Here, twelve miles from the French border, you are in the real heart of Basque Country, and it is entrancing.
People have been living in the area for around 25,000 years and the city was chartered in the 12th century, but a catastrophic fire following the breach of the town's walls and the fall of the city in 1813 to an Anglo-Portuguese force has given it a 19th century look.
It's a town that makes its living largely from tourism and international festivals and as a cultural magnet for the people of the region. Tourism improved dramatically when separatist violence from the ETA ended.
Where it's easy to kick off your shoes and enjoy yourself, even on an overcast day in late October.
A stroll along either side of the river
Or in the old city
Will bring you to places like Constitution Square (where the numbers over the apartment doors harken back to when owners were forced to rent balcony space to their betters to watch the bullfights in the square)
Or a sunset over the Atlantic.
But, what has really put San Sebastián (Donostia, in Basque) on the map is food.
In what turned out to be a stroke of genius, we hired a guide to take us around to a few bars in the city for pintxos. Although we could have survived with a bit of pointing and taken advantage of the reasonable amount of English and the substantial amount of friendliness found in the Donostiarra who live here, our guide enriched our experience immeasurably.
Donostia is a city obsessed with food and gastronomy. Especially on Thursdays, people go out with friends and family to a series of bars offering both cold and hot pintxos. They order a couple, together with a drink they never finish, enjoy them and move on to the next establishment. People almost always stand, as this is a snack, not a meal. Kids are typically in tow.
Our first pintxo was a Gilda. Olives (yes, but only-available-in-Spain really good ones), anchovies (a revelation), and peppers (one in ten is hot). Eaten in one bite & it was extraordinary. The Gilda was apparently named after Rita Hayworth's 1946 movie of the same name. Franco banned it. Reason enough.
Within sight of this first pintxo bar were three gastronomical societies, of which the city of barely more than 180,000 people is reported to have around 140. We were told that in their matrilineal society, Basque men value a place of their own, especially one in which they can cook and can claim the kitchen as exclusively theirs. Men may belong to 2 or 3 of the societies, maintaining connections to childhood friends, work colleagues, and so forth. The city has an embarrassment of riches in terms of food. Of Spain's five restaurants with 3 Michelin stars (the highest rating), three are in San Sebastián. But, back to the food.
One of the pintxos at our third stop was Brie coated in poppy seeds and lightly fried. By the third stop it was raining a bit, so we huddled close under the umbrellas as we stood at the tables, but the eating was enough of a distraction that it really didn't bother us.
As befits a pilgrimage to San Sebastián, we reported for our course in Basque cooking.
Our instructor Augus (holding the bag) took us through the paces.
Proper cleaning and deboning means you don't over handle the fish
But carefully remove both the skin and the inner membrane which otherwise will cause the cooked fish to curl.
The fish is cooked gently by swirling the pan (for hours, if you don't know the chef's shortcut).
The peppers must be correctly sautéed. And, yes, Adrianne from Miami was recording pretty much every technique.
Frank, the Basque-American whose mother witnessed the attack on Guernica, tries his hand at one of the chef's secrets. Whisking with a colander.
The team begins to assemble one of the dishes.
And reason enough for a visit to Donostia (San Sebastián).
On egin! (Bon appetit!)