Welcome to San Sebastian: City of culture… and peace

Few cities have savoured peace in recent times as much as Spain's San Sebastian, which becomes European culture capital just a few years after Basque separatist group Eta ended decades of killings and kidnappings.

Welcome to San Sebastian: City of culture... and peace
La Concha beach in San Sebastian. Photo: AFP

With its giant crescent-shaped bay, green, hilly surroundings and the countless tapas and Michelin-starred restaurants that fill its streets, the picturesque city on Spain's northern coast appears far removed from the extremist violence afflicting parts of the world.

But San Sebastian hides a dark past, hit as it was by wave upon wave of killings, bombings, kidnappings and terror that plagued families for more than four decades until main perpetrator Eta declared an end to its campaign for an independent Basque homeland in 2011.

Accordingly, festivities will take place under the banner of “peace” in the 186,000-strong city known for its annual film festival, which is inaugurated European culture capital on Saturday with an outdoor show created by Cirque du Soleil choreographer Hansel Cereza.

“The project emerged in 2008 when there was still violence in San Sebastian, the Basque country and Spain,” says Pablo Berastegui, director of “San Sebastian 2016.”

“People were weary, so I think municipal leaders decided that culture could be a good opportunity to tackle the theme of ending violence, and see what we could do to better the lives of people who had been very polarised.”

City worst-hit by Eta

The armed group is blamed for the deaths of more than 800 people over the decades and there were also some 150 anti-Eta killings blamed on militias close to the police. San Sebastian was the worst hit.

A demo in support of Eta. Photo: AFP

“The city had the country's biggest number of politically-motivated assassinations,” says Mayor Eneko Goia.

Apart from those who died, others were seriously injured and permanently disabled in attacks, and still others suffered the trauma of kidnappings.  

In one example, then prison warder Jose Antonio Ortega Lara was held for 532 days in a cramped, underground cell before being freed by police.  

“After the announcement of a 'definitive stop' to Eta's violence, the attacks disappeared from the public scene and terrorism stopped being one of the main concerns of citizens,” reads a report on the issue by a social history institute linked to the Basque Country University.

“But this phenomenon doesn't just belong to the past as the consequences are constantly projected onto our present and future.”  

As such, the city plans to use its 2016 status – which it shares this year with Poland's Wroclaw – to “convert culture into a tool to live together in harmony” across Europe and further heal the wounds of a tragic past, says Goia.

“Europa Transit,” for instance, is one of San Sebastian 2016's pet projects.  

A group of multimedia journalists will criss-cross Europe on board a bus and visit 10 places that have been or still are witness to unrest or war to make documentaries.

These include the Spanish exclave of Ceuta in northern Africa, which migrants regularly try to enter at their peril, Belfast in northern Ireland, Kaliningrad which was largely destroyed in World War II and Sarajevo, which suffered a 44-month-long siege during the Bosnian War.

San Sebastian will also host a major art exhibition on the theme of war and peace with works from Spain's Goya, Picasso or France's Le Corbusier.

Photo: AFP

Gastronomy on show

According to Goia, citizens of San Sebastian and the rest of the Basque Country have made a remarkable recovery in just over four years, restoring the region's confidence.

“But there are still steps to take,” he adds, such as addressing the issue of prisoners once jailed for their links to Eta who are deliberately held far from their families in other parts of Spain.

The fact that Eta has still not formally disbanded and disarmed, and that the incumbent ruling Popular Party refuses to talk to the group, is also a problem.

Politics aside, though, other lighter themes will also be on show in San Sebastian, such as the Basque country's world-famous gastronomy.  

Throughout the year for instance, top local chefs will host counterparts from other European countries to create a fusion of their two gastronomies.

By Ander Gillenea with Marianne Barriaux

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