Part 1 Following the Pintxos Trail
Part 2 Foodie Favorites in San Sebastian + Day Trip to Tolosa
Our first view of San Sebastian is darkness. Having arrived after a 5-hour train ride from Barcelona, the only thing on our minds is dinner. Across the hotel is a restaurant-bar with a quirky name: Toki Eder.
Having to physically restrain ourselves from ordering the entire menu, we glance and grasp at familiar dishes and ask for those. A plate of plump, hot fries cloaked with a pair of golden fried eggs and decorated with strips of Iberico ham positioned outwards like spokes on a wheel. Crunchy and comforting, it piques our curiosity, revs our hunger: more, please. Beside it, toasts smeared with cream cheese and blanketed with smoked salmon; leaves of arugula scattered playfully atop. Side-by-side smoothness sates appetite. Then: a finale of exquisite mashed potatoes raked with a fine Spanish olive oil, and dotted with chunks of the most tender octopus. A truly stomach and soul-stirring start to our sojourn here.
Donostia – San Sebastian really grows on a person. Situated in Pais Vasco, (Basque Country) in northern Spain, this little city sits in a bay with not one but three beaches.
The next day is gloomy, a petulant child on the verge of a tantrum but it doesn’t detract from her charm. Playa de la Concha, a bay shaped like a half-moon, is a panorama of soft sand, gentle waves, and a view that goes on forever. Its ornamental wrought-iron balustrade makes for an ideal walk.
As we meander along the fishing port, suddenly the clouds part and swathes of blue peek through. Magnificent.
In San Sebastian’s new town, or Centro Romantico, everything seems bigger and wider. More expansive and expensive, the streets are framed by regal buildings and posh boutiques. I delight in darting from shop to shop on Kalea San Martzial, Kalea Loyola, and Kalea Fuenterrabia, retail central.
From a distance, the Catedral del Buen Pastor de San Sebastian looms like the landmark that it is.
I look down and am startled to see pink leaves! The gorgeousness in this city is constant.
Crossing the Puente de Zurriola bridge to the other side of San Sebastian.
From the river we can see the Hotel Maria Cristina, a historic building and extravagant hotel that opened in 1912. We enter and marvel at the lobby and browse through the Food Gourmet Shop on the first floor. This is worth a visit for food lovers.
Catching our breath and drinking in the serenity by the river.
A pleasurable walk over the Santa Catalina bridge leads us to Gros.
When people talk of San Sebastian, they often refer to the hubbub and party atmosphere of the Parte Vieja or Old Town. In my experience, Gros is a pintxos powerhouse and has got lots going for it: it’s cooler and less crowded, has better value for food and drink, plus the locals are friendlier.
One of the most esteemed pintxos places is Bergara Bar. An avant-garde black and white motif plays up a dramatic contrast to the technicolor hues of the various little edibles.
It’s hard to choose just two or three but bar etiquette dictates that I not fill up lest I have no space for the next bar.
I definitely prefer hot pintxos to the cold ones preening on the countertop. One of Bergara Bar’s specialties is the txalupa. Boat-shaped, it’s puff pastry cradling a creamy combination of mushroom and shrimp with a gratinéed top. Smooth, silky, so small … I need another one.
Washing bites down with a glass of Basque cider; it reminds me of fizzy apple juice with a heck of a lot more kick. Here, my second pintxo caliente: a tiny lobe of half-cooked foie gras anointed with a mango compote and balsamic vinegar from Módena. This dish sings one note and sings it loudly: lush little luxury.
Hidalgo 56 is yet another remarkable pinxtos bar in Gros. On the countertop at the back, wedged in between platters of pinxtos are pots of stew.
We try the beef cheek stew, cod with crab, tomato and anchovy tartare, and the iconic dish of Hidalgo 56, its volcan de morcilla. It’s minced blood sausage mixed with raisins and apples.
The mixture is then crowned with a fresh egg yolk, gold glistening against black. Spicy-soft sail upon waves of nutmeg and clove on this enormously textured little dish.
After a series of snacks at bars, we stroll over the Santa Catalina bridge back to the Parte Vieja.
This, the old town, is what most people refer to when they talk about San Sebastian. This area is reputed to have more bars per square meter than any place else in the world. Truth or not, one visit isn’t enough time to taste all the temptations but it makes for some delicious discovery.
While researching which bars to hit in Parte Vieja, the same names keep getting recommended to me and once I’m finally here, I’m disappointed that some of the more notable ones (Bar La Cepa, La Cuchara de San Telmo, La Viña, etc) are closed (tragic!) during my visit in late November. But I’m more annoyed that because the same names keep going around, these places get overcrowded and as I discover, are overrated. My advice is to keep the names of the “cool kids” handy but be adventurous enough to venture out on your own and find undiscovered gems; it’s a pleasurable task and there are certainly more than enough to find.
While certainly not “unpopular,” Atari Gastroteka is a modern gastro-bar where the staff is more than happy to suggest what to eat. The cold pintxos are a temptation train displayed on the bar and are satisfactory, but the best are the hot, made to order pintxos. Try the beef cheeks braised in red wine and anything with pulpo (octopus). I wash it all down with my new favorite drink, tinto con limon, red wine + Fanta Lemon or gin and tonic as only the staff here knows how to mix ‘em up. Sadly, I don’t get to try the desserts but I hear they’re excellent.
Vitoria-Gasteiz Kalea, 6
San Sebastian Food Gourmet Shop
República Argentina Kalea, 4, 20004
Calle Mayor 18