Eat and drink pinxtos and txakoli in San Sebastian, Spain
The city of San Sebastian in northern Spain winds around the edge of a semi-circular bay that is part of the Bay of Biscay, itself a sort of gruff, spitting piece of the Atlantic Ocean which rewards sailors simply by letting them survive. While the oceanfront city center is largely flat, the outskirts have a nicely bucolic feel, where flocks of sheep graze along the verdant slopes next to wooden farms that appear to be Tyrolean.
To appreciate this city of nearly 190,000 inhabitants, start by walking. Coastal expanses, harbor walls and trails winding around a peak invite exploration. The old town at the foot of Mount Urgull is similar to Genoa in Italy in that it is both architecturally charming and alluring, but also at times slightly grainy and spattered with graffiti. It includes mesmerizing views of cobbled lanes or churches around every corner, keeping visitors alert. (Genoa and San Sebastian were jointly declared “European Christmas Capitals” in December by an international jury and former President of the European Parliament.)
In the late afternoon, after 4 p.m., residents of the city often flock outside to exercise and get some fresh air and perhaps do their last grocery shopping, shop and have a cocktail. They roam on foot, by bike and on scooters with grocery bags, surfboards and barking burrows. You can see a grandfather wearing an ash-colored beret pushing a stroller or a couple joking on a park bench. The locals are emotionally expressive and the lively speech is kind of a sport here.
Sunlight is both balm and invigorating for the locals, who appear to be more locals than residents along this beautiful bay with its rapid gusts and deep purple waves. July is the sunniest and driest month in San Sebastian, but even the coldest January is accommodating, with an average temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 Celsius).
As you wander to explore, descend the harbor wall at Mollaberria Kalea as sailors remove covers from docked harbor boats and parents stroll with the children. Or, walk along Zumardia Boulevard between the old town and the city center, an attractive promenade that includes a sidewalk several tens of meters wide. It leads, brilliantly, to magnificent coastal views.
The city has many stalls, shops and markets selling food, ubiquitous and international. On the waterfront road of Zurriola Hiribidea in a store called the Bread you can buy a Spanish bocadilla (baguette sandwich) or fougasse (Italian flatbread) or even more American “blond brownie”. Outside in black marble or at Pastelleria Otaegui, admire displays of cherry cookies and tub-sized cupcakes called turron. Seafood is obviously abundant: walk down San Juan Street with its open-air fruit and vegetable and fish stalls where you can buy oysters, crabs, Madagascar langoustines or local mussels (mejillón gallego).
San Sebastian has distinct elements that collectively set it apart from other Spanish cities.
As you pace, you can hear pedestrians on cellphones repeating the Spanish words valley, revenge, and ahora (“Ok”, “come” and “now”) – referring to sympathy, movement and time – key pillars of awareness for the Basque people. Indeed, San Sebastian is part of the Basque country (the city is called Donostia in the local Basque language). The Basques have historically been considered a robust people (Roman legionaries avoided them) with a language (seen on signposts and spoken by many locals) of quite mysterious origins.
Another distinctive element of Saint-Sabastián is its deep and often rugged maritime history.
Nearly five centuries ago, Basque sailors began crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Newfoundland to catch cod and whales. Fishing provided nutritional and economic sustenance and helped forge the maritime identity of San Sebastian.
Still, navigation was a challenge.
If you enter the Vasco Maritime Museum (Museo Maritimo Vasco or Euskal Itsas Museoa) along the San Sebastian waterfront, there is an exhibit highlighting the conditions on board for 16e sailors of the century. In 1542, for example, Ruy López de Villalobos, a famous Spanish explorer who sailed the Pacific and named the Philippines, instructed captains regarding which crew members were responsible for keeping guard or “keeping watch.” .
“Who sleeps on guard and is found asleep … if he holds the rank, he will lose that rank … and if he falls asleep again, he will be thrown into the sea …”
(Villalobos died of a fever while languishing in a tropical island prison.)
Conditions on board the sailors could be cold and wet. Hunger was everywhere. The scholar and explorer Antonio Pigafetta, who sailed with Magellan, wrote at the beginning of the 16th century that “even rats, so loath to man, had become such an expensive delicacy, each being paid half a ducat …”
These brutal sailing conditions have disappeared in the Bay of Biscay. Today, even in the dead of winter, dozens of young children regularly take sailing lessons along La Concha Bay on weekends, for sport rather than as a training required for a way of life.
A third distinct facet of San Sebastian is the city’s culinary reputation. There are 11 Michelin starred restaurants in the city, a high concentration. These can be pricey in a generally inexpensive urban center, resulting in a somewhat incongruous local culinary economy, where meal prices range from surprisingly low to very high. Slip into Café Kantoi for a latte for under two euros and you begin to understand that this city is not only inspiring, but eminently affordable.
However, and attractively, there is often little spatial division between restaurants, regardless of their reputation for quality or cost. In the alley (or “kalea”) of Fermín Calbetón you will find Michelin-starred Bodegon Alejandro, clustered with several other restaurants, known as Jatexea in the Basque language, like José Mari or Zumeltzegi. Pick your budget and choose – it’s hard to be disappointed with the choices and the quality of the food here.
To better understand the local culinary culture, start with the must-sees. Try eating pinxtos and drinking txakoli. Pinxtos are hot or cold snacks similar to large tapas – large enough to fit in one hand, but with enough food that you also need a napkin.
In his book Famous Pinxtos si Donostia – San Sebastián, Josema Azpeitia lists the characteristics of each: a pinxto is an independent culinary preparation and is not part of a larger portion such as an omelet; it is an “individual concoction with various ingredients, tastefully assembled to provide a specific sensation in the mouth. It is a miniature dish.
Additionally, you should be able to eat a pinxto in two or three bites; it is skewered with a toothpick, and is chargeable (not free, like tapas are).
Txakoli is an acidic, low-alcohol, and sometimes sparkling white wine that is usually poured into a tall bottle, like mint tea poured into a saucepan in Morocco, to aerate the juice. This attractive-sounding wine is made from grape varieties with sound names: Hondurrabi Zuri and Hondurrabi Beltza. “Pinxtos” and “txakoli” both include the letter “x” due to its prevalence in the local Basque language, itself sufficiently subject for a book.
Choose from one of the many pinxto bars to visit on, for example, Plaza de Bilbao. One may include octopus and potatoes, and another may include ham and chili. At a bar called Ambrosio, the pinxto “El Matrimonio” (the marriage) includes white and black anchovies, garlic and black pepper. There’s also the original ‘Gilda’ pinxto – named after Rita Hayworth’s 1946 film – which features an olive, pickled green peppers, and a salted anchovy.
This city with a vast bay emphasizes exploration and cuisine. It rewards, permanently and with surprises, the pleasure of wandering. I visited this city for the first time and wrote about this city five years ago, ending the article with the words: “This is a city to return to. ”