The next country on our trip was Spain. And our first city in Spain was San Sebastian. Our last trip to Spain was in the pre-historic era…1980s. Frankly, we didn’t remember a lot from that trip and our photos (35 MM slides) have somehow disappeared. So it was time for another trip to see what we had seen and to discover new adventures.
Due to the eccentricities of Spanish train schedules, we ended up with only a day and a half in San Sebastian, which is an elegant playground and cultural center of the northern Spanish coast. The town, which is still called Donostia in the Basque language (which can be very different than the Spanish language), is nested between two tower-topped hills along a beautiful bay. While its beaches, beachfront residences and multiple Michelin-starred restaurants are packed in the summer, we were there to experience the charming Old Town and, the bustle of the cafes and pintxos bars.
Although we did spend most of our limited time in and around old town, we did at least check out other parts of the city. The central part of the city is home of the theater (the San Sebastian Film Festival that was in town when we were there) and the still-grand Maria Christina hotel (the site of one of the festival’s big VIP parties). We also stopped at the Cathedral Buen Paster (Good Pastor) at just the time when the sun, streaming through the stained glass windows cast multi-colored light on the walls and especially on a lovely bronze chapel.
We also took a little time to explore the beach culture, or at least what was left of it after the end of the season. We walked past Hotel de Ville (City Hall) plaza, by parts of Playa de Ondarreta and the more upscale Playa de la Concha, explored the exterior and the gardens of the royal palace (Palacio Miramar), the dramatic and Eduardo Chilida’s rusted iron sculptures.
Then, on our way back to Old Town, where we walked all the back along the crescent-shaped beach to the base of the hill on the opposite end of town, past the harbor and the aquarium, around Plaza Jacques Coustou, to catch the views and the sunset under the hulking presence of the ruins of the old fortress (Castillo de Santa Cruz de la Mota).
As mentioned, we spent most of our time in in San Sebastian in Old Town. This section of town revolves around the arcaded Plaza de la Constitucion and the neighboring Basilica (de Santa Maria), 16th-century church (Iglesia de San Vincente) and the old fish market, which was the pantry, if not the heart of the culinary life of this food-centric town (although not on the Saturday afternoon or Sunday, when we were able to visit.) The streets that cross Old Town are filled with boutiques, and especially, in this food-based vacation town, restaurants and bars.
But while Old Town is interesting during the day, it comes alive in the evening and at night (especially when we were there, on Saturday night—in the midst of the Film Festival). The streets, restaurants and bars were filled with people, with all, including us, having a good time.
Nighttime was also the best time to see the Kursaal Auditorium which, when lit up, glows a bright white.
San Sebastian’s Pintxo Food Culture
Although the town has a number of high-end, including many Michelin-starred restaurants they were all filled with private Film Festival parties. Besides, after a month of solid restaurant eating in Paris and Bordeaux, we were interested in something lighter. And we particularly wanted to devote much of our first days in Spain to a part of the Spanish food culture that we especially love—pintxo bars.
For those who aren’t familiar with them, pintxo bars offer small snacks, typically costing only one or two Euro apiece. While some are ordered off menus, most restaurants fill their bars with plates of their various offerings. You choose whichever and however many you want and show them to the server and order a drink (assuming you want one). They will heat those that are supposed to be heated, charge you and you eat them as you wish. You repeat this process until you are done. While this can be done at the same bar, each bar typically has different character and a combinations of offerings. The fun is to get a few pintxos and a drink at one, go to another and repeat the process until you are done.
We spent our first afternoon, and a good part of our evening, grazing our way through dozens of pintxo bars across throughout Old Town. Lunch, for example, consisted at stops at three such bars:
- Galtxago, at which we had two warm dishes, octopus on a slice of potato and a bowl with ham an potato mixed with egg and topped with cheese;
- Casa Alcade, where we had one room temperature dish (a small prosciutto sandwich on a roll), and two warmed ones (sausage wrapped in prosciutto, and a flatbread with chopped ham tomato, cheese and other ingredients); and
- Zagvan, which we enjoyed somewhat less than the others, at which we had octopus (which was soft, rather than firm-textured) and a small open sandwich of ham, tomato, egg and a shrimp atop a slice of potato.
At each, we also had a glass of red Rioja.
Our love for pintxo bars notwithstanding, we decided to have dinner at one of Old Town’s most popular seafood restaurants:
- Bernardo, where we enjoyed steamed clams in a rich, parsley broth, hake (which was much better than we expected) Basque-style, in broth with clams, egg, peas and white asparagus, with a bottle of local chardonnay (Enate Chard, 2013).
But, since we (and especially Tom) can never get enough of the wonderful pintxo bars, we spent the night exercising off our dinner calories by criss-crossing all of Old Town in search of the most interesting nighttime pintxo bars—those with a combination of the most interesting vibe, the most interesting looking food, and ideally, just enough room for us to find enough space at the bar to order and eat yet another course. After Tom scouted out several bars with the perfect combination, he choose to stop at one for a few final bites, not to speak of another Rioja at:
- Munto, where we had two more nice, heated pintxos; a slice of octopus on a slice of cheese, and a small sandwich covered with caramelized onions, on which was a round a heated round of cheese, topped with a walnut.
A perfect way to top of our first evening in a lovely Spanish city.
We stayed at the Hotel Parma, a perfect location in old town and from where we could walk to everything. Unfortunately there wasn’t any elevator and we had to carry our increasingly heavy suitcases up one flight. The room was typical of a 2 star hotel. Nothing large, nothing great, but clean and comfortable. After all, it is just a place for us to sleep. The staff spoke English and were very helpful in suggesting where we should go. As there was a film festival in town, many of the better places were sold out Still, we did spent a comfortable night there