Anthony Bourdain, Bar Azkena, Bar Gandarias, Barcelona, Basque Country, Bay of Biscay, Bilbao, Cafe Barrenetxe, Catalonia, Frank Gehry, Hotel Londres, Montserrat, Parsifal, Pintxos, Porcini mushrooms, Rafael Moneo, Restaurant Nineu, San Sebastián, Spain
I’ve been encouraged by a tremendous response to my last blog (about Biarritz, France) that another Basque Country story might be interesting and enjoyed around the globe. From Angola, India, Ireland, Algeria, France, Canada, Brazil, Venezuela, Japan, China, Costa Rica, Cambodia, Germany and the U.S. my following in the Biarritz footsteps of Igor Stravinsky and Ho Chi Minh made that post my third most popular. So I thought I’d go in a different direction, locating the tracks of legends, mythical or gastronomic, from our base for Biarritz, which was in San Sebastián. Or was it Donostia?
Parsifal? San Sebastián? Gipzukoa?
But before we go off in search of Parsifal and the Holy Grail outside Barcelona in Catalonia, let’s first spend some time in, and with, San Sebastián in the Basque Country. And by the end of my post, you’ll have a much better idea of the Road to Montsalvat in a blog under construction!
“And the archers shot at him till he was as full of arrows as an urchin.” Described in the 8th century Legenda Aurea, the Martydom of St. Sebastián (do I hear Debussy?) is a potent reminder that graphic violence is nothing new. A member of the Praetorian Guard of Diocletian, Sebastián betrayed them becoming a Christian, converted and healed many and was summarily executed in the most ghoulish fashion for his betrayal of the Roman authority. You’ve seen the X-rated versions in most museums or churches. Tied to a pillar, mercilessly shot through with arrows “as an urchin.”
An urchin? Sea urchin, probably, at least in the Basque town of San Sebastián. If you recall the porcupine mollusk of the sea is covered with quills of fierce sharpness. But delicacy is worth the risk. Seems as if the local San Sebastián enthusiasm for snacks, or pintxos, might come from a real place in the 8th century description of the local patron saint!
CNN’s Man of the World, Anthony Bourdain, certainly has travelled the globe. But when I read that he would like to eat his last meal in San Sebastián, I knew that there must be a very good reason to check out this Basque stronghold for all it could be worth. Plan more than a few days is my first recommendation. As many as you can manage would be more like it!
San Sebastián is France without the snoot. Great food without attitudes. A cove of a beach that is pure magic. And a great hotel, Hotel Londres, that is right on the water, and not off the charts expensive either. Matahari and Colette stayed there so you’ll find atmosphere created from the numerous Silent Era black and white photos adorning the entire hotel. Inspired, Jan and I settled in for a good amount of time on the Bay of Biscay. If you need convincing, enjoy the tryptich of photos from our hotel room. If you need concrete advice for a booking, we were on the 5th floor!
You can easily stroll to everything in San Sebastián. The Old Town, as you can see above, is very compact, with winding alleyways, a few town squares, pintxo bars everywhere and each with its unique gastronomic specialty (use the internet for sleuthing each bar).
My intent is to provide you with a glimpse, a small taste, an enticement, of the wonderful food of San Sebastián. I’m going to avoid suggesting this place for that and that place for this. What I hope to accomplish is to simply give you ideas for your own adventure someday in the future or remind you if you’ve been fortunate enough to have visited this Basque wonderland of what you are probably seeing in your memory.
Let’s get started with some tempting pintxo delights!
These delectable morsels are yours to chose from, add them on to your plate, order a glass of wine and don’t worry, the servers will have a collective memory for everything you’ve ordered when it’s time to the pay the bill. You can have one. You can have two, you can have as many as you want. And you can walk to other near adjacent pintxos bars until you drop. We found three were enough for an evening, and there was no need for an expensive hotel directed crawl from place to place.
But you’d be missing a lot if that was your strategy.
Fo San Sebastián do your homework with an eye to getting an A. Jan found a city guide book with a photo of a beautiful pintxo on the cover, the Best Pintxo of the Year (or was it Month?). Armed with this little tip we headed downstairs in the main market of San Sebastián, and there we found, all by itself, Bar Azkena, a great sign it would be wonderful.
I’d recommend ordering off the menu at all pintxo bars in San Sebastián, based on your internet sleuthing (or conversations with locals or, as in Jan’s case here, with a local guide book). You’ll find life changing one-of-a-one pintxos of tremendous “Do We Really Need France?” mind altering deliciousness. And you’ll dream immediately of plotting to return as soon as you can, trust me on this. Get started early. 11 AM never tasted so good!
I need to also point out that prices in San Sebastián are also on the mellow side, especially when it comes to wine. One other surprise tip. When you do eventually decide to sit down in a restaurant for a prix fixe lunch, ‘wine’ means the whole bottle at no additional cost. I’m not making this up! Our favorite, after much field research, was a white Rioja from Allende Vineyards, which we enjoyed at Bar Gandarias.
Needless to say traveling in October brings the added inspiration of mushroom season. Numerous pintxos were found around town with this most intoxicating fresh mushroom, the huge porcini.
Don’t be surprised by encountering both Spanish and Basque languages. The city is San Sebastián in Spanish and Donostia in Basque. This very proud heritage, which was quite violent for many years in this part of Spain (helped along by the fascist dictatorship of Franco, who banned both the Basque and Catalan languages), gives San Sebastián a Dr. Seuss-like Who-Ville quality. I loved the atmosphere of a special, precious language, a communication that celebrates heritage and, in particular because of the international love of Basque food, remains vibrant to this day.
And as far as food is concerned, San Sebastián/Donostia is more than pintxos. I’ve been dreaming since I’ve been home of a great, old bakery in the compact and cozy Gipzukoa Plaza (you’ll find this landmark across from the Basque flag in the above picture).
Old Europe from time to time pulls out the stops and let’s the full sound ring through. Cafe Barrenetxe has been in business since 1699. Given the fact that the Basques, like many ethnic minorities absorbed by more powerful states, know a lot about being hunted, having centuries of longevity in a bakery is inspiring. And what a good location to read For Whom The Bell Tolls with my morning cappucino! Gipzukoa Plaza is a short walk from Hotel Londres, too, so next time I’m in the Basque Country I won’t need a few mornings of walking around to find my spot!
Coming from Los Angeles, where our revitalized downtown is anchored by Walt Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry and the The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels by Rafael Moneo, Jan and I were struck by the fortunate resonance of our home with architecture in Catalonia and the Basque Country (we often felt we were only technically in Spain). An easy day trip from San Sebastián is to Bilbao and its Guggenheim Museum by Gehry, but that will be its own post.
In San Sebastián, we enjoyed a couple of tremendous meals at Restaurant Nineu, courtesy of a tip from the New York Times, on the ground floor of Rafael Moneo’s gleaming Kursaal Congress Centre. Once again, it’s an easy walk across this beautifully green bridge. Oddly enough, we found ourselves maxxed out on standing up for pintxos and needed a sit down meal once in a while!
But there was another great reason we enjoyed Nineu. My wife Jan has a good grasp of Spanish, and my own understanding comes from paying attention to my environment here in Los Angeles. Everyone here is a bit Mexican, so to speak, and if you try just a little when you’re food shopping or in a restaurant, you can learn not only a smattering of Spanish but begin to see the world from the perspective of Latin America.
Castilian Spanish is an object of at least laughter, if not outright ridicule, from many New World inhabitants who speak a mother tongue of European origin. Throughout our autumn trip to Barcelona and San Sebastián, we would come across comprehensible Spanish only from numerous restaurant servers. Sure enough, the New World was here, with opportunities, now in reverse, for numerous people we encounterd from Cuba, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico, and the Phillipines.
While we were at Nineu, our server was one of the most gracious people we’d ever met. Her Spanish was smooth and easygoing and for Jan, after a good long period of “I’ve no idea what I’ve just heard” moments, listening to this young woman’s Spanish was as if Jan could speak again, her clarity was something that struck our ears.
I love new characters and, with the ease of Facebook, we have a new friend in Gabby Gabi, who we met at Nineu. Gabby is from Peru and I have no doubt we will remain in touch as time goes by. So if you are in the neighborhood, go to Nineu and look her up, as I’m sure she is a once removed Princess of the Incas! When we are ever fortunate enough to travel to Peru, I’m taking her up on her travel suggestions! So go ahead, talk to people and make friends!
As usual in life, many threads come together when you least expect them. And what I was not prepared for was the Spanish interest in Wagner’s Parsifal. I’ll be soon turning another blog post into an account of our journey to Montserrat, the home of the legendary Holy Grail. Yes, there are the usual obnoxious elements at work whenever you deal with Wagner (as in Heinrich Himmler going to Catalonia and the Monastery of Montserrat during World War II in a search of, I kid you not, the genuine Holy Grail, convinced the chalice of the Last Supper was there (huh?), and would encourage Germany to fight on even though the Allies had finally turned the tide. Yikes). Dislodging Wagner’s music from Wagner’s obnoxious racial views remains an important accomplishment of many post war musicians, including Georg Solti, Otto Klemperer, Leonard Bernstein, James Levine, and Daniel Barenboim, all of them unwavering in their Jewish faith.
As we are walking home from Barrenetxe, a few more chapters of For Whom the Bell Tolls under my eyes, Jan and I stroll past a pintxo bar close to the Hotel Londres, Black and Red. Thankful for reading Hemingway, I know that these colors refer to the scarves of Republican freedom fighters in their battle against Franco’s ultimately triumphant fascist government. There’s nothing more inspiring than a Lost Cause. And I’m so glad that that period of Spanish, Basque and Catalonian history is at least susbsided, if not completely resolved (those pesky Catalans still want their independence from Madrid, so stay tuned to the headlines). These troubled thoughts of Franco’s madness keep appearing in Spain whereever you look closely.
And, so you might wonder, what brought all the threads together? I always believe in facts and not coincidences. So I give you the a most unique CD store in my experience. Maybe to be found only in Spain, or is that Catalonia, or is it the Basque country?
Looking forward to our next few Basque blogs and I’ll also take you to Monserrat outside of Barcelona in Catalonia to see the home of Parsifal and his son Lohengrin. After all, Good Friday and Easter aren’t that far away!
In the meantime, pour yourself some Tzakoli wine and have a pintxo in honor of San Sebastián!
Best, best, best,