San Sebastián or Donastia as it is known in Basque governed northern Spain become a firm favourite short break destination around 8 years ago, we would fly to Bilbao from Bristol then catch a bus straight to San Sebastián centre and rent an apartment in this pretty seaside town. It has a beautiful seafront and is one of those towns with a strong sense of civic pride and - always importantly - a great aquarium.🐠
Our first trip was just the two of us and on the first evening we took a pintxos tour with a local guide. Pintxos are northern Spain’s version of tapas so small plates sometimes just one or two bites of something tasty, we were led along the narrow streets and down alleys to the best little bars specialising in certain types of pintxos. Most of these bars are tiny with an open kitchen manned by one or two chefs and the same number of hosts, one would specialise in wild mushrooms, one in prawns, another in anchovies, some would have piles of cold tiny montaditos topped in towering piles of cured meats, cheeses, olives, roasted peppers which you would just order with typically, a small glass of beer, txakoli or sidra and eat standing. There are few or no seats or stools then move on to another bar.
Locals would pop in from 11 in the morning for pintxos and a small drink as a morning work break then again after finishing in the afternoon before the commute home to a late supper. What an amazing way to live!
The second night we took ourselves out and on recommendation found Bar Nestor which specialised in two things only, rib of beef and the celebrated tortilla. The first visit we had the beef which is brought out ceremonially on a tray for you to pick a weight they then cook for you (rare) served sliced with a simple tomato salad and bread, it took us until our second visit to experience the tortilla, this is highly sought after as only two are cooked each day, it has to be reserved and appears at 11 or 5pm and cut into 17 slices precisely, if you reserve one you count yourself one of the chosen and smugly sit in the corner whilst others gaze in admiration.
One lunchtime we caught a bus to Getaria and visited Elkarno a beautiful traditional family run restaurant where we feasted on a whole chargrilled turbot which was served whole. It was absolutely delicious and when we thought we were finished were admonished by the waiter and told to eat every scrap, the cheeks included and to suck the bones to finish off the sweet meat, locals watching us indulgently as they handed over their own gleaming white carcasses. A lesson learned.
One of our favourite places back in San Sebastián was on a back street Cucino Del Tempo where exquisite small plates are cooked by an all female crew of chefs, stand out dishes for me were a couple of spoonfuls of risotto so intense in flavour and made with orzo rather than rice - other dishes were pork cheeks, cured fish and soft warm cheeses. The male hosts do a great job taking orders and shouting them to the kitchen, there is no writing of orders and when you come to pay they rarely make a mistake or forget to deliver you any dishes.
It is a few years since we visited now, the last trip was as a family group probably 5 years ago, we then discovered an amazing bar where a crazy variety of vermouth are served long in goldfish bowl glasses, Simon and I retired on that occasion before the others and were the only ones to surface in the morning. Vermouth is delicious and too easy to drink.
There have been protests in this fiercely proud Basque town in the last couple of years as they have been overrun by tourists so I think we probably went at the right time to see it at its best so would suggest a tour of the region now rather than just a trip to San Sebastián, a couple of years ago we went to Logrono, an hour or so inland after spending a couple of nights in Bilbao, this is a much sleepier town but very scenic and we found amazing pintxos there too.