Tale of Two Cities

The narrow alleys in San Sebastian bring a sense of closeness to the city.

All Photo Credits to Sam Sabzehzar

The Siren Call
Of San Sebastian

If you want to be grabbed by the heart, travel straight to Spain’s Basque country of San Sebastian! It is the tenor, the tone, the mood of the place that beckons. It’s the insistence on living, and living well, as defined by the native’s that is so seductive. Just ask Anthony Bourdain, San Sebastian is one of his favorites, if not the favorite cornucopia of eatery locations on earth. It is loaded with exceptional cuisine, fresh fish, and Tapas-driven dreams. Food is front and center in the San Sebastian experience, and what an amazing, lavish, delectable, not-enough-adjectives-in-the-English-language to describe the experience. Yet naturally it is more than the food. Food is merely the carrier of a culture. It speaks with the passion and purpose of a people that grab you by the heartstrings and won’t let go.

Geographically, the town rests in an impressively wide Bay of Biscay, along with another smaller bay. A paltry 12 miles from the French border, it serves as an enthralling invitation to Basque country. Rich in centuries-old history, the Basque area, and its people are an autonomous entity all their own though still clearly part of Spain; often much to their chagrin. The Basques have preserved their identity and culture, including their own language, as richly as any indigenous group on the planet. The city proper was founded in 1180 and is home to about 189,000 inhabitants with the larger metropolitan area boasting nearly half a million.

On a recent trip to Europe with my son, our first stop was San Sebastian. See, my son had a life-changing experience after running a youth hostel here after college. And while he had spoken of the experience and location with a near mystical reverence, I never truly understood the city’s profound impact on him until joining him on a journey.

Immersion, Basque Style

We stayed at the Hotel de Londres, a fabulous hotel on the beach, easily accessible to “Parte Vieja,” or Old Town, the hub for food and libations. And what a hub it is! The area throbs with people, simply throbs, pulsating an incredible array of Tapas bars and restaurants along narrow streets laid out in maze-like style. Locals and tourists crowd into eateries in (mostly) standing-room-only style venues to pick out delectables. It’s all fresh and predominantly seafood, prepared with the most amazing ingredients propped on small crusts of bread. From crab to squid, or octopus to caviar and rue, I stuffed myself, stuffed myself to my proverbial gills and beyond, so much so I needed another stomach!

Pulling back from the counters crammed with trays of tapas, everyone, whether standing or lucky enough to grab a seat at a table, was happy. The atmosphere, while at times raucously overwhelming, was phenomenally joyous. They’re overflowing with joy and as loaded with life’s energy as the establishments themselves. I don’t even recall hearing background music as one does in so many eateries in America. Instead, the music was made up by human voices with the uneven beat of laughter and conversations, crescendoing at times with a pulse of camaraderie; all with an almost unbelievable intimacy that permeated the people that thronged there, many of them strangers to one another, yet soon fast friends. Both adults and children, along with locals and tourists alike moved like a school of fish to grab their favorite food only to retreat back again and devour it. It seems life in San Sebastian insists on itself through the intimacy food brings recreated through the pleasure of togetherness. It was in a word: exhilarating.

Living Large 

And while “living large” is not quite big enough, the human community in San Sebastian is not confined to just the joys of sharing tapas. We were there during Semana Santa (Easter), a big deal in many parts of Europe. Indeed, a celebration of life’s rebirth and vibrancy. People were everywhere: families with children, couples, elderly folks pushed in wheelchairs and more. Always. Day and night. It was inspirational in every way—the aliveness palpable. There were jugglers and musicians on the esplanade with people ambling by as they drank in the atmosphere of the simplest ‘street theater’ on the planet which was almost gypsy-like. Oddly, there was a kind of sophistication in the very fusion of ‘old and new,’ of ancient and contemporary, preferring neither one over the other but appreciating both together. 

There is so much more in San Sebastian to see also including museums, centuries-old churches that flank both ends of the town’s core quaint shops. The beach has an impressively wide expanse of flat sand that seemingly begged to be walked upon, regardless of temperature or season. Mountains and hillsides outline the other three sides of the city as if to protect it with beauty greater than the sum of its geographical parts. 

I’d recommend San Sebastian to anyone with an interest in the human community as this is one city that reflects the best of human closeness and the lively interplay between all inhabitants, whether local or world travelers. I don’t speak Spanish, let alone Basque, and yet I felt a part of life there that defies simple languaging. In short, San Sebastian is an ineffable place, a siren call reminding me of what it is to be alive.

I Dreamed of Denmark

The contrast between San Sebastian, Spain, and Helsingor, Denmark couldn’t be starker. While the former wears their heart on their proverbial sleeve, the latter hides theirs, yet not with unkindness. In fact, they are incredibly gracious. A reserved people possibly by climate along with culture, natives are easy-going and available. Smiling comes naturally to them and is genuine yet suggests a sense of mystery lying just beneath. Oddly, for me, it reflected the human condition in another way—the conscious and subconscious—the public and private self we all possess. It was a different mood and energy more measured that greeted me at Marienlyst Spa and Resort on the sands on the north edge of town. It is not a difference in substance but rather one of style -a people less spontaneous yet kind, welcoming and considerate in their own right.

Location Is as Location Does 

Established in the 1420s, Helsingor is a town of approximately 62,000 souls resting on the shores of Oresund Sound on the Baltic Sea, a short distance across the straits opposite Helsingborg, Sweden. As one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world even today, I watched ore boats and tankers, pleasure craft and paddle boarders traversing the waters. The history of the town boasts one of significant industry through a massive port and shipping area approximately one hour north of Copenhagen.

The architecture is compelling. Homes and businesses are of well-kept centuries-old style and construction residing easily alongside very modern glass and metal structures. Known for their sleek and innovative sense of design, the Danes are an efficient lot with a keen eye towards organization and practicality that results in a sophisticated simplicity. I felt very comfortable both at the lovely seaside resort as well as tromping through town. An easy walk to both the ferry and train station, several historic churches and lovely turmeric-colored homes are juxtaposed against innovative modern apartments.

Shakespeare and Beyond

Yet it is one of the most important castles in European history, Kronborg Castle, that is poised at the town’s “tip of the spear” aimed to both separate and ultimately to connect the Danes and Swedes. Used as a vanguard to control the strait and therefore commerce, Kronborg was used to defend and attack those who would challenge their supremacy. Between taxing ships and sometimes “claiming cargo booty,” Helsingor benefited greatly from the fortress that dominates the landscape to this day. While Sweden captured it in the 1600s, it didn’t hold onto it for long, with Kronborg ultimately reverting back to Danish control. 

Of equal and perhaps greater interest to the wider world, the castle, also known as Elsinore, was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet—an architecture that is both foreboding, seemingly impenetrable (though not entirely), while impressively beautiful. Throughout history, it has been home to both kings (Frederick II) and prisoners. The castle also has areas filled with bright sunshine two stories up in the former royal chambers, and darkness in dungeon-esque areas. No wonder Shakespeare thought it fitting for Hamlet’s setting!

Style and Substance

Pivot approximately 180-degrees and one is pointed towards the rest of Helsingor town center with its ultra-chic geometric shaped Culture Yard filled with shops and galleries, eateries and the town’s library. There are several museums in Helsingor as well including the Danish Maritime Museum and the Danish Museum of Science and Technology. They also have an aquarium along with their centuries-old churches, and there is a large compound of the formally Carmelite Monastic priory just across the road. St. Mary’s Church on its grounds is filled with impressive frescos equaling those in Italy, and a stunning 1600s baroque organ.

I loved the ease of walking around Helsingor. Everything was accessible. It was far from the madding crowds of San Sebastian and offered the perfect contrast from earlier intense energy and stimulation to a more contemplative and reflective ambiance. Everyone spoke English too, making it exceedingly convenient to ask the locals questions or directions. 

By the end of the trip, in no way could I choose between San Sebastian and Helsingor. It would be like demanding one make an impossible choice between two essential parts of their own head and heart. Ultimately, all roads lead to a magnanimous whole filled with nature’s interplay of light and dark, and moods and energies that express what it means to be alive.