Monday, March 26, 2012

El País Vasco: San Sebastián

View of San Sebastián from Monte Igueldo
Arriving in San Sebastián, a city known as Donostia in the Basque language, Samara and I dropped our bags at the hotel near the beach and resumed our search for the famed pintxos.  After not loving the food we found in Bilbao, we were determined to eat our way through San Sebastián until we found some pintxos as delicious as everyone claimed they were.  Right away, we could tell that San Sebastián was a larger city than Bilbao, and there there was more to see and do...and more to eat.  We stopped first for a quick snack at Café de la Concha, an outdoor restaurant on the edge of the beach and ordered some croquetas and a tortilla.  

Playa de la Concha
Admittedly, these aren't specialty items of the Basque Region, but we were hungry, and they were there.  Looking around from our table, in the middle of the Kontxako Badia (Playa de la Concha/Shell Beach), we got our bearings and decided on a plan for the day.  To our left, was the Monte Igueldo, straight ahead was the tiny Isla de Santa Clara, and to our right was the old city and Monte Urgull.  The shell-shaped beach was in the middle of everything, and to get anywhere, you had to walk all the way around it.

Walking up the trail

When we left the café, we walked all the way around the beach toward the old city.  We passed the aquarium and a lovely dock with colorful boats.  After a while, we found the path that would lead us up the mountain to see the castle, Castillo de la Mota, at the top.  On the way up, we came across "Empty Construction," a sculpture by Jorge Oteiza.  Finally reaching the top, we were delighted to wander through the castle and find that it had no staff and required no entrance tickets.  The effect was that exploring the castle's ruins was like finding a hidden treasure instead of going to a touristy attraction.  On the way up, we were treated to several beautiful views of the city.
View of San Sebastián from Monte Urgull
Naturally, we were hungry after coming back down from the mountain, so we began our day-long eating adventure.  At first, we didn't quite understand how the pintxos tradition worked.  We walked into a bar and asked for a pintxos menu, and the server gestured to several plates of tiny servings that had been placed aesthetically along the bar.  The plates of pintxos basically sit there all day until someone chooses and eats them.  You don't order pintxos; rather, you select from what you see sitting in front of you.  Sometimes bars will advertise that the pintxos were recently made.  Each pintxo is tiny, kind of like tapas, so you order about three of them.  Rather than eating a full meal, you just go from bar to bar ordering a few pintxos at each place.
Pintxos from left to right: green pepper & tuna sandwich, tortilla, some kind of pork, ham and mayo, and fried hake.

Pintxo: Ball of Seafood
In the new part of the city, in a neighborhood called Gros, the first delicious pintxo I ate was una bola de carne picante, a little ball of spicy beef.  It was incredible.  Polishing it off and ordering a second one, I sensed that our search for the well known, "best pintxos ever," was becoming a success.  Later, we headed for the old part of the city, and I selected a pickle and tuna pintxo, another with brie, a tomato slice, and bread; and a third with fried merluza, which I think is "hake" in English.  All three, especially the pickle and tuna combo, were incredible, so I ordered one more: a small piece of bread with a cucumber and pickle paste.  Delicious.  Since eating pintxos is the main activity here, we basically spent the afternoon eating.  It was glorious.  In search of more food, we wandered over to the Constitución Plaza, but left when we found ourselves surrounded by ETA posters and an unusual-looking meeting.
The next morning, we set out to see what was on the other side of the beach.  Not surprisingly, we started the day off with breakfast.  We were interested to learn that there are breakfast pintxos, like mushroom crepes.  People still seemed to eat the typical tuna and pepper styled pintxos though too.  I had a difficult time eating the same thing for breakfast as I had eaten the day before for lunch and dinner.  The experience reminded me of being served various Israeli salads for breakfast in Jerusalem.

Peine del Viento
Después del desayuno, we went to the edge of the mini peninsula to see a three-part series of sculptures known as el Peine del Viento, the Comb of the Wind, by Eduardo Chillida.  The sculptures were said to comb the sea winds as they blew into the city.  This seems useful since it was really, really windy out there by the sculptures.  Waves crashed all around the edge of where we stood.  Throughout the entire two days in San Sebastián, I was fascinated to see water in so many different shades of blue and waves everywhere.  The waves were pretty big, and people were surfing.


We were told that at the top of the mountain, Monte Igueldo, we would find the Parque de Atracciones.  Instead of climbing up, we decided to take the funicular to the top, where we found a cute attractions park for children.  In the middle of the park, there was a former lighthouse, which advertised the "best view in the world" from the top.  Figuring that this was either an exaggeration or a bad translation, we laughed and decided to check it out.  So, we paid for entrance tickets and started climbing.  When we finally reached the top of the tower, it started to rain.  Standing in the rain on the terrace, we looked over the mountain from the previous day, the beach, and all of San Sebastián.

"Somewhere Over the Rainbow"
Photo by Samara
It had gotten windier, and we could see larger waves on the Bay of Biscay coming in toward Playa de la Concha, which we now noticed was named for its shape.  We were about to descend from the tower when I turned to my left and saw a double rainbow!  On the tower, we were high enough up to look down at the entire arc of the rainbow including both ends.  We were literally "somewhere over the rainbow."  Talk about being in the right place at the right time.  It really was the best view in the world!

A windy day at the Playa de la Concha

By the time we were off the mountain, it was raining and very windy.  We spent the rest of the afternoon chatting in cafés and relaxing before boarding the bus back to Bilbao in order to catch our return flight to Madrid.

Rainbow at the top of the tower on Monte Igueldo

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