Basque out of the shade

San Sebastin is the capital of a culture that has finally stamped its name back on the map ... as well as the gastronomic dictionary, writes Mick Webb
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The Independent Travel
T his is, and yet isn't, Spain. The crowds of people taking an evening stroll through the old town, stopping off for a glass of wine, some tapas and a chat are doing what Spaniards do, but they're doing it more quietly, less demonstratively, and they're wearing overcoats and carrying umbrellas.

Contrary to the popular saying, the rain in Spain falls mainly here, on the northern coast, which is why tourist brochures describe the local weather euphemistically as "mild and pleasant". Surprisingly, it was the climate that first marked San Sebastin out as a tourist resort in the mid-19th century, attracting Queen Isabella II and her court away from the summer heat of Madrid to this elegant town, recently rebuilt after a disastrous fire and blessed with a beautiful beach. It's appropriately named la concha (the shell), and it forms a perfect, semicircular bay, whose entrance is protected from the worst excesses of the Atlantic by a tiny island.

I've got a soft spot for la concha. Twenty-odd years ago, I spent my first-ever night in Spain sleeping on it, lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves and the effects of a bottle of wine that I vaguely remember costing 10 pesetas. That was in August, mind you. This time (in winter), I'm only too happy to find a comfortable bed in a hotel and stroll down to the beach after breakfast.

It's on a Saturday morning like this, out of season, that you realise how a beach in summer can be a mass human barbecue. But today it's a park where people are walking their dogs, jogging, reading the paper, while from this esplanade a less active contingent of us are happy to lean on the railings and simply watch.

Basque culture has reasserted itself, and the language banned for 40 years by Franco is now flourishing. The city has acquired a new name, Donostia; the names above the shops and bars are full of tongue-twisting clusters of consonants - Zumacalrriqui, Goikotxea; and the street signs are in two languages. Donostia has played its part in ETA's long and violent campaign for independence from the Spanish state and, on a damp Friday evening, the rush-hour traffic was slowed more than usual by a demonstration of 100 or so people moving silently and purposefully through the city centre. They were holding up placards with photos of their loved ones, ETA activists, who have been incarcerated in far-off Ceuta and Melilla. It's a regular Friday event, watched with mild but respectful interest by shoppers and drinkers, and it reveals the other side of a city that's best known for a host of international music and film festivals, and as a rather upmarket seaside resort.

The city has its fair share of interesting museums, and churches, as well as some excellent walks, and I'd thoroughly recommend a couple of hours spent watching the game of pelota. It's fast, furious and fun, particularly the variety called remonte, which involves a wicker basket attached to the players' wrists, from which a ball is propelled against a wall at phenomenal speed. And if you think the game sounds odd, its singularity is matched by the betting - old tennis balls stuffed with peseta notes are thrown between spectators and bookmakers through the ever-thickening cigarette smoke.

The Basques are the great chefs of Spain, and here on their home turf their art flourishes. There are 11 Michelin stars scattered around the city's many restaurants, and the two best-known practitioners, Juan Mari Arzak and Pedro Subijana, convert traditional recipes into the most elaborate modern dishes. Just a glance at the menu of El Akelarre, Sr Subijana's restaurant, sends our taste buds into an uncontrollable spin: fricassee of lambs' sweetbreads with vegetables and sauteed squids; hake fillets with clams in green sauce; citrus fruits in puff pastry with caramel; fresh cheese ice-cream.

At the other end of the price range, in the bars of the old town, you can eat well from the varied and colourful pintxos, as tapas are called here, though it is a good idea to like fish - particularly cod and hake, which reappear in 100 different guises and sauces.

The Donostiarras are extraordinary consumers of fresh fish - they consume seven or eight times as much as most other Europeans. The fish market is one of the shrines of the city. This originated by necessity. Historically, the poverty of this part of the Basque region meant that the only readily available source of food was fish, and the only major source of work was fishing. Now, by an irony of economic development, the relatively well- off residents of San Sebastin can afford to buy fish, and to use it as the basis of the new Basque cuisine.

But there is another reason why the gastronomic arts have taken root here, hidden behind heavy doors. San Sebastin is full of gastronomic clubs, whose members gather together to talk and drink, but mainly to cook, rivalling each other in the preparation of delicious meals.

San Sebastin is very much the pretty face of the Basque country. If you go inland, the hills that provide such a scenic backdrop to the city conceal the valleys that themselves hide the rather ugly and forbidding villages crammed into them. I remembered from my first visit that what was odd about the interior of the Basque country was the way that traditional farming and quite large industrial plants and factories existed side by side. In these post-industrial days it looks even weirder. I drove up out of San Sebastin into a faint coating of snow along mountain roads, passing abandoned paper mills, gaunt iron skeletons that might have been created by the great Basque sculptor, Txillida. I had a very clear recollection from my earlier visit of the lurid yellow and green rivers created by industrial effluent from the mills - and the hideous smell that arose from them. Not now, though: they are clean enough and fresh enough to star in any advert or grace any tourist brochure.