In 2019 Woody Allen decided to pay tribute to the San Sebastian Festival and the city that hosts it. In “Rifkin’s Festival” (2019), the most neurotic of New York film directors tells the story of an American couple who attend the Festival for her work. The husband, Mort Rifkin, suspects that his wife is having an affair with a young, acclaimed French film director. But his concern diminishes when he becomes infatuated with an attractive Spanish doctor.
The choice of San Sebastian as the setting for this film is not fortuitous. The city offers a perfect combination of beauty, tranquillity and cultural richness, making it an ideal place for the development of the plot. Emblematic places in the city such as La Concha, the Peine del Viento or the San Telmo Museum are reinvented in screen tourism thanks to the fact that it is responsible for hosting film shoots which then allow you to transfer the magic of the screen to the reality of your holidays.
The most cinematographic San Sebastian
Thanks to the route created by the San Sebastian-Gipuzkoa Film Commission, you can recreate all the walks that Mort (Wallace Shawn) and Jo (Elena Anaya) take around beautiful San Sebastian. Since part of the plot revolves around the Festival, a good place to start this route is the avant-garde building of the Kursaal Centre on Zurriola beach, which is the home of the film festival, both in the film and in reality, and undoubtedly one of the city’s landmarks. The building by architect Rafael Moneo simulates two rocks stranded on the beach, thus blending into the surroundings and winning a Mies van der Rohe award for best building in Europe in 2001. As well as being a spectacular building in itself, it is the city’s main stage, where a large number of concerts of all kinds are programmed. Come and find the one you like best!
To connect the Kursaal with the historic centre, all you have to do is cross the Zurriola Bridge. It is decorated with some wonderful Art Deco lampposts, which Woody Allen didn’t want to miss and which he included in the film. The bridge takes you to the landscaped Okendo square, where the luxurious Hotel María Cristina is located. This hotel is doubly involved in the film, as it was both the set of the film and the place where the director chose to stay. If you fancy a little stop to quench your thirst or hunger, in the same Okendo square is the Bar Tánger, which also appears in “Rifkin’s Festival”.
The Zurriola Bridge at dusk / San Sebastian-Guipuzcoa Film Commission
If you go a little further into the old town, in the Plaza Zuloaga, you will find another of the film’s locations: the old 16th century Dominican convent, which is now the San Telmo Museum. The old church is where one of the parties of the fictitious film festival is held in the film. The museum, the oldest in the Basque Country, is dedicated to Basque Society and Citizenship, and is well worth a visit.
The city of the Belle Époque
At the end of the 19th century, under the regency of Queen María Cristina, the city was enlarged and embellished, making it one of the first tourist cities in Spain. Nowadays, this extension forms a romantic-era neighbourhood where much of the atmosphere of the festival, as portrayed by Woody Allen in his film, can be found.
Along the alameda you will come to the kiosk on the boulevard where the San Sebastian Town Hall is located, a building built as the Gran Casino in 1887. Just opposite you can stroll through the beautiful Alderdi Eder gardens which, together with the Town Hall and La Concha, form the most typical image of the city.
Two blocks away from these gardens, Wallace Shawn’s character strolled thoughtfully through the Plaza Gipuzkoa, another pleasant French-style garden, with a duck pond, a weather pavilion and a gazebo clock, built with coloured flowers.
Now head for Plaza Bilbao, where you’ll find the Donosti bookshop, probably the most famous in San Sebastian. Located in a modernist building with a beautiful stained glass window, it has been run by the same family for over fifty years. Woody Allen chose it for Mort to come and browse in the shop window, but it is also a location that appears in the famous series “Patria” (2020).
From Bilbao Square you can already see the imposing Maria Cristina Bridge, where Mort Rifkin and Jo Rojas cross in a red convertible. The bridge dates from 1904, is the most elegant in the city and was built on the model of the Alexander III Bridge in Paris, marking its entrances with four obelisks.
The protagonists walking along the bridge of María Cristina / San Sebastian-Guipuzcoa Film Commission
The Guernica tree promenade runs parallel to the Urumea River, along its west bank. It is a pleasant promenade, with modernist buildings, which enchanted the directing team, which is why the main characters in the film are seen walking along it several times. The Basque Camping Club building is where Dr. Jo Rojas’ fictitious surgery is located. If you want to stay a while longer and enjoy the surroundings, you can have a drink or a meal, as the main characters in the film did in reality and fiction, at the Botanika café.
The balcony overlooking the Bay of Biscay
The most international image of San Sebastian is La Concha beach. You can’t visit the city without walking along the famous railing that overlooks the beach, as do the main characters in the film. It is on the terrace of the Café de la Concha that Wallace Shawn meets some of the filmmakers from the fictional festival.
The bay of La Concha offers spectacular views / San Sebastian-Guipuzcoa Film Commission
The Miramar Palace, at the end of La Concha, was built to be the summer residence of Queen María Cristina in 1893. In the film you see Mort Rifkin and Doctor Jo Rojas sightseeing in its gardens, and it was inside that the scenes of Mort’s New York psychiatrist’s office were filmed. A place you can’t miss, both for the film and for its beauty.
And of course, any visit to San Sebastian must include a visit to the Wind Comb, as Mort Rifkin does in the film. Located at the end of the city, at the foot of Mount Igueldo. Eduardo Chillida’s hypnotic sculptures comb the wind every time a storm hits the bay of La Concha.
If you like to live what you see, there is nothing better to rediscover San Sebastian than to do it under the peculiar gaze of Woody Allen. We hope you enjoy it.
By Víctor Cervelló
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