Close to the French border, San Sebastián, Donostia to proud Basque-speaking locals, is a gracious seaside resort and contemporary gastronomic mecca where royals and high society mingled a century ago. Support for flagship club Real Sociedad isn’t quite as feverish as at rivals Bilbao, and the stadium isn’t as cherished (nor as centrally located).
Twice Spanish champions in the early 1980s, Real Sociedad were surprise top-four finishers in 2013 and duly made their second appearance in the Champions League. Top six for most of 2013-14, Sociedad claimed a Europa League slot. Recent form, though, has not been so good.
Between those remarkable title wins and taking on David Moyes’ Manchester United, Real Sociedad dropped their policy of signing only Basque players. In the late 1980s, the club created a storm by signing distinctly non-Basque John Aldridge, then Dalian Atkinson, while rivals Bilbao remain firmly Basque to this day.
Like Bilbao, San Sebastián has been sport mad ever since it was first organised locally. The Basque Country is the cradle of Spanish football, linked with industrialisation and the British influence in the late 1800s. English engineers brought football to Bilbao, while another trend was for sons of wealthy local industrialists and merchants to gain their education in England and bring the new game of football back home – as was the case in San Sebastián in the early 1900s.
Players who had won the Spanish Cup for ‘Club Ciclista San Sebastian’ in 1909 – the first two goals coming from Englishmen McGuinness and Simmons – were formed into La Sociedad de Foot-Ball de San Sebastián that September.
‘Sociedad’ earned their royal (‘Real’) title a year later.
The club first played on the beaches of Ondarreta before moving to a modest ground by the railway station, Atotxa, in 1913. Inaugurated with a game against Athletic Bilbao on October 4 – in honour of mourned ex-captain José Berraondo – this unusual, intimate ground staged 80 years of football. Most famously, it saw the last-gasp title win over Bilbao in 1982, before its curtain closer against a Basque XI a decade or so later.
The Basque derby has always been a display of regional solidarity against Spanish rule – amid low-key animosity between the two clubs involved. Basque football’s heyday came after Franco’s death. In 1976, the captains of each team jointly displayed the illegal Basque flag to a cheering derby crowd. Each club would soon win the title twice – practically unthinkable in today’s era of Messi, Ronaldo and €100 million footballers.
San Sebastián Airport 22km (13.5 miles) north of town is used for internal flights only. Ekialde buses (E20 and the faster E21; €2.05) run to Gipuzkoa plaza in San Sebastián, referred to as Donostia on timetables. A taxi (+34 943 64 64 64) to town is priced at €34.
The nearest international airport is Biarritz 50km (31 miles) away, though transport links are tricky. Two bus companies run a direct if infrequent service to San Sebastián (€10), journey time 45min-1hr15min, PESA and Conda. A Chronoplus bus runs to Biarritz rail station (every 30min, €1, 15min journey time), where trains leave every 1-2hrs for Hendaye (25min, €5.80), then a Basque Euskotren runs every 30min from ‘Hendaia’ to San Sebastián (40min journey time). One train late-afternoon train runs Biarritz-San Sebastián (1hr 20min, €10.70). A taxi (+33 787 01 04 05) from Biarritz Airport to San Sebastián should cost €115.
Bilbao is further, 90km (56 miles) away, but better connected. An hourly, daytime-only PESA bus runs directly to Plaza del Pio XII in San Sebastián (1hr 20min, €16.50) – look for ‘Loiu Aireportua’ on the PESA online timetable.
A taxi (+34 944 80 09 09) to San Sebastián should cost around €140.
Right by the bus station, so also convenient for the stadium, the Hotel Silken Amara Plaza is a four-star in an upscale chain.
Midway between stadium and sea, the buzzy and fashion-forward Astoria 7 Hotel also houses an equally inventive contemporary restaurant.
Near the beach, elegant, hospitable Niza makes a mockery of its three-star status, Pensión Bellas Artes is an affordable choice close to Amara train station, as is the Hotel Husa Europa closer to the seafront. Nearby Pensión Easo is even cheaper, as is the Pensión Fany.
The Pensión Ondarra typifies the new generation of guesthouses, stylish and contemporary, close to the beach and local transport links. Tucked in from the seafront, the Hotel Zaragoza Plaza is a good mid-range choice. On the beach itself, the Hotel de Londres is old-style luxury, sea-view rooms taking in the whole bay.
Gastronomy rather than beer is San Sebastián’s speciality – but if there are delicious pintxos to be had while you’re carousing, so much the better.
Bar life is concentrated in the maze of street in the Parte Vieja, the Old Quarter, where you’ll find the excellent Bar Sport (Fermín Calbetón Kalea 10), the focus on TV football. Sport is also the main feature of the Bar Derby, between the bus station Amara Euskotren on main Antso Jakitunaren, by the corner with Azpeitia.
The main Irish bar in town is Kelly’s (Nafarroa Beherea Plaza 3) in the Gros area of town while nearby Casa Senra (San Francisco Kalea 32) is pintxo heaven.
Bars line pedestrianised Errege Katolikoen/Reyes Católicos immediately behind the cathedral. These include the pub-like Auld Dubliner, the more contemporary Splash and the excellent, traditional Bar Vallés, which makes no secret of its support of Osasuna.
Real Sociedad flags and team line-ups colour the walls and back bars of several spots around Easo, the small square immediately in front of Amara Euskotren station. These include the corner Javier, bullfighting-focused La Bella Easo and the Bar Erdiko.
In a more contemporary vein, London, tucked in behind the seafront on San Martin, offers TV football and music.