Ever since I arrived in Spain, I’d always heard people talking about how beautiful San Sebastián is. A relatively small coastal city, with beautiful beaches and a team who play in blue and white stripes, it sounded like the kind of place I’d love to visit. The only problem was that it was on completely the opposite side of the country from me…
I eventually discovered that Santiago de Compostela, where I lived at the time, was on a rail route which ran from A Coruña to Hendaye, just on the French side of the border, with one of the stops being in San Sebastián. But with an estimated journey time of 10 hours, this wouldn’t just be some quick weekend visit. This had to be a proper school holiday time trip. Nevertheless, I told myself that before I left Santiago, I would take a trip on this train.
Fast forward to November 2015 and having decided to leave Santiago in search of pastures new, I found myself with plenty of free time and with some money in the bank, I finally booked the trip. It would take me first to San Sebastián, where I would go to Real Sociedad’s game against Sevilla and then on to Bilbao for a couple of days of sightseeing (Athletic Club sadly being away from home that weekend) before heading back to Galicia.
Aside from the blue and white striped connection, going to see La Real (never “Sociedad”, as they are frequently incorrectly labelled in the British media) also had the David Moyes factor. Ok, so his ill-fated stint as Sir Alex Ferguson’s chosen successor at Manchester United had turned him into a bit of a laughing stock, but I still had a lot of respect for his decision to not just hang around in England and take a mid-table Premier League job, but to actually go abroad and experience a different footballing culture. There’s also his family connection with the area I’m from in Northern Ireland and with my beloved Coleraine FC, so I really wanted him to do well in Spain.
Except he didn’t. Aside from inflicting a defeat on Barcelona at the start of 2015, things hadn’t really been working out for Moyes and a poor start to the 2015/16 season saw his side fighting against relegation and him fighting to save his job. But still, he could count on my support when I arrived in town, couldn’t he? Nope, he got fired during the international break, one week before the game I was due to attend, and was replaced by former Barcelona B coach Eusebio. Ah well.
So the day finally arrived for my journey, I got up early and headed for the train station, a short walk from my flat and after a fortifying coffee, I got on the train and the journey began.
Have you ever been on a really long journey? I’d never been on one quite so long but I thought I had prepared well, I had music and podcasts to listen to, books to read and even about 2/3 of a season of Parks and Recreation to watch on my iPad to fill the time. But the train just seemed to be going so slowly. Once I’d left Galicia and entered Castilla y Leon, ages seemed to pass between each town.
By far the highlight of this part of the journey was going past Cultural Leonesa’s ground in Leon, but otherwise there was little of note to mention. Then as the train finally entered the Basque Country, nearing the journey’s end, it seemed to slow down even more, stopping more frequently. By this point I was pacing up and down the train, desperate to get off and breathe fresh air again.
Fortunately once I reached San Sebastián, my hostel was a short walk from the train station and following a quick trip into the old part of the city for some typical Basque pintxos (basically tapas), I eventually headed to bed.
The following morning was spent exploring the city in daylight for the first time and that meant heading towards the city’s beaches, first Playa de La Concha on the western side of the river and then later on Playa Zurriola to the east. It was bitterly cold, the waves were coming right up the beach and I couldn’t have felt more at home, it was just like a wintery day back on the north coast of Northern Ireland.
After lunch it was finally time to head to the game, so I began the walk to the stadium, situated about a mile or so outside the main part of the city, but along a main road so getting lost wasn’t a real concern.
Ticket purchased, I took cover from some more inclement weather in a bar just across the road called Venta de Curro, which boasted an impressive collection of old photos and memorabilia on the walls (definitely the best type of bar near a ground) but best of all, a recent squad photo, where the spectre of the recently departed Mr Moyes loomed large. There was even a contingent of travelling Sevilla fans (something of a rarity in Spanish football), who were in good voice and definitely added to the atmosphere outside. After a pintxo and a couple of drinks, I felt ready to head outside again and after a quick visit to the club shop, to pick up my traditional souvenir of a scarf, it was time to head inside.
For all the beauty of the city itself, the Estadio Anoeta is something of a letdown. It looks nice enough from the outside, but sadly it’s a case of style over substance. The undulating roof, much like the waves which batter the city’s beaches, is a nice design feature asthetically, but unfortunately provides no cover to anyone sitting in the lower tier.
When I arrived at my seat, I found a nice puddle of water waiting for me, and unlike the locals, some of whom had brought towels, newspapers and various other items to dry theirs off, I was somewhat unprepared. But worst of all, it features an athletics track around the pitch, which severely reduces visibility, especially when, as I was, you are domiciled in one of the corners.
Although the teams warmed up in sunshine, there was still a bitingly cold wind blowing through the extremely open stadium and it was no surprise when further rain arrived, forcing myself and the majority of the people located in the lower tiers to take refuge further back, in my case under one of the tunnels leading into the stand.
This obviously further limited the view, not that much happened during the first half anyway. Sevilla looked every inch a team that would ultimately fail to win a single league game away from home that season and as for La Real, well, it was enough to make you ask yourself, “Was Moyes actually the problem here?”
Things thankfully livened up in the second half, with both ‘keepers being called into action and pulling out spectacular saves to keep the score 0-0, which is how it stayed until the last 20 minutes of the game, when La Real finally made the breakthrough. It was a combination of poor defending and a delightful finish as a corner was headed back towards goal by a defender, but the defence had already pushed up, leaving home forward Imanol Agirretxe completely unmarked and he beat Sergio Rico with a sweet right-foot volley. Five minutes later the second arrived, again owing much to some calamitous Sevilla defending, a cross being headed straight into the path of La Real’s captain Xabi Prieto who stroked the ball past the advancing Rico and that was pretty much game over.
Thankfully the rain held off for the lengthy walk back into the city centre where some more pintxos were followed Barcelona’s 4-0 clásico win over Real Madrid and then Depor’s win against Celta in the Galician derby – which I’m sure we can all agree was the really big result of the day.
Then the following morning there was time for another wander through the old part of the city and the coastal path between the two main beaches before heading for the train station and my next destination, Bilbao where I’d find disappointment (San Mamés was closed for the duration of my stay with the exception of the club shop) and much more rain.
I was left with a decidedly poor impression of Anoeta. The view wasn’t great, the atmosphere almost non-existent, although that may have had something to do with the poor weather and the rush to get shelter from it. The stadium was subject to major improvements which were completed before the start of the 2019/20 season which saw the hated athletics track removed and the stadium fully covered to protect fans from the elements.
The city itself is stunning and I definitely plan on returning some day, preferably in summer. I’d love to see the beaches on a warm sunny day, though as I know from my two years in northern Spain, there are never any guarantees with the weather!