Take A Hike Series: The Clifftop Walks of San Sebastián

May 22 – 28
San Sebastián, Basque Country, Spain

After going several knockout rounds against the sublime pintxos bars (pronounced: “peen-chos,” Basque for tapas) in San Sebastián, our latest favorite city and first stop in Spain, we decided to go out for some much-needed exercise.  Fortunately for us, the Gipuzkoa province, one of seven that forms the Basque Country across both France and Spain, is known for its incredible network of hiking trails. An enormous section of mountainous parkland separates the little fishing village/suburb (San Pedro) we’d chosen to stay in from the city, and our affable and incredibly helpful host Oskar suggested we follow the Ruta de los Faros that wound its way over coastal cliffs, hanging valleys and forested ravines. He told us it was one of the most beautiful hikes in the Gipuzkoa, and like most Basques, he was a man who hiked a lot.

Armed with warm baguettes, some sliced sheep cheese and a quantity of Iberian ham, we set out for the day.  We soon learned that the Way of St. James, better known as the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, follows a section of this trail along the GR-121 as part of its coastal diversion through Northern Spain.  This famous 450-mile pilgrimage trail begins in the French Pyrenees and culminates at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, which is believed to contain the relics of the apostle Saint James.  While Ryan and I have both entertained the notion of hiking the length of the Camino, this particular pint-sized 4.6-mile segment seemed like a fair-enough introduction for the time being.

From the moment we climbed above the harbor at San Pedro, we found ourselves continually scooping our jaws up off the ground as we gawped at the surrounding seascape.  Near the Faro (Lighthouse) Senokozuloa, we chewed our nails as an enormous cargo ship plied the narrow channel that connected the harbor with the Atlantic with only the aid of a minuscule pilot boat.

Further on, the Faro de La Plata was a 19th century gem of a lighthouse, and with its three stories and spiraling towers it appeared a prismatic castle perched up on the cliff.  Later we passed a series of aqueducts that had once carried water to the capital, followed by what appeared to be an ancient washing basin set into the earth alongside the trail.  Three towering rhododendrons in full bloom surrounded the pool, and its location deep in the ravine possessed a quiet sanctity.   This was the fountain of Kutralla, once believed by pilgrims to possess healing properties.

For miles we circled spectacular coves that met the ferocity of the Atlantic head-on.  We skirted the base of Monte Ulia at the center of the park and dipped into sheltered beech, oak and chestnut forests as micro-storms passed over our heads.  In parts, San Sebastián’s “green lung” resembled Kauai’s Kalalau Trail with its abundance of plant life.  Eroded flysch cliffs (sedimentary sandstone) were thrust up in jagged diagonal layers, and bore testament to a history of orogenesis as the continents collided and gave birth to the Pyrenees.

For their parts, both Oliver and Kendley demonstrated excellent trailmanship.   Kendley scrambled like a lizard over countless boulders in her path and at each successful landing she raised both fists in the air and shouted a triumphant, “I DID IT!” When he wasn’t at his sister’s side, Oliver carried a massive branch and swept away low-hanging pine boughs from overhead.  Caterpillars were observed, tiny caverns were discovered, shelter was taken from the rain, a picnic was held near a lookout.  At the mirador (viewpoint) near Pikoaga, I leaned my head against Ryan’s and together we watched as gulls caught the updrafts.  The kids laughed and made a game of marbles out of pebbles from the trail behind us.  This was all just right.

Little painted-on red, white and green banderas served as trail markers all the way down to the Playa de Zurriola, where surfers tested the chill of the Atlantic.  We had reached the city; San Sebastián fanned out from its beaches under the glow of the early evening.  The statue of Christ gazed down from atop Mont Urgull opposite us across the Rio Urumea.   Maybe we would climb that hill tomorrow, if our legs were feeling up to it.  But now it was time trek into the Parte Vieja, the Old City, where the bartenders would just be starting to put out their pintxos.


HOW TO DO THIS HIKE: This section of the Ruta de los Faros can be walked from either Pasaia to San Sebastian, or vice versa.   From downtown SS, begin the walk just behind the Playa de Zurriola, the main surf beach.  The trail is accessed after a steep flight of steps that begins at the end of Zemoriya Kalea behind the Casa de Okendo (look for the little red and white trail markers). You will climb up towards Monte Ulia with the beaches to your left.  Once you begin, there are frequent signs that point the way to Pasaia, which is about 2.5 hours away (roughly 7km).  Once in Pasaia, you can catch the Eo9 bus back to the city center (it runs every 30 minutes). A map of the trail can be seen here.

Posted from San Sebastián, Basque Country, Spain.

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