-have played a part in the unfolding of the city’s history.
The picturesque, postcard city of San Sebastián divides and is conquered by the three green mountains that rise up from the sea. Since time immemorial, these mountains—Ulia, Urgull, and Igeldo—have played a part in the unfolding of the city’s history. From atop these mountains, whales were hunted, enemy ships were spotted, and contraband was carried. No wonder the modern Basque loves nothing more than a good hike—the mountains echo the shapes of their very souls.
Mount Urgull / peak: 123m / From atop this stunted mountain—more of a hill, really—lookouts would perch during wartime to warn of the approach of the enemy ships. Many of the city’s important battles took place on or around the mountain, the legacy of which now make for a fascinating stroll. An ancient fort, a cemetery, a museum dedicated to the city, and the most startlingly beautiful views in the whole of San Sebastián. Seek out the polvorín, a café that opens irregularly but features coffee and aperitifs in an unforgettable setting.
Mount Ulia / peak: 243m / From atop this wooded mountain, whale watchers sat in wait with their eyes cast towards the sea. When the sea beast was spotted in the distance, they sent up smoke from a bonfire to signal the fishermen below. The trail along the mountain was famous as a route for contraband during the Spanish Civil War and under the dictatorship. Now, if one so chooses, the path up Mount Ulia from Gros can be trekked all the way to Pasaia, an important port village with an exceptional shipbuilding museum and delicious seafood.
Mount Igeldo / peak: 181m / From atop this steep mountain, San Sebastián opens up to the verdant coast of Gipuzkoa, stretching all the way to the next village, Orio. The mountain hides a secret, which can be best reached in a century-old funicular. The cable car zooms rickety up the side of the mountain and leaves its riders in a vintage theme park. A whirl on its wooden rollercoaster transports riders back one hundred years as it zips them along the edge of the cliff. Igeldo shares its name with the tiny town in its folds, a sleepy spot with a fronton and a few delicious restaurants.
You head down the steps after a walk around Mount Urgull, when you end up in front of two buildings. One is a 16th-century convent, and the other is a concrete block, pocked with holes that sprout flowers and greenery. You peek inside, only to realize this is the Museo San Telmo, and you follow the permanent exhibition through the walls of the former convent and through the evolution of the Basque society. You wander into the temporary exhibition, which this season happens to be a fascinating look at the transition of Spain from dictatorship to democracy through the eyes of one of the most esteemed photojournalists of the era.
Plaza Zuloaga 1, San Sebastian
943 48 15 80
On the fabled streets of the old town, you go down a flight of stairs and emerge in a dining room with a radiant image of the city’s bay softly lighting the wooden tables. You take a seat, and looking at the menu you see some of the most traditional dishes in Basque Country, tasting of both the mountain and the sea. You order a lapiko, an ancient Basque stew in a special earthenware pot, and it smells richly of lamb and jus. For dessert, you choose mamia, one of the oldest Basque recipes, and the waitress at Bodegón Alejandro prepares it in front of your eyes, drizzling the warm milk with honey and walnuts.
Fermin Calbeton Kalea 4, San Sebastián
943 42 71 58
You walk by and this tiny shop catches your eye. Its walls are bare, save a smattering of luxuriously simple leather and cloth bags. You drop inside to get a closer look, and see that the craftsmanship on these unique pieces is flawless. The fellow tending shop is also one of the owners of Pohorylle, and he tells you that the fabrics are vintage, made in Spain in the era of the dictatorship, and then repurposed into these gorgeous, geometric bags. You decide on a backpack from the Sailors Collection, with a heavy canvas waterproof exterior, sewn one by one with the greatest of care.
Enbeltran Kalea 2, San Sebastian
629 84 70 92
You climb the ascent of Mount Igeldo, wearing heels instead of hiking boots. You reach the destination by taxi—a farmhouse, filled not with animals but with white tablecloths and wine. When you ask for the wine list, the sommelier Martin brings a tome that spans over 250 pages. Rekondo has one of the world’s most celebrated bodegas, so you decide to try a 40-year-old classic wine, one that you would never be able to sip anywhere else. At the urging of Lourdes, the daughter of founder Txomin, you try the txipirones en su tinta, a house specialty and an exquisite Basque dish, made with line-caught squid.
Igeldo Pasealekua 57, San Sebastian
943 21 29 07
Once upon a time, once a year the rural Basques of the countryside would pack up their mules, gather their best chickens and the sausages they had cured in the attic and head to the big city of San Sebastián to pay the annual rent on their land. The city would turn into a makeshift fair, with the country folk selling their wares to take advantage of the sometimes long, arduous trip. Today, this is commemorated in the lovely Santo Tomas festival, which takes place on December 21. Attend, drink cider, eat txistorra sausage, and make merry.
December 21, Donostia