San Sebastian a feast for eyes and tastebuds
A STONE'S throw away from the Spain-France border, hugging the Bay of Biscay, is the quaint coastal city of San Sebastian, Spain.
Also known as Donostia in the Basque language, the city is on its way to becoming one of the hottest European vacation destinations, having been named European Capital of Culture for 2016, along with Wroclaw, Poland.
The city is often upstaged by its fellow northern coastal paradise of Barcelona.
However, the countryside splendours of Donostia are more than enough to stand on their own.
While Barcelona is known for its crisp blue beaches and rainbow-hued mosaic works of architect Antoni Gaudi, the mountainous region of San Sebastian offers fewer crowds, world-class gastronomy indulgences and stunning gothic architecture.
Coupled with its London-like cloudy skies, classic European-style buildings and narrow alleys, I cannot help but feel that I was taking a stroll in scenes straight out of a Sherlock Holmes novel.
In the city centre, travellers can immerse themselves in a plethora of fun and leisurely activities - dining, shopping or simply enjoying a brisk walk or bike ride through the virtually traffic-free streets.
For shopping lovers looking to burn some plastic, the city is filled with both bargain and high-end designer shops, including some of Spain's most famous fashion chains: Loewe, Massimo Dutti, Pull & Bear, Zara and Mango.
Shoppers should keep in mind that in true European siesta style, many establishments in Donostia open late and close early, and may have midday break periods. This is especially true with dining establishments so travellers should rely on their hotel for breakfast or midday snacks.
If you are looking for something more adventurous, fret not. Despite its seemingly calm coasts, San Sebastian is actually known for its great surfing conditions.
Come blue skies or gloomy downpours, you would be hard pressed to find Zurriola Beach devoid of surfers. This hotspot on the Beach of La Concha offers some of the region's best white-cap swells.
Meanwhile, a trip up Monte Igueldo is a must for a stunning bird's eye view of the city.
The historic Funicular de Igueldo is the most popular option up Monte Igueldo, which boasts some of the most breathtaking panoramic views of the Bay of Biscay the region has to offer.
For quick day trips in the city's outskirts, the colourful streets of Hondarribia's "Walled City" was at the top of my list.
About half an hour from San Sebastian by car, Hondarribia is the only Gipusoka town that still retains its Renaissance walls.
The area is said to date back to the Paleolithic Age, roughly 2.6 million years ago.
With its serene atmosphere and picturesque cobblestone streets, the suburb village of Tolosa in the southern hemisphere of the Basque region is also an ideal hassle-free trip to experience northern Spain's countryside village splendours.
MICHELIN-STARRED RESTAURANTS ABOUND
Good food and wine is a religion of its own in Donostia.This coastal town with a population of only 186,000 is home to more Michelin stars per square metre than glitzy fine-dining hub Paris.
When it comes to San Sebastian eats, the locals have impeccably high standards, akin to any of the world's famous culinary cities, so your tastebuds are almost guaranteed to be stimulated like never before.
"Us locals have this running joke that we have the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants to population ratio in the world," said local tour guide Lourdes Gorrino Arrieta.
"For us, food is one of the most important parts of our culture and everyday life so this is why, even in this small region, you will find some of the world's finest restaurants," she added.
However, you do not need to burn a hole in your pocket to enjoy mouthwatering dishes.
San Sebastian's pintxos - more commonly known as tapas - culture is hailed as some of the best in the country.
San Sebastian native and local guide Eskerne Falcon of Discover San Sebastian offers a scrumptious pintxos tour that was the biggest highlight of my Donostia experience.
"If you want to do it like the locals, you should have only one or two pintxos at one place with a drink and then off to another bar," said Ms Falcon.
As for wine, while many parts of country are known for being the land of fruity sangria, in the north, the locals are all about one drink - txakoli.
This is a white wine that contains natural carbon dioxide, which gives off a delectable hint of fizz.
It pairs well with almost any serving of pintxos.
This is yet another "must" among the handful of cultural delights to experience when making your memorable visit to this charming bayside city.
THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK