Last April, our colleagues Carla and Hazel headed to Northern Spain for an inspection trip. As usual when going on inspection trips, this was a great opportunity for them to try some of the private tours and special experiences which Madrid & Beyond offer to its clients there. Also, they took the chance to visit some of the properties we usually work with and to even stay in two of them, where they were able to experience firsthand the facilities and services as our treasured clients do.
The first stop on their trip was San Sebastian. The attractive city of San Sebastián (or Donostia) sits on a stunning circular bay known as La Concha. La Concha is in fact just one of four beaches in the city, but La Concha remains the undisputed sovereign. Turning inwards, the highlight of San Sebastián is its old town is situated on the eastern side of the bay, wedged between this and the River Urumea and at the foot or Monte Urgull. This is where many of the sights are, most notably the Plaza de La Constitución and the churches of San Vicente and Santa María.
Upon their arrival, they checked into the Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra, the best known four-star hotel in San Sebastián. Situated in front of La Concha beach and beside the historic quarter of the city, one could not ask for a better place to stay in the city. There are six floors and over a hundred rooms, half with views across the sea and the others overlooking the attractive Plaza de Zubieta. All rooms are very spacious, comfortable and tastefully furnished.
After visiting the hotel and some of the rooms it was time to meet their expert guide and head to the market, where they visited some of the shops and bought the ingredients for their Private Cooking Class in a Gastronomic Society. Basque men gather at sociedades gastronómicas to cook, eat, drink, sing, and socialize. Until recently, women were excluded. These clubs have nurtured the Basque culinary tradition, resulting in the current proliferation of top restaurants in and around San Sebastian. It is estimated that over 160 sociedades gastronómicas co-exist and Madrid & Beyond can arrange private access to the most prestigious gastronomic society of them all, where the aim is to promote traditional Basque cooking. Classes can be more hands-on or more of a demonstration depending on the client. The main idea is to give a taste of the way cooking and gastronomy is a way of life here and to give a glimpse into the local culture. The society brings people together to cook and share ideas. Honorary members of this particular society include Arzak, Mugaritz, Ferran Adiá, etc.
In the afternoon, they found some time to visit another of the lovely hotels we usually work with in San Sebastian, the Hotel Villa Soro. Located in a residential area, not far from San Sebastian historic center, this hotel was a 19th-century country house and is now the city’s finest boutique property. The hotel has 25 rooms in all, 15 of which are located in the main house whilst the other 10 are situated in what used to be the red brick carriage house. Despite the 19th century ambience, they have not foregone modern conveniences, which make it a very interesting property.
In the early evening, Carla and Hazel joined their expert guide and embarked on a Private Pintxos Tour. To every San Sebastian resident, the terms “pintxos” conjures up images of mouth watering delicacies, from simple eats to highly elaborate haute cuisine creations. Such is the fervor of the residents of San Sebastian for its gastronomy and pintxos, every year the city stages a competition in which all the bars seek to create the tastiest, most original pintxos. Winners proudly proclaim their plaques outside their doors, and many establishments are renowned for one dish above all others. Some of the delicious pintxos they tried were the Rosa de bogavante (lobster rose), the Foie a la plancha (grilled foie) or the carrilleras de ternera (beef cheeks).
Their second day started early, since they had to meet their private driver/guide and together head to La Rioja wine region. After a 1 hour 30 minute journey they arrived to La Rioja’s traditional wine capital Haro, where they visited one of the historical wineries in Rioja, dating back to the second half of the nineteenth century. Here, they firmly believe in employing traditional methods in all facets of the wine making, including their very own in-house cobblers or barrel makers – a sight to behold! Indeed, tradition oozes from every nook and cranny here… quite unique in every way. Afterwards, they continued to a modern winery in La Rioja Alavesa, where they learnt about the contrasting processes of modern wine making, including the carefully monitored stainless steel tanks whose temperature is controlled by a constant stream of water bathing the exterior of each. They had the chance to be guided through this process and to taste the wines with the owner of the winery, a very personal visit indeed.
After lunch it was time to do some inspection sites in two of the hotels we work with in this wine region:
- The 5* Hotel Marques de Riscal: Designed by renowned architect Frank O. Gehry, the property is his second masterpiece in Spain after driving Bilbao’s urban revival with the Guggenheim Museum. Located in the heart of the Rioja wine region (Elciego), it’s the perfect place for a relaxing break.
- The Hospederia de los Parajes in Laguardia: A great little hotel, very comfortable. It boasts an eclectic and funky design and each room has its own character. There is a spa and restaurant, and a little atrium where you can enjoy a drink.
In the late afternoon, they headed back to San Sebastian and checked into the Hotel Maria Cristina. This 5-star hotel has gained a deserved reputation as one of the most superior hotels of Spain. Throughout the hotel are Louis-XV and Empire-style furnishings. Facilities and amenities are entirely modern and the highest degree of comfort can be expected. The rooms are fully equipped and overlook either the garden or the Urumea River. Furthermore, a very central location makes it a popular choice for anyone looking for luxury and refinement in this very picturesque city.
Their third and last day, they visited Getaria, a charming fishing village located just 30 minutes away from San Sebastian. Here Juan Sebastian Elcano was born. Don’t recognise the name? In the age of the exploration in the early 16th century, he became the first man to circumnavigate the globe. Also, for fashion lovers, there’s another “celebrity” who was born here… Cristóbal Balenciaga. He was an early 20th century designer to royalty and other wealthy patrons that started to come to San Sebastian when Queen Maria Cristina began to make it fashionable (she needed the sea air to fight a skin condition which caused the city to become a popular destination). If you’re interested in fashion, there is a Balenciaga Museum at the top of the hill in town. Apart from this, Getaria is the ideal spot for a delicious seafood lunch in one of its numerous restaurants, with catch coming fresh from the boats anchored in the wharf below.
And just when you thought it was impossible to fit anymore into such a short visit, the ladies even had time for a couple of bites of tapas and a walk through the picturesque village of Hondarribia on their way to the airport. Hondarribia is a very short drive from the airport itself, and well worth a visit. A short 1hr 15min flight later and they were back home in Madrid… both agreeing that with every visit to San Sebastian they fall in love with the city and all the jewels the north has to offer, just that little bit more.