In the couple of weeks leading up to my trip to Bilbao and San Sebastián with Annie, there had been unhappy forebodings of terrible weather: cold temperatures and heavy rain dominating our long weekend break. It’s hard to feel positive. Spain at the end of April should be warm and sunny; maybe not sunbathing weather but certainly T-shirts and maybe even a touch of suncream. But as it happened, there was only a little rain during the trip. There were some grey skies but also quite a few hours of sunshine. When we arrived in San Sebastián after an hour’s bus ride from Bilbao (for some weird reason it’s much quicker by bus than train), we were delighted to see blue skies and feel some sun warming us.
We’d again booked our hotel through British Airways – the Husa Europa, a 3* hotel for which we paid £75 a night for the room. It was an easy 10-minute walk from the bus terminus and when we arrived we received a warm welcome. The friendly guy on reception (who reminded me a little of Inspector Montalbano on TV, even though he was Spanish and not Italian) said he’d given us their best room. We weren’t sure why but it was indeed a lovely room – quite big with an old, original fireplace and two small balconies. It overlooked a fairly busy road so not exactly quiet, but neither was it too noisy and we were very happy with it.
Coming out of the hotel and turning right, we could see the sea so it was only a couple of minutes walk before we found ourselves overlooking a beautiful bay.
Monte Urgull rose to the right on which a huge statue of Christ overlooked the town; to the left we could see Monte Igueldo, and in-between lay the little island of Santa Clara. The beach was a shimmering expanse of pale sand with only a few people on it. It was glorious. However, we were definitely in need of lunch by now so, after consulting our Lonely Planet guidebook, we headed to a bar fairly close by: Rojo y Negro.
There was a wonderful display of pinxtos and already we were discovering that it’s quite hard to make a choice. They all looked tempting. However, we managed to restrict ourselves to three – on the basis that we planned to eat a lot more that night!
Pinxtos often come on pieces of bread or sometimes a kind of dry bread that’s almost a biscuit. Traditionally they come on a spike – or skewer; pinxtos is Spanish/Basque for ‘spike’. There are usually also little rolls – bocadillos – filled with ham, cheese, fish or even slices of tortilla on offer. Sometimes you see raciones, which are large pinxtos – more literally, a portion. Pinxtos (pronounced pin-chos) are the Basque version of tapas (pronounced tapa in Spain), which are really just a bar snack. San Sebastián has become a Mecca for the best pinxtos you can find anywhere and you will find both traditional ones and modern molecular style cooking. Indeed, food aficionados go there just to eat them. However, with 17 Michelin-starred restaurants (or thereabouts; I found it hard to find a definitive number), including three 3* ones, plenty of people go for great food other than pinxtos. Annie and I weren’t looking for anything as grand as a Michelin-starred restaurants though. We were in San Sebastián for its famous pinxtos trail through the Old Town – Parte Vieja – that dates from Medieval times. What you do in San Sebastián is go on a pinxtos crawl …
Over the next 48 hours, Annie and I ate only pinxtos for lunch and supper. Armed with our Lonely Planet guide and a list of bars recommended by a friend, Pippa, who is a wine expert (I’ve done wine courses with her). Pippa and her chef husband Redmond like San Sebastián enough to have gone there three times in the last two years!
Annie and I found it incredibly difficult at first to leave one bar and move on to another. It was Pippa who told me that the Spanish don’t commit to one bar for the evening but eat only one or two pinxtos in a bar and then move on to another. But when there’s a huge display in front of you and it’s all so inviting, when it all tastes so wonderful, why would you want to leave? The simple answer, we discovered, is that the next bar will have wonderful pinxtos too. But each bar has its speciality; their selection is maybe similar to most but always a bit different. The old part of the city is very small and you find yourself coming out of one bar to go into another next door or just a little further along the road. There are, however, many bars to try and 48 hours certainly isn’t enough time to try them all. Which can only mean I have to go back sometime!
What stood out for us was the quality. I’m not sure you can get bad pinxtos in San Sebastián, only some that are a little more superior in quality. I was really quite bowled over by the general quality and greatly impressed by the creative preparation and thought that went into each one. They were truly culinary works of art. I sent a photo of 4 we had one lunchtime to my daughter via WhatsApp and she said – teasing me – that she looked forward to my making them once home. But the truth – as Annie and I discussed – is that it’s barely possible. So much work goes into each one that at home it would take hours of preparation to produce just one, let alone a selection. I became more and more impressed and surprised myself by saying to Annie that I had to admit they were not only far superior to any tapas I’d eaten anywhere else – and I’ve eaten some great tapas – but even to my long-time favourite cicchetti in Venice, which are similar but much more simple.
We ate so many pinxtos over our visit that there are too many to record them all here so I decided to highlight our favourites. There were these little pots of salmorejo in a bar we went into just for coffee the first afternoon but I couldn’t leave without trying these!
In Bar Sirimiri we tried a local wine poured from height – that Pippa told us about – and ate some of the best pinxtos of the trip.
From our stools overlooking part of the kitchen area, we saw a chef preparing an amazing looking mushroom and chestnut risotto. We just had to go back to try it the next day.
Just round the corner in Bar Gandarias we had these lovely little croissants filled with Serrano ham, soft cheese and pimento.
Bar Martinez was a favourite and we went twice. One lunchtime and back the same evening as we had to have another one of the exquisite little parcels of courgette stuffed with crab. The waiter teased us about coming back so soon.
The fish mousse with cod on top was wonderful too and the tempura of artichoke. Above was lunchtime selection and in the evening the following. Martinez was very consistent – not the slightest disappointment in any choice.
The octopus kebab with thin slices of potato with a spicy dressing and almost drowning in olive oil was excellent.
For lunch on our last day we went to Bar La Viña, which had been closed the day before. We were keen to try their cheesecake – Tarta de Queso – for which they’re famous. Cheesecake seemed to be a big thing in the city and on every dessert menu.
We were so used to entering bars and seeing long counters full of delicious pinxtos that La Viña’s relatively small selection made us hesitate and think we should eat somewhere else first, before having cheesecake. But then we decided to try some of their pinxtos – and were so glad we did! We didn’t move on; we just settled into a little table in a corner and ate a whole lunch. There was gorgeous fresh cod fried in a light batter; a superb octopus salad which had been perfectly cooked, the octopus wonderfully tender.
We went back after these and chose more pinxtos. But of course we had to leave room for their famous cheesecake!
At the far end of the counter, a lot of them had been set down to cool, straight from the oven. We shared a large slice, cut in two for us.
Its fame was well deserved. It was incredibly light with a deep, gorgeous flavour. We loved it. Annie contemplated how she’d manage to take one home on the flight! But in the end we decided flying with cheesecake might be a step too far. Bar La Viña was definitely a highlight though. And there, as everywhere we went, from bars to the hotel to shops and cafés, we were met with wonderful kindness and friendliness. San Sebastián is a great place in all respects. And despite all this talk of food, we did actually do some ‘cultural’ and ‘sightseeing’ things too.
We walked up to the summit of Monte Urgull for fantastic views.
And we visited San Telmo Museoa to find out more about the city’s Basque history. The museum is built around a 16th century Dominican convent.
And at night after eating, we enjoyed long walks by the sea and marina, enjoying the sea air and beauty of the setting.
I just loved Bilbao and San Sebastián. They both offered so much more in terms of beauty, welcome and of course amazing food than I’d anticipated. I’m so glad I’ve made the trip at last and I’m sure that it won’t be my last and sometime I’ll have to go back.
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