After nearly two-and-a-half years on the road our only stop in Spain was a brief pass through Barcelona to spend time with Mark’s brother John and his family who were on holiday there. Finally we’re going to spend some serious time now, starting just over the border in San Sebastián, the capital of Spain’s Basque region.I’m sure there’s more to San Sebastián than the food, but you couldn’t prove it by our three-day stop there. San Sebastián is city of a little under 200,000 people on Spain’s northern Bay of Biscay, just 20 miles over the French border. There has to be more than food, as it is going to be Europe’s Capital of Culture next year but for us it was really all about the food. A little putzing around in the morning, then a walk into the old town for lunch. Maybe a little more strolling, maybe some coffee, some reading. Then a glorious dinner. Repeat for a couple of days and there you have San Sebastián.
So what’s the big deal? Across Spain they have tapas, little snacks or appetizers eaten in bars with beer or wine. In Basque Country, tapas are known as pintxos for the toothpick or “spike” that holds to food to bread. You go into a pintxos bar and see this amazing spread of food all just sitting out there. You signal the bartender for some wine, and signal one or two of the pintxos to start the evening. The variety can be amazing, the artistry beautiful, and the flavors wonderful. The bar men and women have a great talent for monitoring what you’ve eaten and drunk and, if they forget, they just ask when you’re ready to pay up how many you had. Best of all, when you use a paper napkin you just crumple it up and throw it on the floor. (OK, that’s not really the best part of the night, but it’s fun nonetheless.)Oh, and did I mention how cheap it is? Prices were typically half of what I would have expected. Mark loves his foie gras and said the stuff you got in various places we tried was truly world class, yet at a fraction of what you’d pay in any other restaurant. Glasses of good wine for under, sometimes well under, $3. You have to love this stuff.
Another aspect of the great cuisine of Basque Country is the number of Michelin starred restaurants there. there are three three-star Michelin restaurants (the highest possible rating) in this relatively tiny city, along with several other one- and two-star restaurants in the area. In fact, on a per capita basis San Sebastián is second only to Kyoto, Japan, in the number of Michelin stars. We didn’t go to any of those restaurants – we did a one-star restaurant in Paris for my birthday, and there’s only so many you need in one week – but the presence of so many great restaurants speaks to the importance and quality of the area’s food. The one night we did go to a restaurant instead of a pintxos bar the food was amazing.
To be honest, there was more than just the food. San Sebastián has a great urban beach, Playa de la Concha, and we’re eager to go back in the summer to try it out. In the meantime, though, one day while we were there the weather was sunny and in the low 60s so I hung out there for a bit reading. There’s a great hike up Monte Igueldo right next to the old town with great views of the city. So we did all that, but mostly just to pass the time until we could go back to another pintxos bar.