In San Sebastian, turn right when you see Jesus

Art and the ocean, San Sebastian. Photo: Conor McLeod

“… turn right when you see Jesus, walk across the bridge and there you are.”

These were the instructions I got when I asked at how to get to the Playa de la Zurriola from my hostel in San Sebastian. Follow the river towards the old town, cross the busy road and turn right when you see Jesus. Easy.

I would hear these same instructions repeated again and again by the staff at the hostel, with the only difference being “turn left at Jesus” if you want the Playa de la Concha, the longer, calmer metropolitan beach.

And the instructions were good.

On my first day I dumped my bags at the hostel after arriving from Pamplona by bus and packing only a towel, my journal, some fruit and water and a book I set off to follow these orders.

I walked down towards the old town of San Sebastian, passing designer shops, small bars crowded with locals and green parks filled with trees. That first day the sun beat down on me like a hammer on anvil, reflecting off the black slate pavers that would become so treacherous when the rains arrived later that week.

Hustling through the streets I reached the busy one, the main thoroughfare that runs along the esplanade and separates the old town and it’s castle from the newer sections. On the hill at the back of the old town, surrounded by brick walls, trees and gardens was Jesus. The giant monolith, gesturing in peace and prosperity, looked down from his perch on the hill and watched over the town.

I turned right.

Crossing the bridge I had my first glimpse of the Atlantic, the breakwater funnelling the powerful surges of this mighty ocean up the river in waves. Looking over the edge I saw large fish floating in the eddies, while a sea of tourists from all edges of the globe passed behind me in either direction.

With the sun continuing its persistent beating, I did not linger long on the bridge, but continued across to the suburb of Gros on the other side. I turned left, past the large entertainment complex that was busily preparing to host the annual San Sebastian International Film Festival that weekend.

I followed the short stretch of river leading to the sea, and there it was. Playa de la Zurriola, and the first waves I had seen since I arrived in Europe.

The beach was crowded, with swimmers crushed into a small section at the western end where the lifeguards could safely watch them between two yellow flags. The rest of the beach was reserved for surfers, and today the swell was pumping.

Great long rollers poured into the bay, hitting hardest at the eastern end. Scores of board riders of all levels of expertise jostled for position at every possible break, meaning that when a wave was caught more often than not the lucky rider would have to pull out early, or risk careering through a crowd of novices. It was mayhem.

I lay down my towel among the amorous couples, topless locals, sunburnt tourists and small groups of university students and sat for a moment, admiring the piercing blue of the sky and the swelling grey of the ocean.

Then I swam. Racing into the first of the breakers I dove under, head first, before powering out past the second and third line. There, where it was flat, I turned to face the shore, floating in the salty water.

It was a beautiful vista — the crowded beach with the waves pounding the shore. Set back across the road were tall apartment buildings and hotels with shops, cafes and bars on the ground floor.

Everywhere was sun, and everyone was happy.

Originally published at on May 5, 2017.