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Travel in August - San Sebastian

los angeles
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Travel in August - San Sebastian

I've got a unique opportunity to go to Spain for 9 or 10 days starting in early August. Never been.

Am probably seeing primarily Barcelona, San Sebastian, and Bilbao (or same cities in reverse order).

Looking for a few things:

1) Is it better to travel via train Barcelona to San Sebastian vs. renting a car (and what are costs, travel time, and recommended line)?

2) I understand the train San Sebastian to Bilbao is a very long ride - so what is the best way to get between the two cities?

3) I'm looking for recommendations for better hotels in the three cities (notch below five star, and lower if solid accommodations), and local color restaurants in all three cities.

Thank you in advance.

Toronto ON
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1. Re: Travel in August - San Sebastian

Assume that you start in Barcelona since you are flying in from the States. An initial word of warning. San Sebastian is VERY popular during July and August. The selection of hotels is not large. You had better make arrangements soon if you plan to stay anywhere.

Bilbao is a much bigger and less touristy city and will be easier to book in.

Driving from Barcelona to San Sebastian would take about 6 hours if you do not stop anywhere for long. The route to San Sebastian takes you through the university town of Zaragosa (interesting but sleepy in August) and Pamplona (famed for the "Running of the Bulls" in July but worth a look-see in its own right) The scenery varies but some of it is very pretty as you drive north parallel to the Pyrennies, through part of the Rioja and wind down through the coastal hills to San Sebastian.

Driving from San Sebastian to Bilbao takes about 1 1/4 hours (60 miles).

Spaniards have taken to the roads in record numbers in recent years so traffic on Fridays and Sundays (or Monday or Thursday if Friday or Monday is a holiday) can be horrendous. Try to avoid long drives on those days.

The alternatives are to take the Train or to Fly.

The Spanish railway, RENFE, operated two trains a day from Barcelona to San Sebastian and Bilbao. One, the Miquel de Unamuno, leaves at 12:30 and arrives at either destination shorlt after 8 at night. The overnight, the Pio Baroja, leaves about 10 at night and arrives at 7:45 in the morning. The train breaks at Castejon de Ebro with half going through Pamplona to San Sebastian and the other half heading to Bilbao. Cabins with berths on the overnight are comfortable and airconditioned but I would only recommend it if, like me, you like sleeping on trains. 80 euros per person double, 110 single. A first class seat on the day train is 50 euros. The day train to San Sebastian passes through Pamplona about 6 pm and might be worth an overnight there and look-see.

Finally, Iberia flys to San Sebastian and both Iberia and Spanair fly to Bilbao. About 1 hour either way. Tickets to Bilbao are usually cheaper.

We stayed at the Barcelo Costa Vasca in San Sebastian which gets very mixed reviews, some quite bad. I didn't mind it. See my reply on this forum to a question about it. The flagship hotel in town is the Westin Maria Cristina, elegant and on the river. The Londres y de Inglaterra is the other Grande Dame wonderfully located on La Concha, the beach. We have poked in for a look see and drink a couple of times. It seems a little threadbare and tired to us though still wearily elegant and always seems to be full of Norwegians for some reason. (Not that thats a bad thing). I like the Spanish Nh hotel chain and have had very good experiences with them. They have a hotel in San Sebastian called the Aranzazu which I would recommend on the strength of my experiences with the chain - I have not stayed in that particular hotel.

Folks take the bus back and forth to Bilbao. Buses leave every half hour and the trip takes 1 1/4 hours. Sunday service is less frequent. The last bus either way leaves at 10 at night. Miss it and you are stuck.

I have never stayed overnight in Bilboa so you will have to rely on the recommendations of others although Nh has a hotel there too called the Villa de Bilbao.

As I said you need to make your reservations yesterday so to speak. If you happen to speak Spanish contact the big travel agency Halcon Viajes who have special arrangements and coupons for leading hotels. We paid either 75 or 90 euros where ever we went on hotels where the rack rates were twice that or more.

In Barcelona we stayed at the Amrey Diagonal which we really liked but you might find a bit out of the way.

I think that I would drive or take the train up to SS/Bilbao and fly back.

Have a great trip. Hope this helps.

Toronto ON
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2. Re: Travel in August - San Sebastian

Food in San Sebastian is very good. Arzak and Akelare are two of the most famous restaurants in the world if you can get a reservation which we could not. Our dinners at La Perla on La Concha and Casa Valles near the Cathedral were quite good though not fantastic.

Tapas is the thing in San Sebastian. The best in Spain. In the old section of town are a couple of dozen tapas restaurants which serve for lunch and again in the evening. Peak periods seem to be around 2 in the afternoon and 8 in the evening.

The tapas are laid out buffet style like plates of canapes at a cocktail party. In addition many places will sear foie gras (cheap and delicious) or small kebabs to order. Folks wash it all down with local wine (the Rioja is next door) or draught beer.

You choose what you like (in some you point out what you want to the bartender, others are self serve) and remember what you had. Its on the honour system (can you imagine such a thing in North America?). When you leave, tell the bartender what you had and pay up.

Most locals go from bar to bar only having a couple of tapas at each one. There are usually a few tables in each bar but most people stand. A good tapas crawl will fill you up and make dinner unnecessary (impossible actually).


Bilbao, Spain
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for Bilbao, San Sebastian - Donostia, Basque Country, La Rioja
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3. Re: Travel in August - San Sebastian

Just a point: we never call them tapas, but pintxos (or pinchos) in the Basque Country. Tapas are a different thing: they are usually offered free of charge in many parts of Spain with the drink and are much less elaborated. Many tapas have to be eaten with a fork, while most pintxos are eaten with your hands (not all, though).

4. Re: Travel in August - San Sebastian

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