Three Score Years & Ten in San Sebas-tién
It’s the turn of the 1951/52 Cohort, Friends, and 70th birthdays are falling thick and fast.
What to do? No inspiration: the Pandemic discourages planning but a miracle occurred on The Green a month ago to change all that.
We were enjoying far too many martinis in the September sunshine with our friend and neighbour, the Auteur, Terence Davies, along The Green from us, when he mentioned that his latest film about Siegfried Sassoon, Benediction, was to be screened at the Vancouver, Toronto and San Sebastian Film Festivals and that he had been asked, naturally, to attend.
Exciting upshot : the San Sebastian festival was in the week of Tony’s 70th Birthday and provided the solution to my dilemma – What To Do For The Special Day?
Pandemic hurdles: Vaccination Certificates, Digital Passenger Locator Forms (dPLF) and Antigen Test Certificates were procured; train tickets to & from Plymouth and a night on the Hoe at the Crowne Plaza booked, passages on the Santander Ferry from Plymouth obtained; Spanish car-hire for a week arranged; accommodation at the Parador de Hondarribia, 20 kms along the coast from San Sebastian near Irun on the French border secured – an hotel long desired but never acquired – and, slightly stressed and rather nervous, off we set.
Stressed because any or all of these could have misfired and the omens didn’t look good when the intercity from Paddington to Plymouth was cancelled. Had we travelled on the ferry day, we would have missed it altogether. We have learned to build time into all our travel arrangements especially in Britain where things always seem to go wrong.
There were tests that needed to be procured from laboratories in Spain for our return and these had to be sought only 72 hours from boarding the Pont Aven inbound on a Monday with all laboratory services shut at the weekend! No Antigen Test? No ferry ride!
Terence kindly arranged comps through the Benediction production office who passed the request on to their Spanish distributors who promised to email us barcoded eTickets. We waited all week for these to arrive and were sitting in a bar opposite the Kursaal a bare hour before lift-off thinking we were fated never to see the film when – gadzooks – Tony’s phone, almost out of charge, pinged the vital PDFs and, once they were certain all the really important people had traversed the red carpet, they allowed us to skip down it and into our pandemically spaced and sanitized seats to watch Terence’s heart-breaking film.
And it is a beautiful film; cherry on top? It just won the San Sebastián, Jury Prize for Best Screenplay.
Hondarribia is beautiful like he whole Cantabrian coast. Forested mountains sliding into the sea; long, narrow bays in which towns like San Sebastian, Bilbao, Lezo, Errenteria, Hendaye and Hondarribia are tucked into narrow valleys running down to the sea – Zumaia and famously Guernica are on rivers that have shaped these valleys over eons. The landscape is Alpine; the architecture is Alpine – cuckoo clock houses with wide eaves and shingle roofs.
Neat towns, restaurants and bars spilling out under shaded, tree-lined streets; sandy beaches lapped by cool, clear Atlantic water – from the hotel terrace we looked across the lagoon to Hendaye, Saint-Jean-de-Luz and Biarritz in the distance, the halyards on the serried yachts tinkling in the breeze and the ice tinkling in our large, globed Hendricks & Tonics!
The Parador de Hondarribia is built into the ruins of a 10th Century castle on the top of the hill dominating the land around, guarding the approaches from France one way and to the South the other – better to stop the marauding Umayyad Caliphate which by the 8th Century had reached the Cantabrian coast and threatened France. They had already reached Poitier in 732 but were defeated and retreated to Iberia.
Did you know that there are 18 Michelin Stars within a 25 km radius of the San Sebastian Town Hall? More than any other in Spain. Not Tokyo, Paris, London nor New York perhaps, but they are all vast: San Sebastián is a small city by comparison and wherever you go there is wonderful food.
Arzak, where kitchen duties are now shared between Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter Elena who are the grand and great-grand children of the original founders, specialises in New Basque Cuisine. It began as a wine inn and tavern in 1897 and been developed over four generations into the restaurant we visited for Tony’s birthday. Getting in there of course is like getting in to see the Pope. Weeks of emails and disappointments; when push came to shove we managed to get a lunch break the day after Tony’s actual 70th which I grabbed as being better than nothing, took an enormous breath, decided on the tasting menu and took out a mortgage.
Here we are with newly refurbed Arzak in the background, taken from the bus stop across the road! On the site of the original tavern. The first two floors are the restaurant and the top floor is offices and laboratories. Both Juan and Elena came round to say hello and thank us for coming. We were on the second floor where a respectful quiet descended on the cooled air and all were outlanders. On the ground floor there was more animation and a relaxed atmosphere. We think “locals” habituate the jollier (and cheaper?) ground floor.
Unlike the other patrons who seemed mainly American and swept up in limos sporting designer clothing, we arrived in the municipal bus at the stop outside, dressed down in shabby-chic; none of which made the slightest difference to the incredible culinary odyssey on which we then embarked: an amuse-bouche of –
Sunflower shot with cod, Ear of blue corn, Chinese bread with “aji” Sardine with Absinthe
– to unmoor the barque and ease it toward the tide of nine courses with accompanying wines and liqueurs. Supple, delicate in texture and taste it was epicurean drama at its best to end Tony’s 7th decade and usher in his 8th.
The week flashed by. The sun did not always shine; there were hot days and rainy days.
We walked the town flat. It’s a handsome one, beautifully situated on Bahía de La Concha facing north, an apron of sand in front of the promenade, a view of the open sea through the tall headlands that form a crescent protecting the city, the Old Town tucked under the eastern wing, dominated by the Basilica de Santa Maria.
Couldn’t resist the sea and sand and had to spend a morning on that lovely beach. I have a rule – I must be able to see my feet in the water; muddy, murky water I find alarming. “My dears……what is in there that I cannot see?”
Some years ago we were in San Sebastian briefly and were told that it is a tradition to cast the cremated ashes of loved ones into the sea from the Fuente de la Atalaya, o de Bardocas on the Pasealeku Berria, the point overlooking the entrance to the bay. Disconcertingly, if the tides and currents are incoming these have a habit of popping up next to you when you are bathing. Little caskets of death marked with names and dates. But not today! No death today.
Tony remembered that exactly 44 years ago on his 26th birthday he was standing on this very beach. He and some Argentinean friends were travelling Spain, from Ibiza, selling luminous green necklaces at raves and fairs. Even Bob Marley had one – an exceptional endorsement that sold all their product but did not make them rich.
They were a homemade invention the five companions put together in the back of a hire car and sold as far as the Münich Beer Festival where they ran out of plastic rods. He learned his Spanish from the Argentinians they having no English.
On another day we drove the spectacular coast along the Autovia that confidently rollercoasts through, under and over the mountains and valleys to visit the Museo Cristóbal Balenciaga at Getaria, a small fishing village really, where the great man was born and where he now rests.
And of course Pamplona.
I’d never been. Tony was there with his luminous necklaces and Argentinians all those years ago. A fifty minute drive through the mountains. Another beautiful city with its famous annual Festival of Sanfermines and the running of the bulls. None of that now. Not since July.
Tony brought an ancient, yellowed copy of Fiesta (Pan Ed. 1952) Ernest Hemmingway’s story around the running of the bulls written in 1926 and usually called The Sun Also Rises. I read and he re-read the story which is evocative of both the city and the festival though I can’t say the characters impressed too much. Lost souls all who had it in for poor Robert Cohn in an anti-Semitic way that from this vantage I found uncomfortable.
But it describes Pamplona all right – even down to the Irena Café which exists exactly like it did in 1926. It exhausted us both just imagining the drama and danger of the running as we walked the route. Definitely for the young and daring, I fear; it is not on our list! How the lost souls in Hemmingway’s book could even get out of bed each morning on the vast amounts of liquor consumed I can’t imagine. Skinsful of wine – literally – bottles of the stuff and the martinis, absinthes and sundry other elixirs on top of that. I had to reach for the Alka Seltzer just thinking about it.
And so our week drew to a close. Just one, last nerve-racking hurdle – the obligatory Antigen Test. Without it Brittany Ferries will not let us board. It must be no earlier than 72 hours before sailing but the laboratories in Spain are closed at the weekend; and our ferry sails on a Monday. Is 72 hours literal? Or will three full days before our 5.00pm boarding be okay? To stick to the letter we’d need to complete the test on or after 5.00pm on the Friday before sailing. No-one seemed able to tell us! If we couldn’t board then we’d have to stay behind. If we were positive we’d have to quarantine in Santander. The prospects of a relaxed last few days in sunny Spain seemed doomed.
Eventually someone confirmed that three days would be acceptable and we tracked down a laboratory which gave us the test for €50 a pop 80 hours before our sailing time.
We held our breath all the way along those switchback roads on that last day driving to Santander through scudding rain and heavy lorry traffic to return the car and eventually board the Pont Aven – no probs. no worries, as they say.
The Bay of Biscay on a rough crossing seemed calm by comparison.
Tuesday, 21st September we docked on the dot of 2.00pm in Plymouth. High tension – would the taxi be there? Would GWR be running a decent service to London? Would we be presentable for the Oxford & Cambridge Club Players Dinner in Pall Mall?
It was. It did. And we were.
In Spain there were no petrol queues, the supermarket shelves were full, the markets buzzing. Everyone wears masks. Everyone. Even youngsters in the school playground we noticed. It is etiquette. I won’t start a rant. We’ve all seen the news!
CURRENT TV FIXATIONS!
We are enjoying the Russian Dr. Zhivago made in 2006 as a series in eleven parts. Subtitled.
The White Lotus from HBO is intriguing us. We shall not be booking into that resort, my dears!
Vigil on BBC1 was wrecked for us by overcrowded story lines and complicated plot structures – but held my, if not Tony’s – attention! Impossible to believe and with all that money spent could the underwater effects look less amateur?
Succession is riveting. We are hurrying through the first two series to be ready for the third. What a ghastly family. King Lear and Titus Andronics rolled into one with the Murdochs, Maxwells, Hearsts and Trumps thrown into the mix. Great television!
Few, sadly but hopefully that’s about to change.
I went to a matinee of Bach & Sons at The Bridge Theatre and loved every minute of it. Talk about dysfunctional families – wow! But oh, that music.
Constellations? We were underwhelmed. We saw Russell Tovey and Omari Douglas but at those prices, for seventy minutes of theatre, crowded to the nines with no lip-service paid to Covid at all, we will not visit the other three couples I am afraid. The two actors were excellent but the piece just went round and round with over-cleverness. “Up itself” is an expression that springs to mind.
Blues inflected Jazz at the PizzaExpress Jazz Club in Soho with Paul Jones and John Etheridge was great. We know very little of Jazz but are being gently inducted by Friends Cathy and Richard -G. Hopefully there will be more Jazz outings. I am ignorant – but love it!
Thanks friends for getting this far. The multiple-choice exams will be online, no masks needed. Please bring your own pencils. You may cheat if you wish!
Pedro has left the building!