I have just returned from five days in San Sebastián. I had never been, there are many places I have never been in Spain, and it seemed a good place to go. I needed out, badly. I have been irritable, something and discontent, feeling my psyche was made of some form of Jell-O that was being constantly agitated. Yes, the Covid numbers were high, but that would mean fewer people would be traveling, also the numbers in the Basque country were lower than in Barcelona. I am adept at rationalizing.
I organized a baby sitter for Galata while I was gone, a young woman, delightfully tall and slender, who viewed G with slightly less alarm than G viewed her. When A arrived G sniffed A’s proffered fingers but was having none of that touchy-feely stuff from an unknown human. In the five days A managed to stroke her once.
I was happy to be leaving from Terminal 1 since I find Terminal 2 scruffy and mildly depressing. My cab driver was kindly solicitous of the aged and went to get me a cart. Checking in took one back in time, about 50 years. There was one person ahead of me and no one behind. The woman at the counter urged me to check my carry-on containing my computer. I equate traveling with a computer to traveling with an 18th century Dresden shepherdess. Who would put such an object into the hairy knuckled hands of a baggage handler who will immediately hurl it with his massive strength into the back of the airplane’s maw? I was lucky. I was one of the few passengers who retained their carry-on into the plane. Considering how few people there were on the plane I don’t understand why they were divesting people of carry-on luggage. Were they keeping handbags at a safe distance from each other in overhead bins? As I found on the plane they had not taken such care with the passengers.
I had far too much time to waste but the airport, a subject of dire discussions with friends, was empty and there were large spaces between people in the restaurant cum coffee shop. I bought a bottle of water, a yogurt bar, disinterring my slightly squashed spinach and egg tart, bought at my local bakery because of fear of food in the airport restaurant, from my purse.
I listened on my phone to some excellent music a friend had sent me and read in my latest Times Literary Supplement about how Virginia Woolf named her friends after animals. Of one she wrote, “Weasel has a lovely pink snout, & she shall dip it in a jug of cream if she is good.” I think Woolf is one of our all time geniuses and no girl should grow to womanhood without reading “A Room of One’s Own” but I find this Bloomsbury literary game playing revolting. It is so cutesy-poo and adorable I want to throw up all over it. I am embarrassed, not because it lacks high seriousness but because it is so artificial, condescending and denigrating to those so named while with its cuteness trying to obfuscate the put down that is being delivered.
I was careful to be among the last on the line to board. The bus to the plane was a little nervous making but until we started the doors were open and the ride was short. Getting on the plane was not a mad crush but they had me in a row with a couple so we were three across. Why would you do that? The plane wasn’t half full. The row behind had one man in it, so I sat there.
I managed after some confusion outside the airport to locate the beginning of the taxi line and stepped into an elegant, spotless car. It is about a half an hour to town but there are hills or mountains with conical peaks to look at and everything is green. The approach to San Sebastián is lined with 1950’s apartment houses of the grimmer sort along the river. Once in town the architecture improves with a number of erratic and purposeless but charming towers and cupolas.
The Hotel Niva is small and on the esplanade above the beach with a spreading view of the bay’s crescent. I had messed up my reservation, having made it for the 16th rather than the 15th, so they couldn’t at first find it. But it was fine.
There was an old fashioned elevator with inlaid wood and etched glass that silently lifted me to the sixth floor. The room had a white balustraded, narrow terrace with that same view which so totally entranced me that I left my small case outside the door and didn’t know it until the maid knocked on the door.
I unpacked and arranged myself before going downstairs to order too much for dinner. There was an elder and a younger waiter. The elder was having an expansive social time with his regular customers and found me a mild nuisance. But the younger wanted to know where I was from. It was fun to tell him Barcelona and then admit my New York origins.
I woke the next morning at 6:30 but lolled about, watching the bay appear out of the night, not getting to breakfast until 8:30. There was an enticing buffet with scrambled eggs, various types of ham, croissants, salmon, cheese, breads and more. I had a super sized café con leche to go with my heaped plate.
I walked along the esplanade above the beach toward Monte Urgull. The scene is esthetically quite perfect, a crescent bay with promontories at each end and Isla Santa Clara asymmetrically placed between them. Everyone wore masks properly. Only some bicyclists were maskless. There were lots of dogs. My favorite pair was a medium sized, placid mutt whose companion was a hyper, intense white poodle, obviously an incessant, enthusiastic chatterer. “Isn’t it wonderful to be out in the fresh morning, the sea smell sharp, the pavement wet under paw from rain? Isn’t it wonderful? Don’t you love it? So exciting? “ And on and on. Enough to enervate any mutt.
I was walking randomly so it was serendipitous to stumble upon Santa Maria del Coro. It is so much more fun to stumble than to search out. The façade is Rococo with a San Sebastian full of holes above a sweet-faced Madonna. Everything is well balanced and symmetrical. Like the bay it is harmonious. I came into the church, which is 18th century baroque with classical elements, and paid to see the museum. Although baroque it is not of that glutinous, gilded variety that makes one feel one has had an encounter with a gilded octopus. The movement between classical and baroque gives the viewer a rest between complexities.
I either left my hat while buying the ticket or dropped it on my way to the museum. I knew it would be at the entrance when I returned. San Sebastián feels like that sort of place.
The museum is small, simply arranged, ranging over seven centuries and contained, for me, three things of interest. The first was a surprise, a 13th century, small sculpture of a Compostela Pilgrim with his staff, hat, beard, bread and bare toes protruding from under the swaying folds of his robe. He was worth the airfare. He leans toward you slightly on his staff, perhaps, a foot and a half high balanced on his plinth from which he has been broken. You want to give him a hug and a little money for tomorrow’s bread.
The second is an El Greco of Saint Anthony with that painter’s typical writhing movement in the figures of the Saint and his companions who seem to be airborne against a dark and violent sky with which their serene faces contrast.
The third is a contemporary, bronze sculpture, hanging on the wall, by Jorge Oteiza of a woman standing bent forward slightly over an unidentified body, head turned to look up at something or someone. The title is “Piety”, yet there is nothing pious in the woman’s stance to me. I may be mistaken but for me her posture, the angle of her head, both, proclaim belligerence, defiance, resistance to the forces behind the death at her feet. Rage and rebellion radiate from her figure.
There is one further sculpture of note, a Descent from the Cross by Alonso Villabrille, 17th to 18th century, that is a group of figures once part of the Easter procession. Two men on ladders are lowering Christ from the cross down to a mourning, but not weeping, woman. It is dramatic, intense but compassionately human. The sense of movement among the men contrasts with the woman’s stillness.
When I went to leave I found the woman I had bought my ticket from had my hat. She wanted to know if I was from Germany. This is unusual. I am sometimes thought to be British and sometimes French but rarely German. I told her I was an American from New York City and had lived in Barcelona for ten years. This is typical of the kind of interchange I had in San Sebastián, friendly, warm but limited. I had the feeling that Covid has made people apprehensive enough so that they curtail rather than extend themselves socially.
I went on to the Aquarium, half aquarium, half museum. I never had that much interest in aquariums until I found my grandson E is addicted to them. The museum half had models of various kinds of ships, exhibits of objects used at home and on ship board with a running history of the town as a port, a haven for privateers and a fishing center. This concludes near the skeleton of a tight whale strung up through two stories of the building.
Then you enter the aquarium. I am only good for so long because I get bored with fish but they had one of those tunnels through which you walk surrounded above, below, to right and left, by shifting silver fish shapes and the occasional dark shadow of a shark with its white belly and undershot jaw drifting over head. The last section was tropical fish, colorful, but by that time I was finned out.
I received a refund because my audio guide didn’t work. I looked into the gift shop and almost bought E a plush octopus.
It was about 2:30ish and time for lunch. I went back to the old town in the neighborhood of the Iglesia Santa Maria looking at restaurants and their menus, although I thought I would go to the first one I had seen, Casa Vergara.
As I wandered I passed a young woman in a state of exasperation with her squirming daughter who was working her way with petulant noises out of her grasp rucking up her pretty pink top and beginning to ruck up her pretty pink face into a full fledged squall.
I have in old age developed a turn I do with preverbal children in this state. I stopped, looking Miss Pink in her tearing eye and said firmly, but in my adult to adult, not my teacher voice, “You’ve got it quite wrong. It really isn’t that bad at all. Actually, if you give it another look I think you will find, to the contrary, that things are very good indeed. You are in an excellent situation.”
As usually happens, this incomprehensible flow of verbiage, coming from a stranger, transfixed the girl and she stopped preparing the melodrama she had been intent on. This often gives the mother a chance to take preventative action. What I hadn’t expected was that the man sitting opposite the mother, probably the grandfather, said to the child in English, “You should listen to this woman. She’s right.” I passed on vastly amused at us elderly persons.
I had lunch at the Casa Vergara—three briny, pellucid oysters, followed by three exquisitely sweet shrimp, two ham croquets and then goat cheese with quince jam. The cheese should have been sharper but otherwise it was a perfect lunch.
I then aimlessly ambled about the old town looking in shop windows, reading menus, and watching people. The shops are small and individual. One dress shop specialized in 1950 dresses with wide skirts, puffy sleeves and chunky Mary Jane strapped shoes to go with them. Children’s clothing stores displayed nostalgia inducing smocked dresses. Stores with costume jewelry, imitation tortoise shell hair clips, pins, and ornaments sold bargain perfume. An antique store with attractive, small silver boxes from the last century, or even before, one with little feet was particularly tempting. Slowly I wended home through square after square and then back to the esplanade. I had no interest in dinner, watching streaks of sunset was enough.