Hereabouts gastronomy comes without pretensions. Of course there are an inordinate number of Michelin Stars dotted around the town's historic streets but, generally speaking, this is a city renowned for its abundance of honest local fayre made from nought but the finest of fresh ingredients. The food is just one of a thousand and one great reasons why you too should consider visiting San Sebastian. By the time you've noted all of them, you'll have discovered a thousand and one more great reasons to return. It's that good.
This is a seaside city of breath-taking beauty. Built along a sweeping bay it's quite simply surreal. We drove over from Porto. The excellent roads on both the Portuguese as well as the Spanish side makes the road trip remarkably easy. For those who fancy experiencing something just that little bit different, this is a superb destination set in the glorious Basque Country. A city surrounded by the towering peaks of the Pyrenees; a place where the mountains meet the sea in quite spectacular fashion. The mountains provide the most dramatic backdrop to an array of exquisite architectural vistas.
People arrive in San Sebastian not only to experience the wonderful city itself but also to sample the afore-mentioned choice of local delicacies. This is without doubt a place to savour the exceptional qualities of an unique culinary tradition which you can only truly appreciate whilst enveloped in the town's equally unique ambience. And it's that ambience that simply cannot be bottled, making it well worth the trip.
During our month-long sojourn around Spain and Portugal, we'd naturally eaten our fair share of tapassy treats from Barcelona to Benidorn and from Seville to Sintra. Whilst it's a wonderfully Iberian way to sample local food culture, I think it's fair to suggest that the fabled Spanish bar snacks can get to be a little ubiquitous after a while. However, San Sebastian's classy bodegas certainly put their own unique stamp on things.
Across the Basque region, tapas style snacks are known as pintxos (pronounced “pinchos”). Pintxos were in fact devised in San Sebastian and the name translates as ‘spike’. That's because pintxos are commonly served on a cocktail stick. There are numerous establishments dotted about town where a vast variety can be tasted. Each chef has his or her own take on pintxo recipes which makes a 'tapas crawl' around innumerous bodegas the very best way to ensure you get to savour your favorite iterations of these tasty morsels.
Great food comes from fine ingredients. Just like so many places in both Spain and Portugal, great ingredients are often sourced from fresh markets. San Sebastian is no exception. We've learned that even if we're not particularly intent on buying anything ourselves, it's still well worth having a ponder around the cool indoor markets just to marvel at all the top-quality produce on offer.
Because San Sebastian is a Mecca for Michelin Stars, award-winning chefs frequent the fresh markets in search of the very finest raw ingredients in order to create their latest dishes. The markets provide a source of fresh meat, fish, seasonal vegetables as well as locally produced cheeses. It's all about getting great produce directly from farms and fisheries onto their discerning clientele's forks.
With San Sebastian being located right on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, there remains a sizable fishing fleet which still regards the port as home. The fishermen are kept busy bringing in the bounty of the sea for both locals and tourists alike. Small wonder then, that many of the city’s most renowned dishes are seafood based.
One of the local favourites is the fried salt cod fish (bacalao). There is a specialist bacalao vendor in San Sebastian (Bacalaos Uranzu) where local shoppers and restaurateurs alike find the very best salt cod available. Locally caught anchovies are also said to be amongst the best in the world and are another favourite ingredient in dishes.
Despite only being a couple of hours driving from Bordeaux, the region is not renowned as one of the great wine producers of the world. However, San Sebastian and the surrounding area do produce some rather interesting wine called Txakolí. The white wine is said to embody the spirit of the people of San Sebastian being as it's young and fruity with a little bit of fizz!
Just like a good vinho verde, Txakolí has relatively low alcohol content (9.5%-11.5% VOL). This is probably quite a blessing because this refreshingly citrussy beverage with its characterfully floral aromas makes for very easy-drinking. Txakolí has a short shelf life of 12 months or so (another vinho verde parallel) but it's just too good to stay in a bottle anyway, so the wine is usually drank soon after bottling. Whilst there are red and rosé varieties available, by far the most commonly drank variety around San Sebastian's fabled bodegas is the white Txakolí. It is often poured from height into tall glasses. This is said to enhance the wine's refreshingly fizzy properties while also providing a bit of a theatrical twist to an already atmospheric San Sebastian dining experience.
This might sound like a sweeping statement but there seriously seems no better place to sample lots of great food than San Sebastian. The small platters and the bar hopping traditions lend themselves to spicing up our lives with genuine variety! The Basque people really do seem preoccupied with producing great food and it absolutely shows in this dazzling coastal town. It's an absolute haven for gluttony but only in a good way. This notion is reinforced by the city's claim for having the most bars per person in all of Spain. Isn't that's just wonderful? Surely, anything that puts a spring in our step and a smile on our faces in this so-often mean and crazy world can't be bad?
So why not take an evening stroll along the Belle Époque promenades and marvel at the city’s three urban beaches? Let's take in the fresh sea air and gaze at the floodlit splendour of this awesome city whilst working up a healthy appetite. Then we'll find a nice alfresco table to sit and sip a few glasses of the local fizzy txakoli wine whilst watching the world gently meander by. As a Welshman, I listen out for the Basque language (Euskara) which is still routinely spoken in this proud and beautiful corner of the world. The Basque culture and its unique traditions are on display at every turn. Just soak it all up between those fabulous meals. Life gets no better than this?
It's not often I find myself so smitten with a place but San Sebastian has somehow managed to capture my imagination. The Basque region as a whole has blown me away by its sheer splendour. It really is quite unique. There's much that remains here to be discovered but, for now, this wasn't a bad opener?
Douglas Hughes is a UK-based writer producing general interest articles ranging from travel pieces to classic motoring.
Sampling the delights of Donostia-San Sebastian
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