Need an idea for a small Euro trip? Think two countries, two very different experiences, and all with less than 50km apart? That’s the magic of the combo Biarritz, France and San Sebastian, Spain. Plus, attach these two with Paris and Barcelona (fly into one and leave from another), both great memory-refreshers pitstops (assuming that you’ve covered those before) and with lots of flight options for its Basque coastal towns. Quite an amazing experience if you don’t have much time on your hands.
Biarritz sounds fancy, and, well, it is. The village has a history of being the seaside resort of royalties, Emperors, and worldwide celebrities. Napolean Bonaparte had a vacation house there (today is the Hôtel du Palais). Accommodations are, therefore, classic and/or chic; but, impressively, you’ll feel comfortably unjudged wearing flip-flops and no name tank tops. Plus, the locals aren’t bothered if you can’t order your petit dé’jeuner in français. Maybe it’s the Surf vibe, since Biarritz is one of Europe’s favorite surfing destinations.
If you’re like me, a beach lover that is looking for sunbathing and refreshing ocean splashes, Biarritz is also good for that. In the Summer months, beaches get overcrowded, but I had a wonderful time at the small Plage Port Vieux. With little space to fit my beach canga (Brazilian beach towel), I was really near French families and could easily hear them speaking their lovely language: “Je veux aller à l’océan, maman”! So cute!
The Cote de Basque beach belongs to surfers. There’s a huge cliff that surrounds it, where the busy highway runs, and there are a park and a golf course as well; that is probably why I didn’t see many bathers. The Grande Plage and the Plage Miramar offer more space, including busy volleyball nets and a few seaside restaurants.
Best way to let your hair loose is renting a scooter: you’ll travel on the perfect speed to move around and beat traffic. My husband (boyfriend at the time) and I used it to go past the lighthouse and then completely opposite side, where the museum circuit is.
We stayed at Le Grand Large and totally recommend it. We got upgraded to a suite with a balcony and beautiful view which made us a bit sad as we were only spending one night. The hotel had the main exit very near the beach path and a back exit that took us easily to the insides of the city, where we found delicious patisseries, bistros, and shops at Rue Gambetta.
At night, look for the free events provided by the city; we went to one by the Cité del’Océan, a museum with outstanding architecture that imitates sea waves. People were skating, playing, or just like us, enjoying the sunset with a drink in our hands.
Expect of Biarritz the French elegance of striped beach umbrellas, long beach hats, delicious gourmet foods and, to top it all, a 60’s vibe casino. Make sure you have a filet tartare for me. Merci!
Bus from Biarritz to San Sebástian: Finding the bus station and scheduling was a bit complicated, very confusing. Some said it left every hour, but there is no ticketing booth (you pay the driver), so we just had to trust a timetable someone told us about. A little sketchy as you have to show up with bags, etc. But it worked! Go to the Tourist Office of Biarritz, at Square d’Ixelles, and ask around. Then come back with your bags when it’s time to leave, as the bus departs from the same square.
Leave the French Basque Country taking the 1h bus ride to San Sebástian — or Donostía, in Basque — and arrive in a different country that may as well be a different world. From quiet chic to the loud and messy. It all balances like yin and yang, or may I say as wine and pintxos?
The beauty of San Sebastián is the bohemian life, enjoyed on streets so packed with bars and people that it all becomes one big party. You get into a pub, order a drink to the barman while you look at the different pincho options laid right there, on the same bar, like it was an all-inclusive buffet of canapes and finger food. If something catches your eyes, just let the bartender know and he’ll put it on a plate (and charge you for it, obviously). Make sure you do a proper research for the best pintxos in town at the moment. Sorry, it’s been too long and I didn’t properly document my favorites, but the one I remember and that was actually my favorite was Atari Gastroteka (get there early to get a table). Do your research, but also try random ones along the way, along the day.
The San Sebástian main beach, Playa de la Concha, is nice, but a little too much in the middle of the mess. Better spend your day walking around: go to Monte Igeldo to check out Eduardo Chillida’s famous sculpture collection El Peine del Viento (The comb of the wind), and visiting the Museo San Telmo.
San Sebastián might feel small but prepare to walk a lot (great to burn the calories from all the drinking and snacking!). We stayed at Hotel Gran Bahia Bernardo, which was great to get out of the crowds of the bottom of Monte Urgull and La Concha Bay. The hotel was located on the other side of the bridge that divides the Urumea river, an area that you should go for a night if you can, as it has its charm and it feels more like where the locals hang out.
While in the hills of Biarritz the best locomotion choice was the Vespa (did I say scooter?), in San Sebastian it’s better to choose bicycles. The city is pretty flat, and the small crowded streets are focused on pedestrians; ride your bike until it gets too busy, then park it and go enjoy life.
Si amigo, it is a wonderful vacation life!