The Basque Country: best beach

I’ve written so much about the gorgeous northern Spanish seaside town of San Sebastian in the Basque Country over the years that, this time, I thought I’d hone in on one of its (many) key features – its beaches. Specifically, its award-winning beach.

The Basque Country coastline stretches for 176kms (110 miles) along the Bay of Biscay, from across the border with France to the region of Cantabria, and is home to many spectacular beaches. From wild, windswept shores to idyllic golden crescents and fabulous urban sandy playgrounds, there are plenty of beautiful beaches in the Basque Country. However, for the third consecutive year, one of its beaches has been crowned the best in Europe. The winner is “La Concha Beach” which, as its name suggests, is shell shaped, and just one of three beaches in San Sebastian.

This city is often touted as the Basque Country’s gastronomic capital and its pintxos bars (Basque tapas bars) and restaurants are a must for foodies. While nights are spent bar-hopping and trying as many tantalising morsels as possible, days are spent lazing on one of the city’s beautiful beaches. You know, that sounds just like our holiday there last year.

La Concha is easily the most picturesque beach in the Basque Country.  A crescent of golden sand, hugging the edge of the city, it’s an idyllic city beach surrounded by lush green hills and the old town of San Sebastian and is a popular spot in summer when locals and tourists alike lay out their beach towels and enjoy sunbathing and splashing around in the shallow waters off the beach. In the evenings, locals stroll the beach’s beautiful promenade which has barely changed from the golden age of seaside resorts, alongside the Cantabrian Sea, lined with its famous white railings, and watch the sunset over the water. It’s still the place to take the sea air and is backed by gardens, a lovely old merry-go-round and a row of desirable beachfront hotels and residences that still yearn for the days when royalty strolled the shore every summer season.

La Concha is one of the city’s three beaches and, even before the award, was renowned as one of Europe’s most beautiful urban shorelines. Its perfect arch made it popular with Queen Regent Maria Cristina, leading her to declare it the summer capital of Europe. Looking at these photos, it’s hard to disagree!

Thursday doors #15

Here’s another from one of my favourite cities, it’s the entrance to the Basilica of Saint Mary of Coro, a Baroque Roman Catholic Church completed in 1774, located in San Sebastian’s Old Town.

My two photos show the main entrance door which is located between the two towers and looks like an altarpiece with its tortured figure of Saint Sebastian and papal symbols signifying its status as a basilica, crowned by the city’s shield.

In truth, this is more about the entrance and facade than just the door.

 

 

Thursday doors #10

These magnificent wrought iron doors (just one of a series of matching doors) belong to San Sebastian’s Kutxabank, which is a savings bank mainly operating within the Gipuzkoa region of the Basque country. It’s one of the bank’s many branches but easily the most imposing and it backs onto my favourite square in San Sebastian, the Plaza de Gipuzkoa. Of course, I just love all that gold-embellished wrought iron and the lamps (another of my obsessions) are pretty special too.

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post each week and then sharing your link in the comments’ on Norm’s site, anytime between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time).

12 days of Christmas: day 2

This is a photo of La Concha beach in San Sebastian, taken on the first night of our vacation, just as the sun was setting. The broom like shapes on the beach are the canvas shelters which have been folded back and tied down. You can just see a few boats bobbing on the water in the bay and, while it’s not obvious, there is a channel between the two hills to the left of the photo.

The furthermost one is the Igueldo from which bike riders descend and race to the finish line on the Boulevard in the La Clasica race, the other is Isla Santa Clara. The beach was voted 2017 Trip Advisor Best Beach in Europe. Regular readers of my blog will know how much I love the Basque country and, in particular, San Sebastian. It should be on everyone’s bucket list.

Holiday photos: day 32

I can’t remember where but at some point in the holiday my beloved said we were enjoying a Tour du Vin. For once, he was right. Pretty much everywhere we went, rows and rows of vines were omnipresent. As I wrap up our holiday, three days late, I’m focusing in on the highlights of our four plus week’s holiday. As an aside, don’t you find the first few weeks of a long holiday pass quite slowly, while the second half just whizzes past? A bit like life!

In no particular order, although it may be chronological, here’s our highlights:-

1. Chateau anyone?

Our second overnight stop was at the Chateau de Beauvois in the utterly charming village of Saint-Etienne-de-Chigny. We had received an apologetic email from the hotel before we arrived saying that we wouldn’t be able to eat in the restaurant because of a function. Said function was someone’s 18th birthday celebrations. The hotel upgraded us to a larger room as far as possible from the function which frankly provided us with an evening’s entertainment in an idyllic spot. The hotel threw in a cold supper with champagne and generally couldn’t do enough for us. The only fly in the ointment was our inability to access the internet but we surmised with all those youngsters constantly taking selfies and sending them to those who hadn’t been invited that there was no bandwidth left!

We’d previously enjoyed a short stay in the Loire and visited some of its glorious chateaux and plan to return to discover more. This hotel would make the perfect base.

2. La Baule but not as we remembered it!

My beloved and I had both holidayed in La Baule as teenagers and were interested to see its transformation. About the only thing either of us remembered was the lovely, wide sandy beach. Our base for the first few stages of this year’s Tour de France was Chateau des Tourelles in Pornichet in the bay of La Baule. The hotel was right on the beach and had an amazing thalassotherapy spa and a great restaurant. We had a sizeable room with a sea view and were reluctant to tear ourselves away to go and watch the Tour. It proved to be the perfect place to recharge our batteries and one we’d happily revisit.

3. Ooops!

We drove to Bordeaux and our delightful, highly rated B&B to discover no one was home! Booking.com kindly offered to cover any additional costs we might incur as a consequence, but we didn’t. Bordeaux exceeded our expectations and we’re planning a longer visit in either spring or autumn. However, the highlight of our trip was a happy coincidence. While walking round Bordeaux, I noticed an advert for a hotel and restaurant on a soon to be opened Lalique shop. When we got back to the hotel, I looked it up on the internet and made a booking for lunch the following day.

The hotel and restaurant Chateau Lafaurie-Peyraguey is slap bang in the middle of Sauternes’ vineyards. It had only opened three weeks ago and showcases Lalique’s huge range of products. The overall effect is magnificent. Lunch was sublime and I much enjoyed chatting afterwards to the chef Jerome Schilling who kindly adapted the day’s set luncheon to meet my exacting dietary requirements. We allowed the very knowledgable sommelier to choose the wines for each of our courses. We were reluctant to leave behind such perfection………next time.

4. I’ll have a glass of….

Our penultimate stop was in Rioja, a place we’ve visited from time to time with both the Tour of the Basque country and the Vuelta a Espana. This time we stayed in the delightful old town of Laguardia in a small, family run hotel, with an excellent restaurant and cellar. I may have mentioned that neither of us is particularly knowledgeable about wine, we just know what we like. We tasted a number of Riojan wines, red and white, and liked them all! Naturally, we bought some to bring back with us. I think a tour of this area would be lovely and it has gone onto our (ever-growing) bucket list.

5. Donostia

We first visited San Sebastian in 2010 and fell in love. Consequently, ever since, we’ve visited it at least once a year. This time though we rented an apartment in town for two weeks, close to the beach, so that we could visit all of our favourite haunts – too numerous to mention – and find some new ones. While my beloved popped back to London for a few days, I also enjoyed the San Sebastian Jazz Festival.

Most of our visits to the town have revolved around a bike race, usually La Clasica, held on the Saturday after the Tour de France has finished. We had friends riding in the race who both did their bit to animate the racing. This year’s trip had an added poignancy, we already know  that we won’t be able to visit next year because of other commitments. But we will be back!

 

 

Holiday photos: day 29

I keep mentioning my favourite places for drinks, coffee, snacks, breakfast etc so I thought I’d break with tradition and share some of these with you. There are lots of great bread and cake shops, cafes and bars in San Sebastian and I think we’ve tried a fair few of them.

It was only once I started writing that I realised most of my recommendations below are in or near to my favourite square, Plaza de Gipuzkoa, a romantic and charming green space right in the centre of the city, designed by the prestigious French gardener, Pierre Ducasse. It’s home to a large number and variety of trees, flowers and plants, plus a pond with ducks and swans. It’s bordered by a number of important local buildings and arcades, plus houses:

  • a monument to local musician, Jose Maria Usandizaga
  • a temple-shaped stone weather station
  • a large white marble table indicating times
  • an enormous multi-coloured flower clock

and the surrounding arcades are home to a number of our favourite establishments.

Pasteleria Otaegui

This one has several branches and was set up in 1886 by the Otaegui family in 1886. It has really pretty shop fronts and sells bread, homemade chocolates, biscuits made with local walnuts and hazelnuts, coffee and chocolate eclairs, madeleines and cakes such as their version of Pastel Vasco, a Basque cake made with cooked pastry cream and lemon rather than cherry jam.

Pasteleria Aguirre

Again, this small attractive pastry shops has a number of branches and also sells ice cream, homemade chocolates, pastries and a lovely range of tarts. My beloved likes their St Ignacio tart.

Cafe Gogoko Goxuak

With its bentwood chairs and industrial chic, this cafe has a decided Le Pain Quotidien vibe. Perfect for breakfast or an afternoon coffee and cake, it has excellent coffee, bread, croissants and baked goodies. Eat in or take away.

Pasteleria Barrenetxe

This neighbourhood institution can trace its roots back to 1699. It’s on the same square as the cafe above and is a great spot for breakfast. They sell bread, chocolate and an excellent range of pastries plus my favourite toast with tomatoes.

Bar Bideluze

This place is open all hours and offers a more substantial breakfast including their delicious tortilla, ham and eggs along with croissants, cake, coffee and fresh juice. It also serves my second favourite Aperol Spritz and we’re not above dropping in here of an evening for some pintxos. The company has two branches, the larger one being in the same square as the two favourites above but we prefer its smaller branch around the corner.

Victoria Cafe

Next to the theatre is the home of our favourite Aperol Spritz (€ 4.50) which we like to drink while nibbling on a bowl of olives and watching the world pass by. It also serves breakfast and snacks throughout the day.

Pasteleria Oiartzun

At the entrance to the Old Town is our favourite ice cream shop which has since taken over the cake and coffee shop next door. You’ll find branches of this company in other towns such as Getaria. Their ice cream is made with top quality, local, raw materials and they have over 50 flavours. We cannot claim to have tried them all!

 

 

Holiday photos: day 28

Blimey, it’s August! Where’s this year gone? It’s a fact that the older you get, the quicker time flies by and you become conscious of the trickling sand in the timer. And, we’ve been away for whole month. Although, it’s lovely and sunny here in San Sebastian, it’s considerably cooler (thank goodness) than back home on the Cote d’Azur which is enjoying a veritable heatwave.

While it was relatively cool, I enjoyed picking up fresh produce daily from San Sebastian’s two permanent markets. My favourite is probably La Brexta on the Boulevard which, as the city’s oldest market, oozes Basque history and food culture. Named for and built over the original breach, or bretxa, in the city walls this place has it all, making it one of the best gourmet markets. Sadly, many of its products are on my forbidden list (see header photo) but I still love looking and inhaling – that’s okay isn’t it?

San Sebastian’s other market, San Martin, is newer and near the Buen Pastor Church. It’s open all day and is a great option for lunch as many of the stalls offer delicious pintxos, and more! On Thursday evenings, local bands play music and vendors offer free fresh pintxos to those buying drinks, making it a popular event. This is a practice common throughout the Basque country in all its bars on Thursday evenings. The free offerings are typically limited to one or two types of pintxos. San Sebastian also has a Saturday farmers’ and craft market which is another moveable feast!

Holiday photos: day 27

My beloved returned midday on Sunday, feeling somewhat weary after working long days and a couple of evenings. I took him out for lunch to one of our regular haunts where we both ate a light  meal. I find when it’s hot and humid, I’m not so hungry. However, it’s important to keep up one’s intake of fluids otherwise it’s easy to become dehydrated. After lunch we sat and listened to some music, it was the last day of the Jazz Festival, most of which my beloved had missed. We then pottered back to our rental flat to watch the final stage of the Tour de France.

The final day of the Tour is a bit of a parade for all bar a handful of sprinters for whom winning the sprint on the Champs Elysees is a blue-riband event. I generally have paper and pencil in hand noting down the names of places we’d like to visit as the television cameras pan past a chateau or two as the peloton heads for its final circuits round Paris. Of course, I’m not the only one, 47% of the television viewing public watch the Tour to see France’s glorious heritage. The footage never disappoints.

Thereafter, we went back out to enjoy the final couple of hours of the Festival, sitting on one of the many park benches in front of the Town Hall. As we wandered back we popped into one of our favourite bars for a nightcap. Well, it would’ve been rude not to.

 

 

Holiday photos: day 26

My beloved was due back from his business trip late on Saturday evening. I was just about  to go out, having wrapped up reviewing the day’s stage for VeloVoices, when my phone rang. It was my beloved who had missed his connecting flight from Madrid to San Sebastian due to the late arrival of his inbound flight from Heathrow. He’d be back around midday on Sunday.

While he’s been away I’ve been enjoying the jazz festival.  Mornings I head for my morning walk along the beach before going to my favourite breakfast spot, to order an americano y tostada con tomate, the latter comes with olive oil, salt and a raw tomato paste (header photo of my DIY version). It’s delish and has replaced my usual avocado on toast. I sit outside and listen to the band playing in the San Martin market. They don’t appear to be part of the Festival, I think they’ve just jumped on the bandwagon.

Breakfast over, I head to La Brexia market for fresh fruit, salad stuff and olives before wending my way back to the flat, again via the beach. And no, before you ask, the shins still haven’t tanned! Afternoons have been taken up with watching the Tour de France and the European Water Polo Championships.

Most evenings I’ve walked along  the seafront, sat on a bench in the park opposite the Town Hall and listened to whoever’s been playing on the stage there. Some evenings I’ve treated myself to a sorbet from my favourite ice cream shop, other times just some water from the Heineken stand – the Jazz Festival is sponsored by Heineken.

If the music hasn’t been to my taste, I’ve continued my pursuit of the best Aperol Spritz in town. When it comes to bars, I look carefully at its clientele. San Sebastián has loads of elderly – as in much older than me – chic ladies, probably widows. They tend to gather in groups in the evening to enjoy a chat and a cocktail or two with a pintxos or two. If there’s plenty of glamorous grannies, I’ll go inside or sit outside. I now have further contenders for the prize and will allow my beloved to have the casting vote, something he rarely enjoys.

 

Holiday photos: day 24

You could be forgiven for thinking that I’ve spent all my time at the beach from the previous photos. I haven’t, I’m just endlessly fascinated by the play of light on water. While my beloved’s been away, I’ve been investigating. Even though we’ve visited San Sebastian every year for the past eight years, there’s always something new to discover.

Unlike my beloved I adore looking at the architecturla features on some of the older buildings which are mostly built from stone with spectacular wrought iron balconies, porticos and doors. Buildings are constantly being renovated and brough back to life, in most cases only the facade is preserved.

As I walk up and down the rows of streets, I love spotting shops that have been in situ for generations, like the one in my header photo which sells brushes and baskets. Sadly, stores like these are few and far between so I felt I had to do my bit to ensure it survives further generations. I often bring bac token presents from my travels for family and friends. I think these gifts will surprise them.

Most of the shops have cleared their sale stocks and have winter garb in the windows. I’m interested to see what’s in vogue for this winter but can’t summon any interest to buy anything to update my wardrobe while I’m still sweltering.

I did however purchase some hankerchiefs from another long established family-run shop in the old town which sells divine nightwear, tablecloths, cute kiddies clothes and hankerchiefs. I always used to buy my parents some from here. Now I have only myself to spoil, and another dear friend who like me prefers a real hankerchief to a paper one.