We love red eye flights and we love road trips! Weird it may seem, but it is the most optimised. On arriving Barcelona early in the morning, we took the car, and headed straight on the road towards San Sebastian. Holidays are bonding time together as a family with the kiddos. We always discover little things about our children, their little nuances and their changing habits too. We get to learn songs they have learnt in school and games they play with each other. This is something we are thankful and would cherish these precious time we have with them.
Our first pit stop was to buy gorgeous red cherries from a farm-stand on the roadside. 3.5 euros per kg was a real bargain! They were really sweet too.
It was onwards journey to San Sebastian travelling through mountain ranges engulfed by clouds. We had another 250km to cover. We passed acres and acres of farmlands, slowly making our way to the coastal city. San Sebastian or Donostia as it is known in Basque language, lies on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, only 20km from the French border. It has a medieval old town nearest the sea with an expansive sandy beach shaped like a shell hence its name, Playa de La Concha. It is one the top 10 beaches in Europe and has been given the nickname the Monte Carlo of Spain. In the summer months, San Sebastian becomes the most expensive city in Spain when droves of French tourist descend. Inspired by French nouvelle cuisine, San Sebastian has more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than any other city in the world. Iconic restaurants with Michelin stars are perhaps not my cup of tea especially with 2 kiddos in tow.
Is there a difference between pintxos and tapas? Technically no! Depends on which part of Spain you come from. Pintxos is basque language for tapas which is a pinch of food. So most of the time, it is used interchangeably. In San Sebastian, excellent food and souperb quality pintxos (Basque for tapas) are available all over the city particularly in the old town, La Parte Vieja. Although the roots of tapas are in Andalucia, many will agree that it is San Sebastian that has perfected it.
We got into town at 8pm with 2 sleepy kids in tow. It was Saturday and there seems to be a celebration going on with lots of singing and dancing so the streets were packed with people. The hope of doing the pintxos bar crawl became really slim as there was no way we could squeeze into most of the bars that were on my to eat list! We did however managed to get a table outside at La Cuchara de San Telmo, coincidentally the most famous and busiest of pintxo bars serving made to order modern creative dishes.
La Cuchara de San Telmo (Calle 31 de Agosto, 28, San Sebastian)
We shared a couple of small plates and a table with an American mother and daughter on holiday. These small plates are actually appetizers or first course sizes. Hence prices were double that when standing at the bar. The food here was really good, on hindsight, indeed a cut above most places we went in Spain. The portions for appetizers were huge as below. No wonder the queues here are so long and practically impossible to even squeeze in. Service was really prompt and one of the waiters could speak English. Phew! The food was priced very reasonably for the quality that we were getting. Highly recommended. Our only gripe was we were too full and would have loved to try all more dishes.
San Sebastian at night
Zabala Kafeak (can’t seem to find the address for now, suppose Google or yelp should be able to help)
While San Sebastian residents were still having a sleep in on Sunday, we had a walk around Parte Vieja (Old Town) and finally stopping for breakfast outside this cafe that had a really long queue. I suppose if there is a queue, it could only mean 2 things, souper good food or souper slow and inefficient. It turned out this place makes souper yummy pastries and has 2 souper efficient staff, making tomato bread, taking customers’ orders, making coffee, collecting money and clearing tables!
We walked around a bit, spent some time lazing around the beach area which was perfect when on holiday. The beach was starting to get crowded by the hour with more and more beach goers coming out to enjoy the sun. But I believe it is not officially tourist season yet.
Pintxos Crawl (a must!)
The way to eat pintxos (tapas in the Basque Country pronounced as pinchos) in San Sebastian is quite different from other cities in Spain. These small savoury canapes are presented in a myriad of colours, forms, and flavour combinations, laid out in giant platters and spread along the bar counters. Twice a day, hundreds of folks will pour into the streets for a traditional pintxos crawl. The trick is to take one or two, have a beer or wine and then move on to the next bar, tasting, drinking and socialising. There are two kinds of tapas: cold and hot ones. Typically, each bar will specialise in one or two pintxos . Each pintxo cost about 2 to 4 euros. A word of caution as I have read on Google, don’t attempt to eat every good looking pintxo at each location, the cost would stack up pretty quickly. Every bar would offer a delicious spread of pintxos to tempt you!
I had some research done as to how the crawl works and how to order before embarking on one. It can be quite intimidating to go into a bar and couldn’t speak a word of Spanish except Hola and Gracias! It is a very trusting system and the bartenders have a souperb memory. You are given a plate, pick your pintxos and order your drink. A glass of wine ranges from 1.5 euros to 3 euros. Cold ones are displayed on the bar. Hot ones must be ordered from the barman and it is either cooked to order or with heated up using the microwave! There is always a hot tapas menu hanging from the wall. Not being able to speak Spanish, no worries! We just pointed to the bar man when we see something we like coming out of the kitchen and he will get it ordered for us! Food is the universal language, totally agree!
When you are done eating your tapas and have finished your drink you would ask the barman for the bill, and you have to tell him what you have eaten. It is very important to be honest, and not abuse this long history of tradition. Traditionally, residents would have one or two pintxos in the early evening to stave off any hunger before a later sit-down meal, rather than making a meal out of a large number of pintxos. Wine options I am really not too sure. They don’t really have a wine list. Typically, you just have to tell the barman whether you prefer red or white or sangria or beer. Spanish wines are all pretty decent, so no worries about having something you cannot stomach.
In Spain, everyone eats really late. Lunch starts at anytime after 1pm and most people would have their lunch at 2pm. So a word of advice, is to get in early at say 12 pm and start the pintxos crawl and by the time the crowd starts coming in, lunch is ticked off the list for the day. This was exactly what we did in San Sebastian.
Most of the pintxos bars are to be found in the old town particularly along the street Calle 31 de Agosto between Bar La Vina and A Fuego Nero. We had the opportunity to visit 3 pintxos bar. We were just too greedy and too hungry and broke the rule at the first bar we visited.
Situated along Called 31 de Agosto, this jatetxea was our first stop. Specialising in Iberian hams and meats as well as other more traditional style pintxos, we tried a few of their cold and hot pintxos and we ordered the txakoli (pronounced chak-o-lee) – a slightly sparkling dry Basque white wine. The wine bottle is held from a height, creating an impressive two foot stream into a tall glass. This helps to aerate the wine, creating more bubbles. We could not capture a picture as the bar was getting busy and he was too efficient.
Bar Le Cepa
We then moved on to Bar Le Cepa (Calle 31 de Agosto). From online blogs, i have read that their hongos a la plancha (grilled mushrooms) is supposedly the house special, made with meaty grilled wild mushrooms, sea salt and topped with egg yolk. Unfortunately, it was sold out !
Bar La Vina
Our final pitstop was at Bar La Vina. This has to be tops in my list of favourite places. Nothing fanciful, just really traditional pintxos. They are renowned for their Tarte de Queso or cheesecake so it was indeed a nice finish to our pintxos crawl ending with dessert. But we could not help ourselves and ordered a few other pintxos too!
Still in Basque country, 100km from San Sebastian, is Bilbao. It is the heart of an exciting and cultured metropolis with a population of 1 million. The city is situated in the area of Bizkaia and is surrounded by a fertile landscape with forests, mountains, beaches and steep coasts. It is the centre of the economic-social development and the main factor of the modernisation of the Bay of Biscay. But not too long ago, it was an industrial hub with major port activities and shipbuilding. However in 1980s, with terrorism, labour demands, arrival of cheap labour from abroad, overcrowding in slums, the city was in a devastating industrial crisis. With some right moves and investments into great architecture and infrastructure projects such as the iconic Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, the city has rejuvenated and today it is a major European art centre. Bravo!
Opened in September 1997, Bilbao’s shimmering titanium Museo Guggenheim is one of the iconic buildings of modern architecture and it has thrusted Bilbao out of depression and firmly into a major tourist and artistic centre.
Jeff Koons’ kitsch whimsy Puppy, a 12m-tall Highland terrier made up of thousands of begonias was supposed to be a part of some world tour but the residents were too fond to give him up. Apparently, the residents of Bilbao have called the museum the kennel for El Poop. LOL.
It was nice stroll in the evening along the banks of the River Nervion, next to the Guggenheim museum. Bilbao is pedestrian friendly and small enough that a visitor can cover most of it on foot in a day. We wandered the streets of the Old Town in search for dinner.
Amarena Bilbao Restaurant
This was not the best place we ate in our Spain trip. But it had lovely interiors, in a really old building and the walls I suppose would have been a few hundred years old. Most of us eating were tourists.
Once, I saw the menu, I knew what I wanted. Definitely to try some soupy food! Sopa de pescado was an obvious choice for me. Everything from this restaurant was just ok, but I suppose being near the coast, they have amazingly fresh seafood. This soup we had left such a mark on me, that while I was having this, the whole time I was thinking how I can I bring this taste back and how can I make it slightly different. And thus the souperinspiration Sopa de Pescado my version (spicy!) was created for The Soup Spoon #tsstakemetospain series.
Some of the dishes we ordered, we did not enjoy as much. I believe we still have to be open and to try foods from different cultures. It could also be bad translation of the menu that caused some misinterpretation. Just a disclaimer, these are purely my opinions and how I am shaped to like certain food preparations more. The foods may be traditionally prepared with lots of love but it may not be my food love language.
Overall, the food here was ok, but nothing that would make me come back again. Sometimes with kids, when everyone is really tired, we just make choices for food based on availability and I think we were not the only one with that dilemma that evening. Most of us had walked till the end of the Old Town, and there was nothing much that was really opened and we did not really want to eat pizza so this seemed like a good choice. The food was pretty expensive compared to some of the other places we ate, spending a total of 76 euros for 4 of us.
This concludes our travels in Basque country. Would definitely love to go back to San Sebastian and actually spend a couple of days exploring and just relax on the beach and let the kids play in the waters, enjoy the yummy pintxos and that cheesecake from Bar La Vina!
We travelled inland to Burgos in the region of Castile.