The only thing I could be sure of before heading to País Vasco was that I was going to eat well; anybody I spoke to who had been before would probably have testified to it in a court of law had they been given the chance.
“Dios mio que suerte! La comida alli es increíble!” they would more or less say.
“Me traigas un pintxo vale?”
Hmm. Bring you one back? Wouldn’t a fancy tapa along Calle Navas suffice instead?
They were joking of course, but when I arrived at Bar Txalupa – my first Pintxo bar in San Sebastián – cold, sodden and starving, I quickly realised that such a request –whether it had been a joke or not –wasn’t so unreasonable after all. The overflowing dishes of elaborately concocted pintxos looked fit for a king. Choosing which I was going to devour first was a tough decision to take. Eventually though, I settled for the elegant jamón and goat’s cheese salad tostada and sweet tuna mayo-stuffed, red pepper. Both of them were practically inhaled at the cost of €2.50 each (without a drink included). A budget lunch in San Sebastián, it seemed, was not an easy thing to come by.
Next, my couchsurfing host, Luis – author of ‘Aquel Año Erasmus’ – led me to his personal favourite, Bar Juantxo, where the pintxos were apparently cheaper and just as appetising. We arrived and waded in through the jostling crowd. Beside the Spanish menu was one written in Euskera. ‘Time to flex my lingo skills’ I thought, ‘how hard can it be if it’s written in front of me?’ I gave it my best shot, and was met with first a smile, and then the translated version in Castellano. ‘Si’ I replied with a sigh. I’d managed my first proper Basque sentence but the fact that the barman had answered in Spanish irked me, just as it used to when Spanish people spoke to me in English when I was trying my hardest to spit out a sentence in Spanish. At least I knew I’d got it right.
The food was just as gratifying as Luis had promised, and cost just €2 a pintxo, and €3 for a larger bocadillo. I went for a pork and pepper baguette and another wedge of ham-topped tortilla. The highlight though, was hearing Euskera spoken properly for the first time. It came from a family sitting to our left, and largely involved a mother scolding her children for chasing each other around the room. I wouldn’t have known if Luis hadn’t pointed it out. When I tuned in, it honestly sounded as though it could have been any foreign language; I couldn’t relate in any way whatsoever, except for that it seemed to have the same rhythm as Castellano. That’s when it hit me that I could have already heard Euskera on numerous occasions in Bilbao but had simply failed to realise it. Mierda.
Pintxod out, I spent the rest of the afternoon making hay while the sun still shone. Unfortunately, a broad layer of dreary, txirimiri (basque for ‘drizzle’) tipping clouds later choked most of that sunshine out, leaving me somewhat underwhelmed by my environs. Next day, however, it opened up a bit, and in between yet more pintxos, I spent the afternoon wandering San Sebastián’s parte vieja and unhurriedly climbing the littoral, castle-topped Monte Urgull, which overlooks the city and offers sweeping views. The sky at the mount’s summit was still overcast, but nevertheless provided a brilliant, spooky sort of backdrop to the small island of Santa Clara, which lies just 700m from the curved Playa de la Concha.
La Parte Vieja (The Old Town)
Views from Monte Urgull
I enjoyed my time in San Sebastián, and could see why many people insist on the city being the highlight of the Basque region – there’s a certain ecclesiastical charm about the place that is lacking in neighbouring Bilbao – but things get rather quiet in the evening. Spain were playing France in a World Cup qualifier match one of the nights I was there, which in Andalucía would warrant jam-packed bars on every street corner, but you’d be forgiven for thinking there had been a recent outbreak of the plague in San Sebastián; it was dead, and those out for a drink seemed to be totally unconcerned about the football. In a way, it was a refreshing change, but a surprising one nonetheless.
San Sebastián, or Donostia, as it is called in Euskera, is definitely a daytime city, which revolves around its inimitable gastronomy scene. There’re plenty of tasty tapas elsewhere in Spain, but you’ll have to come here if you really want to sample Spanish cuisine at its absolute best. Take it from me, a newly converted pintxo aficionado who guzzled back no less than eleven of the toothsome treats in just under 48 hours. And for the record, I actually did attempt to bring a couple back to Granada, though they were accidentally eaten on the plane.
Have you been to San Sebastián? What’s the best pintxo you’ve ever had?