The beautiful, peaceful urbanity of San Sebastian

As I travel here and there, I’ve found that there are places in this world that are nothing like you imagined or hoped for, and there are places that are better than you could have imagined. 

A handful of times now, I’ve arrived in a location and it all was there before me. You walk out of the train station door and it’s “Boom! Dere id iz.” 

San Sabastian in the north of Spain is that kind of place. There’s no need to get to the interesting parts; the interesting parts are right there upon arrival. And more to be found.

I imagined this as a much smaller city, and no where near as developed. But I learn that San Sebastian was no sleepy beach town a century ago when Hemingway wrote of it in The Sun Also Rises. It is a rich and varied urban center that is beautifully laid out, and as charming as cities come. 

Across the river from my hotel in San Sebastian

One reviewer on Trip Advisor called it “a mix of Venice and Florence and Paris.” I’ve only been to Florence, but I get what she was saying. This is a truly marvelous city, a testament to what thoughtful urbanity can be. The most walkable city I’ve ever set foot in, and one of the most beautiful. With so many plazas and cafes and restaurants. And the Atlantic Ocean in all its restless glory.

Walking around this city calms my mind and feeds my soul.

I only booked three nights here- really just two full days- and I feel I shorted myself. I could wander around here exploring for days. Just covering all the paths along the river and the sea is a multi-day experience. 

Adding to the pleasure is the fact that the lodging I booked, the Hotel Terminus, is a part of the train station. You can actually enter the attached hotel’s cafe from the platform. 

Howcoolisthat, I thought as I arrived late Friday night, despite being tired from a five hour-plus train ride, and quite happy to forego a taxi ride. 

And the attached cafe? Like the hotel, obviously, it’s around 100 years old, a classic, with 14 foot ceilings, a great long bar, and tall windows looking out to the trains. Plus a sunny a side patio for folks who don’t want to look at the choo-choos.

As if delicious and inexpensive tapas plates and excellent, cheap Spanish wines weren’t enough. 


People in San Sebastian can stroll, bike, skate board and jog along either side of the River Urema, which empties into the Atlantic about a mile from my hotel.

And they can walk the broad sidewalks of Zurriola Hiribidea to the Plays de Zurriola, a wide curving beach were Hemingway’s alter ego Jake Barnes body surfed nearly a century ago.

It was a hugely popular destination in Hemingway’s time, and is still a popular destination today.

Nowadays surfers ride impressive waves to the shore and young lovers cuddle, little kids frolic and old folks leaning on canes smile out at the sand and sun and blue water, perhaps recalling the days they frolicked or cuddled there.

This morning I joined hundreds- probably thousands- of people strolling along the long walkway above where the river meets the sea. It is a sight to behold. More on that to come in a subsequent post.

America doesn’t know squat about what real class is. We think it’s about what things cost. Europeans appreciate the finer things, but they understand far better than us that everyone is entitled to some good things, and as a part of daily life, not just on special occasions.

The best of their cities, like San Sebastian, exhude that ethos.

Any time you see a well dressed man holding a glass of wine while he stands on the station platform waiting for a train to arrive, you know you’re in a very civilized place. 

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