Set on the east coast of the circular island of La Gomera, today’s San Sebastián is the main port of entry for visitors and is a pleasant, laid back little place to explore. No teeming metropolis this, despite its importance as the island’s capital.
Located at sea level, ‘La Villa’ as it’s known locally, provides the perfect sojourn before moving on and up into the rest of the island. It’s all steeply uphill from San Sebastián. The mountains surrounding the town rise to 1,500 feet once you reach the stunning Garajonay National Park.
With its yacht marina, beaches, pretty esplanade featuring a map of Christopher Columbus’ voyage from La Gomera to the Americas, its ornamental trees, park and palm–shaded squares, there’s a timeless quality to the town. Something approaching bustle does break out at cortado (coffee) time when government officials consult each other and their Rolexes in bars. Market days are lively too.
Historical monuments from as far back as 1440 are there to be found. Old, crumbling or, increasingly, renovated colonial style houses rub eaves with modern buildings.
Gomeros from out of town come in daily for hospital, legal or government appointments, court appearances or shopping. There’s plenty to see and hear.
Hipalan was one of four kingdoms on pre-Spanish Gomera. It was invaded and taken by the Spanish in 1440 and San Sebastián was founded on the bay where the invaders landed. They set about the construction of the three key buildings vital to their continued presence on the island; Torre del Conde, the fort; La Casa de los Peraza, the house; and of course, La Asuncion, the church. Internal wrangling and Spanish cruelty apart, San Sebastián then had 50 years of quiet development as a town.
A man called Cristobal Colon’s subsequent arrival and supposed love affair with Beatriz de Bobadilla (the governor’s wife) while he restocked his ships are now part of history. Cristobal Colon’s English name is Christopher Columbus and on September 6th 1492, he and three ships set off from San Sebastián to find the short route to India. It turned out to be the wrong way, but they did ‘discover’ America.
Until well into the seventeenth century San Sebastián was favoured Canarian port and the town prospered as the port grew; its natural bay was protected at one end by the Roque de la Hila and Punta de los Canarios at the other.
San Sebastián was known before Columbus’ discovery, but afterwards it became a regular stop for victualling on the West Indies (Americas) route. As it got richer with this new Atlantic trade, it attracted the attentions of pirates and was attacked and sacked many times over the years.
On May 30th 1744, three ships flying the French flag approached the bay without causing too much consternation; after all, France was Spain’s ally. But the next day, they dropped anchor, lowered the French flags, raised the dreaded English flag and from midday till dark bombarded the hapless town. At daybreak they started again and at ten o’clock in the morning Admiral Charles Wyndham sent orders to the town to surrender and to send out all wines and food and hand over the keys to the strongholds. The Gomeros declined, so he sent an invading force to take the town. They were defeated and that was the end of English bid for power in La Gomera.
What’s in a name?
Hernan Peraza el Viejo, the commander of the invading Spanish force that conquered the island via San Sebastián, was from Castile in Spain. Hipalan was renamed in honour of Saint Sebastián, the patron saint of the Castilians.
What to see
The Torre del Conde, located in the pretty park opposite the main beach, is one of the best-preserved fortified buildings on the islands.
The impressive Asuncion church in Calle del Medio boasts a wealth of architectural detail. Since its foundation in the fifteenth century on the site of a pre-Spanish temple, it has suffered a series of sackings and pillage. The on-going renovations span five centuries; architecture buffs will enjoy spotting the periods. Don’t forget to look for the fresco depicting Admiral Charles Wyndham’s defeat. It’s high up on the wall in the Capilla del Pilar (go down the main aisle to the altar and look left).
El Pozo de la Aguada in Calle Real is the well where Columbus drew water to provision the ships for their transatlantic crossing. The New World was actually baptised with water from San Sebastián.
The Museo Casa de Colon (Christopher Columbus’ house) on Calle del Medio is a small museum and gallery housing various exhibitions (open Monday to Friday, 10.00 – 13.00 and 16.00 – 18.00; 922 141 512).
What to do
On Wednesday and Saturday mornings there’s a produce and handicrafts market in the town square. A wide range of fresh, locally grown fruit and veg is delivered from all over the island. Look for local home-made biscuits, cakes, jams, wine and almogrote, (spicy cheese spread.) Beautiful lillies and fresh flowers come in from garden plots at a fraction of florists’ prices. Enterprising foreign travellers sell jewellery, clothes, paintings and all manner of other items. Sit and enjoy a drink in the market square after your shopping.
Visit the past
Go to the Tourist Office (see Useful Info), get a map and information on the historical sites and walk the town stopping off at the aforementioned Asuncion church, the Torre del Conde, el Pozo de la Aguada and the Casa de Colon Museum. San Sebastián will boast an Achaeological Museum from early 2005. None of this is arduous or hard to find; it’s a very small town.
Explore the area
Take a short drive up the valley past what looks like an unpromising commercial and industrial zone. Follow the signs for Chejilipe and you’ll pass through charming small villages like San Antonio and La Laja with tiny local bars, beautiful market gardens and a reservoir at the top that waters the valley. Wander around on foot, stopping for tapas and drinks at one of the tiny bar/shops in the area.
Move on up
A half an hour drive takes you up into the beautiful Parque Nacional de Garajonay, (Garajonay National Park.) Only two roads lead out of San Sebastián and either will take you there. Stop at any of the walk signposts, abandon the car and stroll into the unique laurel forest with its tree mosses, dappled light and secret world of peace and birdsong. The views from any of the miradores (viewpoints) are breathtaking and if the conditions are right you can watch the clouds cascade over ridges to the valleys below.
Trueque (Calle del Medio,19): A treasure trove of varied delights; lamps, coffers, amber, coral and crystal. Tiny but good.
Dulceria Isabel (Calle del Medio, 10): One of the oldest bakeries in La Gomera where generations-old recipes are still used for the delicious biscuits, cakes and sweets.
Molino de Gofio (Carretera del Faro, 5): Imendi’s gofio (toasted maize flour) mill is worth a visit if you’d like to see how this staple of Canarian cuisine is produced. Buy a bag of gofio to take home, sprinkle it on soups, mix it with milk for breakfast or add ground almonds and raisins for instant energy. The Gomeros swear by it.
Where to stay
Without a doubt, San Sebastián’s Parador Nacional del Turismo Conde de la Gomera is the nicest place to stay on the island. Follow the ‘Hermigua’ signs through town and turn off to the right when you see signs to La Lomada/Parador del Turismo. The road snakes up to the Parador’s superb location overlooking the town and port below. You can see it up to the right as you come in on the ferry. Set in lovely secluded gardens, with a nice pool, bar and restaurant, the hotel is beautifully appointed and furnished. Built round traditional Canarian garden patios, it’s full of lovely places to sit, relax and enjoy the good life.
(+34) 922 871 100; double rooms from e120, half board from e150. Phone for special offers
Hotel Torre del Conde
This clean and comfortable hotel is located in the town, overlooking the Torre del Conde and park and is on one of the two main streets, Ruiz de Padron.
922 870 000; Double rooms from e54
Where to eat
There’s a multitude of bars and restaurants in San Sebastián. Take potluck and most are passable. These are the best:
Marques de Oristano
An old Canarian house, attractively renovated, where good food is served in a nice atmosphere and pleasant surroundings. You can choose to eat in a cosy dining booth or in the open patio. The menu is varied, with an emphasis on high quality Canarian cuisine. Evening guests can enjoy live music and dancing.
Calle del Medio;922 872 901; 12.00 – 22.45, tasca bar 09.00 – 00.30, closed Monday; average price for a main course e11
In a great position overlooking La Playa de la Cueva, this small restaurant serves lunches and dinners. Ask for the fresh fish of the day, it’s usually spectacularly good. The desserts are also recommended. You can eat inside, or outside on the terrace pondering Teide and the ocean.
Paseo Maritimo;922 141 898; open 12.00 – 16.00 and 19.00 – 23.00, closed Monday; average price for a main course e9.50.
This is a basic, but good out of town restaurant, some fifteen minutes drive from San Sebastián towards Hermigua. La Cumbre’s traditional style premises and menu are unpretentious and pleasant. If you sit at the patio tables outside you can enjoy the views to the mountains. Try the homemade specialities like rabbit and goat. The vino del pais, (local wine) parra and gomeron (local grappa and ditto with palm honey) are delicious but potent.
Average price for a main course is e7.
Carretera General del Norte km.11.5. Lunchtime opening. Kitchen closes around three, later if full.
922 880 283.
There isn’t much of a scene outside fiesta time. You can dance to live music in the Marques de Oristano Restaurant (see Where to Eat).
The evening paseo (stroll) is still a feature of the evening hours here, especially in the summer months.
Parandas (play and sing get-togethers) are alive and well too but as they’re impromptu, times can’t be guaranteed. If you’re lucky enough to coincide with one, don’t be shy, everyone’s welcome. Pull up a chair, order a drink – one for the musicians always goes down well – and enjoy.
January 30th is the feast of San Sebastián himself. The whole town struggles out, having more or less overcome the excesses of Christmas, the
January 6th Reyes (Kings) bash and New Year’s Eve. Religious events take place from midday to early evening on the 30th. All night dancing to local salsa bands takes place in the square on the 29th.
September 6th heralds the Fiestas Colombinas. These are fiestas to celebrate the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ departure from San Sebastián to America on September 6th 1492. There are usually three or four days of special events on and around the 6th, with a yacht regatta between Puerto de Santa Maria near Cadiz and La Gomera taking place to commemorate the first part of his historic voyage. The usual all night dancing to live bands happens on the 5th and 6th.
The first Monday in October of each year is important to all Gomeros, but especially so to the villanos (people from La Villa, San Sebastián.) The patron saint of the island is the Virgen de Guadalupe and this is her feast day. Her statue rests all year in the tiny chapel at Puntallana, along the coast from the town of San Sebastián but within the municipality. She’s brought out and aired amongst the populace amidst great partying. Once every four years there are fiestas lustrales (super-fiestas) where the partying is on an even greater scale. Boats of all shapes and sizes, even the ferries, come from all the island’s ports to join the maritime procession accompanying Guadalupe from Puntallana to San Sebastián.
For ferry services operating between Tenerife and San Sebastián (La Gomera) contact the following:
Fred Olsen 902 100 107
Garajonay Express 902 343 450
Transmediterranea 922 870 802
For further information visit the Canarian Government’s travel website www.canarias.org/esp/transportes/entre-islas.html
There’s a taxi rank on Avenida Maritima. Taxis are also always available at the ferry terminal.
· Cash machines have proliferated in the last five years. The town now has six, covering all major systems.
· San Sebastián is very small. You can’t get lost; it takes about thirty minutes to walk (fast) round the whole town. It’s safe and friendly.
· The Tourist Office is next to the Pozo. The staff are helpful, speak some English and have a lot of interesting information, maps, books and leaflets for visitors. Calle Real, 4. 922 141 552
·For further information visit the island council’s website www.gomera-island.com
Park along the main road round town rather than trying to park in the two principal streets. Beware of invisible traffic wardens; they’re lurking everywhere.