My junior year of college I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to spend a quarter abroad in the south of Spain. Within days of arriving I fell in love with the Spanish beaches, people, and way of life, and quickly made arrangements to instead stay the entire school year.

The program was excellent; run through the University of Washington and set in the southwest beach town of Cádiz, the director planned regular excursiones throughout the school year including destinations like Salamanca, Granada, Córdoba, Toledo, Madrid, even nearby Lisbon. However, besides a weekend trip to Barcelona, I never made it up to the northern part of the country. Basque Country specifically, located in the most northeasterly part of the country on the Bay of Biscay, has intrigued me ever since.

A little background on Basque Country:

– While the majority of the País Vasco region is within the geographical border of Spain, a small part falls within France, and is there referred to as Pays Basques.

– Basque people are shown to have their own genetic makeup, different than non-Basque people. (Genographic Project, American Journal of Human Genetics)

– The Basque people speak a unique language called Euskara, known to be the oldest European language, tracing back 20,000 years. Most Basque speak Euskara as their primary language, and Castellano (or Castilian Spanish) as their second.

– Basque cuisine is internationally renowned; with over 40 Michelin starred restaurants within the region, it boasts the most per capita in the world! Instead of typical Spanish tapas, Basque cuisine is famous for their tasty variation called pintxos (pronounced peen-chos).

And now a quick history lesson on Basque autonomy:

– The history of the Basque people’s fight for autonomy is complicated, to say the least. During the Spanish Civil War in 1937, General Francisco Franco called on his Nazi allies to bomb the Basque city of Guernica, as a means to punish the Basque population for supporting his republican opposers. (The aftermath of the bombing was the inspiration behind Pablo Picasso’s famous painting, Guernica.) Franco then went on to become dictator of Spain, from 1939 until his death in 1975; during this time Basque people were severely oppressed. He confiscated their property, controlled their food, destroyed their books, killed or removed their priests and teachers, and prohibited the teaching and speaking of the Euskara language in its entirety.

– As a result, after years of oppression, in the 1950s a group of Basque students started an underground movement called Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (‘Basque Homeland and Freedom’) or ETA in Basque. Within a few years they began arming themselves to resist Franco’s rule. Resorting to killing, kidnapping and bombings, the movement is said to be responsible for over 800 deaths to date. After a permanent ceasefire called in 2011, the movement has been mostly disbanded, including a turnover of the group’s weapons early last year. However, as evidenced from the below poster I saw in Edinburgh, Scotland, last month, remnants of the ETA still linger.

Now then. With all of THAT being said, onto the gloriousness that is San Sebastián, Spain…

Upon arriving I became almost convinced that my travels were cursed. After spending the previous five weeks in cool, wet Northern European weather I was BEYOND excited to switch over to the warm, sunny weather of Southern Europe. Well, as you can see in the above picture, it was RAINING. Not the best start to my Spanish adventure. Fortunately I was able to find shelter and soon found myself a new acquaintance as well: the elusive Spanish microbrew!

Apparently hipsterness has even found its way to Basque Country! Founded in 2007, the Basque Brew Gross Company offers the first and only microbrews I’ve ever seen in Spain. One of these bad boys and a delicious tortilla española later, things were starting to look up, and I set off to do some wandering.

The beautiful Catedral del Buen Pastor and Boulevard Zumardia (where the old town wall stood until 1863, separating the Old Town from the New Town) are pictured above.

Within the Old Town stands the majestic Plaza de la Constitución, pictured above. If you zoom in, you can see numbers above each of the balconies overlooking the plaza. Years ago, when the plaza was home to San Sebastian’s bullfights, the City Hall sold the balconies as box seats to wealthy patrons. Residents of the apartments had to purchase the seats themselves if they wanted to use them, otherwise they had to stand peering over the heads of the attendees!

The city’s old town was absolutely enchanting! It’s super compact, with pintxos bars and shops on every corner. The awe-inspiring Iglesia de Santa María (pictured above) stands overlooking the streets below, providing countless photo opportunities.

In every direction people are pouring out of bars. Spain is such a social country, it’s very rare to invite people over to hang out at home, so most of life occurs in the streets. In the picture above, you can see a separate take-away window to the right of the door for diners wishing to order then consume their food and drinks standing in the street.

Basque Country is home to a slightly sparkling, very dry white wine called Txakoli. As a huge fan of sweet white wines, for me it was love at first taste.

In addition to Basque food being extraordinarily delicious (the solomillo, or sirloin, pictured above was one of the best things I’ve ever had; garlic scallops were delish as well), it’s crazy cheap!! I was elated to be back on the Euro after traveling through Scandinavia: two pintxos and a glass of Txakoli will only set you back 8€ max! Now that’s my kind of city.

Besides its charming old town and amazing food, San Sebastián is first and foremost known for its beaches. With one of the best in-city beaches in Europe, tourists come from near and far to lay out on La Concha’s white sands, only steps away from the city’s historic buildings and churches.

The next day, with the rain fully behind me, I hightailed to the beach to soak up some rays.

Perfection.

After one last stroll through the town that night, enjoying the weather and taking in the magnificent sites under the dreamy street lamp glow, I had the good fortune to be treated to one of my best travel experiences yet.

My AirBnb host (who did I mention was a chef?) had some friends over for dinner and I was lucky enough to join in!

Over various courses of local vegetables, seafood, homemade pintxos and Spanish cider, it was such a treat to enjoy a homemade meal with true locals, practicing my Spanish and gaining a firsthand perspective of life in Basque Country. It was the perfect way to end my visit to San Sebastián, and once again reminded me why I choose AirBnbs over other accommodation choices (and no, I wasn’t paid to say that!)

Thanks for reading!

xo Carrie