How do you like to spend your weekends away? Gorging on gourmet food, tasting fine wine, surfing the swell, shopping for designer labels? On a recent trip to San Sebastián in Spain’s Basque Country, the Hubby and I found that all of the above can definitely be ticked off your list.
So where is San Sebastián?
Sitting on the northern coastline of Spain between Bilbao and the French border, San Sebastián is a smart seaside town with a definite air of sophistication, which is probably due to the fact that it was founded as a summer resort for Spanish royalty in the early 20th century. There are smart tree lined boulevards, squares dotted with pretty fountains, cafés, stylish boutiques and perfectly formed Art Noveau style residences with cute wrought iron balconies adorned in multi-coloured geraniums. The seafront of Playa de la Concha, the main beach (there are 2), is elegant, refined and well-dressed to within an inch of its life with a wide sweep of pristine sand and definitely none of the tourist tat that plagues many a European seaside.
However, despite the refinement of the resort, there’s a real laid back vibe and the second beach, Playa de Zurriola, is a surfer’s paradise. Flanked by the monolithic Kursaal Convention Centre this is where the dudes hang out, but it’s all in the best possible taste, and this part of town certainly doesn’t lower the tone; you’ll still find families setting up their stalls with umbrellas and chairs amidst the surf shacks. Separating the two beaches is Mount Urgull, a wooded hill topped with a stone Christ figure akin to Rio’s Christ the Redeemer. Climb to the top for fantastic views over the town whilst at the base a lovely promenade is frequented by finely dressed old couples strolling hand in hand and taking in the sea air.
San Sebastián, a culinary capital
San Sebastián is renown as the culinary capital of Spain and deservedly so. There’s a plethora of fine dining establishments. I read somewhere that the place has more Michelin stars per head of population than Manhattan and currently two of its restaurants reside in the top 10 of The World’s Top 50 Restaurants - that’s certainly some going. However, there’s another culinary delight (favoured by the Hubby and me) and that’s the pintxos. Before you ask, these are northern Spain’s take on tapas, similar but not the same; the noun pincho means ‘thorn’ or ‘spike’ and the pintxos used to come spiked with a tooth pick giving them their difference to tapas. However, as Basque cuisine evolves the spikes are becoming few and far between and the pintxos more refined.
Tracking down the perky pintxos
Although they’re a citywide phenomenon, the place to find some of the best pintxos in San Sebastián are in the bars of the Parte Vieja, the winding medieval streets of the old town. Here, the way to sample what is on offer is to do as the locals do and crawl from one bar to another - certain bars have their specialities and you really must eek these out. Once you’ve found your space at the counter, which groans under the constantly replenished cold pintxos, the protocol is to ask for a plate and snaffle those in front of you at will. However, the best ones are those that come freshly cooked to order from the kitchen: sizzling prawn brochette with a pepper and paprika topping; stuffed and deep fried peppers; freshly cooked anchovies like you’ve never tasted; griddled pork; and the Hubby’s favourite, Kobe burgers.
The name of the game is restraint - as you see others ordering delicious morsels you too will want to try…but what delights might you find at the next bar? Luckily the locals have the alcohol under control with the offering on the Zurito, a small serving of beer in a flat bottomed glass; just enough to wash down the pintxos but not enough to have you staggering between bars.
With all of the above going on, how can you not be seduced by this town for a few days? The Hubby and I certainly were and you definitely have to try hard not to develop a pintxos paunch! San Sebastián is a perfect place to kick back and let your senses be seduced by all that it has to offer - it’s definitely a place where good things come in small packages.
The Hubby and I combined a stay in San Sebastián with a few other stops in the glorious Basque Country and a little roam around the Rioja wine region (read about it here) - all doable in a week.
For more details on our trip please feel free to get in touch with me. I’d be happy to arrange a trip to just San Sebastián or put together an itinerary similar to the one we did - I may even divulge some of the fab pintxos bars we found!
(Images: The Hubby and me)