Mark Kurlansky Reflects on San Sebastián, Spain

San Sebastian
In the 1990s stickers by the beach read “Beautiful, isn’t it? This is not Spain.” Christopher Anderson / Magnum

The trail that led me to the beautiful port of San Sebastián began with a large explosion. On Dec. 20, 1973, 165 pounds of dynamite sent a black Dodge several stories into the air. And when it landed Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco was dead. He was not only the prime minister but the chosen successor to the elderly and soon-to-die dictator Francisco Franco. Franco’s plan to continue his dictatorship after his death had just exploded, and the perpetrators, a small Basque group called Euskadi ta Askatasuna (Basque for Basqueland and Freedom) were cheered around Spain. This was the seventh political assassination by the group.

As a young novice journalist interested in reporting on the resistance to the last fascist dictator in Europe, in the mid-1970s I went off to Europe, to Madrid. There was no resistance to Franco. The people were very short from poor nutrition. Older people often had missing limbs from the civil war that had brought Franco to power 35 years before, and no one wanted to live such a horror again. Then I went to Basqueland, to Euskadi. The people did not look like Spaniards. For one thing they were larger. The culture seemed so rich, the velvet green mountains so stirring, the rough cobalt sea so thrilling, the people so solid and passionate that I have been returning regularly ever since.

And the center of all this was San Sebastián, a city at the mouth of a river surrounded by steep green mountains with a beach before a graceful round harbor with a gumdrop mountain in the middle. There was even good fishing. Locals hauled in bixuga, the Basque sea bream, and bass with a 20-foot bamboo pole and no reel. When the fish struck with a splash the fisherman jerked back the pole, and since the line was the length of the bamboo, the fish swung into his hand. The city was like a small Paris with a harbor like Rio, and people lived so well here—with their afternoon swims, spectacular dining, famous gastronomic societies called txokos, lively family bars, and evening strolls by the sea—that it was hard to think of it as the heart of political resistance.

But this has always been San Sebastián’s paradox. In the 1990s kids put up stickers on the white ornate railing along the promenade by the beach. You would see the sticker as you gazed toward the harbor. It said: “Beautiful, isn’t it? This is not Spain.”

To me both statements seem true. It is beautiful, and its food, its culture, its people are different from Spain. Even the name of the city is different. In Basque, a language that has nothing in common with Spanish, it is called Donostia.

The Spanish resent the Donostians for thinking this way. Long after the Franco era I was once mistaken for a Basque while driving on a mountain road above town, my beret worn in the floppy Basque manner, not the jaunty commando style of other berets. The 19-year-old Spanish policeman treated me with unconcealed contempt until I produced a U.S. passport. I told the story to my friend Ramón Lebayen, a former mayor of San Sebastián, and he said, “You see. That’s what it is like to be Basque.”

The resistance to Franco began in San Sebastián back in 1952, the first anti-Franco underground since the end of the civil war in 1939. They called it Aberri Ta Askatasuna (Homeland and Freedom), until a few joined in from Bilbao in the next province where they spoke a different dialect of Basque and ata means duck. So they changed it to ETA.

When I first came here, I described the city’s beauty in my notebook and then wrote, “Every free wall is covered with political graffiti.” There is little support for ETA anymore but much support for remaining Basque, and not Spanish. A main boulevard lined with art galleries and restaurants is still favored for demonstrations, even some against ETA, because it offers so many side streets to flee the police.

Every year on Jan. 20, when there is sometimes icy rain and sometimes burning white sunlight, the 75 local gastronomic societies march through the streets, half of them dressed as chefs with tall white toques and half dressed as soldiers of Napoleon’s army. That invasion has not been forgotten either. The chefs beating spoons and whisks chase the soldiers beating drums. By 10:30 at night the war is over, and everyone goes into a restaurant to eat stuffed spider crab. That is life in beautiful Donostia.