‘This is nightmare and any minute I am going to wake up in the hotel room, right?’ I asked my husband last Monday morning as I dragged myself out of bed ready for my first day back at work after a two week break.
The hotel room in question had been in the city of San Sebastian on the north Spanish coast in the Basque country.
San Sebastian or to use its Basque name Donostia has it all; the breath-taking sweeping la Concha Bay with its sandy beach stretching from end to end, Surfing, Football, interesting architecture and plenty of shopping. It’s no wonder that along with the Wroclaw, Poland it was joint European Capital of Culture in 2016.
Foodies amongst you may know San Sebastian’s reputation for good food and it’s Michelin starred restaurants. But the thing that keeps us going back is the culture of the Pintxos bars of which there are many in the city.
Pintxos are a type of tapas. Gorgeous little morsels consisting often of a slice of bread, topped with all manner of delicacies such as cheese, Tuna, peppers or meats to name but a few possibilities. They range from the simple to the downright extravagant. Exquisitely topped pieces of bread aside, little pots of Gazpacho, mini skewers, and range of delicious croquettes also come under the Pintxo heading in San Sebastian.
To clarify, what makes Pintxos different from the tapas you get outside the Basque region is the ritual that accompanies them.
According to all the travel books and articles I have read, the etiquette is you go from bar to bar having just one Pintxos at each with a drink.
When faced with bar tops heaving with platters of these works of art which in some cases look almost too perfect to eat, it is however hard to resist taking a few. It really feels like the proverbial kid in a sweet shop scenario!
Coming from a family of food lovers who have been known to swoop on a buffet, removing clingfilm with absolutely no shame I have managed over the years to maintain a little decorum and resist piling up the large plate so readily handed to me by a smiling bartender. But each time I arrive in San Sebastian, this discipline tends to go out of the window until I settle into the routine.
The Pintxos bars are spread throughout the city, but the largest concentration is to be found in San Sebastian’s Parte Vieja – Old Town.
Here you can wander the narrow streets finding great Pintxos bars next door to each other. You may approach what looks like a quiet street only to turn the corner and be met with a wall of voices and laughter as crowds enjoy the outdoor air.
Each bar will have its own speciality and I read recently the suggestion that to find out what this is you should watch what the locals eat.
In reality the bars are often packed so my advice would be just tuck in, taking whatever catches your eye. Some Pintxos bars label their Pintxos but part of the fun for me is taking a chance. I have yet to find one I haven’t enjoyed.
To my shame I speak very little Spanish and even less Basque, so once I have picked a few Pintxos, I show the bartender and at the same time order drinks and pay in one go. In some bars they will offer to heat up Pintxos for you. The costs may vary slightly from bar to bar but are pretty consistent with Pintxos averaging around 2.50€ each.
Don’t be put off if a bar looks busy. Often the crowd will disappear into the night, probably respecting the ritual and moving on, leaving the bar you are in strangely quiet for a few minutes before another group suddenly appear.
It’s an informal way of eating and drinking which means that unless you really are unshakeable in your habits, no two nights in San Sebastian are going to be the same.
Over the years we have found a few favourites which we always visit such as Meson Portaletas http://mesonportaletas.com/ at the harbour end of Portu Kalea. A smart bar with a large sit-down restaurant. If you are having Pintxos, there are bar stools and as is common with many of the Pintxos bars, high tables and ledges outside on which to rest your drink as you devour a pintxo or five.
Around the corner is a lively spot at the end of Mayor Kalea. Overlooked by the beautiful church Basilica of Santa Maria del Coro, this corner of the old town is where large numbers convene. Right here is the recently refurbished Casa Vergara. We always loved the laid-back feel of this bar in its former incarnation and it has a very different feel now. it is however still very good. The food delicious and the staff friendly and helpful.
We normally finish the night next door at Casa Alcalde www.casaalcaldedonostia.com/es/restaurante-tipico-donosti.html. This being our favourite for a few reasons. There is a huge and varied range of Pintxos on offer which are arranged beautifully so very tempting. The staff are friendly and extremely efficient which makes for speedy bar service. This bar has a lovely feel to it possibly due to its great history illustrated by the old photos displayed on the walls.
If this slightly frenetic way of eating really isn’t for you, a lot of the bars have seating areas to the rear where you can enjoy a slightly more sedate meal. You will however probably pay more this way, and quite frankly miss out on the fun.
But let’s not forget the drinks this being a beer blog after all. In most bars, if you ask for a beer you will get familiar faces such as Estrella Damm or Cruzcampo. There is however a local award-winning lager called Keler which is sold in some places including Casa Alcalde.
Beer is reasonably priced averaging 3€ for a large glass – quantities can be a tad random, but you will always get a fair amount for your money.
If you don’t fancy beer there is a good selection of local wines including Txakoli. A light white wine made from young grapes so not complex but refreshing and being a local speciality is readily available. In the bars of San Sebastian Txakoli is ceremoniously poured from an arm’s length into the glass, thus splashing against the glass, releasing the fresh, slightly citrus flavours.
FYI another local tradition of the bars in San Sebastian is ringing the bell when a customer leaves a tip so don’t be alarm if you hear the bell, it doesn’t signify last orders!
Also available in abundance is Sidra. There are many Sidra houses selling a selection of the local Sidras straight from the cask. Like Txakoli, Sidra is a significant part of the local culture, and with a good glass of Sidra costing as little as 2€ it’s a great option. It is possible to visit local Sidra producers for a tour and tastings – definitely on my to do list.
What I have yet to see in a Pintxos bars sadly is local craft beers which is a shame as San Sebastian has a good selection of microbreweries.
In 2014 I blogged about a craft beer bar I had visited in San Sebastian, which when we checked last year sadly appeared to have closed. There is however a craft beer bar also in Parte Vieja called Iratxo Taberna, (San Juan Kalea, 9), where I enjoyed a gorgeous drop of the local Basqueland Brewing Project’s IPA in 2017.
I am a fan of the Basqueland Brewing Projects beers, a favourite of mine being their Arraun Amber Ale. I used Arraun in a beer tasting at the Hoppers Hut micropub, Sidcup, South London last year when I suggested it’s caramel notes make this ale great with burgers. It would however compliment many a Pintxos perfectly. It is a really good beer.
Parte Vieja contains a high density of Pintxos bars, but San Sebastian comprises different neighbourhoods with different personalities. Across the river, a block or so back from the surfers Zurriola beach is the district of Gross. Small shops and cafes line the sunny open streets and it was amongst these that two years ago we discovered the Mala Gissona Beer House.
Stumbling across the Mala Gissona Beer House amongst everything else that San Sebastian has to offer was the icing on the cake. The bar has a bright, contemporary design with wood and metal furniture and brickwork wallpaper depicting the whale imagery used in Mala Gissona’s branding reflecting the Basque heritage of Whaling.
When we visited this year a mixed bag of non-obtrusive music played; everything from The Jam, Reggae and 1950s Rock and Roll. The staff were super friendly, helpfully taking me through the range of beers on offer and advising me about a forthcoming tap takeover of Barcelona brewery Black Lab.
Between us we had their Red Bay, a rye red ale, the Apatxe APA and another Basque favourite of mine their Höfn Porter From their food menu, we had locally produced Burgers topped with cheese, a fried egg, accompanied by mayo and fries – perfect before a snooze on the beach!
The Mala Gissona Brewery have been going for four years and the Beer House opened around two and half years ago. If you went to Craft Beer Rising in Brick Lane earlier this year you may have seen their stand and they also hosted a Beer tasting at the Tapas Room in Tooting Broadway Market, London. All good news as it signifies I hope the intention of Mala Gissona to play a part in the UK beer market.
The Basques are very proud of their heritage and tradition. Around San Sebastian are numerous shops selling local produce such as locally mined flavoured salt, meats, tinned sardines and increasingly local craft beers. Mala Gissona’s beers as well as being available from their Beer House can be bought in bottles and cans in the old town, Basqueland Brewing Project Beers are also available as are other brewer’s such as Gross. All positive signs that beer has been embraced as part of the Basque Heritage.
San Sebastian is a feast in so many ways. We tend to go at the end of August which coincides with the 31st August celebrations marking the razing of San Sebastian by Allied forces in 1813. Brass and Drum Bands in traditional dress march through the Parte Vieja, the sound is incredible. Also, on the first two Sundays in September boat racing is held in La Concha Bay. Rival teams battle it out on the sea and their supporters can be seen around the city and in the bars in their team’s colours. This makes for a lively but friendly atmosphere.
Towards the end of July is the annual Jazz Festival. Live music echoes around the city with the bay as an amazing backdrop.
Year round the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of San Sebastian are a treat. So, I say forget what the guide books tell you and load up your plate! Holidays don’t last forever after all, a fact I am all too aware of as I sit typing this with memories of Pintxos still fresh in my mind…