The weekend before last we discovered a gorgeous haven in Spain that we will most definitely visit again: San Sebastián (or Donostia).
This Basque city that lies on the cost of the Bay of Biscay (just 12 miles from the French border) was our (desperately needed) R&R stop on the way back to Toulouse from Pamplona. It was the first time we’ve been to the beach this summer and we really couldn’t have picked a lovelier spot.
We left Pamplona mid-morning on Sunday and arrived in San Sebastián just over an hour later. The beautiful drive between the cities took us through stunning mountains overlooking valleys dotted with farmland and lovely Spanish-style homes.
Our first impressions of San Sebastián were of old, but beautiful city buildings crowned with red, Spanish tile roofs. Then we drove around a corner and, bam! There was the skyline of a gorgeous little seaside city tucked perfectly between the mountains and Atlantic Ocean.
We drove through the narrow streets scanning for our hotel, the Pensión Gárate and, after circling the block about a half-dozen times, we finally discovered it was on the second floor of the building we kept passing. Thankfully there were two of us in the car or else we would never have found it without running into something!
Though a bit hard to find initially and though the Pensión Gárate doesn’t have its own parking garage, this quaint hotel was clean, comfortable and very close to both the beach and old town. Our room wasn’t ready when we first arrived, but by the time we parked and returned with our luggage, we could were able to get into our room, change and make a beeline to the beach.
The sun was out and a gentle breeze danced through the air. Temperatures were perfect (upper 70s/low 80s) meaning even I, with my fair, sensitive skin, could handle sitting on the beach without an umbrella or tent.
The beach was busy, but not so crowded that we couldn’t find a comfortable spot with great views of the bay. We got a couple of drinks (Brugal and diet coke for me–a throwback to our honeymoon in the Dominican Republic) and just sat soaking in the sun and beautiful scenery.
After recharging for a bit, we headed back to our hotel to dress for the highlight of our evening: a Pintxos (pronounced peen-shows) tour. Pintxos are the equivalent to tapas and are served in numerous taverns throughout San Sebastián.
We booked our tour through San Sebastián Food, a highly rated company that specializes in food tours. In addition to being a beautiful, seaside town San Sebastián is a culinary capital of the world with, according to the San Sebastián Food website, more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else on the planet. One tour with them and you’ll see why the food here is much acclaimed.
The tour was scheduled to begin from the famous Hotel Maria Cristina, which was only about a ten minute walk from where we were staying. This luxury hotel opened in 1912 and has become the choice hotel of the stars attending the San Sebastián International Film Festival. Stroll across the marble floors and you are likely walking in the footsteps of Audrey Hepburn, Alfred Hitchcock, Mick Jagger and now, Becky Beloin.
Along the way to the hotel, we soaked in the sights of the town and beautiful river running through it.
I really should have taken photos inside the hotel as it was quite opulent and stunning, but I was more worried about making a quick bathroom break and meeting up with a couple of friends who also came down from Toulouse for the weekend and were going on the same tour. I know, I need to get my priorities in order.
Once she had our group together our guide, Ane, who was born and raised in San Sebastián (and best friends with the woman who checked us in at our hotel–small world!), headed us out to find our dinner.
Along the way she gave us interesting glimpses into the history and culture of the city, including the meaning behind this statue of a drummer. I know it’s hard to see, but he is wearing a chef’s hat. He represents the parades held during the “Tamborrada,” a festival held every year on Saint Sebastian Day (January 20). On this day people dress as cooks and soldiers and march around the city–many of them drumming. It’s a 24-hour celebration that also coincides with the beginning of Carnival, so I’m sure it’s quite a jovial experience.
This is the Brecha Market which was once a massive produce, meat and fish market. Today, it has been renovated into a modern shopping and entertainment center, but there are still many open-air markets at which to shop for fresh food and locally made products throughout the city on various days.
Our stroll took us through the heart of Old Town which was starting to fill up with hungry locals and tourists looking for Pintxos.
Finally we came to our first Pintxos stop, Goiz Argi–and not a moment too soon! I was getting really hungry and thirsty!
We started off with a cool glass of Gewurztraminer wine which was lightly sweet and paired perfectly with our bites from this bar.
First up: Padron Peppers and Guindillas. These salty, spicy peppers were simple but absolutely delicious. I couldn’t help but have more than one…or two…okay, I ate a bunch of them, but politely gave the rest of the folks in our tour the first right of refusal.
The peppers were followed by brocheta de gambas (prawns) that were perfectly cooked and had a slightly spicy pepper topping.
Finally we had Mari Juli, which was salmon, green pepper and anchovy. I don’t eat much seafood (yet–Matt is working on that), but I thought this Pintxo was delicious. It was salty and tasted of the ocean, but not in an overly fishy kind of way.
Before we moved to the next bar, we got a little cultural lesson. In Pintxos bars, it is customary to throw your napkins on the floor. A bar cluttered with napkins is a sign that you’re in for a treat (and not in the “your bathroom is your best friend for the next 24 hours” kind of way).
Next stop: Urola. Here we sipped on Txakoli, a lightly sparkling, local white wine, and dined on buttery scallops in a creamy white sauce and green beans with pine nuts, a potato sauce and a flaky, white fish. Again, I absolutely loved the seafood here.
After our first two stops, we took a quick detour through Constitution Square, which used to be a bullfighting ring. The apartments surrounding the square still have numbers marking the location of each of the bullring boxes. The only fighting that goes on here today, though, is to buy or rent one of the apartments in this trendy area of Old Town.
All that walking, of course, rejuvenated our appetites, which is good because at Bernardo Etxea, our next stop, we noshed on big plates of octopus, crab and Iberian ham. We quenched out thirst from this salty food with glasses of Cava Villarnau, a delightful sparkling white wine.
No tour would be complete without swinging by the church named in honor of the city’s namesake: Saint Sebastian. St. Sebastian is the patron saint of athletes because of his physical endurance. This seems appropriate for a city that has endured being besieged and burned down several times.
The church was next to Atari, our next stop and one of the hottest bars in town right now. There we cracked open bottles of Rioja, a dry red wine, and dug into a rich and tender veal cheek and foie a la plancha with a perfect, golden crust.
Unfortunately I forgot to take pictures at our next stop, Gandarias. We had a delicious Solomillo (sirloin steak) and Revuelto de Hongos (mushrooms). I passed on the mushrooms since I’m not a fan and was already pretty full, but the steak was so tasty we had to go back for more after the tour. We paired these treats with Beronia Graciano, another red wine. We also tried some of the local cider.
Our final stop was at La Vina for cheesecake and sherry. Though rather eggy and quite different from cheesecakes I’m used to in the U.S., this was a delicious desert and perfect end to an amazing tour.
Okay, the formal part of the tour was over, but we had such great tour mates that we all decided to keep the night going. A couple of hours and a few more bottles of wine later and Matt and I found our way back to our hotel, but not without stopping for ice cream and enjoying this beautiful view of the bay.