I must have gained 10 lbs at least. Pintxos for breakfast, pintxos for lunch and more pintxos for dinner. I’m not complaining though. I certainly would call my first visit to San Sebastián in Basque Country Spain a success.
Pintxos are sort of a form of tapas, bite-sized snacks typically served on a small piece of crusty bread in northern Spain. It’s common ground for both locals and tourists to stand at the bar, napkins thrown on the floor, as you help yourself from wooden boards sitting out on the countertop with everything from Jamon (cured Spanish ham), gambas (shrimp), anchovies, croquettes, imitation crab meat and goats cheese to some really interesting and unique ones, each place having its own specialty and recipes. They are best paired with a local vino tinto (red wine) from neighboring Rioja or a garagardo (Basque for beer).
Some places are really good at the honor system and keep track of what you’ve taken while you munch away, while others you must first show your plate to the bartender then pay before taking a seat. Once we finally arrived in the pintxos capital of the world San Sebastián it was non-stop snacking.
I met my Australian bestie Nidya in the industrial port city of Bilbao, as it was an easy place to sync up. I was just a short flight from London but Nidya made the long journey from Brisbane to Singapore to Zurich then finally Bilbao. Hotel Abando was perfectly situated for our one night stop off. It gave us an opportunity to catch up and get our first taste of the famed Basque delicacy of pintxos at notorious Café Iruña, then a few others along Ledesma Musikariaren Kalea, a foodie’s dream street, before making the hour journey north the following morning.
In Basque they speak their own language Euskal Herria so Nidya’s native Spanish from growing up in Peru didn’t necessarily always get us far. She even admitted it’s not what it used to be as it’s now more of a form of Span-glish, but it still was a big help which defaulted her the role of interpreter at times.
Pension Goiko, in the heart of the compact streets of Old Town (Parte Viaje), San Sebastian was a cross between a hostel and budget hotel suitable for both backpackers and couples. The location was unquestionable. The beach was just a short stroll away as well. One thing that didn’t go unnoticed is the noise from the alcohol-fuelled night owls who filled the streets till the early morning. I’d argue however that you would likely get the same problem anywhere in Old Town so just bring ear plugs and enjoy being in the thick of it.
Unfortunately it rained all weekend but we still managed a walk along the beach and through the picturesque port. We were delighted to come across fresh oysters in the middle of yet another rain storm, but we weren’t too fussed as it was a great excuse to escape the cold, wet weather. I can only imagine how beautiful the sea would look on a sunny day as the town is known as a surfer’s paradise.
The city was a lot larger than I imagined, with Old Town, two beaches, and the local neighborhoods, there was plenty to do. Known for it’s Michelin starred restaurants, we couldn’t get in so last minute so we stuck to the narrow cobblestone streets of Old Town. My favorite pintxos bars were La Cepa for their melt in your mouth Jamon – seriously it was the most magical and sensory thing I’ve ever eaten; Casa Alcalde for their house vino tinto, and Nagusia Lau for their great pintxos selection including morcilla and fresh octopus. Other popular spots include Taberna Gandarias, La Cuchara de San Telmo, and Bar Nestor although we were so caught up we never made it to those.
Atari was the real deal when it came to a more formal dinner. Ordering off their raciones (small portions) menu we stuffed ourselves with beef cheek, local fish of hake, and squid with black squid ink. All the tables were fully booked ahead but we were lucky one came free just as we arrived. Even better, the bar turns into one of the hottest after dinner spots in town, as both locals and tourists take their Aperol spritz on to the steps of neighboring church Iglesia de Santa Maria to mingle under the stars.
When the rain finally cleared the following day we stumbled across Mercado de la Bretxa on the cusp of Old Town. On Saturdays the fruit and produce vendors are out, replaced by craftsman on Sundays. Luckily for us, there was a fundraiser taking place for a few hours that we passed by with just chance. We watched a gastronomic cook-off on one side of the market, amateur chefs competing on who makes the best salsa-verde. On the other side, they were dishing out local beer Keller accompanied by merluza (fresh hake fish, lightly battered and fried). A local informed us this was the real deal in terms of authenticity, as two seconds later a small marching band formed, strumming and blowing their horns to traditional Basque songs.
As the San Sebastián Film Festival was on that weekend it made for some interesting additional fun. Later that afternoon our noses lead us to the Japanese pop up Cinema Caravan. We sat out on the wet stone steps of a schoolyard sipping sake and eating takoyaki (fried octopus balls) while watching a video installation against the old walls and jamming along to the DJ set. Later that night while sipping Basque craft beer we chatted to Bertrand from Bordeaux. He was in town for the film festival and gave Nidya some insider tips for her next stop in Barcelona while I sat trying to make sense of his broken english, Spanish with a french accent, and Nidya’s translations.
Our luck would have it that on our final day the sun finally came out! It gave us the perfect reason to walk off all our pintxos calories as we hiked to the top of Monte Urgell to witness the famed Statue of Jesus, and stunning views over the sea.
So the biggest question remains, when can I go back?