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San Sebastian, Europe’s Capital of Culture 2016

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San Sebastian 7
San Sebastian
Rioja 5
Bilbao 3
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Way of St James
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San Sebastian, Europe’s Capital of Culture 2016

story by: Tom Ricketts

Our Europe experts are excited! One of Europe’s hottest destinations has been awarded Europe’s Capital of Culture for 2016. That city is San Sebastian; in Spain’s beautiful Basque Country.

The European Capital of Culture (ECOC) is a great concept in which allocated cities basically get to show off their cultural wealth in a year-long series of festivals, exhibitions and events. Cities submit bids to earn the right to be ECOC (much like cities do to host the Olympic Games), so cities try to outdo each other with some truly amazing and unique events. In return, cities are rewarded with increased tourist awareness, spikes in tourist numbers, and many legacy projects such as regenerated parts of the city or purpose built facilities (galleries, workshops etc). This year, San Sebastian is sharing the title with Wroclaw in Poland.

Known to the locals as Donostia, it’s impossible to set eyes on San Sebastian and not love it. Firstly there’s its setting, on a beautiful city beach enclosed by a calm semi-circular bay dotted with islands, yachts, and local fishing boats. Lining the beach is a series of ornate lowrise buildings hiding luxury apartments and boutique hotels. A block or two back is the ‘Old Part’. Destroyed time and again by the French, English and finally, Carlist separatists, the city was rebuilt with the aim of attracting tourists in the future. Now, beautiful late 19th century buildings with glorious facades are complemented by grand cathedrals and elegant palaces. Dissecting the Old Part are narrow streets and a canal, all lined with busy ‘taverns’ (small bars) churning out refreshing sangria and San Sebastian’s world famous pintxos…

To put it simply, a pintxo (pronounced pin-chos) is the Basque equivalent of tapas. They’re small snacks of bread with a combination of meat and croquettes. Traditional Basque pintxos contain bread, freshly harvested seafood and peppers. This bite sized goodness is held together with a toothpick, which is also the method for tallying your bill at the end of your meal. Be sure to try ‘gilda’, a traditional favourite consisting of green chilli peppers, olives and anchovies. Just make sure you have a glass of txacoli (white wine) or zurito (beer) within close grabbing distance! You’ll most likely have several meals grazing on these tasty treats, but when you’re ready for something else, you could not have a better selection of alternative choices. Per head of population, San Sebastian has more Michelin stars than anywhere else in the world, including three, 3-star restaurants (the highest rating you can get!). Only seven cities boast more, and they’re cities such as Paris, New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Just to the south of San Sebastian is the wine growing region of Rioja, perhaps the most well known of Spain’s wine regions. Blankets of rust-red vines cover the landscape, separated by only the occasional rocky hill or historic walled villages. Oaky reds are the regions most famed drops, but white wine fans will love the txacoli, a dry white wine also local to the area. Another favourite is the local cider which can be found in the cellars of decades old vineyards. And if the local cries ‘txotx’, it means you’re free to pour yourself a glass straight from the barrel!

Perhaps the most famous attraction in all of Northern Spain, is the Way of St. James, or as the locals say, the Camino de Santiago. This multi day walking route is predominantly a Christian pilgrimage, however the numbers of people making the trek purely for the scenery is certainly substantial. Pass over undulating hills, under strands of giant eucalyptus trees, around rocky headlands, and through many many historic towns, villages and cities. Depending how long you want to walk, you can spend just a couple of days, or an entire month seeing the sights. Apart from the scenery, a highlight is staying in rustic accommodations in centuries old towns, on working farms, and even vineyards, all with plenty of friendly Spaniard’s to meet along the way. The walk ends in the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage listed city of Santiago de Compostela at the Shrine of Saint James the Great, an incredible gold laden cathedral.

The largest city in the region is Bilbao. Formerly an industrial centre, the city has undergone a huge transformation in recent years to cement itself as one Spain’s leading tourist destinations. This is thanks in no small part, to the breathtaking Guggenheim Museum, the city’s most famous attraction. Sure, Bilbao has plenty of gorgeous old buildings, but it’s the fantastic regeneration of a once industrial area that people now come to see. Other favourites include the Bilbao Arena and the ‘fosteritos’, modern glass tunnels that emerge from the footpaths to allow access to the city’s subway network.


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