Sunday, April 8, 2012

Semana Santa II: San Sebastian

This is part 2 of my doings during Semana Santa. Part 1 is here.

I planned to use the midnight bus ride to San Sebastian as a moving hotel of sorts. As it normally takes around seven hours, I would ideally be able to get a full night's sleep and wake up in my destination. The reality was that the entire night was full of sleep-depriving terror as we sped through Spain. I would occasionally doze off momentarily, only to have my head slammed against the window, awakening me to the terrible shrill sounds of the brakes. Every time I woke up, I had to convince myself that I wasn't in a terrible plane crash about to happen. We ended up arriving about an hour early, as refreshed as you might imagine I would have been. Any other time, I may have been ecstatic to arrive early, but showing up in a strange city in near-total darkness, at least an hour before anything will be open, is not quite ideal. I suppose I was happy to have survived the bus ride, though.

I spent my first hour in San Sebastian wandering through the dark streets, trying to find a cafe or something that was open. A little after seven, I found one and had some breakfast and a coffee. I noticed that the newspapers on the bar were in both Spanish and Basque. Basque is not a language I can interpret based on similarities to Spanish or whatever, so I was thankful that most signs and museum information were displayed in Spanish as well. 

My expectations for San Sebastian were quite high, given that everyone had told me it was such a beautiful city and whatnot. But until the sun was high overhead, I was confused and disappointed with everything, as I couldn't see much of the architecture and I didn't know about half of the sites. As the day progressed, I appreciated it more and more. Once I figured out where the beach was and the historical parts of town, I was happy. Unfortunately, none of the museums or churches or much of anything was open until 10. So I just walked around town and the beach walk and the harbor and took pictures.

Bahia de la Concha

Government building

I had a nice time hanging out in the harbor, where there were some interesting boats. I watched people walking their dogs for a while until 10, when the aquarium opened. 

The first half or more of the aquarium was actually more of a museum of maritime history of San Sebastian and the region. There were exhibits that highlighted the importance of different types of fishing and boat-building over the centuries and how San Sebastian was once a really important port for trading. Within the past century, the harbor has mainly fallen into use only by local fisherman and the city's main draw is tourism. 

The aquarium section of the aquarium wasn't that impressive in comparison to other ones I've been to, but it was nice. There was a glass tunnel to walk through, surrounded by fish and sharks on all sides. There were little kids that would run in and freak out, causing them all to run through the tunnel and make the little bridge shake and, in turn, freak me out. There were also less terrifying creatures to look at, like jellyfish and starfish. The most interesting exhibit, though, was the shark fetus one.

After leaving the aquarium, I decided to hike up Urgull, a hill that served as a defensive post for San Sebastian in the past. There were cannons lined up on part of it and a castle at the top, adorned with a giant statue. The hike to the top was really pretty and provided some nice views of the town below (which was tiny in comparison to Barcelona, of course).

I'm confused as to why this is aimed at the city...

It was a cloudy day, but the temperature was nice and it didn't rain. At times, the sun even came out in full force. I imagine coming here in July would be great for the beach (I'm sure all the tourists have the same thought). I climbed down from Urgull and took a stroll along the sea before heading back into the city center.

I stopped at a little cafe and had a juice made with fresh pineapple, strawberries, and oranges. It was delicious and overpriced. Then I realized that I needed someplace to sleep later, so I spent an hour wandering around, calling hostels. There actually weren't many available from the sample that I tested, but I found one on my phone and had to walk to the other end of town to get to it. It turned out to be a really modern style room with strange shapes and furniture. The bathroom was just a big circle and the shower was open to everything. It was very inconvenient if you just took a shower and wanted to go back in to use the bathroom, considering everything was now wet and steamy. But it wasn't terribly expensive in comparison to other offers and it did have a bed, so I was pleased. I took the nap I so desperately needed by that point, had a shower, and then went back out to explore more.

I ended up taking a walk along the river that runs through the city. It turned out to be a pretty good way to see a lot of monuments and pretty buildings. A lot of the buildings in San Sebastian are unlike those in other parts of Spain. Aside from the palm trees and the sea, a lot of the city looks like it could be from somewhere else in Europe. It might have to do with it having been such an important trade port in the past, I'm not sure.

I did a lot of aimless wandering in San Sebastian, as I didn't really know much about the city before going there. It turned out to be a fun way to find things, though I'm sure I missed some important sites or something. I walked through just about every street and alleyway in the old part of town, where I was yelled at by a beggar woman for not giving her any money. I actually considered giving her something until she started smarting off to me, then I was just annoyed. She was the only beggar I saw in San Sebastian, so I wonder if they have police kicking them out so they don't annoy tourists. 

Later, I decided to grab something to eat. I had heard unending praise of Basque cuisine before coming here, but I'm not a big fan of sea food, so I didn't know what to try. I decided to just order normal stuff and see if it was any good. I had a Caesar Salad, which came out with cubes of steak and mushrooms and homemade croutons. It was amazing. Then I had duck with caramelized pineapple and sliced potatoes. To top it off, they brought me a raspberry cheesecake. I don't normally like cheesecake, but it was delicious. The meal surpassed my expectations, though I'm not sure they were all that high. I was just really hungry.

With my stomach feeling satisfied, I decided to take another gander at the beach, now that the sun had disappeared again and then make my way back to the hotel.

It was at this point that I wished I had a tripod...

The next morning, I woke up to grey skies and rain, and that's how it would stay for the entire day. I decided to go to the San Telmo museum instead of walking around in the rain. I ended up spending about four hours in the museum (of my own free will, even). It was connected to an old church, which provided a large part of the exhibit, including a giant mural on the church walls. There was an entire exhibit devoted to the artist of the mural and his team, showing photographs of dolls and models that he used to set up each scene. It was impressive. I manage to take a long exposure shot of the main room with a view of a large part of the mural, but the railing was apparently crooked...

There were many other exhibits that highlighted the history of the region, from prehistoric times until recently. A lot of it focused on the people and their relationship with the sea, but it also showed the advances in technology over the years, the evacuation of children during the civil war, and the protests against Franco, for example. Overall, I really enjoyed it (which explains why I didn't mind being there for so long). 

For the rest of the day, I hid in cafes whenever the rain picked up too much for my liking and explored some parts of the city I hadn't yet visited when the weather cleared up. I visited the other side of the Bahia de la Concha and found some interesting monuments, together called the Wind Comb. Here are some pictures I took and a video that someone took a few years ago (though it could have easily been the same day, looking at the weather):

I left the Wind Comb after a while and decided to make one last trip down some unexplored streets before I headed to the bus stop. I found some pretty residential areas but managed to get myself lost. It took me a while to reorient myself or realize that I had a phone with a map on it. It was fun, though. I made it to the bus stop with plenty of time to spare and had a sandwich in a nearby bar.

The bus ride back was not nearly as rough, which I appreciated. I sat by a man who I guessed was from Argentina by his accent. I also know he wasn't from Spain because he didn't detect immediately that I wasn't a native Spanish speaker. He did seem a little out of it, though, so who knows. He didn't even know we were in San Sebastian. I spent the rest of the time listening to music until we finally pulled into Teruel at about 4 a.m.

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