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War and Peace in the Basque Country

Thirty Basque men, women, children and seniors stand in the rain silently, forming a long human chain in front of the Kursaal Building in San Sebastian. The modern, stylish building stands triumphantly over the beach and the old town, a physical symbol of the Basque people’s opening their doors to the world and a peaceful future. The demonstrators at their door hold pictures of a convicted member of the militant Basque separatist group, ETA, and their message is much less ambassadorial, more personal, poignant, and polemical.

My friends and I pass their long line, reading the signs they hold solemnly to a passing crowd of mixed sympathies and bewildered tourists. I look at the images of prisoners, unintelligible Basque phrases, their red, green and white flag, and the map of the un-official borders of Euskadi, with the label Euskal Presoak etxera, a phrase I now understand to mean, Basque prisoners come home.

Such protests are a common sight in the Basque Country, though when I first arrived here I was unaware of their significance. I made my first trip to San Sebastian while working as an English teacher in a small village in rural, conservative Old Castile, deep in the Spanish heartland. From the languid villages of the meseta, it was difficult to imagine that people in the north were fighting for their independence. I researched the conflict online, discovering a complicated and bloody battle going back centuries in time. Before I left for San Sebastian, the philosophy teacher took me out for a beer and attempted to fill me in on the situation.

He pulled out a napkin and drew the map of the Basque Country, the three French provinces and four Spanish provinces that made up “Euskal Herria,” the unrecognized “Land of the Basque Speakers” straddling the Pyrenees. He then drew the arrows pointing inwards from Spain and France, forming the flag I now saw the protesters holding in the rain. He did not write or explain Presoak etxera.

“If you see this flag, be careful.” he had warned me. “This flag means it’s bearer supports terrorists. It means they support ETA and the attacks they’ve made against Spain – from bombing innocent civilians to assassinating politicians. Avoid any bar that flies the flag in it’s window, and whatever you do, don’t talk politics with anyone.”

I nodded, folded up the napkin and put it in my jacket pocket. I suspected he’d provided me a facile explanation that lacked the profundity of thought expected from a philosophy teacher. I decided to reserve my judgement until I saw the situation for myself.

I saw the flag everywhere in the Basque Country. It hung from windows of homes, from balconies of the old town, from behind the bars of taverns from Bilbao to Biarritz. It was so ubiquitous, I couldn’t believe that everyone who held it was as evil as my co-worker made them out to be. I tried to avoid talking politics as long as I could. But after a few beers at a local tavern where the flag was printed on the napkins, curiosity got the best of me.

“This flag is calling for justice,” said the bartender, leaning over the counter. “When the Spanish arrest a member of ETA, they do horrible things to our people. They torture them, they murder them, and they put the rest in prisons in the most distant corners of Spain, as far away as the Canary Islands [off the coast of West Africa]. We can’t afford to visit our friends and relatives, many of whom we believe are being unjustly held. These arrows mean we want the prisoners to come back here to the Basque Country. To Euskal Herria.”

He looked me gravely in the eyes, pushed off the bar and went back to drying pint glasses behind the bar and talking to the other patrons in Basque. I left my inquiry at that, knowing that the issue was far more complex that I could fathom at that time. I felt the weight of centuries of mutual mistrust and anger pressing down on the shoulders of both this bartender and the philosophy teacher back in Castile.


I was unwittingly pushed into the middle of the conflict soon thereafter. Two weeks after returning to small town Spain, the local Guardia Civil detained me and interrogated me on suspicion of being a member of ETA hatching a plot on their local police station (see post here). They had seen me writing notes in my notepad and had followed me for two weeks, during which time I went to the Basque Country. I supposed they had planned to make headlines by thwarting my operation, only to realize I was merely the town’s English teacher.   They released me apologetically, saying “We can’t be too sure these days, you know…with ETA and all.”

Months later, I moved to the Basque Country and took a picture of one of these independence rallies. A local grabbed me hand and stopped me. “Put away the camera,” she said, “People here are going to think you are a spy for the Guardia Civil.” I told her about the misunderstanding with the Guardia Civil back in Castilla. She scrunched her face into a scowl and said, “Fascists. Ignorant fascists, the whole lot of them.”

Though I laughed nervously about the irony of the incidents at the time, they revealed a deep misunderstanding and paranoia on both sides of the conflict. During my first year in San Sebastian, I avoided the subject of ETA, learning to celebrate the uniqueness of the Basque region without focusing on the more radical elements of the independence movement.

I fell in love with the Basque Country. There I discovered a nation without a country, a people with a long history largely unknown to the world, and a culture that drew me in and mesmerized me. I realized that if so many cultural treasures lie hidden within well-trodden Western Europe, the world beyond the West must hold enough diverse cultures to fill a lifetime of discovery.

Old Basque Dude
Photo by Daniel Burgui Iguzkiza

And so now, when I see the demonstrators standing in the rain, holding up pictures of convicted terrorists, I understand that the faces in these photos are their sons, sisters, cousins and friends. The conflict is personal for everyone involved.  There are bloody hands and innocent lives lost on both sides of the battle. Many heated conversations have made me realize that the longest continuous conflict in Europe can not be solved by me alone.

Then I think back to the philosophy teacher who told me not to talk to the bartender. I think about the Guardia Civil and the activist, and the chasms that separate their perspectives. Then I realize that these divisions and misunderstandings are preserved by silence.  And so I keep talking and writing, because it is only through communication that we can hope to forge the mutual understanding we need to build peace.

Donostia Dive Bars – Night Life in San Sebastián, Spain

Originally Published on MatadorNights

San Sebastian, Spain is an elegant city. These places are not. This guide will show you a grittier side of Spain’s most elegant seaside city that most tourists don’t see.

San Sebastian (called Donostia in Basque) is at once very touristy and extremely local. Foreigners and donostiarras tend to run in different circles and most visitors never escape the warren of touristic bars in the parte vieja (old town). It took me six months of asking around before I moved beyond the anglophone bubble into tabernas where locals go to get down.

I’ve posted the fruits of that half-year search here. Most nights begin with eating pintxos and move quickly into bar-hopping bacchanalia. So I’ve put the pintxo spots first, most of which close around eleven. The other seven bars close around 3AM.

Between heavy metal, live music, and pintxos, you’ll find the trouble you’re looking for here.
La Mejillonera

When partying, I always start at the Mejillonera around 9PM. Each night, this busy seafood joint buzzes with locals slurpin’ down €3 plates of mussels and patatas bravas (potatoes with secret sauce) – hence the floor covered in beer and discarded shells.

Cheap food, free bread, and 1-liter catchis of beer for €3.60 makes this the ideal place to fill your stomach and kick-start your buzz.

Calle Puerto 15, Parte Vieja

Bar Gorriti

Most of San Sebastian’s pintxo bars are quite fancy. Bar Gorriti is not. Vagrants and working men alike come here for pintxos and drinks well within their price range. Local tip: maximize your bar-hopping budget by ordering a half-beer, called a zurrito.

San Juan, 3, Parte Vieja

Juantxo Taberna

Shifting from food to party, we have Juantxo Taberna. Famous for their €3 bocadillos (submarine sandwiches), Juantxo’s is always brimming with donostiarras drinking cañas (pints) of beer at any time of day. As dining shifts to drinking, the boisterous crowd flows into the street.

Calle 6, Parte Vieja

The Port

In fact, boozing in the street is essential to a night out in San Sebastian. Though technically illegal, outdoor pre-parties are an institution warranting their own name, the botellón.

Thrifty locals converge at the port between 11PM and 1AM before hitting up pricier bars. Follow their lead and make yourself a kalimotxo – equal parts of €1 boxed wine and Coca-Cola, served with ice in a plastic cup. Yum.

Parte Vieja


If it’s after midnight and you’re properly buzzed, you can head to the Parte Vieja for more trouble, starting with Hamabost. This place is perfect for knocking back chupitos (shots) while overlooking the Plaza de la Constitución as the DJ jams the deep cuts of classic rock. And there’s plenty of space in case you’re rolling deep after the botellón.

Plaza de la Constitución, 15, Parte Vieja


Next, you can grab the baddest-ass dudes from your crew and go to Zunbeltz, San Sebastian’s most nefarious metal bar. The above-average amount of hair, leather, and facial piercings of its patrons makes it easy to spot.

Stepping inside is like entering a time capsule from 1982 where guitar solos and stiff whiskeys drown out the shitty euro-pop of nearby discos.

Pescadería, 12, Parte Vieja

Calle San Juan de Bilbao

Calle San Juan de Bilbao is not everyone’s cup of tea. The street’s overt Basque nationalism might put some people off, but the half-dozen bars here are as local as it gets.

Either way it’s wise to read up on the Basque Country’s political situation before visiting. Crowds tend to migrate between Herria Taberna, Suhazi Taberna and their smaller neighbors. All are safe bets.


Akerbeltz is a gay-friendly bar that’s a good time for anyone. This local favorite is a stone-hewn grotto centered around a marble horseshoe bar, replete with Neolithic cave art and drinks strong enough to knock you into the stone age.

In summer the party spills out into the nearby staircase. Feel free to do the same.

Calle de Mari, 19, Parte Vieja

Le Bukowski

Up for a hike? Leave the parte vieja behind and cross the river to the offbeat barrio of Egia, home to Le Bukowski. This popular dive is famous for live music, good tunes and great times – and the highest concentration of skinny jeans and plaid shirts in town.

The young, welcoming crowd puts down €2 beers ’til 5AM — two hours later than any other bar on this list. Weekend ambiance rotates between non-techno dance parties and live music (usually with €5 cover). Check out the events calendar here.

Calle de Egia, 18, 20012, Egia

Leize Gorria

If everyone drank at bars like Leize Gorria, perhaps the world would know peace. The bar’s Uruguayan owners are fighting the good fight from their subterranean casa cultural, a “free and open forum for self-expression and intercultural exchange.”

There’s live music all weekend, but Monday and Thursday nights’ Jam Sessions best embody their faith in the universality of music. Anyone can pick up a guitar and chant down Babylon with the crowd — including you. Don’t be fooled by the empty ground-level bar. The real party is underground.

Calle Zubieta 9, La Concha

Koh Tao

When you eventually rise to the sunlight, wash away your hangover with a cafe con leche and a slice of tortilla at San Sebastian’s hippest cafe-cum-bar, Koh Tao. Jump in the ocean, take a siesta, and start all over again. Repeat enough times, and you may never leave San Sebastian.

Calle Bengoetxea 2, Centro Romantico