Basking in Basque Country

By Noah Graff

“Playa de la Concha” in San Sebastián

In May I had the wonderful opportunity to go on vacation in a small paradise in northern Spain called San Sebastián (Dononstia in Basque).

When I asked folks from San Sebastián how they felt about their home city they simply beamed. They boasted that the city is the gastronomic capital of the world, it has the most beautiful scenery in the world, has a solid economy, and that its Basque language has no other languages it can trace itself back to, making it the oldest language in all Europe.

I’m happy to say the bragging of the San Sebastiáns didn’t come across to me as snobby, which it very well could have. Instead their pride felt authentic and uplifting, and it was hard to disagree with their sentiments.

San Sebastián is located in Basque Country on the southern coast of the Bay of Biscay, 12 miles from the French border. Despite its small size of 23.51 square miles, and modest population (186,409 in 2011), it is considered a food mecca, filled with bars serving traditional yet creative small snacks often comprised of seafood called pintxos and succulent rare beef ribs (chuletas). San Sebastián’s area also boasts the second highest per capita of Michelin star restaurants in the world, second only to Kyoto Japan. The city’s views of the coast were so breathtaking that I took hundreds of scenery photos, many of which are similar and repetitive, but I was so struck by the beauty that I just had to keep taking one after another.

One thing that strikes me when I travel to Spain is the pride Spanish people have in their heritage. But the pride they exude generally isn’t pride in being Spanish, it is pride for the region or specific city they come from. Contrary to what one might first think, Spain as we know it is actually a young country with its first constitution in 1812. The country is comprised of 17 autonomous communities, two autonomous cities and has six recognized regional languages. The divisions among regions remain clear today. For example, children in the Basque region have to study the Basque language in school, while those in Catalonian cities such as Barcelona learn Catalan. Both the Basques and Catalonians have had significant separatist movements for decades, sometimes even resorting to terrorism.


Noah Graff eating Beef Ribs (chuletas) with a British friend in San Sebastián

In San Sebastián, street and building signs are all written in Basque alongside Spanish. The best soccer players growing up in San Sebastián only want to play for their home city’s team, forgoing the vast salaries and fame they might find playing for a large market Spanish team like Real Madrid or playing in other countries. In fact, I was told by my hotel’s desk clerk that if a player from San Sebastián went to play for another Spanish city people might spit at him walking down the street. I asked him if a city in another part of Spain was attacked by a foreign country if he would he feel as though he had been attacked personally, and he said no. I’m sure not everyone in San Sebastián would feel that way but it was powerful to hear him say it.

A friend I made in San Sebastián told me that he admired how at every sporting event in the United States we sing our national anthem. The ritual had never really struck me as a custom distinct to the United States before then. As much as I loved visiting San Sebastián and as much as I admire the passion its people have for their home city, the disunity I felt in Spain gives me an extra appreciation for the United States. I feel fortunate to live in a nation where I can travel everywhere and not feel like a foreigner, be it to New York, Indiana or Mississippi.

God bless America, where states haven’t tried to secede for over 150 years, where I can go to a Chicago Cubs game and sit next to a Cardinal fan peacefully, and where Lebron James can leave his hometown to follow money, prestige and weather, and then return as a hero.

Question: Do you always want to live where you’re living now?

Question 2: Would you like to be a settler on Mars?

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14 thoughts on “Basking in Basque Country

  1. Avatarshawn arnold

    1st off been to San Sebastian a couple of times…Wonderful city. Had some food there I would never have any where else..cripsy pigs ears, sweetbread ravioli and more. Also a few Machine Tool Builders close by in Bilbao area.
    Yes I always want to live where I am at but I could easily retire and spend a month or so in Spain
    No..would not like to settle on Mars

  2. AvatarEric

    The Basque country is great and I have had the pleasure of going there many times. Also the Machine shops in the Basque country seem to be very good at what they do. I learned a lot from them by seeing inventive in house shop floor solutions for complicated problems in fixturing and tooling. It seems to be the Industrial powerhouse of Spain which is a testament to the agrarian lifestyle that breeds hard workers. This is the same work ethic we benefit from in the rural farmlands all over America. I also agree the food and scenery are both excellent. Also your headline photo does not do that beach justice.

  3. AvatarJack

    1. Always thought so until a couple of winters ago. So cold, now considering becoming a snowbird.
    2. Maybe, who would I be going with.

    As for sitting next to the opposing teams fans. I’ve heard some bad stories from Philly from a Panthers fan.

  4. AvatarDick Crosby

    I was born in Rockford, and I’ll die here. Have lived in same house for (48) years. I’ll die here! Same wife for over (30) years now. (3rd.) Finally, a keeper.

    Mars? You can have my seat. Be my guest! Only you pay for the ticket.
    Thanks for asking!

  5. Avatarmike



    not big on “blue bloods” either . . . lots of hispanics like to claim “spanish” blue blood in their family tree . . . probably Mayan. LOL.

  6. Avatared kays

    Missouri is home to me and always will be. It is a beautiful state with a lot of good people.

    I have no desire to live on Mars.

    We live in a Great country. I have traveled all around the world and no place else will you see almost every business and a lot of homes flying the flag.

  7. AvatarAllen

    Our family has hosted 4 exchange students across the last 10 years and the one thing that they all didn’t understand was hearing the National Anthem all the time. Also, seeing the flag flying at homes and businesses was uncommon at home.
    Back home (2 from Scandinavia and 2 from South America) they seldom see their countries flag. I tried to explain that it might be what binds us together. Most of us, or our ancestors, came from somewhere else. Our national pride is one thing we have in common.

    1: Maybe after retirement. Moving around some might be fun.
    2: Mars? No way.

  8. AvatarPeter

    We left the Detroit area in 2010 for Fort Myers, FL to start our rotary broach company. I miss home sometimes, but I am glad I left. I enjoy new surroundings and a change in weather. (Welcome to FL snowbirds!) I’ll be here for a long time, but wouldn’t leave for Mars.


    Why sho Graff junior all you Yankees are welcome to come South. Uh make sure ya bring ya checkbook now heah! (giggle)

  10. AvatarPete

    Q1: Yes, until my children are raised and/or I can afford to be away for months at time in another location.

    Q2: No, I too much enjoy the scenic view Wisconsin provides and wish to see more of this world. Pictures of Mars will do.

  11. AvatarKim

    No. Though I love my home and community, I think it is important to get out and live somewhere else. I first left the bubble of my hometown for college, and which included a year abroad. Though I’m very well settled again in my current home I think it would be wonderful to have the opportunity to live somewhere else, if only for a few years.

    I’m not sure if I’d want to live on Mars. Though I now have relatives halfway around the world, technology keeps us connected. Skype is amazing, though it would be nice to have them visit in person more often. I’m not sure that would be possible from Mars.

  12. AvatarBig Al

    Noah – you didn’t mention the beauty of the clothing optional beach (one of the highlights of any trip to San Sebastian). You were visiting too many restrauants.


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