“I wish I was back in San Sebastian” was how I opened an earlier post about this beachside Basque paradise and all the two-bite treats oozing from its fabled countertops. Little did I know when I wrote those prescient words that my travels would bring me back just a couple of years later.
In 2017, my friends and I decided to undertake an epic cycling trip: a coast-to-coast traverse of the Pyrenees. Our 8-day journey would take us from Saint-Jean-de-Luz on the Atlantic to Banyuls-sur-Mer on the Med. Upon looking at the map, common sense — by which I mean our stomachs — suggested parking ourselves in San Sebastian for a few days to, you know, make sure we were sufficiently nourished (not to mention hydrated) for the pedaling that lay ahead.
Act I: Bilbao
Yes, I love San Sebastian, but it’s important not to overlook its grittier neighbor: Bilbao.
Though both are Basque to the core, the two cities offer a stark contrast to one another. Where San Sebastian is primarily a resort town, famed for its picturesque half-moon bay and beachfront promenade, Bilbao is a working-class port city. Twenty years ago you would have skipped it altogether and proceeded directly to San Sebastian, but today Bilbao is undergoing a remarkable renaissance thanks in large part to the arrival of the Guggenheim Museum, a marvel of design from Frank Gehry.
By a stroke of good fortune, Bilbao happened to be in the midst of Aste Nagusia (or “Semana Grande” in Spanish), the city’s main festival, which stretches over nine days during the latter part of August. Live music, ranging from traditional to modern, emanated from the city’s plazas and riverfront well into the night, while the drinking and munching spilled out onto every street corner. By the following morning, the streets had already been power washed and you’d be forgiven for doubting an all-night party had just concluded (or would repeat itself in just a few hours).
My mission that morning was to seek out a bollo de mantequilla. The unofficial pastry of Bilbao, it’s a suitable metaphor for the city itself. It may not look like much (a buttered bun filled with buttercream) but bite into one and… pure joy.
In the words of Han Solo: “She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid.”
Powered by a bollo from Pasteleria Arrese in the old quarter, I even managed to squeeze in a run along the recently redeveloped riverfront to the Guggenheim before hopping the bus to San Sebastian. Where I proceeded immediately to…
Act II: Arzak
Because man can’t live on pinxtos alone — not true, but be a good chap and nod along — I headed straight from the bus station for a late lunch at Arzak, the famed 3-Michelin-starred restaurant run by the father-daughter team of Juan Mari and Elena Arzak.
Highlights of the 8-course tasting menu included scarlet prawn with krill, mackerel marinated in a Basque liquor and dusted with purple corn, a lunar chocolate cube with a fluid core of mint and kiwi — and warm visits from both chefs. Worth every euro!
Act 3: The Pinxto Crawl
Still with us? Good — because we’ve come to the main event.
Just as we discovered on our prior trip — and notwithstanding its somewhat misleading name — Bar Sport continues to reign as the undisputed king of pinxto bars, drawing us back over and over (and over) again. Cured fish, ham, sea urchin, a foie gras a la plancha that will make you week in the knees, and plenty of txakoli to wash it all down. Sure we went four times, but that’s one of the benefits of the pinxto crawl: because you’ll easily pop into a half dozen spots in an outing, there’s no need to feel guilty about repeating a place. You say you already went to Bar Sport the previous two nights? So what?! Try a different pinxto this time, down a small glass of white wine (a txikito), and move on to the next place.
And you don’t have to go far. Right next door is Borda Berri. Unlike most pinxto bars, this one doesn’t show off its wares on the counter. Instead, you order from a menu and the kitchen quickly fires your order. Some of the house specialties are veal cheeks, tuna, and the “risotto” (a cheesy orzo).
From there, proceed to Bar Ganbara, which wins the award for most mouthwatering display, some which is still… moving. The showstopper here, albeit a monochromatic one, consists of three types of mushrooms and an egg yolk. The bartender will ask if you want foie gras on top of that — they shouldn’t even give you the option!
If you’re a fan of anchovies, or just looking to try something a little different, head to Bar Txepetxa, where the entire menu is anchovies every which way.
Any proper night should end at La Viña, which is rightly famous for its cheesecake. Like no other cheesecake you’ve ever had, this one is light as air on the inside, with a caramelized crust. Just don’t make the mistake I did and show up after they sell out (which they will!). A fresh batch had just come out of the oven and was cooling for the next day, which only heightened my agony. But don’t worry — we rectified the situation by showing up the next morning. We were the first customers in the door and polished off a few slices with our morning coffee. Breakfast of champions!!
Dessert? No! Breakfast!!
Thirsty? Some of our favorites beverages to wash down the endless stream of pinxtos:
- Txakoli, a slightly effervescent white wine from the Basque region that’s poured from up high to maximize the bubbles. It’s a refreshing compliment to, well, everything!
- Cider, the Basque version of which is musky, earthy, and somewhat of an acquired taste. Also served from up high, our friend Becky demonstrates the proper pour technique, while her husband John institutes cider rationing.
- Navarra, a crisp rosé named for a wine-growing region that neighbors Rioja.
No trip to San Sebastian is complete without a picture of a check. Because otherwise, no one would ever believe how cheap it is to eat like there’s no tomorrow!