Seaside towns off season

The bordering French town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz on Jan 4th

Winter, in my adopted town, San Sebastián*, has a bit of a reputation.  It’ll be a ciudad fantasma (ghost town), my new friends warned me – the population shrinks and the streets go quiet early. Early being about 11pm on a weeknight, which doesn’t sound too bad to a Londoner used to the sight of defeated bodies collecting around tube stations three hours earlier than that. But by the standards of a Spanish city, the cessation of street life before the early hours is a stigma and gives ol’ Donosti no chance of competing with its cooler metropolitan rivals, Barcelona and Madrid.  The missing inhabitants are tourists, who with their fast money and Promethean livers keep the bars open longer. 

All this, makes me think of  Agnès Varda’s  1958 documentary, Du côté de la côte, which describes the Côte d’Azur’s permanent residents in a single shot of an old man and his donkey.   Varda would rather lavish her attention on a tautological list of tourists, the curious, the emigrants and the amateurs.  These improvising sea people look like tropical fish in their patterned swimsuits and require just as delicate a climate before they are exposed to nature, namely warm air and sea temperatures. As far as Varda is concerned, they are the most animate presence in town; their beach lifestyle is aspirational rather than a matter of chance. 


Having spent a few weeks in the alleged ciudad fantasma, I think the people who engage with the coast in winter are themselves worth documenting. My cast would be surfers, fishermen, collectioneu/r/ses, swimmers and revellers. These are of hardier stock than the tourists,  making the most of whatever conditions nature sends their way. They are more at the mercy of non-human entities such as weather, tides and shoals. Make no mistake, these are dreamers too,  but the chancier kind, willing to be frustrated, elated and overwhelmed by forces they can’t control. My sea swims only last about five minutes at a time these days, but the waters have never been so cold or clear, the colours so brooding, the release so triumphant, when I emerge. My companions are fish,  an island in the middle of the bay and people more practiced at this than me. 

The festival of San Sebastián also happens to be in January and from the 19th – 21st,  the city is decked out in local white and blue and parades of drummers saunter through the streets. The oldest and youngest drummers have serious faces, but the mood is  jubilant and magnanimous. I can’t help but think that this is the locals’ way of reclaiming their city  from the tourists after the summer and autumn months.  Around 3am on the 20th, when the heel broke off my boot and the barman’s liberal handling of the gin bottle all but knocked me out, I limped on home,  thinking I’d call it a night. But the bands were still marching, the cafe next-door had turned into a dance floor and unable to resist, I changed my shoes and partied with some people who were travelling in from Santander. None of us spoke Basque, though we could sing in it. 

Donosti bat bakarra munduan…

Living by the sea, you get the most classic sense of January as a two-faced god.  On one side of the revolving door, there are intense rains that paint the cobbles black and empty the streets, perhaps making space for ghosts. On the other, you sense that the days are getting longer, so that the living have more light to go by. 

Ghost, thy name is rainbow

*The city where I’m living, San Sebastián/ Donostia, goes by two names, one Spanish and one Basque. I use both interchangeably to reflect the experience of being here.

This is the second in a series of posts about moving from London to Donostia/ San Sebastián, a small city on the Basque coast. Feel free to comment, like or share! 

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