San Sebastian was a place I had never heard about until 18 months ago. In the early stages of planning our trip, more and more people I spoke to told me I must go to San Sebastian. After a bit of research I discover San Sebastian is now generally recognised as the greatest gastronomic destination in the world, beating off constant foodie favourites New York, Tokyo and Paris. I didn’t need any more information than this – we were going to San Sebastian.
After an early flight from Barcelona to Bilbao, an hour bus trip to San Sebastian and a 30 minute walk from the bus station to the town centre, we realise the week in buzzing Barcelona had taken its toll on us. It is rainy and miserable in San Sebastian anyway, so we decide to call it a day and spend the afternoon in. I trawl the internet, and takes notes about where we must eat, what we must eat and the etiquette of eating out.
After a night of dreaming about the most mouth-watering culinary delights, we wake to it being a little overcast and rainy. Although it wasn’t the best conditions to be checking out the beach, it was perfect conditions for sampling the cuisine. With my own recommendations list in hand, we walk through the old town, and start our food lunch crawl. It’s all about the pintxos in San Sebastian. Pinxtos are a traditional small snack similar to tapas served in the local bars. They are eaten while hanging out with friends or relatives, and usually before the hours of having lunch or dinner. There is a strong socialising component attached to enjoying pintxos, and as such the experience is regarded as a cornerstone of San Sebastian culture and society.
Pintxos can be already prepared sitting on the bar for you to help yourself, or you can pick something made to order off the menu. We start at La Cuchara de San Telmo with some gourmet freshly cooked pintxos of suckling pig and veal cheeks, for the ridiculous price of a few euros each. Everything about our first pintxos experience sets the scene for our next few days here; the vibe of the pub was cosy and friendly, ordering food was a bit of a surprise guess, the bar staff were entertaining, and most importantly the food was melt in your mouth amazing. The kind of food, that every bite you would close your eyes and hum to yourself. We venture to another place, to sample the most amazing mushroom risotto and more succulent meat. We notice the streets are not that busy with people, but we are guessing we are a little late and have missed the pre-lunch pintxos crowd.
With all this eating and drinking, an afternoon nap is required. With our stomachs craving more pintxos, we take to the cobbled stone streets, along with the rest of the inhabitants. As the Saturday afternoon is coming to an end, but darkness is still a little while away – the vibe on the streets is just incredible. There are all generations out socialising, enjoying a drink and a bite to eat, a tradition which over the decades has transformed into an inexpensive daily ritual. San Sebastian is located in the north of Spain, in Basque country, where people consider themselves Basque not Spanish. It is located right near the French border, and the feeling of the vibe is a cross between French chic and lively Spain.
The next few hours are appetizingly relaxing – we have a drink and share some pintxos at each place we visit. Cripsy pork belly, tender cow cheeks, juicy lamb, tasty octopus, freshly made seafood crepes, mini beef burger in a pumpkin bun served with banana chips, skewer of prawns in crunchy noddle. The list goes on. I drink what the locals drink; Kalimotxo which is half red wine half Coca Cola, and Txakoli which is like a fizzy white wine which they pour from above their heads to take the bubbles out. The Kalimotxo was my favourite and something I will definitely be trying back home (although I don’t think Mum would be too fond of me using her red wine to mix with Coca Cola).
We get lost in the cobbled stone streets and end up in an open square where there is a theatre performance unfolding, with a full audience. We find our last foodie place, La Vina, just in time for their daily speciality, “tarta de quesos“, at 10pm to be bought out of the oven. This baked cheesecake is the best tasting cheesecake I have ever had – the fluffiest, creamiest, and tastiest. The pictures really don’t do it justice but it’s the perfect way to finish the night.
Sunday morning is the most beautiful glorious day and we know we must get outside and check out the beach. San Sebastian has two beaches, La Concha and Zurriola, the latter being a good surfing beach. We walk the length of La Concha beach, which is in the shape of a sea shell and has two large mountains as each end. The beach is just so beautiful in the way it lines the city, and you can just imagine in summer that it would be jam packed with tourists and locals. Once we arrive at the end of the beach, we take the funicular railway up Monte Igueldo. It provides the most spectacular views over San Sebastian, and you notice that the Spanish coastal city is surrounded by mountains. At the top of Mount Igueldo, there was a quirky old amusement park. Aaron and I go on our first ever roller coaster together, which turns out to be a hell of a lot more thrilling than expected.
With the sun still beaming, and us wanting to see more, we walk back the length of La Concha beach and climb the other mountain, Monte Urgull. This mountain is known at the Jesus mountain, as it has a large statue of Christ (similar to Rio) at the top looking over San Sebastian. After 15 minutes of a steep incline we reach the top and walk around the Jesus statue. Again the view from the top is breath-taking, with the water glistening against the beautiful marina.
Sunday afternoon and the town is alive. San Sebastian is a bit smaller than Newcastle and like most Spanish cities is obsessed with football. The local team Real Sociedad is playing host to European giants Real Madrid. We walk the streets and join the festivities, with street parades and Sunday markets – the little town is buzzing. Down another street we wander, there is a group of about a hundred excited football supporters chanting and yelling and jumping around getting in the spirit for the night ahead.
That is until a disgruntled neighbour tips a bucket of liquid over the balcony. We learnt about this in Barcelona and thought it was a myth. A security guard had told us to keep our voices down when wandering the tight cobblestone streets, otherwise the local residents are known to pour a bucket of urine over the unsuspecting noise makers. We didn’t need to be told twice, and from then on have always whispered when walking through the Spanish streets late at night. We didn’t stick around to find out what was in the bucket, but the once excitable football supporter’s spirits were dampened quite literally.
That evening we decide, after our mammoth pintxos crawl the previous night, to just stick to the one place. We were not disappointed with Bar Nestor. The place is known for its meat, they don’t have a menu, only beef and tomatoes. We talked to the chef and he helped us pick our cut of meat, and then cooked it to perfection and served on a sizzling hot plate, whilst we sat and ate it at the bar. The best part though was the incredible tomatoes, drenched in olive oil and served with a baguette. So simple, but using the best produce. We giggle at the fact the owner of the bar has a remarkable resemblance to a particular Australian serial killer.
Our last day in San Sebastian and we take it easy sampling a few other places for lunch, and one final hurrah with a Restaurant called La Fabrica. The food was divine, but we realise the standard is so high in San Sebastian, that there is no such thing as a bad eatery. They simply wouldn’t survive against the competition.
This had proved to be my favourite place in Spain and we knew we would be back again one day. Hopefully in summer, where your time can be spent equally between the beach and the pintxos bars.