque Country, about 19 miles from the sea at an elevation of almost 1000 feet. I noticed the remains of a palace and found out that Oviedo’s rich architectural tradition began with King Fruela I (757–768), the first decided promoter of the city as may be witnessed by his construction of both a palace and a nearby church. This church was later restored by Alfonso II, who established the town as a capital city and ruling seat. This was due to moving the court from Pravia and creating the Pilgrim’s Route to Santiago de Compostela. A church dedicated to the Savior, the Cathedral of San Salvador, and a royal palace formed the nucleus of Oviedo. Also constructed during Alfonso II’s reign was the San Julian de los Prados church, which is one of the best preserved Asturian churches. Alfonso II’s successor, Ramiro I (842–850), continued Alfonso II’s construction streak. He constructed two buildings, the Church Santa Maria del Naranco and San Miguel de Lillo. The Church Santa Maria de Naranco was likely to be Ramiro I’s palace and later changed into a church. By this time the Court of the Palace was centered in Oviedo, which was the main royal residence. This court was controlled by member of the Asturian nobility.
Oviedo also hosts a university (the University of Oviedo), established under the terms and conditions of the will of Archbishop Fernando de Valdés Salas (1483–1568), who was the General Inquisitor under Phillip II of Spain, and funded by his estate. It first opened for the teaching of classes on September 21, 1608. The university has 3 campuses, one in Oviedo, Gijón, and Mieres.
From Oviedo, I had planned to go to Parque Nacional de Los Picos de Europa (aka the Basque Alps) and the Lakes of Covadonga, but decided that since I’d lost a day with the tire fiasco, I needed to press on to Lugo. Lugo is an old Roman city with the most intact city wall dating from Roman times of any European city. I arrived at dusk and walked through the narrow cobbled streets, and enjoyed circumambulating the walled region. I found a place to camp outside the town and settled in for the night.
May 23. In the morning I returned to Lugo and found a few things I needed, including a hairbrush and yummy raisin nut bread (I didn’t really need it but wow was it good). I spent a few hours walking around the town, admiring the gates/portos and the old Roman ruins, and hoping to find a nice latte. Found lots of history but none of the black liquid. In the late afternoon I headed to Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia. I was immediately impressed by the lovely gardens and park lands, and saw that it was a very important tourist destination, both for pilgrims and the non-believers. People were extremely friendly. I liked the town a lot, and walked through the medieval town and out to eastern gate from whence the camino started. As usual at night fall I searched for an adequate place to lay my head and bedded down for the night.
May 24. I returned to Santiago in the morning and was struck by its beauty and diversity. I could have stayed there for days. My inner Parisienne smiled at finding a beautiful terrazzo on the city wall that served delicious coffee drinks. From there I headed to the Cidade da Cultura de Galicia, a center of Galician culture and heritage that had some interesting exhibitions and art. I then headed to the Museo da Catedral, which features a large area of the architect Mateo’s original carved stone choir, which was sadly destroyed in 1604 but was later rebuilt. There’s also a great collection of religious art and even some medieval tombs. I then headed to the Museo das Peregrinacións e de Santiago (Museum of Pilgrimage and of Santiago), located in a converted building in the Praza das Praterías, based on the epic pilgrimage towards Santiago that every year thousands of people embark on. The museum hosts changing exhibitions as well as a fascinating permanent collection, which features art, artifacts, models and memorabilia.
I’d hoped to explore Galicia more, especially the coast from Noia to A Guarda, which is supposed to be very quaint and picturesque, but I knew it would take days to wind my way along the coast, so I headed to the Portuguese border. I was so impressed by the look of the ancient walled city of Tui, located on the right bank of the Miño River, facing the Portuguese town of Valença, that I stopped and walked around. I drove into the walled fort, something I’ve done in Serbia and other countries. I waited at the light for what seemed like ages until it was green. It was extremely narrow, and I felt like I’d scrape the sides of the Citroen C3 I was driving (which is a tiny car). After a while I crossed the river and walked around Valença, which was incredibly picturesque, and watched as the last rays of sun danced over the river. I decided to come back next day, and drove off to find a camp sight. There were some guys burning eucalyptus trees along the road, and I tried to get far away as I could out of fear that it might become an uncontrolled burn.
Hello Lisa, Thank you so much for sending me your two wonderful travel stories. You are a marvelous writer, and your stories of other places are full of interesting information, as well as beautiful descriptions. I felt a pang of envy reading about where you’ve been and what you’ve seen. I’m sure you are missing foreign travel too. Losing our freedom to go where we want, and when, has been a bitter pill – but things will open up, and we’ll all be on the road, and in the air, before too much longer. And boy, are we looking forward to that! I know you’ve been helping your mom, and I hope that’s going well. These are hard times for your mom and Bob. Robert and I will be in Pacific Grove this week, but we’ll pay him a visit after we return. I’m planning to see your mom then too. I hope you are doing well, feeling well, and enjoying this beautiful weather. Thank you again for thinking of me and sending me your glorious stories. Warmest wishes,Nancy
Thank you Nancy. I so appreciate you reading these travel memories and giving me your comments. Thank you for your kind words about the writing and descriptions. I have not spent time writing for many months and your words motivate me to return the the pen.