The last and final stop on our short but epic (in many ways) train journey on El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo was San Sebastian in the Basque country of northern Spain. True to form, the rain in ‘Green Spain’ continued during the last leg of our travel. We were transported by our luxury coach from Villasana de Mena to the doorstep of the grand Londres and Inglaterra hotel in San Sebastian, located right next to the beach and overlooking the La Concha Bay. “I need another pair of walking shoes,” I moaned. A final guided tour of San Sebastian was an inclusion in our El Transcantábrico package but with the teeming rain and my already soaked shoes, my husband and I decided to wander on our own, as soon as the rain eased off. Luckily, we independently booked another three full days to explore this pretty seaside enclave, on the coastline of the Bay of Biscay.
So close to France, about twenty kilometres away, rumour has it that the French aren’t too happy with San Sebastian. The likes of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain has declared that San Sebastian is now the mecca for food lovers, the centre for where innovative and progressive cuisine is created. Now considered by foodies to be the culinary hub of the world where food creation is an art form, for the ultimate stopover of our Spanish trip, we wanted to see for ourselves if this claim is justified. According to one of our American travel companion, a keen follower of Anthony Bourdain herself, San Sebastian boasts of having 16 Michelin starred restaurants in its doorstep and two of these are on the top ten restaurants in the world list. …Mugaritz and Arzak and let’s not forget Berasategui, voted as number 32. Spain has overtaken France for the honour of producing creative food; where art meets culinary science.
Having dined very well on our eight day tour of northern Sain aboard El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo , we needed to give our stomachs a well-deserved rest. It was simply impossible to indulge anymore on multi course fine dining. As I continued to mull our options, the travel gods seemed to be with us during this first reckless and decadent adventure. As luck would have it, while waiting for the rain to stop at the hotel lobby, we came across a foodie blogger, a traveller like us.
“Australian?” She asked. She then told us she was there to write a story about the culinary competition, San Sebastián Gastronomika, to take place some weeks later in November. She gushed enthusiastically, (her Melbourne Australian accent unmistaken) about the forthcoming food congress that will feature world renowned Spanish chefs like Ferran Centelles of El Bulli, Josep Roca of El Celler de Can Roca and of course San Sebastian’s very own Juan Mari and Elena Arzak, Arzak Restaurant. In the meantime, before the food congress, she was going to explore northern Spain and spend some time and head west, basically covering the very trail we just left behind. She gave us good advice. In the food scene, we couldn’t leave San Sebastian without experiencing the pintxos-crawl (pronounced pinchos). No, it’s not a new dance craze, it simply means joining the locals after 9 pm across the old town to wander from bar to bar, drink, socialise and sample bite size snack foods, usually food in toothpicks, cocktail sticks or skewers to attach the main ingredient on sliced bread that accompanies it. “Aren’t those tapas?” “No, no, no..,” the horrified blogger warned. “Get informed. Not all of Spanish food is Tapas (or paellas for that matter). Essentially, there are several ways of serving small dishes, one of these are tapas or snacks usually served with cerveza-beer, wine or any soft drink. Pintxos are bite- size food on a skewer or toothpick.” Tapas as we know it, are thought to date back to the 15th century comes from the verb tapar, meaning to cover. Then, the Andalusian traveller quenched his thirst in taverns and used the bread or plate to cover his glass of wine, beer or sherry from buzzing flies. Many say this is the connection, the origin of the word. On the other hand, Pintxos or pinchos, originating in the Basque comes from the verb pinchar meaning to pierce.”
Okay, we get it; let’s not get too pedantic about this, I thought. Regardless of semantics, pintxos, tapas, platos or raciones, this way of serving and enjoying food is deeply rooted in the Spanish way of life and I had no trouble wanting to experience the ‘crawl’ in the short while we were there.
San Sebastian has indeed a lot to offer the wandering bon vivant. With a concentration of 500 bars in the Parte Vieja or old quarter, it is a ‘must do’ while there. That night despite the rain, we energetically descended on the old part of town ignoring the numerous and impressive historical buildings around us and headed straight to Calle 31 de Agosto. We were told that this is where some of the best pintxos bars are found. Indeed, the narrow street was lined with bars. Our first stop was A Fuego Negro, a bar highly recommended by the food connoisseur we met earlier. The place was packed with locals and we could hardly move but wasn’t this a good sign? They say, one should always go to places where the locals go. Anticipating the promise of haute cuisine in bite size form, we pointed to a few colourful items in different shapes and sizes: olives, cheese, ham, anchovies and even barnacles, grabbed a plate each which the waiter filled with our choices. We paired these pintxos with the Rioja wine on display. I would have wanted to have a glass of txakoli (pronounced Chak-o-LEE) a slightly sparkling Basque white wine, poured by the bartender from a height to create the bubbles (pretty much like our cider experience in one of the cider houses in Galicia and Pico de Europa) but we wanted to try more bars, more pintxos and more drinks so we can do the proper ‘crawl’ starting from one end of the street to the other. Six bars later, we had our fill of hot and cold pintxos, wines of various colours and sizes. “No more”, I groaned. Once again, I overdid the pintxos sampling and couldn’t fit in another morsel, even if I tried. “Tomorrow, we will have to try the other pintxos strip she recommended”. With pintxos so inexpensive at an average price of €3 (some were as low as €1 each), we were looking forward to another night of crawling, sampling, drinking and a lot of fun.
More on: Railway to Heaven (On board the luxury train in Spain) ISBN: 9781468970203