Tuesday, August 19, 2014


visited July 2014

La Concha Beach

Some travel guides claim San Sebastian has the best city beaches in the world. Hello, don't many say the same about Barcelona? Maybe they mean BIG CITY for the latter and MEDIUM CITY in the case of San Sebastian. Anyway, with a claim like that I had to include San Sebastian in my short visit to Spain.
Does it have the best medium city beaches? More on that later.

San Sebastian is a Basque country far north-east coastal city close to France's southern Atlantic border. 

The city's 3 beach areas are book-ended by 3 high areas for great views, Monte Igueldo, Monte Urgull and what I've called Zemoria Heights, on account one of the best accesses is via Zemoria St.
o q below Mte Urgull stands for the Old Quarter. The business/shopping area is largely between the words "Concha" and "oq". The long distance bus station is near the 5th bridge across the river - local buses terminate all over town. Long and medium distance trains come into the station marked "trains" but there is another station for town and immediate local area sevices opposite the 4th bridge above the "o" of "bus statiOn"


Centrally located La Concha is the longest, most popular beach. It is overlooked by a walking promenade with no shortage of cafe/bars under which is a shaded concourse with change sheds, first aid facilities etc. Most of the buildings lining the busy beach road is high end accommodation. The sand is yellow/brown ("golden" in the travel guides) and was pretty clean. The water was not bad for a city beach but not the pristine stuff I saw in the Balaeric islands or on the Costa Brava. On a day which had small waves at Zurriola to the east, the sea was very benign. There are plenty of lifeguards and good facilities for beach and water sports. Note most people are not using sun-lounges, unlike the Spanish Med beaches, but just like nearly all Aussie beaches.
If you click-expand you may be able to see that it is possible to walk along the sand to neighbouring Ondarreta bch when the tide is low.

The above was shot at about 1400 on a weekday and you can see the beach was pretty crowded. When I returned around 1730 there was twice the crowd - seems locals hit the beach en-mass after school/work. And what really impacted was the ATMOSPHERE - I have never arrived at a beach and been hit by the same wall of crowd noise you get when entering a big packed sports stadium. And I've been to Bondi with a heatwave crowd of 40000+ many times.

1900 shot of La Concha later in the week when the tide was up.

The western beach on Concha Bay is a shorter version of La Concha - but note this shot taken not long before the one above it suggests this may be the beach to head for when the tide is high.

The city's 3rd beach is east across the river. Facilities and water quality are similar to the other beaches, sand maybe a bit whiter and definitely wider - you can see the high tide mark here. Not overcrowded in this 1400 shot, maybe twice the people later but still not jammed in.
This is where the nudists go - I found them concentrated up the far end close to the river break-wall. But there were only a few dozen with more "textiles" in that section and as usual no-one gave a damn.
Note Monte Urgull background right from where you can get great views of all beaches. To its left in far background is Monte Igueldo at the western end of Concha Bay.

Zurriola's orientation allows more swell to get through and this small surf wsas running when no waves were breaking at the other beaches. At times when the swell is up, Zurriola is supposed to be very good and you can get surf at the other beaches. I think this may be most common in winter although summer Bay of Biscay storms are not all that scarce (storm winds create the best swell).
Board hire and surfing lessons are available at Zurriola.

So does San Sebastian have the world's best city beaches (medium city division)? Not if quality of sand, number and variety of beaches, water quality and beach weather* are the deciders. The place I grew up in, Wollongong, would blow it out of the water. So would several other SE Australian cities like the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast-Noosa, Newcastle and Gosford-Wyong. But like Barcelona, if we are talking facilities and ease of access for the bulk of residents San Sebastian maybe rates right up there. And we haven't yet included the ATMOSPHERE I mentioned.

*I'm underwhelmed by Basque country weather. It is in a zone which gets variable summer weather which puts it at a great disadvantage to Spain's Mediterranean which has more consistently warm dry days in that season. True, my home region in Australia has also a variable summer weather, but being at a lower latitude it is much more pleasant when a cold front passes thru. And I can't remember the last time at home when the mid-summer sea breeze was so strong (and cool) its unpleasantness made me avoid the beach.

Now a major tourist attraction with its castle, chapel, towering statue of Christ, museum, winding paths thru nice gardens and fabulous outlook over both bays and the city, Mte Urgull historically has been a major defensive position when the city had been under attact from the sea.
Recent work has created more access points for the hill - I wandered along the seaside road on the opposite side in the shot below until I came to a path leading uphill. You can see the descent I made to the marina area bottom-right.
Mte Urgull seen from Mte Igueldo with "Zemolia Heights" behind (the extended high ridge is known as Mte Ulia).


La Concha


The old quarter

The city

Moto Castle as the former defensive barriers and barracks is called still has a lot of its walls, buldings and a few cannon on display. Part of one restored building is now the small Mirando a San Sebastian museum which highlights the city's history. Entry if free! And the display interesting.

I thought I'd climbed to the very top of Urgull but I didn't make it to the statue or its associated chapel - a good reason for taking a guide book or similar on one of these jaunts. Note: some telephoto in this - it's further up there than appears on the image.

San Sebastian' marina is at the foot of Mte Urgull and the western end of the old quarter. When I descended the hill, some sort of festival was going on. Here we have a greasy pole contest.

Youngsters waiting to give it a go. Note lower battlement walls upper-background-left.

The imposing hill on the western headland of Concha Bay is a good one to ascend for 3 reasons - exercise, good views and the amusement/theme park up top (if that sort of thing floats yer boat. I'm underwhelmed). There is also a rather flash hotel.

If you don't want to hoof it up, there is a vintage funicular that starts at beach level - cost is a little over 3 euro return which is only a euro or so more than the toll on the roadway at the entrance to the theme park. I did both methods - although I refused to pay the toll first day and so didn't make the very top then: I'm philosophically opposed to tolls when it's clear the road etc is in the public domain. And I react negative to some harridan screaming "YOU PAY! YOU PAY!" Not this happy camper, baby. Okay, maybe car drivers/motorcyclists should contribute to the road upkeep but walkers don't exactly cause wear and tear of the bitumen. 

When climbing by road, the first half is through a pretty flash neighbourhood. Look for stairway shortcuts between the road's zig-zags. It's a good steady climb on the road, people of average fitness will not be troubled - only the shortish stairways can be described as steep.

The road is just short of 3km long - I was in no hurry and it took me about 50m. It is was very popular in the late afternoon with local car guys and dudes on big sports motorcycles doing a cruise/fang - terminating before the toll gate of course. Or just hanging out at viewpoints with their girls. Also quite a few road cyclists on training runs.

There are some pretty good views on the way up.......

The coast to the north-west

.....and from the top:
Mte Urgull, distant Mte Ulia and lower center, Isla de Santa Clare. I saw many small boats ferrying people out the the island but I didn't have the time to check it out.

Ondarreta, La Concha and the city.

The strolls up Mte Igueldo and Mte Urgull are pretty small change compared to the hike along the Mt Ulia ridge to the rather attractive estuary towns of Pasia and San Pedro.

This is roughly the route I took. Note the turn away from the ridge-route about 20% into the journey from Zurriola. The track is sign-posted pretty well - if in doubt stick to the bigger path. Paths were in fairly good condition but I advise leaving the flip-flops or lightweight sandals at home. Just above the "p" of "stePs"  rupper right of image the track meets a road which goes along the top of the ridge overlooking the Ria de Pasaia inlet. If you turn left instead of right this road continues to a lighthouse high above the inlet entrance (under the 3km place marker arrow), but I found final access blocked with no good viewpoints. I ascended to inlet level by the set of steps so marked. A path leads along the inlet which turns into a road. Total distance is about 10km - I was in no hurry and took maybe 3 hours. Some sections are steep enough to give people of average fitness a good workout but there were no "hearbreak" climbs (although circumferentialy enhanced people may think differently about the climbs up onto the ridge from each end depending on which direction they choose to travel. It seemed to me most people were travelling the opposite direction to me - maybe because finding the start of the track is easier from the Pasaia end).

Getting to the start of the Pasaia trek from the San Sebastian end is not all that hard. Find Zemoria St aka Zemoriya Kalae near the eastern end of Zuriola beach. Take the stairs at the top of the street. A path leads around the high side of the white villa up there (it was being remodelled when I went by - I assume it will stay white), past which you will see signs for the track.

Not too far from the top from the start of the track above Zemoria is this rather good outlook over Zurriola.

There's some pretty good coastal scenery along the way - this is no way the best: I belatedly woke up that I'd need one for this page.

This is a (distorted) image of the view from the top of the stairs which drop to Pasai inlet. Distorted because my elcheapo Olympus doesn't always stitch these "panorama" shots together seamlessly. Nothing to do with dumb operator.

From the bottom of the stairs towards Pasaia. It's not unusual to see container ships and bulk-carriers cruising along here because Pasaia is San Sebastian's port and also has a fair bit of manufacturing. Lotsa fishing trawlers are based here too. Despite dock and factory activities Pasaia is known for its restaurants, particularly fish restaurants. The opposite side of the inlet in the middle distance has an attractive string of waterside restaurants and tourist accommodation. There is a small ferry crossing the inlet in that area.

This area is just short of the bus stop for San Sebastian. I shot it to show the digital thermometer read-out top-right. About half the trekkers on the track seemed French, and they looked less than impressed by the 40C heat. Such temps are more common where I live but I welcomed an ice cool beer or three at a waterside bar not far behind camera. The barman and locals thought I was nuts sitting at an outside table but I prefer a hot water view anytime over the shaded, fan cooled interior of a bar.


San Sebastian's old town, nestled below Mt Urgull on the narrow peninsula between La Concha and the river at Zurriol's nth, is a good place to spend time.

The area is full of narrow alleys, many pedestrianised, lined with shops, restaurants and bars. There is quite a lot of accommodation on offer, mostly pension in style. San Sebastian has a bit of a reputation as a high end shopping town and many of the more exclusive boutiques are found in the old town.
The place gets busy in the late afternoon and tends to be packed at night.

The Basque call their tapas pintxosOne makes a nice snack but 3 or 4 are surprisingly filling if you fancy a meal. These originally were not from this region, but for some reason pintxos featured at more eating places in San Sebastian's old town than the other areas of Spain I visited. San Sebastian is said to have superior tapas/pintxos but I'm no gormet and couldn't tell - they all taste pretty good to me.  One thing's for sure, they tended to be more expensive in San Sebastian, like many other things.

The old town has some nice churches. Santa Maria above is as impressive inside as on the exterior. The San Sebastian Cathedral of course is a step or five up - it is not in the old town but if you click expand the alley shot two above this you can see it in the distance. Not being a culture-vulture I didn't pay a visit. I din't visit the several museums and galleries in the old town either.

The Boulevard is the southern border of the old town. This spit avenue has many buses terminating on the vehicle side and is the natural thoroughfare between the ends of La Concha and Zuriolla on this pedestrian side. Lots of pavement restaurant/bars etc. The area tends to get very crowded late afternoon into the evening. People watching, the favourite pass-time of single travellers, was excellent.

Pavement tables of Kaxio Backpackers' associated restaurant a nice place to spend time.

I was after a good value place close to the beaches which had reasonably good user reviews. My search of booking sites led me to the conclusion that accommodation in San Sebastian tends to be more expensive than my other destination. Kaxio Backpackers' seemed to be one of the better deals and certainly filled my other requirements. I wrote the following review for the booking site:
"Good location in the old town close to transport, beaches and a host of restaurant/bars. Nice owners based in downstairs restaurant (a good place to spend time) and the cleaner guy is a gem. Bathrooms small but clean. Good kitchen. But the place is overpriced - my single room was a very compact windowless dog-box at a similar price to a typical package room in a Mallorca resort (TV, aircon, big pool and awesome buffet breakfast) a few days before. The washing machine cost 5 euro with no hand-washing facilities."


With over a week in the area I was keen to see a bit more of the coast. Biarritz in France is not all that far but I kinda think the French insistence on only speaking French at international tourist destinations maybe doesn't deserve my Aussie dollars. Zarauz, which is closer, has a reputation of being a good surfing beach with a naturist section so I thought I'd move there for a few days.

Zarauz is abt 18km by road west of San Sebastian. Frequent buses and local trains connect the two - I caught a bus from directly behind the long distance bus shelters at SS bus station. The harbour breakwaters of the rather nice fishing/tourist town Getaria can be seen on the image margin far-left.

As a bottom budget traveler I wan't whelmed by the expense of Zarautz area accommodation, so settled on what hostelworld.com called Zarautz All In One Camping. Turns out this is Stoke Travel San Sebastian Surf Camp, which has a section of the rather nice Gran Camping Zarautz's big grounds high on the hill to the south of the beach - the pic 2 above was shot from adjacent.
I'm an older dude but places like this don't phase me - as an ex-surfer and current frequent backpacker I tend to fit in okay, particularly as my policy is to keep a low profile and check the scene.
Stoke Travel offers some other deals: they do a surfari along the Basque coast and into south west France - I reckon this would be a great way to see/surf legendary spots like Mundaka, Biarritz and Hossegor. Stoke also have a party boat out of Barcelona. Sounds like fun. 

I was there on a twin-share breakfast only basis - but the policy seems to be that if the camp is not fully booked they try to give singles their own tent. Thank God - one of my criticisms of the place is that the tents are a bit squeezy, Fine for couples or two friends like the guys to my left or girls to the right. But I didn't fancy sharing with Miss Sweden in the above. Much.
My other criticism was cost - higher than a comfy bed in a backpacker joint back home - and Australia is an expensive place these days with its overvalued exchange rate.

I'm not sure how good the mainly Aussie staff was at surf instruction, but the affable blokes sure were excellent hosts and had the ability to make everyone feel welcome and inclusive. I was a bit surprised at the number of seemingly shy young singles arriving - in no time they were part of the group. No doubt the 5 euro all you can drink beer/sangria deal helped. This brilliant offer was the opposite of overpriced. btw, the party each night seemed to end around midnight - probably part of the deal with Gran Camping. I think ragers might often continue down in town. The inclusive breakfast of eggs, cereal, toast etc was pretty good. Plenty of people are on full board and the other meals looked okay. I ate dinner in the neareby rather good value restaurant of Gran Camping Zarautz. Surf Camp uses Gran Camping's bathroom/toilet blocks which are big, clean and fully featured. Gran Camping's free wifi is pretty good around the restaurant and bathroom blocks. 
You can just see some of the surf boards in background above. There seemed to be one for everybody - from plenty of big high flotation learner boards to some rather nice looking short boards for experts - although I didn't detect any gun surfers.

Not too sure about Stoke Travel's logo

Zarauz's long beach. Very wide here at low tide and sufficient sand when the tide is up. Water shelving gently. Water quality not bad - the sand pretty clean but closer to brown-yellow than white. A pedestrian promenade runs behind the sand from about mid beach to the far end and has restauants, bars, shops behind and several sporting areas. An after school basketball comp seemed to be running during my visit. The town behind has a good shopping area and lots of tourist accommodation.The beach's nude section is supposed to be down the near end but I saw none - but as you can see the weather was not great. Neither was the surf - I had no desire to borrow one of Surf Camp's boards.

I'm not a big fan of these big open featureless beaches - I like mine compact with lighter sand, no settlement and book-ended with forested headlands.

The surfers tended to hang on the eastern end of the beach. These people had me perplexed - they seemed happy to sit around - I can't remember seeing any walking across the towards the water with a board. Not that the crap surf at the time was encouraging. They reminded me of the Japanese pretend-surfers I used to see on the Gold Coast, at Bondi and Manly etc. These dudes fly into Australia, buy the board/shorts/wet suites etc and then hang about the beach staring at the ocean. All the gear and no idea. We didn't complain - there would be great surf shop deals in barely used equipment when they went home. Now maybe I'm wrong about these Euro surfers, but when the surf was bad on one of our many surf trips back home we didn't sit around the beach - we would be off skateboarding or tuning tourist babes/surfer groupies/truanting schoolgirls in local clubs, pubs or malls. Um....in my case, make that TRYING to tune.... But if holidays are about relaxation, the people in the shot sure looked relaxed. More so than if they were dodging cement trucks on the local hell hill or getting burned by the town's ice queen and her friends.
BTW these crap small wave conditions are ideal for surf schools - it's harder to learn when the waves are big, fast and tubing.
If you check the headland in the background you will be able to see the lower parts of the walking track up to the camping area - about 10 minutes total.

I could easily see this small fishing/holiday town seemingly a km or so west of Zarauz from Surf Camp's hilltop.So I took a walk around the winding coastal road and checked it out - turned out to be more like 3km. Hey, nice place - smallish sweet beach with a popular restaurant bar at its far end, small harbour packed with fishing and leisure boats......

....and a characterful "old quarter" type lane with lots of trendy shops, cafe/bars etc leading up from beach level to the main town above. The small town seemed to have no shortage of tourist accommodation. Regular buses head back to Zauauz and to San Sebastian.

I really enjoyed my visit to San Sebastian. I found the city beaches fun and unique in atmosphere, the montes well worth the climb, the trek to Pasaia excellent, the old quarter the usual old town good value, Stoke Surf Camp a bit of a blast, the general Zarauz area worth the time and people watching excellent. I rate it an A.
BUT make that an A-. Whereas my other places of visit in Spain all rank higher:  Tossa de Mar A+ with Ibiza, Mallorca and Barcelona all an A.

I think San Sebastian's reputation as an "in'' destination with trendoids and the "it" crowd may make other people rank it higher than me. The film festival and being named European Culture Capital 2016 (in 2011! How does that work?) could well give it kudos with the arty set and culture vultures even if they can't visit at key times, fashionistas may be attracted by the rep of the high end boutiques, foodies by the "superior" tapas/pintxos and unique basque dishes, history buffs by the old quarter and Moto Castle. This "in" place factor may explain why accommodation and many other prices* in San Seb are higher on average than my other destination.
But my experience is that all my other destinations apart from Barcelona have nicer beaches and better sea water. I think culture vultures and artistic types will find Barcleona way superior. History buffs will find more of interest in the other areas....

History nerds will love Tossa de Mar's castle/walled old town dating from the 14 century. So will aesthetes.

 ....fashionistas more variety and better value in Barcelona and more exclusivity in Ibiza. I thought Ibiza's and Tossa's old quarters more attractive. People watching is better in Ibiza and no worse in the others. Scenery is better in all others bar Barcelona - and there you can find wonderful scenery a short day trip away. Ditto trekking. But only Tossa beats San Sebastian for trekking immediately out of town.
I forgot ragers. No doubt San Seb has some great nightlife venues but Ibiza, Mallorca and Barcelona have more and better.
I have already mentioned the superior weather in the south. This isn't based on the times of my visit only - I'm a weather/climate nerd and have a real good idea about long term weather conditions in all these regions.
Some of you are maybe thinking I'm downrating San Sebastian on account of the limited nudist area at Zuriola and lack of naturists at Zarauz. But if you look at the rest of this blog you will find most reports are on my favourite destinations of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. No nude beaches there, so lack of same is not something I down-rate a place on.

Okay all this is merely my subjective opinion based on excessively short visits of all places. People who know all areas may well rate and rank differently. It would be neat if you could post in below giving your opinion.

*gotta praise the low public bus prices, at least for longer trips. Hell, I went 25km from San Sebastian's airport near the French border into town for about 2.20 euro. The buses back from Pasaia after the trek and to Zarauz  were similarly inexpensive..