A short break in San Sebastin

It may not have the guaranteed sunshine of the Costas, but this Basque city has the perfect beach and a reputation for the best cuisine in Spain. Tony Kelly counts the Michelin stars
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The Independent Travel
First popular among the Spanish royals who came here to take the waters in the 19th century, San Sebastin (or Donostia, as it is known in the Basque language, Euskara) is a chic belle epoque resort on Spain's Atlantic coast.

Culturally and geographically situated between Spain and France, it manages to be the most Basque of Spanish cities at the same time as retaining its cosmopolitan flavour. The current ETA ceasefire makes this a good time to visit the Basque region and tourism is booming as a result.

Although it does not have the guaranteed sunshine of the southern Costas, the shell-shaped beach, set between two green hills, is one of the most perfect in the country, and San Sebastin has the highest per capita concentration of both tapas bars and Michelin stars in Spain.

When to go

For a reasonable chance of fine weather but to avoid the summer crowds, a good time is between now and the end of June. In July and August, San Sebastin is taken over by beach culture. The international jazz festival takes place this year from 22-27 July, while the international film festival, a major event in Europe, is from 16-25 September. Between the two is Semana Grande, a week-long party beginning on 15 August, with fireworks, regattas and traditional Basque highland games such as wood-chopping and stone- lifting. The city's feast day, in honour of its patron saint, Sebastin, is on 20 January, when marching bands of drummers in Napoleonic costume parade through the streets for 24 hours.

Getting there

The nearest international airports are at Biarritz (30 miles) and Bilbao (60 miles). Ryanair (tel: 0541 569569) offers return flights from Stansted to Biarritz from pounds 45 plus pounds 20 tax until 17 June. British Airway's low- cost airline, Go (tel: 0845 605 4321) offers return flights from Stansted to Bilbao from pounds 80. Other airlines flying to Bilbao include British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) and Iberia (tel: 0870 606 2032).

If you have time, P&O European Ferries (tel: 0870 242 4999) offers two departures each week from Portsmouth to Bilbao, with a travelling time of about 35 hours. A mini-break in late May, with three nights on board and four nights in Spain, costs pounds 399 for two people plus car, not including accommodation in Spain.

From Bilbao and Biarritz, there are regular train connections to San Sebastin, though from Biarritz you will probably have to change trains at the French border post of Hendaye. Tony Kelly flew to Bilbao and hired a car through Holiday Autos (tel: 0990 300400). Car hire starts from pounds 65 for a weekend, pounds 128 for a week.

What to do and see

The main beach, La Concha ("seashell"), is the focal point of San Sebastin, its promenade lined with stylish cafes, white railings and Edwardian lampposts. Early in the evening, the entire population of the city seems to put on their best casuals and stroll along the paseo. Halfway along the seafront, a mock-Tudor palace separates La Concha from a second beach, Ondarreta. At the far end of Ondarreta is El Peine del Viento ("Comb of the Wind"), an extraordinary sculpture of twisted metal by a local artist, the great Eduardo Chillida, best seen at high tide as the sea shoots up over the rocks. The walk back along the paseo after dark, the twinkling lights of the promenade reflected in the bay, is very romantic.

For the best views of La Concha, take the funicular up Monte Igueldo, where a 1920s funfair features a rollercoaster perched on the edge of the cliffs. At the other end of the bay, follow the Paseo Nuevo around Monte Urgull, then climb to the ruined castle at its summit. On the lower slopes is the peaceful Cementerio de los Ingleses (English Cemetery), where the graves of soldiers killed in the Carlist wars stand on a hillside looking out to sea.

Much of San Sebastin was burned down by the British in 1813, so the Parte Vieja (Old Town) is not that old. One of the few buildings to survive, the Dominican convent of San Telmo, is being converted into a museum of Basque culture. Meanwhile, you should be able to admire the murals by the Catalan artist Josep Maria Sert, depicting the historic struggles of the Basque people. At the heart of the Parte Vieja is Plaza de la Constitucin, a former bullring popularly known as "La Consti".

Where to stay

Hotel Maria Cristina, Paseo de la Republica Argentina (tel: 0034 943 424900; fax: 0034 943 423914). This legendary belle epoque hotel, which opened in 1912, has been renovated and now combines period features with five-star luxury. The rooms with balconies look out over the river Urumea and the adjoining Victoria Eugenia theatre. Many people consider this the finest hotel in Spain. Single rooms cost pounds 100, doubles pounds 132 (all prices are for June and exclude 7 per cent tax).

Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra, Calle Zubieta 2 (tel: 0034 943 426989; fax: 0034 943 420031). Another hotel recalling San Sebastin's glory days, this one stands right on the seafront overlooking La Concha. Single rooms cost pounds 49, doubles pounds 70.

Hotel Monte Igueldo, Monte Igueldo (tel: 0034 943 210211; fax: 0034 943 215028). If you are more interested in the views than in being in the thick of the action, this four-star hotel high above the bay has seascapes stretching all the way to Biarritz. An added attraction is the rooftop swimming-pool. Single rooms cost pounds 40, doubles pounds 66.

Hotel Niza, Calle Zubieta 56 (tel/fax: 0034 943 426663). This small hotel right on the promenade is the best of the mid-range choices. Single rooms cost pounds 27, doubles pounds 56.

La Perla, Calle Loiola 10 (tel: 0034 943 428123). A comfortable pension near the cathedral, a few minutes from the Parte Vieja and the beach. Single rooms cost pounds 12, doubles pounds 22.

Food and drink

Basque cuisine is thought to be the best in Spain, and the restaurants in San Sebastin the best in the Basque Country, so if you're going to splash out anywhere it might as well be here. The locals are so passionate about food that there are dozens of all-male "Popular Societies" where men meet once a week to share a meal, cooked by their members in turn and paid for out of a kitty. The emphasis is on seafood - the Basques eat an astonishing 40kg of fish each a year - with hake and salted cod cropping up regularly. Try bacalao a la vizcana (cod in a sweet and spicy pepper sauce) or kokotxas (fritters of hake throat).

The Parte Vieja is full of back-street tapas bars where the pintxos are laid out along the bar for you to help yourself. These are typically small snacks of cheese, omelette or ham on pieces of bread, but they might include monkfish kebabs, wild-mushroom vol-au-vents or grilled prawns. During the txikiteo (happy hour), from around 7pm to 9pm, groups of men known as cuadrillas tour the bars, stopping for a snack and a tiny zurrito of wine in each one before going home to dinner. Pintxos are best accompanied by txakoli, a slightly fizzy young white wine produced on the Basque coast and poured into glasses from a great height, or by red wine from the Rioja Alavesa vineyards. Basque cider is also popular and from January to April the various sidrerias (cider houses) open their doors to celebrate the new harvest. The menu is always the same - salted cod omelette, T- bone steaks, cheese, walnuts and quince jelly. There are no cider houses in the city itself, but if you see a restaurant offering a "sidreria menu", this is what you will get - usually accompanied by unlimited cider from the barrel.

Arzak, Alto de Miracruz 21 (tel: 943 278465), is the temple of Basque nouvelle cuisine and chef/proprietor Juan Mari Arzak has three Michelin stars. The restaurant is a short taxi ride out of town. It is closed on Sunday evening and Mondays and in the second half of June. Expect to pay pounds 40 a head plus drinks.

Akelare, Paseo del Padre Orcolaga 56 (tel: 943 212052), with two Michelin stars, is also out of town, overlooking the sea on the slopes of Monte Igueldo. Signature dishes include baked sea bass and gin-and- tonic ice- cream, but you should probably opt for the seven-course sampling menu at around pounds 35 per person. Closed on Sunday evening and Monday.

Panier Fleuri, Paseo de Salamanca 1 (tel: 943 424205), has gained a Michelin star for its traditional and modern haute cuisine on the edge of the Parte Vieja. Seasonal specialities include carpaccio of wild mushrooms and baby squids in their own ink with risotto. Closed on Sunday evening and Wednesday. Around pounds 25 a head plus drinks.

Rekondo, Paseo de Igueldo (tel: 943 212907), features grilled meat and fish dishes in an old cider house on the way up to Monte Igueldo. You can eat outside on a terrace in summer. Around pounds 20 a head.

Casa Valles, Calle Reyes Catolicos 10 (tel: 943 452210), serves Basque classics at reasonable prices, but it is hard to get past the tapas bar which features at least 30 different pintxos at around 50p each.

Entertainment

Nightlife in Spain does not really begin till midnight. The main bar- hopping areas are the Parte Vieja and Calle Reyes Catolicos, near the cathedral, as well as Onderreta beach, handy for nipping up to the Ku disco on Monte Igueldo. Look out for performances at the Victoria Eugenia theatre, opened in 1912 and recently restored. Sports fans should head for the Anoeta sports village to catch a game of pelota or to see the local football team, Real Sociedad, in action.

Out of town

Regular buses make the 30-minute journey to Hondarribia, a pretty border village with a perfectly preserved medieval centre and a quaint fishermen's quarter of gaily painted wooden houses. The restaurants along the promenade are popular with French day-trippers and there are views across the bay to the French port of Hendaye.

Deals and packages

Mundi Color (tel: 0171-828 6021) offers tailor-made packages to San Sebastin. A three-night break in June, flying with British Airways from Heathrow to Bilbao and staying at the Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra, costs pounds 402 per person based on two sharing and including car hire.

Further information

The main tourist office is at Calle Reina Regente on the corner of Paseo de la Republica Argentina (tel: 943 481166). In London, contact the Spanish Tourist Office, 22-23 Manchester Square, London W1M 5AP (tel: 0171-486 8077; fax: 0171-486 8034; brochure line: 0891 669 920, calls cost 50p a minute).

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