A Short Stay in San Sebastian (Donostia)
Okay. Let’s get all cultural and talk about 31 de Agosto in San Sebastian, a lovely city between Bilbao and the French border. You’ll most likely have no idea what I’m talking about or why August 31 is even a holiday. I was completely surprised myself to stumble upon this random historic celebration.
First of all, San Sebastian was a light-bulb moment in my trip planning. Rather than spend extra days in Bilbao, why not try San Sebastian? Neither Lisa nor I had visited the city we’d both heard so many good things about. Luckily, Lisa was game immediately so I booked us an Airbnb apartment for two nights.
After arriving to our apartment and walking around, I could see why people rave about Donostia. The quaint seaside charm and the long paseo (paved path along the beach) were picturesque. The skyline has an old-world European look with its cathedrals and government building (Casa Consistorial). We spent a lot of time walking from Playa de Ondarreta, a beach on the west side of the city, toward the Parte Vieja (old part) of the city. We explored the pintxo alleys, tried txacoli, and wandered the narrow streets.
On the morning of August 31, we ventured out to walk around the city in the morning before relaxing on the beach in the afternoon. My first clue that the day would be a little odd was seeing a man in an old-fashioned uniform serenely looking out at the ocean. Interesting choice of clothing, sir.
As we made our way toward the city center, there was more commotion: horses behind a fence in the plaza (those weren’t there last night!), people changing clothes in the plaza into cropped pants and white shirts with military jackets. Uhh, something’s going on here. Continuing on toward the Iglesia de Santa Maria at the corner of Calle 31 de Agosto, there were people in many varieties of costumes. (It’s starting to feel like San Francisco followed me…) All the costumes were traditional, the women in long dresses, some men in capes, others in purple suits with berets.
Suddenly we noticed a large crowd near the church, so we went inside. The church was full of people and a priest was speaking. We didn’t understand, either because he was speaking too quietly or because it was Euskera (the local language), I’m not sure. As we came out of the church, the costumed people were marching down the street as music began to play. Mostly everyone had drums, which they were beating all together. Horns were belting out a patriotic melody. We decided not to join the crowd but to walk up a path to a wall overlooking the city. The music was so loud we could hear it from above. It continued for quite a while. Making our way back down to go home and change for the beach, we saw that they had all gathered outside of Casa Consistorial and the music was playing again. It felt like a moment out of a movie, or for me, like a strange town festival in the show Gilmore Girls where everyone takes part. (I swear Kirk was somewhere in the mix of drummers.)
After doing our research and talking to our host, we learned that August 31, 1813 is the day that British and Portuguese troops attacked San Sebastian (against French Napoleonic troops) and burned it to the ground. The only street left standing was named Calle 31 de Agosto. The city had to be reconstructed from scratch. At 10:00 PM on August 31, there is a period of silence with the lights turned out and candles lit to commemorate the tragedy.
Here’s my amateur video of the music and scenery. The parade is happening to the left as they disappeared into the side streets toward the city plaza. Listening to the music reminds me just how incredible it was to stumble upon this event.
I’m impressed by how the people of Donostia continue to commemorate this day in their history and by their strength of surviving and rebuilding the city. San Sebastian/Donostia has left a very favorable impression on me, not only because of its beauty, but its heart and courage.
PS: Bonus points for Donostia: the city has its very own Bubble Man. Seriously. He has a sweet mohawk and spends all day making giant bubbles for kids. Best job ever?