Worldwide: 48 hours in ... San Sebastin

Basking in its Basque heritage, this north-coast resort seduces Cathy Packe with a cocktail of lively bars, tapas feasts and seaside strolls
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The Independent Culture
Why go now?

San Sebastin has all the trappings of a sophisticated city, but at the same time it is really just a small town by the sea. Although the north coast isn't the hottest part of Spain, the weather should be good even this late in the year, and nothing is prohibitively expensive.

Beam down

San Sebastin has no airport, so you have to fly to Bilbao and catch a bus along the coast. Both British Airways (0345 222111) and Iberia (0171- 830 0011) have daily flights from Heathrow, with Iberia currently offering the cheapest fare - pounds 151.20 including tax, as long as you stay over a Saturday night. A bus leaves the central bus station in Bilbao every hour for San Sebastin, arriving at the Plaza Po XII, on the southern side of town, an hour later. It costs around pounds 7.

Get your bearings

San Sebastin - or Donostia, to give it its Basque name - clings to one of the most attractive bays on the north coast of Spain, the Baha de la Concha, with Monte Urgull to the east and Monte Igeldo to the west. The town takes its Basque heritage very seriously: all road signs are written first in the Basque language, which bears very little relation to any other, and then in Spanish. The old part of town, or parte vieja, is a grid of pedestrianised streets around the Plaza de la Constitucin, in the shadow of Monte Urgull. To the south, built around the Plaza de Guipzcoa, is the town centre; while the Plaza del Buen Pastor is the focal point of the main business district. The tourist office (00 34 43 48 11 66) is at the junction of the Alameda Blvd and the Paseo de la Repblica Argentina, which forms part of the embankment of the river Urumea.

Check in

There are three grades of accommodation: hotels; the smaller, family- run hostales; and pensiones. Only hotels have a reception area on the ground floor. Most places are identified by a sign hanging from the first floor and a name on the bell, and unless you have a reservation, or they have a vacancy, you won't get through the main door. Try the Hostal Eder 2 (00 34 43 42 64 49; single rooms from pounds 20, doubles from pounds 30), conveniently located on the Alameda del Blvd. If you prefer a hotel, the Parma (00 34 43 42 88 93; singles from pounds 30, doubles about pounds 45) is on the Paseo de Salamanca, looking out to sea. Don't expect breakfast to be included at hostales or pensiones, but there are plenty of cafes for a coffee and a croissant or brioche.

Take a hike

Start in the middle of the old town, in the Plaza de la Constitucin. The tiers of balconies on three of its sides have numbered doors, a reminder of the days when the square was used for bull-fighting, and the spectators watched from above. Wander through the narrow streets until you reach calle 31 de Agosto, and the church of Santa Mara, with its elaborate baroque interior. If you stand on the steps outside, you can see down the calle Mayor and beyond, to the more modern district around the church of the Buen Pastor. Most of the old quarter was destroyed by a fire at the beginning of the last century, but has been convincingly rebuilt in the same style. It contrasts with the elegance of the symmetrical buildings put up when the town expanded in the late 19th century.

Lunch on the run

A most un-Spanish concept: this is a country that routinely allows three hours for lunch. Early afternoon is the ideal time for a wander, as you will have the pavements to yourself. If you want a quick bite, there are several places on the Avenida de la Libertad: try the Cafe Gaviria, at the end nearest the beach; or go further up to the Casa del Jamon, on the corner of calle Oquendo, which has a selection of snacks, mainly featuring different kinds of jamn, or ham.

Cultural afternoon

The Museo de San Telmo, in the Plaza Ignacio Zuloaga, is worth seeing for the building alone: a 16th-century convent, currently being restored as museum of Basque culture. Peer through the scaffolding for a look at the cloisters. The current display is only part of the permanent collection, but it gives an idea of some of the treasures of Basque art.

Window shopping

If you want to buy any kind of leather goods, this is the place to come. For Spanish delicacies such as membrillo, a thick quince paste eaten with the salty local cheeses, or for wine, strings of garlic, chillis or deep red peppers, try the covered market on calle San Ignacio Loyola.

An aperitif

At this time of day, it is not so much what you drink but what you eat with it. Tapas bars are a Spanish institution. You will find them all over town, but most congregate in the old part around the Plaza de la Constitucin.

The technique is to go in and order a drink - un claro or un tinto, if you fancy a glass of rose or red wine, or una cerveza, if beer is more your taste. Then help yourself to the selection of tapas, which, in a decent bar, will be extensive. The choice is likely to include fresh anchovies, sausage, squid, artichokes, tortilla and, possibly, some hot tapas. At the end, tell the barman what you have eaten, and he will charge you accordingly.

I went out with the Spanish equivalent of pounds 10, had a drink and several tapas in four bars, and ended up with change.

Late dinner

If you are still standing, or still hungry, after a tour of the tapas bars, try one of the restaurants on calle Fermn Calbetn, which is also where you will find the liveliest bars. Places recommended for dinner include Egosari or the Bodegn Alejandro. The sign to look out for is the Basque word for "restaurant": jatetxea. Dinner in Spain is always late; don't even think of eating before 10pm, unless you are happy to eat alone.

Early-morning climb

Take the path up to Monte Urgull, either from the Plaza Ignacio Zuloaga, near the museum, or from behind the harbour, above what remains of the old sea wall. There are tracks leading off the main path towards various gun emplacements, relics of the time when this was one of San Sebastin's main fortifications. Keep going upwards, and eventually you will reach the castle at the top. Above the castle is a huge statue of Christ, which is visible all over town.

Sunday morning: go to church

Just below the statue is the small church of the Sagrado Corazn. Mass is held at 9am every Sunday.

Bracing brunch

Come down the mountain and follow the promenade around the bay until it becomes the Paseo de la Concha. Stop halfway round for coffee and fried eggs at the cafe de la Concha, or scrambled eggs at la Perla next door.

Continue walking to the end of the playa de la Concha, past the side of the tunnel, then across the road and up into the Miramar gardens. From here you get a great view over the whole bay, and out to the Isla Santa Catalina, once part of San Sebastin's fortifications and now a popular picnic spot accessible by boat in summer.

The icing on the cake

San Sebastin is not a place you are likely to want to leave in a hurry, but if you arrive early in Bilbao on the way back to the plane, stop off at the Guggenheim museum. If you have no time to go inside, don't worry; many visitors think the most stunning part is the building itself, best seen from outside.

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