Savoring Northern Spain's San Sebastián
Posted by Mary-Frances Walsh
Posted in: Tauck’s Travelogue
Tags: Tauck, Europe, Food
A highlight of Tauck’s Paradors of Northern Spain is visiting San Sebastián for a 2-night stay in the heart of Basque Country. Located on Spain’s quiet northern coast, this is a city that went from fishing village to a summer destination for Europe’s wealthy and well-known (the Spanish royal family, Maurice Ravel, Mata Hari, Leon Trotsky) at the end of the 19th century. Many of its grand Belle Époque buildings date to this period.
For Tauck guests, a glimpse of the city comes first from atop Mt. Igueldo, offering spectacular views of the Bay of Biscay and the city -- as does the mount’s historic theme park, whose funicular dates to 1912. Dinner follows at Hotel Maria Cristina, renovated in luxurious Belle Époque style in time for its 100th anniversary in 2012.
Though not a large city, San Sebastián today commands a hefty reputation for exceptional food and culture. In 1953, the San Sebastián International Film Festival debuted and still brings to town a stream of well-known Hollywood names each September, many of whom stay at the Maria Cristina.
But it is perhaps the abundant variety of local produce and fresh seafood that lay the city’s path to claiming one of the highest concentrations of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world. In San Sebastián eating is full of pleasures to try, in both upscale restaurants and casual bars alike.
Pinxtos are a fun and delicious Basque tradition that should not be missed while in San Sebastián. A pinxto (“peen-cho”) is not unlike a tapa (served in Madrid and southern Spain). However, while tapas are small dishes meant to be shared and usually complimentary when you buy a drink, pinxtos are meant for one person and are not complimentary. By tradition pinxtos were served on a skewer, but increasingly they are created as works of gastronomic art – with or without a skewer. You’ll find them often laid out for choosing along the countertops of local bars.
Pinxto flavor combinations might include: delicately flavored tuna, salt cod and calamari; pork sirloin with caramelized onion; wild mushrooms with parsley and garlic; sizzling prawns with tiny pimentón; grilled octopus with potatoes or quince; spicy mussels; silky anchovies; seared foie gras; tarta de queso (a light, creamy cheesecake) and many more.
A Pinxto Primer
- Try a Txikiteo. Don’t worry about pronouncing it, but do try a pinxto bar crawl – the tradition of going out to different bars with friends and family to enjoy wine and food, especially in “La Parte Vieja” (Old Town San Sebastián), a five-minute walk from the hotel.
- It’s a casual affair. Often eaten while standing up against the bar, pinxtos are all about socializing and sharing wonderful flavors with friends. Don’t fret when you see napkins and shells tossed to the floor in local tradition.
- Start late in the day. Although pinxtos are available for lunch, usually from 1:00 to 3:30 PM, the evening pinxto bar scene starts at about 8:30 p.m. and may not get going until 09:30 or 10:00 p.m.; it’s at its prime until midnight.
- On egin! (Cheers!) Find a bar that’s busy and you’ll know where the locals find the food especially good. To make things easy, the Hotel Maria Cristina offers a printed pinxtos guide and map.
- Try the house especialidad (specialty). Sometimes there’s a sign, sometimes you’ll need to ask at the bar. Often these are a one-of-a-kind treats, made to order. If you’re not sure, just point!
- Try one or two pinxtos and move on. Local pinxto bars try to outdo one another and the tradition is to move from one bar to the next – often visiting five or six in an evening out.
- Standing room only. Sometimes pinxtos are enjoyed while standing just outside the bar, with a pinxto in one hand and a glass in the other.
- Taste a Txakoli (“cha-ko-lee”). This Basque white wine is dry, slightly effervescent and poured from on high. Other options include vino tinto (red wine), clarete (a light red), a zurito (small serving of beer) or mosto, a refreshing non-alcoholic grape juice served with a slice of orange and an olive!
- It’s the honor system. Order drinks and bites as you go; pay when you’re ready to leave.
The city enjoys one, two and three Michelin-starred restaurants; expect them to be thoroughly modern and innovative. To name a few:
- Akelarre, “cutting-edge cookery” with magnificent Bay of Biscay views (www.akelare.net)
- Arzak, father-daughter chefs considered pioneers of Nouvelle Basque cuisine (www.arzak.info)
- Martín Berastegui,”light, fresh, imaginative and immediate” (www.martinberastegui.com)
- Mugaritz, “controversial, daring and surprising” (www.mugaritz.com)
Keep in mind that advance reservations are a must – one or two months in advance. There are many additional restaurants in San Sebastián, as well as in neighboring towns, where you’ll find excellent food. The Hotel Maria Cristina is ready to assist.
Walking it Off
In La Parte Vieja (Old Town), you can wander amongst narrow pedestrian streets lined with pinxtos bars. They lead to the historic churches of San Vicente and Santa Maria and Plaza de la Constitución. This main square was once used as a bullfighting arena, which is why each of the tiered windows overlooking the plaza bears a black number that reflects its original use as a viewing box.
Paseo de La Concha offers a refreshing walk along the city seafront, taking in the gardens and views from Miramar Royal Palace, once the summer residence of Spain’s royal family. And at the foot of Mount Igueldo, you’ll find three spectacular pieces of steel anchored to the rocks and surrounded by the sea. These are the Peine Del Viento (Wind Comb) work of Eduardo Chillida (1924 – 2002), a San Sebastián native and internationally acclaimed sculptor. Chillida’s artistry reflects a long tradition of Spanish metalworkers and stone-carvers, here juxtapositioned against a stunning natural setting.
Options outside San Sebastián include a visit to the Marqués de Riscal Estate in Rioja (two hours away by car), a benchmark winery for more than 150 years with its own Frank Gehry-designed resort. Or you might go exploring in one of the neighboring towns of Hondarribia, with a medieval upper quarter and a fishing village below; Zarautz, a coastal town offering a quiet promenade and sought-after surfing along the area’s longest beach; or Getaria, a fishing village known for its Txakoli wine.