San Sebastian was a more than pleasant surprise when I toured Spain last year. Although it is internationally renown for its beaches and tourism, San Sebastian architecturally and culturally nods to Paris. The narrow old city streets intertwined with the broad avenues, the vast monolithic blocks of gorgeous well-preserved 17th, 18th, and 19th century town homes and apartments, and the grand municipal parks and promenades reminded me of Baron Haussmann’s Parisian master plan. As a popular vacation spot for the European bourgeoisie, its fine dining, night-life, and retail establishments were rife with trend and elegance. And best of all, it cost less to enjoy San Sebastian than Paris; Spain generally seemed to exhibit a lower cost of living/vacationing than the rest of the Euro-zone countries I’ve visited.
Beyond the well-maintained streets and fashionable shops, San Sebastian’s most interesting attribute is it’s socio-political importance. Like Canada’s Quebec City and Montreal, San Sebastian is one of the governmental and symbolic hearts of a semi-autonomous region within Spain called the Basque country. Called Donostia in the Basque language, the city is adorned with monuments and patriotic ephemera celebrating its Basque cultural heritage. And the completely bilingual population exemplifies European multi-culturalism.
Although not native to Spain, the high-end Belgian clothing boutique Bellerose stood out as a particularly forward-thinking and trendy example of San Sebastian’s fine fare. The store’s interior, fixtures, and clothing evoke a irreverent reappropriation of industrial archetypes and brash embrace of craftsmanship and quality above all else.
The shop’s marketing materials represent perhaps its most innovative contribution to commercial culture. I snagged one of the beautiful catalogues, a minimalistic newsprint publication featuring stark photographs and illustrations of the company’s wares; its handsome cover page is simply a solid deep black block interrupted only by a small notation of the company’s logo. The website is even more elegant, featuring a rough navigation menu that remains in place above the slide-show of whole-page images and content.