One of my favorite things about Europe is that visiting another country can often be easier and quicker than driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles. While we were visiting Jules’ parents in the Southwest of France, we took a four-hour car trip over the border to San Sebastián – the first time for both of us. I got really excited when we hit Pays Basque (the French Basque side); you’ll know when you have reached it, since the architecture changes to white facades and colored wood, and the fonts on the signs are very distinctly…Basque. The Basque region includes parts of both France and Northern Spain, and the Spain side is called Euskadi, or Donostia. Don’t be fooled by geography – the Basque culture is very proud, and they generally don’t consider themselves to be French or Spanish – they are Basque.
San Sebastián is one of the most expensive cities in Spain, with a high concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants – a food lover’s paradise. I’ve dreamed of having dinner at Arzak, but this visit was just an overnight stay, so we planned on winging it and discovering this city without anything but a hotel reservation and a copy of Time Out Donostia.
As soon as we arrived, we checked into the Hotel Codina, then walked around to find a place to eat. We found Restaurante Kalaberri, a little tavern off of Avenida de Zumalakarregi. Two things I found out that day – my college level Spanish really didn’t help translate anything written in Euskara (Basque), and trying to pronounce anything in Euskara aside from the word “Kalimotxo” or “Txakoli” (we’ll get to that later) was a big fat fail. We did manage to order lunch at Kalaberri, and, as everything in Spain closes mid-day (from about 2-5pm), we headed back to our hotel for a nap.
I had managed to catch a really bad cold during our trip, with a terrifying cough and moderate fever that didn’t go away as quickly as I had hoped, so our little afternoon siesta turned into a very long nap followed by a trip to a local farmacia. I don’t really remember much of what happened but I do remember being really thankful that both the pharmacy attendants and Jules spoke French and got me medicine so I could survive our planned tapas crawl. When I was finally feeling a tiny bit human again (around 9pm), we headed out to Parte Vieja, on foot, to seek out some San Sebastián nightlife. The walk was absolutely beautiful, and people (both tourists and locals) were strolling about quite peacefully. This is a huge contrast to the boisterous crowds that wander around places like Las Vegas and New York City, the only two places in the US that I can think of where starting your night at 10pm is de rigeur.
A pintxos crawl is an absolute must if you are in San Sebastián. It can be overwhelming to choose where to go, as the old part of town is packed with them, and the good ones can be crowded. We made the rookie mistake of not asking or doing any research before we walked around, but we were lucky enough to duck into probably one of the best of them – Bar La Cepa. With tons of hams hanging from the ceiling, a bar lined with people, as well as crowded tables, we were certain this place had to be good, and it was. The pintxo above, called a gilda, is a simple bit of pickled guindilla pepper, anchovy, and olive, and is one of the best damn things we ate that night. It was at La Cepa that we were standing next to three very burly men, bellied up to the bar, who were chatting, eating, and drinking Txakoli. We were having a bit of trouble communicating with our bartender, and I managed to order in my long-forgotten Spanish, and one of them seemed to be observing us, as I caught his glance. I sheepishly said, “Sorry, my Spanish is not so good.”
He paused for a moment and said, “We don’t speak Spanish here.” It wasn’t in a mean way at all, in fact, he almost said it with a smile. And thus, my first brush with Basque pride.
I don’t even remember the names of the other places we went, but we did manage to order an entire plate of pata negra and more Txakoli, the wine that they pour from high above the glass, in order to aerate it. Later in the evening we started to drink ice-cold Kalimotxos, a drink made of red wine and cola. Part of me feels like this is a throwback to my college sangria days, and the other part says, “But we’re in San Sebastián! This is completely acceptable.” At the risk of losing any wine credibility I have, it’s pretty delicious, and perfect accompaniment for bar food. Three or four pintxos bars later, Jules and I were stuffed. It’s easy to fill up because many things are served on bread, which is good and bad – you won’t spend too much money to be well fed, but on the other hand, all the food is so beautiful that you really, really want to gorge yourself on jamon and anything with a shrimp on it. That walk back to the hotel was going to be much needed.
The next day, we wanted to make one more stop into the Parte Vieja, just to see it by day. It was just as crowded during the day as it was at night, the pintxos bars were open fairly early (I am super bummed that I only found out about the churros & chocolate bar a day later and we didn’t have time to go), and there was a bit of shopping available. We ended up buying a few books and having one last jaunt at Beti Jai, probably one of the most modern and fancy pintxos bars I’ve seen.
My first visit to San Sebastián will definitely not be my last. It is such an interesting place because it has such a strong identity that is so adamantly not Spanish. We happened on some sort of demonstration in the street (no idea what for, the signs were in Euskara), and a building with Spanish flags on it was splattered with angry red paint. I want to dig deeper into San Sebastián next time, and hopefully stay longer than 48 hours. In the meantime, I’ve taken to making pintxos at home (like Gildas or Pan con tomate) when I want to bring myself back to the cozy tapas bars of Donostia. Ikuzen duzun hurrrengo aldian, Euskadi!