Experience the heart of Basque culture in San Sebastian

The resort city of San Sebastian in Spain boasts a unique mix of beach and Basque culture and has the second-most Michelin stars per capita

Standing atop Mount Urgull, I want to embrace the enigmatic city stretched out before me.

Five days here and I am besotted with San Sebastian, a Basque resort city on the Bay of Biscay, at the north-eastern neck of the Iberian peninsula. Steel skies and the sound of white-tipped waves crashing on boulders below heighten the city's cool, mercurial character.

For its unique mix of beach and Basque culture, food and wine delights, San Sebastian is, along with Wroclaw, Poland, the 2016 European Capital of Culture and promises to flourish with festivals, concerts and exhibitions this year.

Not that anyone needs any more reason to visit this mesmerising city.

From the heights of the Mount, amid wind-battered pines and moss- covered stone, I can see the curves of the Urumea River bisecting old town and new. Circuitous roads swoop down the surrounding hills, merging to grids and avenues of white and slate-roof buildings which lead in straight lines to the shore.

Forested hills form emerald headlands at the beach-end to the east, mirrored by Zurriola Beach, a favourite of students and surfers, sparkling in the west.

And as the sun sets, its light reflects golden and pink across the bay. Iridescent ripples lick the sand of Playa de La Concha, where a rim of Belle Epoque buildings outlines the perfectly arched beach like the scalloped edge of a weathered shell.

  • GETTING THERE

    Most flights to San Sebastian will require a connection via Barcelona or Madrid.

    Iberia Airlines offers at least three flights a day between San Sebastian and Madrid, while Vueling operates seven flights a week from Barcelona.

    San Sebastian is also easily accessible from Bilbao, an hour's drive away. The airport there serves direct flights from international hubs including London, Istanbul, Frankfurt and Paris.

Sitting in the heart of the Basque coast, Donostia, as it is known in the Basque lingua franca, is best known for its food. It is second only to Kyoto for the highest number of Michelin stars per capita, with three of Spain's eight three-Michelin- starred restaurants in the city area.

It first became famous as a seaside resort in the late 19th century, when Queen Maria Christina of Spain chose the city as her summer residence. Spanish aristocrats and diplomats soon established summer homes here, building splendid Art Nouveau and turn-of-the-century architecture, mostly found in the city's centre - along the Urumea River in a neighbourhood called Area Romantica, around the Buen Pastor Cathedral and the beachfront of Playa de La Concha.

One of Europe's best urban beaches, La Concha's 1.5km of soft, white sand and beach-side promenade with cafes, restaurants and white wrought-iron balustrades, has been the centre of the city's seaside life for more than a century.

Built in 1887, La Concha's luxury boutique Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra (www.hlondres.com/en) is still one of the city's best, with fully renovated and updated rooms and unparalleled views of the ocean.

Nearby, in the centre of the Promenade, turn-of-the-century spa La Perla (www.la-perla.net/en) rises from the beach like a delicate Belle Epoque sandcastle.

A full-service facility, it offers massages, health clinics, physio- therapy and beauty treatments, as well as heated thalassotherapy pools filled with bubbling jets of warm salt water. The two hours I spend here for €27 (S$42.50), blissfully soaking and massaging sore muscles in its heated pools and detoxing in the Swedish-style dry saunas, is one of the highlights of my stay.

Belle Epoque attractions continue along the promenade in Alderdi Eder Park, where a vintage carousel with gilded carriages and white painted horses from the 1900s still runs daily. Overlooking the river on Republica Argentina Street is Hotel Maria Cristina (www.hotel-mariacristina.com/en), the grandest of San Sebastian's accommodation.

Designed by Charles Mewes, the French architect behind the Ritz hotels in Paris and Madrid, the opulent hotel, which blends marble staircases and vintage chandeliers with modern interiors, has been a favourite with the well-to-do since its opening in 1912. Rooms range from €500 to €2,000 a night and are often fully booked in the peak summer season, though rates drop by half in winter.

Silver screen stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts have stayed here and, in September, it is the hotel of choice for celebrities attending the annual San Sebastian Film Festival (www.sansebastianfestival.com/in), Spain's biggest film festival, held in the city since 1953.

Yet the soul of the city's culture comes from the Basques, a proud and reserved people who have inhabited this elbow of coast for millennia. Basque culture emanates from every corner of the city, particularly in Parte Vieja (Old Town), where many of the city's restaurants and nightspots are located, and Gros, the residential district across the river, home to families, youth and university students.

Illustrious seafarers, the Basques were famed whalers and fishermen who crossed the Atlantic in search of cod as early as the 14th century, some historians say. Though they turned to industry, primarily iron works and steel production in the 18th and 19th centuries, Basque fishing culture is still alive in San Sebastian's fisherman's port at the base of Mount Urgull, where skiffs and larger boats deposit their catch and anchor for the night. A tall, narrow row of lopsided fishermen's houses lines the port and simple restaurants serve fresh seafood below.

At about €35 a person, meals here are expensive by San Sebastian standards, so I go for lunch, when cheaper set meals are available. A seafood soup starter, a delicately grilled, deliciously lemon-soaked squid and a large slice of the sweetest green melon I have ever tasted, paired with a glass of local white wine, can be had for €20.

The San Sebastian Aquarium (aquariumss.com) at the tip of the port is one of the best and the oldest aquariums in the country, featuring a full baleen whale skeleton, maritime exhibitions and 31 aquariums dedicated to the species found in the Cantabrian Sea and Atlantic Ocean, tucked into the base of Mount Urgull.

From here, it is a pleasant 20- minute sea-sprayed walk around, or an energising 45-minute walk up and over the hill through tree-lined paths, to the other side of the Mount in Parte Vieja.

San Telmo Museum (www.santelmomuseoa.com) at its foot is a beautiful testament to Basque history, art and culture. I spend a couple of hours here absorbed in Basque tradition. Housed in a former 16th-century Dominican convent which later fell into disrepair as military barracks, it became a museum in 1932. Browsing its small but comprehensive collection, I walked away with a deeper understanding of the Basque people and their past.

The only aspect of Basque life the museum does not touch upon is its food. But that is easily remedied right outside its doors.

Chefs at the three Michelin- starred Arzak (www.arzak.es), Akelarre (www.akelarre.net) and Martin Berasategui (www.martinberasategui.com) restaurants have put themselves and San Sebastian on the map through elevated traditional Basque dishes, turning humble ingredients such as salted cod into gastronomic works of art.

Meals at these restaurants cost anywhere from €120 to €200 a person and must be reserved months in advance, particularly in the high summer season.

But one of my favourite aspects about San Sebastian is that I do not have to spend a lot of money to eat very, very well.

While the south of Spain has tapas, Basque country boasts its pintxos (pronounced peen-chose), a small plate or bruschetta-like bites on sliced bread, typically eaten standing at bars.

There are more than 200 pintxos bars in San Sebastian, and Basques like to spend the evening eating, talking and walking from one pintxos bar to another, popping into one bar for a glass of wine and their favourite roast pepper stuffed with bacalao (dried, salted cod), to another for cheesy risotto balls and another for fresh anchovies, a delicacy of the region.

Pintxos cost €1 to €3 each and customers take what they want from plates displayed on the bartop, or order dishes from blackboards hanging in the back, paying for what they eat at the end in what is often an honour-based system.

It can get a bit chaotic, particularly at the more popular pintxos bars where people are squeezed up against the bar trying to place or eat an order, but it is part of the fun. At popular bars such as Borda Berri (on.fb.me/240pePN) and La Cuchara de San Telmo (www.lacucharadesantelmo.com), signature dishes - such as red wine braised beef cheeks, roast suckling pig and risotto balls - can sell out within an hour of opening.

As in the rest of Spain, dinner is served late. Pintxos bars are at their most vibrant after 10pm. To get the most of the pintxos atmosphere, go to the bars which appeal to you and grab whatever looks good. You cannot go wrong. Before the end of the night, head to La Vina (lavinarestaurante.com) for its rich yet fluffy cheesecake which locals avow is the best in the world.

Over the course of five nights in San Sebastian, I eat both cheaply and incredibly well. With wine at only €1.50 to €3 a glass, a top-notch and satisfying meal in San Sebastian can cost less than €15 a person. I love walking the cosy cobblestone streets of the Old Town at night, softly lamp-lit and aglow with the cheerful chatter of bar -hoppers.

A crowd has formed around Atari Gastroteka (gastroleku.com) at the foot of Iglesia de Santa Maria del Coro, the city's most picturesque cathedral. A popular bar, Atari is known for its food as much as its curated selection of gins and tonics. Inside and out, the bar is packed with people standing, drink and pintxos in hand. Everyone is in jovial spirits and no one seems to mind the throng or when a light, misty rain which the Basques call "sirimiri", begins to fall.

I join the cheerful congregation and grab a pintxos from the bar, at home in the crowd and content, knowing my adoration for the city is deserved.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 14, 2016, with the headline 'Basque in sunny Spain'. Print Edition | Subscribe