It's a Party!
Oct 27, 2011
Just over the Pyrenees from France lies San Sebastian, the capital of Basque Spain. It is a major tourist destination with a well-attended jazz festival each year. In September, there is an International Film Festival; I think Helen Mirren was just leaving the town as we drove in! There are a few museums and interesting buildings to visit should you want to do that sort of thing. Its main claim to fame lies in its gastronomy. In addition to having more Michelin stars per inhabitant than any other place on earth and having a gazillion men-only gastronomic societies (Basque Spain is matrilineal and matriarchal; at home, mama rules the roost but in the kitchen the man is king), San Sebastian is known for its pinxtos bars -- lots and lots of pinxtos bars, mostly all in the old town section behind city hall.
A pinxto is a tapa on steroids and served on a slice of bread. Twice a day, the restaurants cover the bar with plates of these tasty little fellas. You go in, look around, elbow your way to the bar, ask for a plate, and fill it up. If there isn’t enough to tempt you just sitting there, there’s also menus on the wall listing the cooked pinxtos you can order. Beer, wine, and cider are the drinks of choice. After you’ve finished all you want, you tell the bartender what you ordered and pay the bill. Then you move on to the next bar down the street and do the same thing. Some bars specialize (seafood, ham), some bars have a full spread. Individually pinxtos are cheap, running about a euro each with a glass of wine running 2 euros; but it’s so hard to stop at just one. . . or two. . . or three. . . or. . . .
So we pretty much partied our two days here; lunch pinxtos followed by a nap followed by dinner pinxtos with a short break to drive in the rain to Bilbao to see the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Museum -- far more interesting on the outside than in the inside. Our hotel was the Hotel Nisa, located right on the beach though our room was in the back (and thus much quieter). Its a very old fashioned hotel complete with Art Deco , two person elevator and slanty floors in the bedroom. My two years of college Spanish were distilled down to “hola”, “si”, and “habla ingles, por favor?”.
We had a great time and will return although probably more at the start of a trip than at its end so as to appreciate all the culinary possibilities in this food-town.
On 10/27/11, we experienced Gehry, Bilboa and a very large dog.
The forecast was for rain and the dark clouds dumped buckets during the hour drive south from San Sebastian. The rain stopped as we hunted a place to park the car. Parking is a problem in Bilboa if you want to be close to the Gugginhiem. Large amounts of open space have been left to show off the beautiful building, but only Mario and Gwyneth (see Travels in Spain) types can pull up, park and walk right in. We parked under a shopping center about 5 blocks away.
The building is beautiful to see, but Frank, the steps are way too many. Our approach from the river side led us to a flight of steps (at least a hundred -- think of the pilgrimage of Compostella) with the reward of Jeff Koons flower dog at the top. This art piece was suppose to be a temporary grand opening thing but has remained on display since 2007 and, in my opinion, is the best thing here. The main entrance is down another 100 steps. After paying your 6.50 euro fee you receive an audio guide that is one of the highlights of your visit, but not in the way you might think. The building is the show here.
The art work for the most part is mediocre scholck, but the audio guide is hilarious in its attempts to add meaning and gravitas in an Oxford accent to the crap being displayed. The display spaces are large, the works are large and only a specific number of people are allowed into the galleries at one time, the better to laugh yourself silly. Case in point-- a 10 foot by 8 foot canvas painted black with a roller except for a space of 3 inches at the top where a white paper strip was attached to give liniear meaning to the work. This is really heavy, man.
The drive back to San Sebastian was also in and out of rain showers, but the reward once back in the old town was pinchots and wine in various bars. This can be an expensive way to dine if you get carried away, but be selective and order the Txakoli white wine (pronouced chock-kol0-ee) or the Rosado or the ice cold beer on tap. The pinchots come a variety of shapes with everything from crab, shrimp, green beans, pickles, olives, anchovies, and every part of the famous Iberico pigs. One of our favorites turned out to be small white anchovies filets in olive oil flavored with hot red peppers. A great way to spend an afternoon.
Here are the ones we visited although did not munch in them all.
Borda Berri - (for veal cheeks)
Bar Zeruko (for Txepetxa - anchovies)
La Cuchara de San Telmo
Calle 31 de Agosto 28/ Corredor de San Telmo
Bar Goiz Argi
Calle Fermin Calbeton 4
Calle de San Juan
Calle 31 Agosto
Calle Puerto 17