San Sebastián & Saint-Jean-de-Luz: Seaside Dreams of Summer
San Sebastián, Spain
The air was still crisp with the cool lingering temperatures of late May, but in a way it felt like summer. Our tour bus had crossed into San Sebastián, Spain, and was making its way up a winding road to Monte Igueldo, a viewing spot overlooking Concha Bay. Thick cloud cover was casting a moody haze over the water below, framing the scene as if it were pages from an old book.
Behind the viewing point sat a 1912 amusement park, and behind the amusement park was an 18th century castle-like tower that had originally been a lighthouse. The place seemed so much like it was out of another time that I expected a calliope to start playing and women wearing long skirts and carrying parasols to appear!
We left the scenic viewpoint and headed to Concha Bay, where our bus dropped us off for time on our own. The beach was nearly empty, but it was easy to imagine the beautiful sandy stretch filled with vacationers. A lovely old carousel from 1900 sat along the promenade, as if to complete the theme from the amusement park at Monte Igueldo.
We passed the stunning City Hall, built in 1882 as a casino venue during La Belle Époque era of rich cultural and artistic achievements. It was an incredibly elegant building and seemed to just belong in its setting.
Next we made our way into Parte Vieja, San Sebastián’s Old Town. We stopped for a coffee and Basque Cake at Pastelería Oiartzun and then headed into the heart of the old city.
As we walked down one of the old narrow streets, a building at the end seemed to beckon. All we could see from a distance was a bell and something blue on the top. It turned out to be Iglesia de Santa Maria del Coro, built in 1774 in the Spanish Baroque style. The blue top was the seal of San Sebastián – a sailing ship in a deep blue sea.
It was fun to wander the old streets without any destination in mind. We stopped in San Sebastián’s oldest building, Iglesia de San Vincente, completed in 1509, and the Plaza de la Constitucíon, where bullfights once took place.
We walked back to Concha Bay and met our bus for the return ride to Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where our ship was anchored. I loved the idea of seeing both sides of the Basque Country – Spanish and French – in the same day. In about 30 minutes, we were at the port and ready for the second leg of our journey.
Like San Sebastián, Saint-Jean-de-Luz is a summery kind of place, with an inviting beach and amusement park rides by the pier. And also like its Basque Country neighbor, it’s more of a wandering than a sightseeing town.
We walked down the Rue de la République, weaving in and out of charming side streets, past red-shuttered buildings, interesting-looking shops and inviting restaurants with outdoor seating. At the end of the street was the beach promenade along the beautiful Bay of Biscay.
We walked back to the pier along the Rue Gambetta, stopping at the town’s main tourist attraction, Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste. The church was the site of the wedding in 1660 of France’s Louis XIV and Spain’s Marie-Therese, which ended the war between the two countries.
It was late afternoon when we caught our tender back to the ship. The bay was calm as we made our way out of the harbor.
This was our last stop in Basque Country, and I was glad we had been able to experience towns on both sides of the border. I was also happy to have seen these two seaside resorts before the crowds arrived, to have had a sneak peek of summer in the Basque Country.
And now whenever I think of summer by the sea, mixed in with my own memories will be a Belle Époque amusement park and tamarisk trees on the promenade.