Whenever we mentioned to anyone that we were running the San Sebastian (or Donostia in Basque) marathon, their first comment was not about the event itself but “you will enjoy the food there”. After hearing this numerous times we decided to investigate what people were going on about. It turns out that San Sebastian is generally regarded as one of the food capitals of the world, having more Michelin star restaurants per capita than anywhere else and being home to two of the world’s top 20 restaurants.
Fortunately for us – unlikely to be eating in Michelin starred restaurants – it is also renowned for the quality of its everyday food in the hundreds of pintxos (tapas) bars that populate the city.
The process of awarding Michelin stars to restaurants dates back over 100 years when the Michelin tyre company began making atlases to encourage travelling by car and suggested places to eat on route. What was meant to be a useful guide to the quality of the food has now become a fiercely sought after accolade.
The process of awarding stars is shrouded in secrecy – there are only 120 judges worldwide and their identity is kept carefully hidden. They spend their time visiting various establishments and comparing notes. (They are required to have regular health checks to measure cholesterol levels and weight increase etc. because of the nature of the work !) In their reports only the quality of the food is taken into account. Other factors such as ambience, decor and service are ignored. Most restaurants get no stars but for the ones that do :
One star* Worth the stop, very good in quality, food prepared to a high standard
Two stars** Worth a detour, excellent in quality, skilfully crafted cuisine
Three stars*** Worth a special journey, exceptional in quality, precisely executed cuisine
and there is a fourth category …
Bib Gourmand (good quality and good value)
We were, however, in San Sebastian to run a marathon, an event that also has a good reputation – in the running world. So to be in keeping with the local vibe we decided to borrow the Michelin grading system to rate our experiences over the weekend – no secrecy here!
1. Travel – (No stars)
Not the easiest European marathon to get to. San Sebastian does have an airport but few international flights arrive there so most visitors fly to Bilbao and get a bus (1 hour 15min) through to their destination. Buses are approximately once an hour from the airport to the bus station in San Sebastian and the journey costs 17E. Despite information to the contrary on various websites, tickets must be bought before boarding. You can do this online or from ticket machines in the airport terminal. For reasons mainly of our own making, we had slightly stressful experiences with the bus on arrival and departure. However, the journey itself is comfortable and through very pleasant countryside.
2. Saturday morning shake out run **
On Saturday morning we went out for our usual pre-breakfast 5K run to get our legs moving and to explore our new surroundings. From the hotel, we headed towards the seafront only to find many other runners doing the same thing. It’s a great feeling the day before a race being so much part of the international running community. The temperature was perfect – there was even some sunshine – and it was good to see so many kids playing football matches on pitches marked out on the beach.
3. Race day Weather ** (mainly for relief)
All week we had been watching the race day weather on the met office app and because it was threatening to be so bad (heavy rain all day) we feared the worst. November has the highest average rainfall in San Sebastian. As predicted, the day started with pretty torrential rain but just as we were about to leave the hotel to jog to the start, miraculously it stopped. We did have a bit of rain during the race but by then it was actually welcome. Overall conditions turned out to be almost perfect for racing.
4. Race – the course ***
The course was flat and fast – so fast that the lead pacers were on bikes! It was an interesting route, and didn’t suffer from being two laps, with plenty of opportunity on switchbacks to encourage, and get encouragement from, other runners. There were a few tight corners, and the 5 hour cut off was strictly enforced by a sweeper bus. There was a satisfying stadium finish. As is often the case, everyone we spoke to said the course measured long on Strava.
5. Old town and sea front ***
San Sebastian has a well-preserved old town filled with bars, shops, and restaurants. The overall architecture is attractive, the ambience lively, and the seafront equally vibrant.
6. Hotel **
We stayed in the Hotel Astoria 7, which has a film theme throughout. The well-appointed rooms are all named after movie stars, and there is an unnervingly lifelike model of Alfred Hitchcock sitting on a sofa in the reception area. The hotel was perfectly placed for walking to the start and back from the finish, and gave a late checkout until 2 o’clock for Sunday leavers. The hotel bar served very reasonably-priced drinks and breakfast items. The only slight downside was a newly-encountered difficulty in the hotel gym: the treadmill’s instructions were all in Spanish, and not at all obvious!
7. Food *
We’re not sure if this fair, but it turns out that food wasn’t the highlight of the trip. There were plenty of bars selling pintxos, which was delicious, but certainly in some of the places we visited had to be fought for, and was not ideal pre-race food. We had trouble trying to find a sit-down restaurant for Saturday night – they were either booked, or didn’t start serving until late in typical Spanish fashion. We eventually found a hotel restaurant willing to serve us at a reasonable time – if you decide to run this race, just remember to book a place to eat in good time!
8. Serpentine running club ***
We joined the Serpentine Running Club in April and are still getting to know other members. There were twenty or so at the event, running a variety of 10K, half and marathon distances. It was good to meet up with groups of them at various points over the weekend (usually in bars!), but also good to see friendly faces out on the course. The red and yellow vest is quite distinctive and easy to spot.
9. Overall value for money. Bib Gourmand
Despite a few negatives – very few women participating, and running out of foil blankets before a 3:30 finish – the race was very well organised and good value for money. The t-shirt is one that we’ll definitely wear again, there was a good-quality medal and plenty of fluid and food at the end.
10. Results *****
Sorry, we’ve had to break the rating system – but we had double cause for celebration, with PBs for two of our party. Cam and Mark both had amazing runs; Mark ran a 4-minute marathon PB, his first in 2½ years, and Cam with a 3-minute PB took a step closer to Boston. Certainly warrants five stars!
Definitely worth the trip.