Wednesday, 16 December 2009

"There are 779,788 speakers of Eureska, and there are almost that many who understand it..."

written 14th December 2009

... although I don't think that's quite what they meant to say... :)

San Sebastian, Donastia in the Basque language Eureska, sits round the shell-shaped beach, Playa de la Concha with Mount Igeldo at one end, Mount Urgill at the other and turtle-shaped Isla Santa Clara in the middle.  Due to it's river, the Urumea, it's position both on the pilgrimage route to Santiago del Compostela and the gateway to France, it has always been an important trade and defensive city.  Originally a walled city, clinging to the foot of Mount Urgill, next to the river estuary and marshland, it survived several wars, sieges and french occupation, until it was almost totally destroyed by fire in 1813 when Napoleon's army were driven out by the Anglo-Portuguese liberators, leaving only one street still standing.  It was nearly left to rot but the citizens themselves set about rebuilding it and subsequent growth over the next century, especially when the town became the holiday resort of choice of Queen Maria Cristina when she was advised that sea bathing would cure her skin afflictions, led to the demolition of parts of the city walls and expansion onto reclaimed marshland and along the playa Zurriola to the foot of Mount Ulia.

The geographical setting is exquisitely beautiful and much of the town is very pretty, although there was "a dark period of industrialisation which gave rise to several errors of urbanisation" which is a shame.  All in all though, in the run up to the bicentenary of the rebuild and in the midst of San Sebastian's application to become European Capital of Culture 2016, the mayor "acclaims our choice of alternative holiday destination"  which is very nice of him!  He has a lot of flowery rhetoric around the place, especially in the tourist brochure and museums :)

And I cycled up a mountain!!  a real one!!! (well the mayor says it is a mountain so who am I to argue!) and I didn't have to get off and walk!!!

Unfortunately, things didn't start well for us.  Driving into town from our Carrefour stopover, the traffic was terrible, there were no helpful tourist office signs, the rules of the road are very different (when waiting at traffic lights you don't go when your light goes green, you go when the pedestrian crossing light for people crossing the road in front of you goes red and you hoot at anyone who hangs around waiting for an actual green light), Will's "project was playing up and crashing and Jules wasn't happy.

Eventually we found a metered parking space which was fortunately free as it was lunchtime and Will set about trying to fix things whilst I set off on my bike in search of the tourist office (which was signed for pedestrians but not in the place where the lonely planet told me it was, having recent moved, so I spent a lot of time circling).  The woman was helpful though and I got maps and excellent guide brochure with walking tours and successfully foraged lunch - chocolate panini yum! - so we at least had food and a camping car spot to head for.

Unfortunately, Jules was still not happy and after a fraught couple of hours, racing against the traffic warden (max 90min stay once it started charging), Will eventually found two problems (always much harder to diagnose the symptoms) one of which was that wretched vacuum hose again - it's days are numbered! - so we were able to set off again in the rush hour traffic (not much different from the earlier traffic to be honest! - to find the camping-car spot.  Which was nice but St Clement++++ ;)

Deciding we needed cheering up, we set off on our bikes back round the bay to the old town for food and alcoholic comfort.  Although built around several inland hills, it isn't all that big (on the western side anyway) and there is a good network of cycle paths which take you where you need to go on nice flat bits although there are places where they are speed restricted to 5km/h - even I can't cycle that slowly!

We found the old town and set off for a wander in the busy streets (suddenly realising it was friday night hence the activity! - we really are struggling to know what day it is, except Sundays when we can't do anything!) and found the Lonely planet recommeded bar for pintxos (pronounced "pinchos") which are the Basque tapas like bar snacks - although to call them that really doesn't do them justice in some places.

We started with a beer and whatever was closest to point at at then after getting chatting to an Irish guy who is living in San Sebastian teaching english, we got some recommendations for things off the menu - solomillo's, individual sirloin steaks and deep fried crepes - so we got a bit more adventurous and were well rewarded. 

By the end of the evening, we had taught ourselves enough spanish to ask for 2 beers, 2 red wines, 2 coffees, say please, thank you, hello and goodbye, and can recognise the words for pork, ham, cheese, prawns, crab, squid and octopus - should be enough to keep us going!

The next morning, we set off once more on our bikes with a plan to cycle up Mount Igeldo and then do the walking tours in the guide brochure.  The weather didn't look great, with lowhanging cloud around but we decided to go anyway and the cycle up the mountain was tough, and hot - having put many layers on as it was cold and falling (7 degrees the previous evening and still 7 degrees when we got up) I ended up in my t-shirt and still too hot.

Most of the climb was slow and in 1st gear but although I had to stop lots, I didn't have to walk which felt pretty good by the top!

And so worth the effort!  The sky had cleared and the view was amazing!

The top of the mountain (is 183m really a mountain??) houses a funfair (described as having "the charm of the early 20th century Belle Epoque" actually a bit tatty and expensive) and there is a toll which even we got chared, despite our obvious efforts at cycling up!!  but it is so worth it.  We stopped for a well deserved coffee in the restaurant and had to ask to be let out onto the terrace - we mimed "unlocking door", she mimed "very cold", we mimed "yes but unlock door por favor", she mimed "it really is cold", we mined "yes we know", she mimed "crazy foreign tourists"... - I appreciate that she didn't know we had cycled up and probably presumed we had taken the funicular like everyone else but even so why on earth would you come all that way up, in december, in the sunshine and want to sit inside and not see the view!!!

Eventually we set off back down the hill - a disappointly short but very quick thrill! - where we discovered that we had left the guide book at the van so had to head back there instead of straight into town.  Fortunately it wasn't far and it also gave us the opportunity to set off into town a different way and try and find the cycle tunnel through the hill which the irish guy told us had been built specially for cyclists.  He turned out to be wrong - it was clearly an old railway tunnel - but it did nicely cut out 2km of hills and was warm and slightly downhill all the way :)

The walking tour was good (although made difficult by a) doing it backwards due to where we popped out of the tunnel, and b) being three separate tours which didn't join up sensibly.  but was informative and interesting and we saw the civil war bulle holes in the side of the town hall and some interesting architecture

before ending up at the top of Mount Urgill, under the statue of Jesus (which seems to be wagging it's fingers at the town and - in a move which i think shows a distinct lack of faith - bristles with lightening rods.  I mean, if you believe God exists, surely he won't strike Jesus down with lightening and if you don't believe he does, why have the statue in the first place... ;)

Mountain climbing done for the day, we set off for a wander along the other beach and randomly found a climbing wall with a polystyrene side that you climb using axes and crampons!  After a bit of persuading from the guy, Will had a go and of course once he had, I had to as well and it was actually good fun!!  We really are mountaineering kings today!

on for more pintxos in the bar recommended by the Irish guy andwe ended up with a very helpful bartender who recomended 'licious things and poured local white wine and cider over his head into the glasses - apparently you have to to get the required frothy head.  This time we decided that we should try and do what the locals do and move on, but honestly, nowhere was a good as the two places we had been recommended.

That night however, following a coversation earlier in the day about gas and whether we would run out of matches or gas first (it is a month since we filled the GPL tank and we have no idea how much it holds), it finally ran out.

So sunday was spent in an abortive attempt to find LPG - we just shouldn't try and do anything on a sunday, it just doesn't happen - and we finished the day back on top of Mount Urgill in the history museum, which was ok but sorted into themes not chronological order so jumped about a lot and made even harder to follow by being almost impossible to match the exhibits to the english language guide we were given...  oh well.

With no means of cooking, and having had enough local cuisine, we settled on chinese for dinner (we are avoiding the obvious things like pizza as we will be going to italy but we won't get the china on this trip!) and, having been told there was snow forecast, even broke out a sleeping bag for extra cover and burrowed in for the night like hibernating bears.

With Jules still not happy and a possible cause being a failure of a bit of the project chip, Will is now working out how to make contingencies so the next day, we set off back into town again to find the electronics shop, which we randomly and unexpectedly found right in the centre of town next door to where the tourist office used to be - who would have thought!

Fortunately the language of electronics is largely international, so after a look to see what they had and 3 hours in a cafe with internet for our lunch to investigate those bits, whilst they had theirs, (and during which, with a glass of wine - well it was cheaper than Will's coke and I got more volume, why should I argue! -  I set about teaching myself more spanish with the help of our phrasebook,  and their menu!) suitable bits were purchased.  Hurrah!

We are now setting off in search of gas and our lives will be complete....

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