San Sebastian lies on the Bay of Biscay, in the mountainous region of Pais Vasco (literally, Basque country). It is internationally renowned for its beautiful La Concha and Ondarretta beaches, with their elegant promenades and enticing views of the emerald bay. San Sebastian (or Donostia, in the local language, Basque) has one of the world's largest concentrations of Michelin starred restaurants, rivaled only by Tokyo, Lyon and Paris, and a charming old town or Parte Viaja, all within a walk's distance from the beach. It is a perfect, romantic and magical destination, with a pleasant year-round climate and friendly atmosphere. So how come this city is still a hidden gem of Spain, relatively unknown to tourists compared to places like Barcelona and Marbella?
To discover why, we need to know something about San Sebastian's turbulent past. The Basque region of Spain has a very distinctive character, and its people and temperament are different to what you'll find in the Costa del Sol. Partly because of its mountainous location, the Spanish Basque region has perhaps more in common with the French Basque, which is just 20 miles away, than the rest of Spain. While many of the residents speak English and Castellano (Castillian Spanish), the first language of this autonomous region is Basque (or Euskera), which is one of Europe's oldest languages, and it is spoken by 35 percent of residents, who proudly continue their cultural inheritance. For this reason you'll see many of the signs in both Castillian and Basque. This unique and fascinating culture has been produced by a troubled past.
Early San Sebastian
While the Basque language and culture is ancient, the modern city of San Sebastian is much less so. San Sebastian was founded as a monastery, which became a fishing village, before being instated as a city in 1180 by Sancho Mayor. It developed a strong tradition of seamanship, gaining its status as a seaport in the 13th century. The fishermen are renowned for their exploits as far as icy Arctic waters in search of cod, and San Sebastian was a port for sending cargo to the rest of Europe and the Americas. As a result of its unique, strategic geography at the mouth of the River Urumea on the Bay of Biscay, with the vantage point at Monte Urgull and its curved bay of La Concha (what makes it so beautiful today), San Sebastian was also highly sought after as a military and naval stronghold. For this reason it was involved in many wars and sieges between the 15th and 18th centuries. In 1813, San Sebastian was occupied by Napoleonic troops who were defeated by a coalition between Britain and Portugal. However, following the battle the city was razed to the ground.
19th century to the Belle Epoque
In the 19th century, the area surrounding San Sebastian was the site of battles during the Carlist Wars between two rival factions of the Spanish Royal Family. But despite this, Donostia began to prosper in industry and tourism, and in 1863 it was named permanent capital of the province of Gipuzkoa. Queen Isabella II chose San Sebastian as a holiday resort, making it a fashionable place to be for those escaping the heat of the rest of Spain in the summer. A number of Parisian-style, Neoclassical buildings were built, including the La Concha promenade and the Mirmar Palace. A casino was created to rival the nearby French resort at Biarritz. Thus began San Sebastian's history as a fashionable, luxurious resort, visited by the Spanish nobility and diplomatic core who sought treatment in its thereapeutic 'wave baths'.
The 20th century to the present
In the early 20th century, San Sebastian had a lively intellectual and cultural life. It was visited by famous international figures and thrived in the Belle Époque, fueled by tourism, commerce and industry. Like much of Europe, however, San Sebastian was to experience war again. The Basque region, along with Cataluña and Valencia, was a stronghold of resistance to the right-wing forces of the Spanish Nationalists under generals Mola and Franco. However, the Republican forces in San Sebastian were eventually defeated in 1936 with the loss of many civilian lives. In the following years the dictatorship tried to eradicate the Basque language and culture, and Franco began holidaying in San Sebastian to try to demonstrate its 'Spanishness'.
In the middle of the 20th century the population of San Sebastian began to grow, with a corresponding rise in civil unrest. The separatist group ETA began a campaign for Basque independence in response to Franco's refusal of regional autonomy, which only ended with the declaration of a ceasefire in 2011. Today, the city has grown with the building of the Ensanche, and extension of the Gros, El Antiguou, IIntxaurrondo and Aiete districts. As the 2016 European Capital of Culture, San Sebastian will celebrate its new Belle Époque, full of culture and beauty, and the peace that it now, finally, enjoys. The Basque culture is alive and well, and represented in the cuisine, which reflects the seafaring history.
Far Out Inn, located between La Concha beach and the city centre is a perfect base for your explorations into San Sebastian's history. Contact us today to book your trip.