You can eat some of the best fish and seafood in the world on the North West coast of Spain. First, it helps to know what you’re ordering, so we read our Airbnb host’s guide to pinxos (pronounced pinchos), the Basque version of tapas. These have been elevated to both an art form and a sport, in their cooking and in how you order and eat them. You order 1 drink and 1 pinxo from a chalk-board menu in a bar, stay alert to make sure another patron doesn’t snatch your order, eat it in a couple of bites standing up, throw the paper napkin on the floor, and move on to the next bar. A type of food pub-crawl. It’s very social and not for the faint of heart or the food squeamish. You are often eating beef cheeks or lightly fried whole anchovies, brains or fried pigs’ ears, usually served on a piece of baguette to act as a plate.
A tall, young and hungry Australian came into the tourist office in San Sebastian while we were there and asked if there was a Chinese restaurant nearby. “Japanese?” asked the guide. “Yeah, Indonesian, Indian, anything but pinxos, I’m sick of them.” He admitted. I suppose you could get sick of them, but we experienced some sublime mini-dishes, as you would expect in this area, with a high density of Michelin-starred restaurants and world-class chefs. Here are a few of our favourites, then I promise I’ll stop talking about food:
- Octopus cooked in its own juice so that it is ink-black and sauteed in a crunchy croquette
- Crab lightly whipped into the airiest of mashed potato
- Cod perched on roasted red pepper strips
- Grilled sardines topped with a prawn
We really enjoyed Basque Spain – San Sebastian, Bilbao on the coast and the mountains inland. But it didn’t feel Spanish. That’s because it’s not. In the middle-class San Sebastian suburb we stayed in, we only heard Basque spoken. After the polite “Bonjour monsieur, Madame!” greeting we heard every time we went into a shop in France, the Basque people seemed subdued and closed, kissed in greeting less than the French, and rarely met your eye when passing on the street. After a few days, the neighbours would say hello in Basque, kaixo. The word sounded like a sneeze to us. Once we had established via Google translate that the Basque people were not allergic to us, all was well.
The city of San Sebastian is tightly tucked in the valleys and coastal plain between the Pyrenees mountains and the sea. The mountains are steep, but not very high, so they are covered in trees and brightly green. Beautiful shell-shaped sandy beaches are right downtown, and the sand and shelter keep the water warm. Many locals go straight to the beach from work or school to run, walk, swim, surf and let their dogs go crazy. There are no villas, everyone lives in high-density apartment blocks, which don’t look that tall because they are so close to the hills. They solve the density problem and lack of green spaces in a social way. The residential blocks are built as three sides of a square, with shops, bars and cafes on the ground floor, and playgrounds in the middle of the square. This means you can sit outside at a bar, drink a beer, chat to your neighbours and watch your children play at the same time. Very civilized.
In one sense San Sebastian is typically Spanish; everything stops 2:30 – 5:00 pm for lunch (the main meal of the day) and the siesta. Although many Spaniards no longer commute home for lunch and so finish work around 6 pm, it is still a long working day. The school children apparently don’t get the siesta, school is 9 am – 4 pm, so they are on a different schedule. One evening at 6 pm, we sat on a park bench and watched parents and elementary school children coming out of a private school, presumably one with day care. Some of them can’t have been more than three years old. All were eating sandwiches of ham and cheese, and grandparents had collected many. We often saw grandparents pushing prams during the day as well, sometimes singing to the babies. Once, a grandfather brought a girl of about ten years old to an outside bar where her mother was having an after-work beer with colleagues. The grandfather sat down and chatted for about 15 minutes, then everyone said goodbye and went home. It must be a nice transition from work to home for the parents. The grandfather was having fun too, and there was no whining from the girl. How many of you have had your children delivered to you at a bar after work by your mother or father?
Our first full day in San Sebastian was a Sunday; clearly a family day. We walked to the old fishing port of Paseo San Pedro and saw many families out hiking, biking, eating and talking. The whalers who reached Newfoundland in small open boats in the 16th and 17th centuries set off from here. The tuna fishermen fished until the tuna stopped coming on this coast. Of course, Spanish and Portuguese fishers also helped decimate the North Atlantic fish stocks. Today fishing and processing are still important, but the commercial port is now more prominent. It operates through the deepest natural harbour in Europe, and one of the narrowest. It was quite something to see a small container ship leave port, squeezing past the old wooden fisher houses with their Basque flags fluttering from their balconies. There were French and internal Spanish tourists, but few others. We were keenly aware of the Basque’s resentment towards the rest of Spain, and visitors like us. See the photo of the port with a clear message on it!
This region is very industrial and seemingly very prosperous. We didn’t see any ‘poor’ areas at all, and the streets and beaches were clean and well-kept. The cars parked outside apartment buildings looked new. Everyone was well-dressed. In the mountainous interior, terraced vineyards wrapped around farm houses with Swiss-style chalet roofs and incongruous palm trees out front. The sheep grazed almost vertically in stony fields, and the apple trees grew at a 60-degree angle to the hills, which must make picking the crops easy on one side and very difficult on the other. They make cider from the apples in huge barrels, and though it wasn’t cider tasting time, I can report it is dry and very clear, and served cold with a twist of lime. On the dramatic cliffs of the coast, we joined some of the Camino de Santiago walkers on the coastal pilgrimage path which Europeans have used for centuries, and like them, lunched on fresh turbot straight off the boat grilled on charcoal right outside the restaurant. (Sorry, can’t stop talking about food). If you like biking or hiking, this is a great place to visit. There are walking and cycling trails, taking you into the Roman iron mines and helping you trace the ship-building, industrial and agricultural roots of this region. If you’re lucky, you may get to see a game of pelota, a type of racquet ball.
The San Telmo Museum, a beautiful converted monastery in the old town of San Sebastian, is dedicated to Basque history. It doesn’t shy away from topics such as the suppression of Basque culture, and the tyranny of Franco’s regime. To my delight, the museum had Seat 600 car on display, one produced in the factory nearby. Seats (pronounced say-ats) are like Fiats, and my first car was a red Seat 500, 2-door with the engine in the back. Basically, it was a rickety box on wheels, and hacked like a 50-year Gitane smoker on any small hill, but I buzzed around Cairo happily in mine, and so named her ‘Bee’; ‘Nahla’ in Arabic. They are still producing Seats in Spain, rather sturdier now I think.
Bilbao is also very well off. The restored farmers’ market on the river is the best I’ve ever been to. The draw for us was the Guggenheim Museum; Frank Gehry’s fluid building, echoing the river. To our delight, we found that the works on display here complimented the space in which they are housed. Big, bold pieces. I really enjoyed the torqued ellipses of Richard Serra, which you walk around like a maze, feeling unbalanced as the walls bend towards and away from you.
Next stop in Spain was also a region at odds with central government, also in the North – Catalunya. We spun across the plains and through the mountains in a high-speed AVE train, hoping Barcelona, Spain’s second largest city, would live up to the hype, and that my poor brain could untangle yet another regional language; Catalan.