Europe’s new culture capital: San Sebastian a feast for the eyes, palate

SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain – Located a mere stone’s throw away from the Spain-France border in the Northern Basque country hugging the Bay of Biscay is the quaint, gastronomy mecca coastal city of San Sebastian, Spain. Well on its way to becoming one of the hottest European vacation-spot destinations of the year, San Sebastian — or Donostia in the Basque language — in the Gipusoka province of Spain was named the European Capital of Culture for 2016, along with Wroclaw, Poland. A well-deserved title, the city is oftentimes upstaged by its fellow northern coastal paradise of Barcelona to its east, however, the countryside splendors of Donostia are more than enough to stand on its own as a must-visit Spanish town for some much needed R&R and heavenly culinary escape for your palate. While the tourist hot spot of Barcelona is best known for its crisp blue beaches and its salute to the rainbow-coloured mosaic works of Antonio Gaudi, the mountainous region of San Sebastian offers fewer crowds, world-class gastronomy indulgences that are simply life altering and stunning gothic architecture. Coupled with its London-fog-like, darkened cloudy skies, the classic European-style building designs and narrow alleyways of the city made me feel as though I was taking a stroll through scenes straight out of a Sherlock Holmes novel. In the city centre, travellers can immerse themselves in a plethora of fun and leisurely activities — whether it’s dining, shopping or simply enjoying a brisk walk or bike ride through the quiet and virtually traffic-free streets. For shopping-lovers looking to burn up some plastic, the city is filled with both bargain and high-end designer shops, including some of Spain’s most hallmarked stores: Loewe, Massimo Dutti, Pull & Bear, Zara and Mango.

Shoppers should keep in mind that in true European siesta style, many establishments in Donostia open late and close early, and may have midday break periods. This is especially true with dining establishments, so travellers are best to rely on their hotel for breakfast or midday snacks. Europe's New Culture Capital: San Sebastian A Feast For The Eyes, Palate

If you’re looking for something a little more adventurous than a laidback stroll and racking up your Visa balance, fret not because despite its seemingly calm coasts, San Sebastian is actually known for its great surfing conditions. Come blue skies or gloomy downpours, you’d be hard-pressed to ever find Zurriola Beach void of surfers. Located on the eastern of the Beach of La Concha, this surfing hot spot offers some of the region’s best white cap swells.

Europe's New Culture Capital: San Sebastian A Feast For The Eyes, Palate And if you’re looking to tackle a more touristy itinerary, a trip up Monte Igueldo is a must for a stunning birds-eye view of the city’s long-stretch of coast. The historic funicular de Igueldo is the most popular option up Monte Igueldo, which boasts some of the most breathtaking panoramic views of the Bay of Biscay the region has to offer. For quick day trip ideas venturing around the outskirts of the bayside city, the colorful streets of Hondarribia’s “Walled City” was at the top of my list. Just east of San Sebastian, about a half hour drive away, Hondarribia is the only Gipusoka town that still retains its Renaissance walls. The area is said to date back to the Paleolithic Age, roughly 2.6 million years ago. Along with its historic walled city, Hondarribia next biggest perk is its strategic location right on the coastal border, making it a mere 10-minute boat ride to reach the south of France. With its serene atmosphere and picturesque cobblestone streets, the suburb village of Tolosa in the southern hemisphere of the Basque region is also an ideal hassle-free trip to experience Northern Spain’s countryside village splendors. Europe's New Culture Capital: San Sebastian A Feast For The Eyes, Palate

Gastronomic Wonders In a city that knows how and loves to indulge, good food and good wine is a religion of its own in Donostia. While the coastal region does offer more than its fair share of touristic activities and adventures to fill a traveller’s appetite, there is no denying the greatest highlight of this year’s European capital of culture — the gastronomy.

This coastal town with a population of only 186,000 is home to more Michelin stars per square meter than glitzy fine-dining hub Paris. When it comes to San Sebastian eats, the locals have impeccably high standards, akin to any of the world’s famous culinary cities, guaranteeing you will stimulate your taste buds like never before on a European vacation that will act as a celestial indulgence for your mouth and stomach. Europe's New Culture Capital: San Sebastian A Feast For The Eyes, Palate

“Us locals have this running joke that we have the highest number of Michelin star restaurants to population ratio in the world,” said local tour guide Lourdes Gorrino Arrieta. “For us, food is one of the most important parts of our culture and everyday life so this is why even in this small region, you will find some of the world’s finest restaurants,” she added. However, you don’t need to break your wallet and dine at a Michelin star establishment to enjoy mouthwatering dishes.

San Sebastian’s pintxos — more commonly known as tapas — culture is hailed as some of the best in all of Spain. Paying homage to the city’s love of fine dining and fine wine, San Sebastian-native and local guide Eskerne Falcon of Discover San Sebastian offers the most vivaciously entertaining and scrumptious pintoxs tour that was without a shred of a doubt the biggest highlight of my Donostia experience. “Only the locals know that you are not supposed to get all your pintoxs at one bar,” said Falcon, who ensured the night of pintoxs indulgences featured the freshest and off-menu bite-sized delights.

“If you want to do like the locals, you should only have one or two pintoxs at one place with a drink and then off to another bar,” she said. “That is all part of the fun, enjoying good company, good drinks and constantly moving around to your favourite pintoxs bars.” Now when it comes to wine, while many parts of country are known for being the land of fruity sangria, in the north, the locals are all about one drink — txakoli. Txakoli is a white wine that contains natural CO2, giving off a delectable hint of fizz landing it in the category of a wonderful wine-champagne hybrid, and pairs beautifully with almost any serving of pintxos.

This is yet another “must” among the handful of cultural delights to experience when making your memorable visit to the charming and visually stimulating Basque region of Spain. Recommended stay: * Hotel Zenit San Sebastian, San Sebastian Address: Antonio Maria Labaien 1, 20009 Donosti, San Sebastian, Gipuzkoa, Spain Website: sansebastian.zenithoteles.com/en

Recommended local guide:

* Eskerne Falcon (Discover San Sebastian) Phone: +34 635 759 961 E-mail: eskerne@discoversansebastian.com Website: www.discoversansebastian.com

Holiday in Poland – A Lovely Vacation

HYDERABAD: Can you imagine that Poland can make a fabulous choice for a holiday? I have had a lovely vacation in Poland some time back, which turned out to be one of the best I ever had. There is so much to see and experience there, it leaves you enlightened and elevated. Poland is a garden of nature and a treasure trove of cultural riches. A democracy located in the middle of Europe, inhabited by a friendly, hospitable people building a modern economy, yet cherishing their heritage dearly. Catering to all kinds of tourists, their modern leisure facilities provide recreation of the highest standard: Museums, modern art galleries and concert halls, swimming pools, equestrian clubs, discos and night clubs.

I chose Krakow for a glimpse into the Polish culture and heritage.

<b><i>Discount Holidays ©</i></b> Holiday In Poland - A Lovely Vacation Krakow in Southern Poland, situated by the Vistula River, is the cradle of Polish culture and a characteristic urban phenomenon. It was the former capital of Poland, the place of coronation and later, the burial ground of almost all Polish monarchs. For a long time it has been attracting scholars with the oldest university in the country, artists with the cultural climate and pilgrims with the sanctuaries and holy relics, and recently also the memory of Pope John Paul II. Krakow Old Town within the Planty Park and Kazimierz (former Jewish district ) was inscribed on the UNESCO List of World Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites in 1978 as the first of its kind. Built by many generations of artists living in medieval Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau times, fortunate to survive and scathed the ravages of war, Krakow amazes the art lovers. Krakow s historical monuments and works of art are enchanting.

Crowds flock to concerts and festivals as much as the magical atmosphere of its cafes and jazz clubs.

<b><i>Discount Holidays ©</i></b> Holiday In Poland - A Lovely Vacation Overlooking the city is Wawel Hill, the heart of Poland. The Renaissance Royal Castle houses a collection of countless objects of art and legendary tapestries. The Wawel Cathedral where Polish kings were crowned and buried is also the National Pantheon- the burial place of many eminent artists and national leaders. Not far from Wawel Hill is Kazimierz, a district once inhabited by the largest Jewish community in Europe. Today Kazimierz organizes a Jewish culture festival each year which features artists from all over the world. The many exotic and quaint cafes in the district are never empty. In one of them, traditional Jewish dishes are served on Singer sewing machine table tops. The main Market Square- the largest open air European society salon- occupies the central part of the old town in Krakow.

Languages from all over the world can be heard here most days. The Cracovian Hejnal, an hourly bugle call is played from the tower of the church of Holy Virgin. The Gothic church, rather austere on the outside has a very richly ornamented interior around a masterpiece of Gothic art, a high altar carved in wood by Wit Stwosz. In the very centre of the Market Square is the Rennaissance Sukiennice Cloth Hall, the oldest commercial centre in Poland. Here you can buy souvenirs and folk art products. On the upper floor, you can visit the gallery of the nineteenth century Polish painting. The Market Square is the frequent venue of a variety of parades and performances. One can spend hours watching people and the ambience.

On the New Year s Eve, thousands of people come here to enjoy themselves and dance under the stars. There are many cafes and restaurants on the edges of the Market Square. We also find many theatres and art galleries, all close to the Square. Certain cellars and basements in the gothic style create a very special ambience, very popular as Jazz clubs and cabarets. And for these reasons Poland should be on your must visit list.

At a glance

Getting there: Second largest airport in Poland, Krakow can be reached by any major airlines like Lufthansa

Stay: In the centre of the city, close to the main Market Square, a 300 year old boutique hotel Pod Roza is a good option.

Also nearby are hotels Unicus and Stary.

Hotel Sheraton offers a luxurious stay as well

Where to eat: For some memorable gastronomic experience, restaurants like Pod Aniolami, The Piano Rouge and Wesele

What to buy: Amber, Cut Glass and local wines

(The author is a documentary filmmaker and travel writer; blogs at www.vijayaprataptravelandbeyond.com)

Hospitality Sector to Ring in Competition

CHENNAI: After the InterContinental Chennai Mahabalipuram Resort was launched over the Pongal weekend, the next international hotel brand to enter the city will be the popular Discount Holidays © Holiday Inn. Already present in 10 cities in the country, this will be the first South Indian destination for the global hotel chain. Speaking at the InterContinental resort launch, Shantha de Silva, head of South West Asia, InterContintental Hotels Group (IHG), which controls the Intercontinental, Crowne Plaza and Discount Holidays © Holiday Inn brands, said, Chennai will be the first city to have all four IHG brands.

Hospitality Sector To Ring In Competition This includes the `200- crore InterContinental Chennai Mahabalipuram Resort (the group s first luxury resort in the country), Crowne Plaza Chennai Adyar Park, a Discount Holidays © Holiday Inn Express on OMR and Discount Holidays © Holiday Inn Express Mahindra World City and the upcoming Discount Holidays © Holiday Inn. This is in line with the mammoth hospitality group s aggressive expansion plans in the country, which one cannot help but ignore given they just launched their 5,000th property in New York last week.

We started 2015 with 19 hotels and already at the start of 2016, we have 25 hotels across 14 cities, says de Silva. He attributes much of this growth to the domestic demand in the country, which is ever growing with the development of secondary and tertiary cities. Their hotel chain will expand to 51 in a couple of years, including a Discount Holidays © Holiday Inn Express in Tirupati, opening this year.

The InterContinental Chennai Mahabalipuram Resort will no doubt give stiff competition for resorts such as Vivanta by Taj, Fisherman s Cove and Radisson Blu Temple Bay. We plan to lead the market with our pricing, said Bryan Gabriel, Director of Commercial South West Asia. With India presently the third biggest growth market for IHG, he added, It s an exciting time to be here. I can t see any major challenges in the hospitality sector honestly.

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