Delightful award-winning guide Eskerne Falcon talks with us from San Sebastian (also called Donostia) in Northern Spain, near the French border. We discuss the best pintxo bars and take a super tour in this beautiful Basque city and environs, between mountains and the Bay of Biscay.
-- Eskerne tells of the city's culture and history, developing from a fishing village early-on to royals favorite, from the 19th century.
-- She focuses on the beaches, one mainly for surfing, one with an island -- when there's a full moon "it seems you can walk there." And the mountains, with museums and a vintage amusement park near the top, with panoramic views.
-- She takes us on a perfect day: a walk around historic areas, including the 19th-century theatre and the Maria Cristina Hotel. And city hall, which used to be a casino.
-- We talk of the San Sebastian Film Festival, and the many international stars who have attended over the years.
-- And then we get to food, in this greatest food city per capita in the world, especially. We talk of pintxos (like tapas), local wine and cider, and the way to pour the cider, and delish local cheesecake.
-- We talk of pintxo bars in the old town, including Anthony Bourdain's favorite.
-- And then we talk of the nearby Basque fishing villages along the coast, all the way past the French border, including Biarritz.
-- Bilbao, with the Guggenheim museum, is less than an hour away. And Rioja wine country is also an easy drive nearby.
-- As we do on all episodes, Eskerne ends with a favorite memory of her beloved area.
Eskerne Falcon is director of Discover San Sebastion: discoversansebastian, Instagram; Discover San Sebastian, Facebook; www.discoversansebastian.com
Podcast host Lea Lane has traveled to over 100 countries, written many travel books, including Places I Remember, and has contributed to dozens of guidebooks. She's @lealane on Twitter, Travelea on Instagram, and blogs about travel at forbes.com Contact her at placesirememberlealane.com.
Please follow Places I Remember with Lea Lane wherever you listen to podcasts, and if you enjoy, leave a 5-star a review on Apple! New travel episodes every Tuesday.
Lea Lane 00:03
Hi, I'm Lea Lane, an award-winning travel writer and author of Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world. Our guest is Eskerne Falcon, super terrific tour guide, with an MA in gastronomical tourism. And that's because she works in San Sebastian, Spain and for the award winning tour company discovered San Sebastian. Welcome, Eskerne.
Eskerne Falcon 00:31
Thank you so much for having me with you here today.
Eskerne Falcon 00:35
Yeah, I mean, it's wonderful. So tell me about let's just start off with the physical presence of San Sebastian because many people don't know about this beautiful city. So tell us where it is? Well,
Eskerne Falcon 00:44
Well, Vashon is in the north of Spain, very near France. Okay, we're 30 minutes away from France. So it's really a beautiful place with the mountains and the sea very near. So we are very lucky to have this landscape is beautiful. And but all the area, not just the city of San Sebastian, all the area around here is very beautiful. So I definitely recommend everybody to come.
Eskerne Falcon 01:23
Absolutely. It's the Basque region. Tell us a little bit about that. Basque culture?
Eskerne Falcon 01:29
Well, the Basque culture Well, in Spain, we have different languages like and also we have different backgrounds, I guess. So in the north, the Basque, there are very near friends, also the French ones. There are near the Basque Country. We are all considered Basque. But we are one of the oldest societies in terms of cultural language and all that they don't really know. We speak Basque, and is one of the oldest languages in the world, we don't know where it comes from. So we're really quite different, I guess.
Eskerne Falcon 02:02
Very special. Now San Sebastian was a former fishing village, I know that. But in the 19th century, it became very popular with the Royals and the aristocrats. And now it's a cultural city, and it's known for its love of good food. Let's, before we get to the food, which we will definitely get to tell me about the physical setting. So you may know its mountains and beaches. But tell me a little bit more.
Eskerne Falcon 02:29
Well, this beauty that we talk about, we actually have the royalty as you say, come into conservation in the mind of oil very long ago, but it's the well the queen is Seville of Spain, she actually have some skin problems in the doctors told her to come to the north of Spain to get baths in the water in the water in the controversy, which is in the north of Spain. And she actually started coming to all the north of Spain, but also to San Sebastian. And it was Maria Christina, the following queen who fall in love with the city. And she established that this was going to be the town to be you know, for the royalty to spend holidays every summer. So for many, many years, as the version was, you know, the VIP place in in Europe to come and to have all this Villa Park living setting center right and it was really beautiful. It was a really nice time.
Lea Lane 03:19
Now I know there are three beaches. Tell me Are they different? Are they are they I've been to this tour.
Eskerne Falcon 03:27
Yeah, so we have the very of La Concha which has two of them on the Retta and La Concha. And then we have Orihuela which is more for surfing the waves are in the way we have an Ireland the Santa Clara who stops a little bit the waves you know towards the beach, but in the oversight and lots of real law the waves are a lot higher so we have a lot of you know surfing going on in that area all the time.
Lea Lane 03:51
Yeah, I was told that you can get out to the island when the when the tide is low and walk there is that true? Because when I was there you I didn't see that.
Eskerne Falcon 04:00
The water comes, it can be half kilometer or one kilometer distance depending on the high entire of the of the water and you cannot walk there, but there are both of the take you there. But sometimes with the full moon the water goes down a lot. And it seems like you can go through the rocks all the way there but you can. It's good to know what's for sure.
Lea Lane 04:24
That's good to know. How about the mountains? There's some beautiful mountains around there. Are there things to do up near there near San Sebastian?
Eskerne Falcon 04:33
Yeah, just this has a Basha, we have them. Three mountains also well, the mountain of Eagle though, or ghoul and Olia and the mountainous Eagle though you can take funicular which is from, you know, the beginning of the 1900s where all the royalty started coming. And I think it was 1912 that they they built the funicular that goes all the way to the top of the hill. And that's the most beautiful panoramic view of the city from On the top of the mountain, there is also under tab there is also a very old amusement park. Okay, but it's, it's more like a traditional place to go. But everybody who goes there by funicular sees the amusement park. So for the kids is really nice. But there is a very, very old amusement park.
Lea Lane 05:20
Well, I don't know if I'd want to go on an old roller coasters or a roller coaster. Sounds interesting. What would you say, would be a perfect day? Let's say we start with a little information like in the Museum of San Telmo what would be a perfect day in San Sebastian, maybe to start off with a little information at the Museum of San Telmo perhaps
Eskerne Falcon 05:46
What I like to do when I'm working in the city for the tourists when they come here, I mean, you we talk about the food that rice consumption is very known by food, but I think it's better to take a little walk and know a little bit about the history and see the places like the theater, or the Kursaal or, or even they'll tell Maria Cristina, that is also from 1912. And all this area that is really beautiful and know a little bit about the background of the city to understand a little bit more, and to see where you are, you know, and definitely the museum is really good. But I want to start definitely doing that. Doing a little tour historical tour about our the cities so you know where you are.
Lea Lane 06:27
I remember going into the Victoria Eugenia theater, it's very beautiful. And it gives you a feeling of what it must have been like in those days when the aristocrats came by and you know, this is the opera or whatever. But, sorry, I also think that we went to the city hall.
Eskerne Falcon 06:43
Yes. That used to be a casino. That was a casino built in 1887. I think it's the most beautiful town hall. It has all the mosaics but I didn't see anything about, you know, tables for doing anything else like gambling.
Lea Lane 06:59
They removed them, I guess anymore.
Lea Lane 07:01
No. So what about the San Sebastian International Film Festival? That is one of the oldest ones tell us about that?
Eskerne Falcon 07:08
Well, the international film festival started in 1953. And the reason a lot of people don't know, but the reason why we have the International Film Festival is because we have a lot of people who used to own shops in town. And they realize that in September, they didn't have any cells, because you know, it was winter like it was gonna start the winter. And summer was gone. So people didn't like to spend money anymore, and it was kind of low. So the most important shops in town owners, shop owners, they got together and they decided to think about something that he will bring more money to their shops, and they came out with the International Film Festival. So it worked out very well because when this started in 1953 they they started coming to the town, a lot of people start coming to the town, and everybody wants to be looking great. So everybody went to the hairdresser to buy jewelry dresses, shoes, so it was kind of crazy, but they make their point right now is a really important festival in town. We have a lot of festivals in the city, but I think this one is the most important one international.
Lea Lane 08:17
Yes, I've heard of it. Right up there with Khan and some of the other vanets Some of the other European festivals right now where would you stay I know you mentioned the Maria Christina which is a gorgeous Bella POC hotel it's a five star hotel and it was designed by the men who did the Ritz hotel in Paris so that that would be the top of the heap but that you can find beachside places I would assume and in town hotels and apartments and so forth rental properties in the mountains.
Eskerne Falcon 08:47
Yeah, you can actually find either the highest hotels like Maria Cristina or Killara which is also another FIFO till I started but which is in the mountain of yellow that we talked about before. And then we have four mission four star hotels that are really nice to like the laundress hotel, there's a new hotel that is VFR Rita, I don't think you use that one because it was opened last year for the first time. In the suicide we also have plus Allah Salah there are filters near but then like in very like 1015 minutes walk. You have others like Astoria or Amara Plaza. There's so many hotels right now, because we have a lot of tourist tourism. So the European also reverse or near in the I don't know if you remember the Cathedral of the ghost shipper. So near the other is our Vasa, which is also a very nice, nice hotel. So they're coming. They open a lot of them in the last few years. So there are
Lea Lane 09:46
I know San Sebastian has become one of those places people talk about and mainly it's because of the food. This is perhaps the greatest foodie city per capita in the world. I remember there Was there were wonderful harbor restaurants for fresh fish. There are more than 20 Michelin star restaurants in the area. And of course, there are the pinchos. I don't know if I'm saying that that's correctly I don't ever think Correct. Okay. And tell us about pinchos. Because that is what we most hear about.
Eskerne Falcon 10:20
Well, the pictures is a different way of eating that is established here in the 50s, probably, and everything started with a bar that they said that it started in now, in Martinez, the bar Martinez in those town that I think we went there. Um, what happened is the people in the old times they used to men, especially because woman didn't used to go out to drink or anything in the bars, the men used to get together with their friends. And they used to go from bar to bar in a group of three years, which are friends that they were out to care from bar to bar. And they say that one day, one of the bar owners decided to give them a little bit of food, in order to, you know, to keep them in the same bar, so they didn't have to move and spend another bars that will happen is that the old bartenders since it worked out work, you know, through severe bartenders realized that these guys were not moving. So they went to check what happen. And they saw that they have food, so they decided to make something else. So this became a tradition, you know, after the years, and now is one of the most important things in our I mean, the missionaries are important, but this is our way of living. So it's really, that's how we enjoy life with our friends and our family. And it doesn't have to be something established. I mean, you can just meet somebody in the street, and suddenly say, Oh, do you want to get a drink, so we go for a drink, but we also get a picture. And we do it, you know, after you pay one, then you go to another one and the other person, place another one. And that's how we work all the time. So it's really like, you know, it's really nice to nice to do that all the time.
Lea Lane 11:56
Tell us a little bit about in the old town, you know, if you were going to take us on a little walk, maybe a few of the ones that specialize in different types of foods, you don't have to do everyone, there are hundreds, probably,
Eskerne Falcon 12:10
There's so many. There's so many. The reason why I like the old town and that's where where I do my picture tour is because there are so many words concentrated in the same area. So I pick the best ones from my point of view. And also I pick the best pitchers in that bar. So is is the way of showing you you know, the best of this. So I don't know i The person would you like in every tour I do, depending on the people that I am with, if you like meat, I go to a place for for, for meat. I think there is one called Bovary that they cook everything in the place. And they do us no cooking, and everything that they make even the sauces that they make, they make it in the same bar. So it's one of those things that you I mean, it's always full of tourist thing, but it's really really a good one. I'm waiting the whole time but we got out of the old town you also have underbara Antonio in the center of the city, which I also like they have one feature I don't know if you remember suck the three Michelin star restaurant, the chef Okay, so they made a picture in his honor. And it's called our sock. So is because our sock likes potato pepper and egg and they mix it in a pinch and it's also really nice. Um, and I don't know maybe another one another one. Martinez bar Martinez. I love smoked salmon with I know not everybody likes sanctuaries. But he's one of the best pinches in town for me.
Lea Lane 13:45
It's delicious. I remember now you have to drink something with it. What do people drink?
Eskerne Falcon 13:52
We have, one is the cider. So we prefer the cider um in the in the cider houses we drink cider a lot. So in his assertion in the verse you also can order cider and the other one is the charcoal li which is a white wine from this region is sparkling and is only local. So this is quite different I think then over wines in in you know in Spain.
Lea Lane 14:21
Tell us about the pouring of the cider because that's a popular thing to do. And I think I tried that and spilled it on my shoes.
Eskerne Falcon 14:31
Yeah, it is difficult not to the first time. Well what happened is that we are used to go to the cider houses to have a meal and enjoy the cider every year. The new cider day comes every year usually is February, March. And we go to The Cider House and we have the menu and in that place we have barbells that we take the side from okay. So there is something called church that you stand up from the table because the drink is not in the table. You stand up and you go line to get the slider from the barrel. So that goes to the same to the bars. I mean, if you have the bottle, you're supposed to do the same, you have to be a pure impart that has to be a distance between the bottle and the glass. So it's really nice to see how people miss.
Lea Lane 15:17
Fun to watch. But not easy to do.
Eskerne Falcon 15:22
When we have a cheating thing that is called, What is a small little thing that we put in the top of the bottle that makes the receipt easier, I guess, to not spell it, but it's not. It's not 100% the same.
Lea Lane 15:35
That's cheating. Now, if you wanted to have a dessert, do any of the bars have a dessert because I know you go from bar to bar and make a meal out of it. Like I'd like top us, you know, similar. But is there one place that's known for a cheesecake? I heard about it?
Eskerne Falcon 15:50
Correct? I think you had that too. If I'm not wrong, but the cheese picking Lavinia is the most famous dessert in town. It's amazing. is famous all over the world. I mean, in Japan last year, and they knew that cheesecake. Yeah, you seen all the the magazines that I see about, for instance, the version in the bars and all that. It is really nice. A nice way to finish the the feature tour or the days as a version. Absolutely.
Lea Lane 16:18
Absolutely. Let me just ask you, I know that Anthony Bourdain loved San Sebastian and he went to a bar and that became pretty famous. Is that gone?
Eskerne Falcon 16:26
Bata was one of the best ones in town. Yeah, definitely. Number is amazing. They have beautiful pictures, they have the Whitefriars asparagus. They have the I don't know if you call it a Russian salad is potato with mayonnaise and a lot of things. They have so many features. And for me the best croquet in town is in gambado.
Lea Lane 16:47
Well, he knew where to go. Yeah, he did. Let me just ask you because it's it's hard to leave San Sebastian but all around there are the most beautiful little fishing villages. It's just an unknown area to so many. But it's so beautiful their ports. And actually their Michelin star restaurants all around there. What are a few of the more beautiful medieval port cities or towns that are maybe within half an hour drive of San Sebastian?
Eskerne Falcon 17:17
Well, there are two areas, one if you go to the to the French side, okay, if you're in that direction, the last one of the last towns before you go to France is called on the Riviera, which is a beautiful, beautiful village, which has a Michelin star restaurant called Allama is beautiful, and it's really nice food there too. But also the town has a lot of bars and pictures that you can enjoy. And also a few restaurants that they have grilled fish and grill me that you can enjoy watching the You know, the see I mean, on the reveal is just a river and in front of the river. You see friends? Friends, yeah, it's an die, but it's really like nice to be so close.
Lea Lane 18:01
There are medieval walls, the old medieval walls, it's just a perfect little place just for a day. What about Getaria?
Eskerne Falcon 18:09
Oh my god is my favorite. I got love there because Getaria is a very famous village for three things. One is the Museum of Balenciaga, who was a designer, a very famous designer, um, to because of the grill fish in town. We also have a Michelin called El Canto. And he's one of the 30, I think 30 in the 50 best restaurants in the world.
Lea Lane 18:33
Oh my goodness.
Eskerne Falcon 18:34
So and I love that. Yeah, but there there are so many in Getaria if you don't go to the Michelin there are many good restaurants in the same street as more village but it's really really nice. But the other thing is also the wineries I mean guitar area is known for the Checkley. And the denomination of origin of the charcoal is ceccolini Italia. So you imagine there's so many little wineries. And that's where I do my tour because I think it's nice to combine the food with the wine and you know, a nice place.
Lea Lane 19:07
Oh my goodness, it's like perfection really. Now, for larger town, there are a little bit further away. I would say there are two that are well known to almost everybody one is berets in France. Yep, that's maybe what 30 minutes away or so.
Eskerne Falcon 19:24
A little more. But number four, yeah. 35, maybe 40? I don't know. But yeah,
Eskerne Falcon 19:28
you can just go across the border. And I know that's known for windsurfing and old architecture and it's kind of an interesting city. And then of course there's Bilbao, which is how far away is that?
Eskerne Falcon 19:42
Would you say one hour, one hour? Yeah. And people doesn't know that when they come here. But if you come to Bilbao, I mean the airport of Bilbao is the one that brings most of the tourists tourism. We live in San Sebastian or an airport, but it's very small. So it's, you know, most of the people traveled through Bilbao is nice because you have you from San Sebastian, you can go if you come here first you can go by bus. And it's just one hour and you don't have to park a car. You don't have to do anything you can visit the Museum of the Guggenheim. You can see a lot of things from the wall. We've also city that has been transformed in the last years. So it was very industrialized and very polluted. And now it's a beautiful place to be.
Lea Lane 20:26
It's amazing. I visited it in the 1970s actually, and it was industrial. It was just a place you I guess you took a ferry and so forth and I but today, the Frank Gehry museum the Guggenheim is has changed so much and it's a beautiful city so so wonderful, wonderful day trip and to combine that with San Sebastian, I mean, I could imagine staying for weeks and just eating, enjoying the seaside.
Eskerne Falcon 20:56
Yeah, if you aren't friends, and they'll tell you Palais and all that work is amazing.
Lea Lane 21:02
It is and just see the countryside it outside of when you go between Bilbao and San Sebastian, it's mountains. It's so beautiful. Even the ride is beautiful.
Eskerne Falcon 21:12
Yes, it's all mountains. And I didn't tell you but there is another area. That is really interesting, too, because probably most of you know about real Hawaiian. Oh, yes. And the real Hawaiian is like, two hours away from here.
Eskerne Falcon 21:25
Oh, no more.
Lea Lane 21:29
Instead of one or two weeks, just put a one month.
Lea Lane 21:32
I would add another week, I can see why there's a gastronomical center and all sorts of, you know, chefs living there and so forth. It's just a great city for for food and for beauty. And for the people. Like you said, Everybody's friendly and happy, it seems. Let me just ask you in the name of the Pat podcast is places I remember, with all these wonderful things, do you have a favorite memory we want to share about San Sebastian?
Eskerne Falcon 22:00
Well, the memories is more about,it's an anecdote more, more more than a memory. When I when I do my tours, I always try to show my city with love, because that's how I feel with the city. And I have so many anecdotes in my tours and everything. But there was one that I really is out of, you know, it really impressed me. I was in, in the US in Washington, DC visiting my sister in 2018. And I met some of my guests here in there. And they invited me to their house. And I always think, are they listening to me, right? Because it's kind of like you talk talk talk. And you don't know if people pay attention all the time. So they show me their Hoonah photos that they had. And there is a church in town in the old town, the son Vincent that I was baptized on. And when I open their their album, I saw the picture of them in the church, and in the site said, this is where as Turner was bumped. Thank you it was glorious, because they put more attention than what I saw. So I don't know.
Lea Lane 23:09
I can understand that. You're very memorable person, I can see that. Thank you. Well, you make us all want to go to San Sebastian immediately. And I hope we soon will be able to do it freely and without problems. And it's just one of the pleasure, pleasurable places of the world. And I thank you so very much for sharing with us. And it's so nice to speak with you again.
Eskerne Falcon 23:34
I thank you for inviting me and really, I really wanted to see your face and your voice and everything. So for me, this is a pleasure of the pleasure.
Eskerne Falcon 23:43
Thank you for having me.
Lea Lane 23:50
Thanks for sharing travel memories with us. My book, Places I Remember, is available on Amazon and in bookstores, in print, on Kindle, and I read the audio version. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. Until next time, join us wherever in the world we're going.