As a young girl I had always traveled, but I did not necessarily enjoy it. Of course going to my parents’ hometowns in Rio de Janeiro every year is amazing, but having to do everything your family wants to do can be exhausting. In high school I travelled with friends to Florida, and later Canada, and I finally got a taste for what traveling can be. I became enamored with the idea of finding out what the world had to offer. Not long after, I decided that when I went to college, I had to seriously consider studying abroad. From the ages of 5 to 18, I was lucky enough to travel to 5 different countries between North, Central, and South America. Because of those experiences, I thought that Europe would be a great option. If I were to study in a foreign country for an extended period of time, I wanted it to be in one of the most diverse continents. The most intriguing options were England, Portugal, and Spain because I feared having a language barrier. At the beginning of my third year of college, I told myself that it was now or never. If I did not sign up for a program abroad before the end of the year, it was never going to happen. At that point, there was no question that I wanted to study somewhere in Spain. Spanish is similar to my first language, Portuguese, so it always came fairly easy to me. I always admired the Spanish language, so I set my mind on becoming as close to fluent as I could during my time away. With the option between Madrid and Barcelona, I chose Barcelona because of the diverse culture and geography it offers. Mountains, beach, and a vibrant city. With its unique place in the Mediterranean, I knew that this city would allow me to easily travel to other parts of Europe. Two months ago, my adventure began and it has been the adventure of a lifetime thus far.
Since arriving in Barcelona, I have mainly traveled within the country. Tossa de Mar, Montserrat, and Aigüestortes National Park in the Pyreenes are some of the most unique places I have ever seen in my life. Before I take multiple trips outside of Spain in the final weeks of my time abroad, I wanted to experience a different Comunidad Autónoma. Over this past weekend, my friends and I went to San Sebastían, located in País Vasco (Basque Country). I am grateful I got to acquaint myself with this unexpected but wonderful place. Known for its unique culture, San Sebastían is a beautiful oceanside city. There is more than one region in Spain that maintains its own separate language, which sometimes take precedence over Spanish. What sets País Vasco apart is that it speaks one of the oldest languages in Europe. The local language, Euskera, is spoken in parts of the Spanish and French Western Pyrenees. Euskera is interesting because it does not belong to any known language family. This is one of the reasons that the Basque Country has always felt somewhat distant from the rest of Spain. As the capital of Basque country, San Sebastían has the most native Euskera speakers.1 However, to locals it is known as Donostia, which also means Saint Sebastian. Located in the Northern Coast of Spain by the Atlantic Ocean, it is often noted for its beautiful beaches and surf culture. Though it was a little too cold for a swim, we still had to opportunity to witness dozens of expert and amateur surfers. I was able to see every facet of the Basque capital, and managed to do so in only two days.
My first day in San Sebastían was a very wet one. The rain was so sporadic that we decided to take refuge in one of the local museums, which was in a 16th century building. The building itself had many uses throughout the years, but it became a museum in the 20th century. The San Telmo Museum, located in the old town, gives an overview of Basque history and culture. I knew very little about San Sebastían before going. Now I can say that I at least have a basic understanding of the region, such as how they once had a successful whaling industry. Some of those men even went on to travel to the Americas and hunt in Canada. In the museum, I was also able to watch a video where locals talked about their traditions. The Basque view death differently than Spaniards in other regions. They have a great respect for the dead and believe that those who have passed are still with the land.2 In País Vasco, there is no fear of death. Rather, there is a fear of a ‘difficult journey beyond.’ (Katarzyna Mirgos, 74). I found this relationship with death so interesting. In the United States, death is somewhat taboo. We take the dying to a hospital because if they die in our home, our home is now too somber to live in. I appreciate the fact that the Basque want their loved ones to die and be buried at home, because they are still a part of the family and the property. The San Telmo Museum includes more recent history as well, and it has a charming collection of art and fashion throughout its 4 floors.
As we only spent two full days in San Sebastían, we were lucky enough to experience beautiful weather on the second day. A distinct work of art, El Peine del Viento, is situated at the western end of La Concha Bay. The phrase means The Comb of the Wind in English, and it is made up of three steel sculptures embedded in natural rocks coming out of the Cantabrian Sea. It was a joint work by sculptor Eduardo Chillida and architect Luis Peña Ganchegui, who arranged the sculptures into the rocks.3 The art itself is amazing, but it is enhanced by the natural playground nearby. In front of the sculptures are a series of holes in the ground. If you stand on top of these holes, you can feel the strong winds come up from the ocean. It was exhilarating and made for a pleasant surprise when we went to see the art. After that, we decided to visit the small amusement park at Monte Igueldo. The view from the top is a must-see if you are to visit San Sebastían. Being the thrill-seeker I am, I convinced my friends to ride the small rollercoaster that has almost no barrier to protect you from the edge of the mountain. It is considered a children’s ride, but I have to admit I was a little scared when I realized how fast it went. Either way, a rollercoaster with that view is one that I cannot complain about.
My trip to San Sebastían was not planned out very well. We booked the tickets only a few days before, and did very little research about what to do there. The one thing we did know for sure was that the food there is highly praised, and for good reason. I tried several local dishes during my stay, and each was better than the last. A Basque specialty, pintxo, is a small snack that is typically eaten in bars while socializing with friends. They are similar to tapas, except they come with a toothpick and are served on bread. We stopped at a small bar that is known for its variety of anchovy pintxos. I had one with spider crab and one topped with olives, and they were well worth it. I also had some of the local sparkling white wine, txakoli. The entire meal was very budget friendly, which is the best way to have a delicious snack. For dinner, we decided to have the most authentic meal we could. Beef cheeks and risotto were the star dishes of the restaurant we found. I consider myself adventurous when it comes to food, so I was not surprised to find that I really enjoyed the soft and flavorful beef cheeks. I was more worried about the risotto, because I usually am not a fan of that dish. Ironically, the risotto was one of my favorite dishes of the entire trip. It is prepared with a local cheese called Idiazabal, made from unpasteurized sheep’s milk. Shortly after dinner, we found a small restaurant that is rumored to have exceptional cheesecake. I think it is safe to say that it was the best cheesecake I will ever have. It tasted similar to pudim, a Brazilian-style flan that was brought to almost every family party I went to growing up. The taste and texture were so perfect that I was immediately transported back to my childhood upon tasting it. This dessert can be found in the old town at La Viña. It pairs well with their Sherry wine, and for 5 euros you get a rather large piece of cheesecake.
While the food was definitely a highlight of my trip, I enjoyed everything about San Sebastían. It is one of the more unique and lively cities I have visited outside of Barcelona. The residents often drink and eat pintxos while standing outside. In most of the restaurants I went to, I ate my meal standing up at a bar. The happiness and love felt by the people I saw on the streets was infectious. Before coming to Spain, I was mostly excited to visit the southern coast. I never expected that by traveling 8 hours north, I would see a part of the Atlantic Ocean that had nearly translucent water. I am grateful I got to experience this small part of the Basque Country, even if only for a short time.