A Summer in San Sebastian, Spain

During college I decided to take a summer semester to study abroad. After tedious hours of researching where to go and tons of different summer study abroad programs, I decided on a USAC (University Studies Abroad Consortium) San Sebastian program in the Basque Country of Spain. I didn't know anyone else studying abroad there that summer, so naturally I did what I do best. I used a group email to find everyone on facebook to see what type of people I would be traveling with. Excessive? Probably. A friendly appearing girl on facebook, Alexis, emailed me a couple days later asking if I was interested in meeting up before our program in the US and flying over to Spain together. I immediately said YES! I am so glad Alexis contacted me. We met up at the airport in Chicago flying to Madrid. We both realized quickly our Spanish was about the same level, we were both terrified, and we were both so glad to have each other.

Alexis and I landed in Madrid, two young American girls unsuspecting of the world around them. We checked into our hotel, a Best Western with a Spanish flare hosting a 'free continental breakfast' (actually 7EU). After laughing at the way the toilets flushed and other small cultural differences, we slept off our jet lag. Waking up at midnight, we ventured out to find food and ended up getting some Burger King (I know....Best Western, now Burger King?).

The next day, we had the realization we were in Madrid, a massive city, with only two full days to explore before getting on a 6 hour train to San Sebastian. We wandered the streets of Madrid on foot, walking probably over 10 miles our first day. The temperature broke a heat record, over 100F during June while we were there for two days. We sweated through the heat on our journey to explore. We filled ourselves up with food from different cafes. The food was fresh tasting, cheap, and small portioned, different from America cafes. 


Madrid


Heading to San Sebastian

We left Madrid on a train heading through the north west of Spain countryside. San Sebastian is located just below the French border on the elbow of Spain. Our train ride was about 6 hours long. We met a friendly older Spanish woman sitting next to us who was willing to speak to us slowly and listen to our broken Spanish.  She told us that San Sebastian is incredible, with good food, amazing beaches, and a top vacation spot for Spanish and French locals alike. Alexis and I felt lucky to be getting to live and spend a summer at a spot so highly talked about by locals! My excitement and nerves spiked even more.

Our train ride led us through country side which looked to have so much history. Each little small town we passed through seemed to be in the middle of nowhere but all encompassed a strategic location, such as next to a river, surrounded by vineyards, a large mill or plant of some sort, or just simply in a beautiful historical area. The landscape was desert and changed slowly to greener vineyards, then we began to sense we were coming up to the great Atlantic Ocean. 

Upon arriving in San Sebastian, I was blown away that we were not just in some small seaside town, San Sebastian is a large built up historical architecture. The river canal runs straight through the middle of the city. The Basque language dominates the city on street signs, maps, restaurants, cafes, hotels. I don't know any Basque and it is a language unlike any you have ever seen.

The Basque country has a long history of mysterious language, fishing people, fighters, and independence. There was political unrest between people of Basque descendent and the Spanish in the Basque country only 5 years before I visited. The Spanish attempted to suppress and get rid of the Basque culture by making it illegal to speak Basque in public, children in schools were not taught any Basque. There is graffiti on historical walls saying Basque independence, there were car bombings, crowd bombings, but luckily that all subsided and the Spanish allowed Basque to be taught in schools. Children in San Sebastian during my visit there spoke both Spanish and Basque and were taught the history of their people. 


Of yeah, School!

Our summer began in San Sebastian with guidance from our Study Abroad program, USAC. They sent us all to an auditorium and gave us a cultural run down, what's appropriate or not in the Basque culture, and where to eat, grocery shop, where we were living, our roommates, and other basic living necessities. And I almost forget, we were in school! We had to sign up for 2 classes to take. I tested into Spanish 2 with a Basque teacher named Paco, and I signed up for a Surfing class, which most of my peers did too. 

I lived in a 2 bedroom apartment with 2 other students studying abroad. Our apartment was an incredible top floor apartment with a massive balcony overlooking the city with a view of the ocean if you stuck your head out of the balcony far enough. We had several wind storms blow salt and sand from the ocean down the city corridors to our balcony. It was always fun to watch. After realizing how large the town was, taking about 45-1 hour to walk across, or 30 minutes to walk to the university every morning, I rented a cruiser bike. Best decision ever! My mornings consisted of biking on a beach path across a famous ocean bay, crisp cool morning air,  bike police yelling at me that I ran a stop, and the sound and smell of the ocean waves crashing. It was incredible.

My Spanish teacher Paco became my small class of 10 girls Basque father. He was the sweetest, funniest, and wittiest man who spoke very little english but enjoyed just talking to us girls about the United States, the Basque country, the French, the Spanish, politics, food, herding dogs, and of course food and wine. We even had a cheese and wine tasting one day in class! His sense of humor was unforgettable. He would have our entire class laughing in tears with simple one word comments. He was a Basque man who grew up in unstable political times between the Basque and Spanish and had seen a lot of changes in the politics and society living in San Sebastian. 


Surfing in San Sebastian

About 20 of us study abroaders signed up to take a surfing class in addition to our Spanish classes. Surfing class was offered from 6pm to 9pm every night. The sun didn't set until around 10pm and most people in San Sebastian didn't even eat dinner until around 9 or 10 pm.

Siesta was a normality in the town, where people would take a nap from around 2pm to 5pm. All shops and restaurants closed during siesta, then would open back up after siesta.

Our surfing class started by us getting fit into wetsuits as we were going to be out in the water for up to 3 hours some days, no matter the weather. We all got suited up and grabbed big foam top boards. We would walk across the street barefoot to the famous surfing beach.

There were 2 different beach bays in the town of San Sebastian. The largest, La Concha, for swimming and beach play lined with night clubs along the shore, and the furthest north was the surfing bay called Zurriola. I was lucky enough to live only a 3 minutes walk from Zurriola, making our surfing classes at night an easy commute.

Our surfing instructors were 3 fit and good looking younger basque surf bums. I can't remember their names...but all of the girls in our program flirted  with them. Surfing class was a BLAST. We would play games on the beach, have races, surf for an hour or so, paddle out to cliff jumping spots along the coast, goof around, and attempt to learn to surf under the sunset of the Basque coast. It was pretty incredible to be out there, realizing I was surfing off the Spanish coast in a famous surfing town.

Did you like the photos and content on this site? Support the local artist by purchasing a photo.

Click on any photo you are interested in to view buying options. Prices start at $3


Beaches of San Sebastian


Exploring other parts of the Basque Country

San Sebastian is located near many other incredible small basque country town in France and Spain. The french border is only 1 hour away and there are many trains and buses that make traveling around easy to do. 

My roommate and a few other classmates went to visiting towns such as St. Jean De Luz, Bayonne, Biarritz, Hondarribia, Bilbao (Guggenheim Museum), Pamplona (Running of the Bulls), and a few others. It was fun to see other smaller, less touristy areas of the Basque Country. The Basque population is generally older folks, but there was a new surge of young basque children growing up. The towns all seemed quiet, sleepy, peaceful. The locals thrive off the ocean, eating everything the ocean provides, building boats and canoes, have deep fishing roots, and are people of hard work, good food, family, and drinks. 


San Fermín, Pamplona Correo Con Los Torros

San Fermin is a week long festival that encompasses the running of the bulls at the end of the week. We decided being so close to Pamplona, and there during the time of San Fermin, to take the trip out the night before the running of the bulls. I viewed it as a once in a lifetime experience. My roommate and I dressed in the traditional all white clothing with red bandanas we bought from a store. In order to watch the 9am running of the bulls, we had to go the night before. There are no hotels available because of the festivals popularity, but we found a balcony in a house on the street of the running of the bulls to rent for the morning of the running. For the night before? Well....we had to stay up the whole night. We ended up sleeping on a curb from 4-6 am with other study abroaders we ran into. The running of the bulls commenced at 9am and was exciting, thrilling, scary, and I felt bad for the animals of course! 

This is the day after running of the bulls, decompressing at a Pamplona coffee shop. EXHAUSTED


My love for the Basque Country...

My time in San Sebastian was a quick 2 months filled with adventures, making new lifelong friends, amazing seafood, awesome surfing nights under the pink sunset, good siestas, beautiful architecture, cobblestone streets, and an awesome group of people to share it all with. 

Did you like the photos and content on this site? Support the local artist by purchasing a photo.

Click on any photo you are interested in to view buying options. Prices start at $3

  • No Comments
Powered by SmugMug Owner Log In