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San Sebastián

Messy hair, tired blue eyes, stone-cold sober and jet-lagged. It's 1 am and I'm crawling into a twin-sized bed decorated with a nubby balloon design fleece blanket in a strange city next to a strange man. How did I get here? Do read on...


My flight landed into San Sebastian hours earlier, 10:30 PM to be exact. The buses were no longer running, so I split a cab into town with a 24 year old Milano, named Mateo.


As we got settled into the back seat, he threw out his hands and said “I’m a pharmacist and a quirky guy.” I laughed. Mateo was 6’4,” and his body commanded a presence as big as his words. When he spoke, the energy sparked his delicate brown eyes, covered in part by a pair of reflective cat-eyed glasses. I could see his eyes growing and shrinking as he changed facial expressions. He read my ease as a good transition into talking about his heartbreak.


“My heart has been pulled straight out of my chest and ripped into two,” Mateo told me. He wallowed, “Julia, looked at me with the depths of her beautiful green eyes and said she was leaving me for her old boyfriend”. This ended what he considered to be one of the greatest love affairs of the century.


His English wasn’t great, so I’m not sure if the descriptions he used to describe his heartbreak reflected scenes he remembered from an American chick-flick or if his dramatic words came from his Italian heritage. To me, the whole thing sounded like a mix between a tragedy and a circus, but he didn’t see it that way.  He was completely sincere. He didn’t blame her but was done fighting a losing battle for her love. In a  fleeting decision to heal his first broken heart, he booked a plane ticket to Spain.


His hands were constantly moving. He swung them around to accentuate his favorite old-english proverbs or killer points. After he made the claim, he would need to push his short, side-parted, fluffy brown hair, roughly out of his face.


He then turned to me and said, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, the words flew past his full-bodied, rosy, chapstick lips and each syllable was accentuated to the same degree as the last.


Mateo’s flamboyant and lovable demeanor made me laugh hard. He was an open book which made people feel comfortable and good about themselves through his stories and perspective on the world.


In fact, Mateo decided to begin healing his broken heart by traveling to San Sebastian so he could walk the Camino del Norte portion of the el Camino de Santiago. The Camino de Santiago is a network of ancient pilgrimage routes throughout Europe that is known for being filled with a mix of people wanting to make life changes, heartbroken wanderers, and exercise junkies. Mateo clearly fell into the middle category.  I felt bad for his heartbreak because he was a genuinely good person but I knew he would bounce back fast.


When traveling, Mateo planned even less than I did. I booked a room for one night. Mateo had booked nothing.  


He coolly explained to me that he was going to begin the trek when we arrived. In total, this was a 5 week, 808 kilometer trek. The first town to sleep was 25 kilometers away from San Sebastian. Beginning this intense of a hike at midnight, sounded like the  craziest plan I have every heard of, but there he was.  When the cab pulled up to the center of town, Mateo, being a gentleman, told me he would walk me to my hostel before grabbing a pastry and beginning his journey.


We bumbled around looking for the hostel--which had no sign, for an hour before arriving. When we got there, the owner said that he had overbooked the rooms so no longer had a bed for me.  However, he “kindly” offered me a spot on the floor for 40 Euro per night. Our voices rose as we bickered back and forth like two teenagers while I searched for a new hostel online.


Meanwhile, Mateo decided it was now too late to begin his journey, and that he needed a bed after all.


Bingo! Found a hostel. I sarcastically waved good-bye to the hostel owner.  We both silently prayed to never see one another again.


It was now 1 am. We knocked on the new hostel’s door and the owner let us up. She was overbooked as well but said we could stay in a room at her friend’s apartment.  


There I was. Either sleeping on the street or sharing a bed with someone that I had only known for two hours. It didn’t even cross my mind to take the bed for myself,  after all of our struggles and his selflessness in helping me find my hostel, we were in this together, and the bed was just as much his as mine. So while Benny said nothing, I could now imagine him saying, “Sleep in the bed you’ve made.”


I’ve had loads of bizarre experiences but there is something very personal about putting your PJ’s on, brushing your teeth, putting your frownie on and getting into bed with a complete stranger.


Women, listen closely, for those of you who don’t know, a frownie is a remarkable, all natural, wrinkle-defying, triangle shaped sticker that works better for your stubborn forehead lines than botox. While, this beauty marvel has the  power to transform you back 10 years in your sleep, it’s not the most fashionable sticker to slap on when sleeping with your husband of 50 years, let alone a stranger. But, as I put my frownie on, I said quietly to myself, “consistency is key.”


As I brushed my teeth, I contemplated my decision: would anyone hear me scream if Mateo decided to try and get frisky? Instead of addressing my concerns,  I changed and flipped off the light.


We layed down like two stiff logs next to each other, unsure of how to act. Mateo pulled me in, we snuggled all night and talked about first heartbreaks.  In the morning, I snapped photos like a mom leaving her child at the bus stop on the first day of school. I cried of happiness as he turned around, with a big smile and a huge wave, then off he went, walking stick and pastry in hand, on his way to walk the el Camino.

Things to Do in San Sebastián...

Wine Culture:

Spain is the 3 largest producer of wine in the world and the La Rioja region, known for it’s world famous vineyards is a mere hour away from San Sebastian. In the La Rioja region, the full-bodied Tempranillo is the most beloved wine and after it hit my lips, I understood why.

Drink with God and the Virgin Mary:

Not only do Spaniards know how to make wine, they know how to drink it.  My first night out with friends from the hostel, we grabbed a bottle of wine from the market. I chose a 4 Euro bottle and my friend asked why I spent so much. I shrugged off my buyer’s remorse, took a swig from the bottle, and headed down the narrow cobblestone streets to the famous church in Puerto Viejo. That’s right, everyone here buys wine, gets wasted, and smokes cigarettes right on the church stairs. I expressed how funny I thought the irony of it was to my latin lover, his white smiled grew larger and brown eyes glittered under the softly lit streetlamps, as he winked and responded, “That’s Europe”. Ahh I love it, finally a town with no rules…


Pinxto Pote:

Every Thursday night, with a drink, you get a free Pinxto, which is a large tapa.


Buying Wine In the Restaurants and Bars:

The narrow cobblestone streets are lined with restaurants and outdoor bars to drink and eat. After 11 AM (when the early birds begin waking up) until the early hours of the morning, the street are packed with people drinking and eating outside and enjoying each other’s company.  


Wine in a bar is 1-3 Euro. If you are paying $3 Euro then you're probably at a very touristy place.


Wine at the Markets:

$.95 Euro- $20 for a really high quality wine.


Helpful Hints

Buying a Surfboard:

Spaniards don’t use craigslist. To buy second hand, download an app called wallapop or use the website There is also a secondhand store here called cashconverters.  Another option (which I actually did) is to buy a surfboard from Pukas Surf Shop for full price a week before you leave they will let you sell it out of their storefront. My board was 300 euro, they will let me try to sell it for 200 euro, but if it doesn’t sell by the time I leave then they will give me 100 euro on the spot.

Getting a Job:


Super easy, as long as you are not a job snob. If you have papers to work then finding a job is even easier. Jobs that are easy to get are working reception in a hostel, cleaning hostels, and babysitting. I worked as a receptionist in a hostel and really enjoyed being paid to talk with other travelers. With any job here, be savvy when negotiating your salary because many owners will want to make a “contract” to pay you by the month and rip you off per hour.  If you don’t have papers, 5 Euro per hour and up is a fair price. If you are planning on staying longer, work exchange is another option. Work exchange is where you can work a job and in return the business will offer you free accommodation and food. is a great site to find work exchange.


Hostel Review:


Si Gros Hostel. I booked my stay three weeks prior to arrival and emailed the owner a day in advance to change my reservation and see if I could have a package sent there. He was extremely nice and accommodating. However, he failed to put the reservation in the books. This is fatal in San Sebastian in the summer because every hostel books up 2-3 weeks in advance.


While the whole experience made for a good story, his error put me in an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situation if I couldn’t have found a bed. He did offer me to sleep on a mattress on the floor, but for 40 euro/night, his offer wasn’t acceptable. If he had dropped the price, I probably would have taken him up on the offer and been more compassionate.


The pictures online didn’t truly reflect the space. The photos were bright and cheerful. However, the kitchen looked dirty, and the entry way looked like it was furnished from disgusting, old furniture from the alleys. I didn’t end up sleeping there so can’t comment more as to the facilities, atmosphere and safety.


Si Gros Hostel. is located in a really cool part of town called Gros. Gros is a 5 minute walk to Zurriola Beach (the surfing beach), a ten minute walk to Puerto Viejo and the two other beaches for swimming. It’s a hip, local neighborhood with lots of cute bars and restaurants. My personal favorite bar is Robinson Bar, which is a stone’s through from the hostel. There is a grocery store, awesome health food store, wine market, and tobacco shop all within a two-minute walk.


Overall, I would give the hostel:

Staff 4/10

Cleanliness (based on what I saw, I am unable to review the bathrooms, etc) 2/10,

Location 8/10,

Overall 4.6/10.


Online, there are inconsistent reviews ranging from 1 star to 5. Hostelbookers 75%, Trip Advisor 50%, and Hostelworld 84%

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