Just before Christmas, as San Sebastian prepared to relinquish its year as one of the two European Capitals of Culture (shared with Wroclaw in Poland), there was a silent demonstration outside the magnificent belle epoque Ayuntamiento – the city hall. Dozens of people stood there, holding home-made banners. What are they demonstrating about, I asked? They ask for peace, was the reply.
Peace came to San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque) on 20 October 2011 when the Basque nationalist and separatist organisation ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasura – Basque Country and Freedom) announced a ‘definitive cessation’ of its armed activities. There had been ceasefires previously – in 1989, 1996 and 2006 – none of which lasted. But it has now been over five years since ETA ended its decades of killings and kidnappings. Still, however, it seems that the local population feel it is important to make sure their voices are heard, and that peace continues to prevail.
Few cities have relished peace more. Today San Sebastian is the epitome of chic. A glorious crescent-shaped beach – Playa de la Concha – is regularly cited as the best city beach in Europe, a playground for swimmers, surfers, joggers and dog-walkers. The old quarter – the Parte Vieja – has dozens of lively tapas bars (pintxos in Basque) and a plethora of Michelin-starred restaurants, three with the highest accolade of three stars. The 186,000-strong city hosts an annual glamorous film festival each September and has created a modern museum – San Telmo – dedicated to Basque culture and society in a 16th-century Dominican convent, with a memorable addition of contemporary architecture, including a vertical garden.
But San Sebastian has a very dark past. From the 1960s until 2011 it was hit by wave upon wave of assassinations, bombings, kidnappings and terror. ETA has been blamed for more than 800 deaths over the decades and there were also around 150 anti-ETA killings. San Sebastian was the worst hit, with the country’s biggest number of politically motivated assassinations. But although the terror has stopped, the consequences remain.
Flags are hung from balconies in the Plaza de la Constitucion, the city square once used as a bullring, the balconies of its fringed homes rented out to spectators. There are similar flags in the dark and bustling old town streets of Pamplona and Bilbao, although none are in evidence in the pristine, well-heeled French Basque town of Biarritz. These flags all bear a message demanding that ETA prisoners are brought home to serve their sentences – over 300 imprisoned members and sympathisers of the group are deliberately held far from their families in other parts of Spain, France and even further afield.
It was a queen with bad skin who first put San Sebastian on the international tourist map when, in 1845, Queen Isabel II was advised to bathe in the therapeutic waters of the southern Bay of Biscay. The Queen’s approval of the resort – although we don’t know whether she was cured of her condition – led to wealth and development, with the old city walls demolished by 1864 and a new city centre created. Another monarch – Maria Cristina – and her court spent the summers here, leading to the city’s magnificent belle epoque makeover, with dozens of elegant Art Nouveau buildings thronging the promenade.
But the good times didn’t last. ETA was formed on 31 July 1959 when a group of dissident radicals broke away from the Basque Nationalist Party and formally announced their drive for Basque secession. The following year the group claimed its first victim – 22-month-old Maria Begona Urroz, who was killed when a bomb exploded at the railway station in San Sebastian.
The scars are deep in this city. The first piece of advice you are given when you arrive is not to talk Basque politics unless you really know your stuff. The ‘definitive cessation’ declared by ETA in 2011 has held, but the group has not formally disbanded and disarmed. There is a great optimism in San Sebastian, and the rest of the Basque Country, but no one is denying the past.