San Sebastian... what a beautiful city! Those who have visited it will tell you; if you're a local Donostiarra you'll probably shrug as if taking it all in your stride, while secretly smiling on the inside and feeling just a bit smug, right?. How good the life is here, and the food, and the view of the sun as it sets over the horizon or when there are huge waves because of a storm somewhere out at sea. What a luxury are the open-air concerts during the Jazz Festival, and all those good-looking actors who visit during the International Film Festival and what a treat is to be spoiled with the huge amount of choice in all the pintxo bars.
But setting aside all the high praise and flattery, from locals and visitors alike, about a city that some enthusiasts have described as "the pearl of the Cantabrian Sea"... Whence did come this "unrivalled setting", with the Santa Clara island located centre-stage in the Concha Bay, closely watched on either side by two mounts: Igeldo to its left and Urgull to its right?
Some people say that this bay was far too good for the Romans to miss out on; that from there we get "la Bella Easo", based on the supposition that a Roman colony lived in this area sometime during the ancient period and gave it the name Oiasso or Easso. But in truth, no one has been able to establish just how far the lands of Oiasso really stretched. In fact, it could have been anywhere between modern-day San Sebastian, Rentería, Oyarzun and Irún.
And if we are to be more objective, it's likely that to the Romans, who weren't really ones for going to the beach, this setting wasn't anything out of the ordinary. At most, it would seem, they just put up a temple dedicated to the Catholic Martyr Saint Sebastian, the saint of trade and protector against the plague who gave his name to the place, a place that was just a modest dock in which to load and unload goods. Some people claim that it wasn't even used for that purpose, since the neighbouringtown, Pasajes, already filled that role, being a much safer and secure port.
What we do know for sure is that, in the Middle Ages, all the land stretching from the beach at Ondarreta as far as Urgull belonged to the Navarran monastery of Leire. And as in the Middle Ages where there was a monastery, there was activity... and where there was activity, traders would appear immediately... and from there, things progressed...So, when San Sebastián was officially founded in the year 1180 under the jurisdiction of Navarre's King, Sancho el Sabio (Sancho the Wise), it appears that there were already many Gascons, which is practically a synonym for "traders", living in the area.
From then on, the city didn't stop growing; the sea that surrounded its walls providing nourishment, the same sea that sometimes, during summer gales (known as "galernas") or in the winter storms, it seems to want to swallow it with its immense waves.
With the traders came the city walls that provided protection and so more people followed, drawn by the great opportunity of a port that was now so well defended. The city has suffered its fair share of battles, sieges and fires. The worst of all was on August 31st, 1813, during the Napoleonic Wars, when English and Portuguese soldiers looted the houses, striking dead all those who dared fight back and violating any female they came across. A ferocious fire broke out that night, from which only some thirty houses survived on the 31 de Agosto street. However, it was not by chance but because it had been chosen to accommodate the English troops.
The enterprising spirit, which had been wandering around the city since the Middle Ages, managed to overcome the tragedy of being crushed by its own British and Portuguese allies and the city was gradually reborn from those ashes with more strength. Today it is known as the Parte Vieja (Old Quarter) and is perhaps the most well-preserved example of neoclassical architecture that exists in the whole of Europe. Here you wander between houses in perfect neoclassical style, designed by Pedro Manuel de Ugartemendia, architect, soldier… and possible spy.
And so, the Belle Epoque arrived... during which, the city played host to more than one First World War spies, like the famous Mata Hari to name but one, among aristocratic gatherings and celebrations.
The final push, however, we owe to Queen María Cristina, who made San Sebastian fashionable, turning it into a city of vacation, she chose to spend her holidays here thanks, mainly, to the miraculous effect of the sea on her delicate skin sick with psoriasis. With the Queen, more royalty followed and, consequently, gave Donostia-San Sebastian the final push towards infinity and beyond. Or at least until now…
And finally… three interesting facts:
Firstly, that San Sebastian only became the Gipuzkoan capital in 1854, a status fought in several assaults against its neighbouring town of Tolosa, the former capital.
Secondly, that previously, fishermen would call the city Irutxulo, a word that means "three holes" in Basque. This is because, from the sea, the fishermen would recogniseSan Sebastian thanks to its three entrances or holes: the one formed between mount Igeldo and Santa Clara Island, the one between Santa Clara and mount Urgull, and the one situated between Urgull and mount Ulía.
And the third curiosity are the remains that can still be seen on Ondarreta beach at low tide. Here there was a prison where many Donostiarras spent a hellish holiday for refusing to bow down to Franco. The building had to be demolished in 1949 as it could no longer withstand such corrosion caused by its proximity to the sea.