Somewhere in Spain near France…
If you get the chance to spend a month in San Sebastian, a glittering citadel on the Atlantic Coast in the corazon of Basque Country, do it.
It is God-perfectly set on the sea between three hills and sensory-overloaded with history, art, beauty and gastronomy, all topped with anchovies, served on trays, with toothpicks.
You need a 1985-era Buddy Ryan defensive game plan, however, because it is also famous for its artery-chokes.
If you’re planning on coming soon, stop eating…now. Be proactive and shimmy down to 20 pounds below your normal playing weight.
San Sebastian (“Donostia” as it is known to the Basque), is the finest food fork in the road I’ve taken and that includes Paris, New Orleans, San Francisco, Rome, New York and six taco joints on Riverside Avenue in Chino.
Listen here and listen up good: you MUST pace yourself and next time I’ll know better. The mistake is trying to suck up (and down) everything in the first three days. This is “no bueno” in a place where the art of “Pintxos” eating includes throwing your bar napkins on the floor.
The bread alone will back you up to Bayonne.
Tip 1: If you’re in for a long haul, as my wife and I were, go to the local market and stock up on the things that keep your engine running at home.
That means breakfast of fat-free yogurt, almond milk, strawberries and granola. That sets up a “medium” lunch in advance of an all-out assault on dinner.
Tip 2: Mix it up. Basque food is wonderful and a reason San Sebastian has become one of the world’s top restaurant cities. It can also bog you down. Keep your options open because the eating bar is set very, very high. There are top-rate places for sushi, tacos, Italian, Peruvian and even take-out chicken.
Tip 3: Walk everywhere. It’s the only way to balance the scales of caloric justice. Know you are one twisted ankle from coming home as Jiminy Glick.
Thank god my feet—and shoes–held up.
My wife and I didn’t know how much work it would take to keep up with the dinners. Turns out it took daily walk-a-thons for world peace.
You want a Michelin rating?
We are leaving San Sebastian for Madrid this week with 200 miles of tread on our tires. This includes several day excursions, (aided by easy bus and train trips) to places like Bilbao and Bordeaux.
The stars of the trip, no doubt, have been my “Merrell” fitness shoes, and a few blister-preventing bandages. UCLA coach John Wooden was right (of course he was) about the importance of properly putting on socks and fastening your shoe laces.
Tip 4: Bring money. San Sebastian is not cheap. We had to leave the insanely-expensive Michelin restaurants to the off-spring of princesses and princes. Still, you can eat very well on $100 a day.
Tip 5: Come in February. There are very few tourists. Yep, it rains and temperatures hovered in the 40s and 50s. In other words: perfect touring weather. Lodging deals are also terrific, up to 60% off their high-season rates.
It would be presumptuous of me, a sportswriter groomed on press-box hot dogs, to team with his wife for a “best of” San Sebastian list.
Instead, we can offer, after much deliberation, a few of our favorite experiences.
Meal: Bar Nestor
IF you can get in, just shut up, wait for your turn at the bar and eat. Don’t ask questions or try to order a salad. This 18-seat bar in Old Town “Parte Viejo” is sort of like “Soup Nazi” on Seinfeld. YOU are lucky to be there. At Nestor they serve three things: the best tomatoes in the world, green guindilla peppers and a Fred Flintstone steak you will never forget. Trust me.
Pintxos: Bar Bergara
Many, many contenders here for the small plate appetizers known as “tapas” in the rest of Spain. Bergara, located in the Gros neighborhood across the Urumea River from Parte Viejo, won us over with its spectacular execution and presentation. The pintxos there are little Picassos on bread. I grew particularly fond of a shrimp tower on shaved egg whites. It was almost too good to eat—almost.
A weird juxtaposition as this hip, modern, gastro pub is located 20 meters across the street from the majestic doors of the Basilica of Santa Maria del Coro (completed in 1774). Met our criteria: it was cool but we didn’t feel too old to be there. I’d swim upstream just for Atari’s house-cured salmon. We also went off script and ordered the “hot” pintxos: cream spinach at a new level and foie gras that almost made me feel guilty for how it got to my plate.
Dessert: La Vina
This one, um, took the cheese cake. So good we went back again and maybe again. And when the lady said one piece would be plenty for both of us, we begged to differ and said “Uno mas, por favor.”
Imagine the best cheesecake in New York marrying the best crème brulee in Paris.
Mall Food: Ricky Pollo
Located on the third floor in the Central Commercial Arcco shopping mall of neighboring Amara, we stumbled onto this place while escaping a mid-day rain shower. Ricky Pollo reminded me of Dino’s, my favorite take-out chicken place in Los Angeles. Except, with a Basque-influenced, vinegar-based secret sauce. So good, the next week, we walked the two-and-a-half mile round trip for a second visit.
Wine: Bai Gorri
We knew this wine was good when we tasted it one night at the aforementioned Atari Bar. Then we visited the “home office” on an over-night trip to Rioja Wine region. The Bai Gorri “bodega” was not what we expected. I thought we walked onto the set of the next James Bond movie: Live and Let Wine. This seven-story wonder, designed only two-plus decades ago by famed Basque architect Inaki Aspaizu, is built into the side of a hillside and uses a gravity-only flow process to produce its wine. The “older” vintners in the region weren’t too keen on this futuristic intrusion onto their landscape. Sour grapes? We enjoyed a five-course lunch and purchased bottles of the DeGarage (2013) and Belus (2013).
Breakfast: Santa Lucia Churreria
Churros and chocolate. Yum. Located in Parte Viejo, we walked into this cafeteria one Sunday morning not knowing this was the famous place touted by travel-master Anthony Bourdain. The “churros” are thinner than what we are used to in Southern California. Also different is dipping these churros into a cup of chocolate.
This is a trick, non-tourist answer. The famous local Basque drink, of course, is called Txakoli. It is a dry, white wine favored all over town. Bartenders entertain visitors nightly by seeing how high they can pour txakoli into your glass. It serves to activate the mild carbonation needed for proper ingestion.
We, however, found another after-dinner beverage we saw locals imbibing at Casa Senra. My wife asked our waiter what they were drinking.
We were told it was called patxaran, which tasted like cherry cough syrup (in a good way).
Hip Food: Topa Sukalderia
What a cheap-eats find, located right around the corner of our apartment in Gros. This place is an ode to Basque and Latin America cuisine. It is owned by Andoni Louis Aduriz, who also owns three-star Michelin rated “Mugaritz,” considered one of the world’s best restaurants. Can’t afford that? Try the $18 euro taco “kit” at Topa, or the baby squid in mole sauce, or the make-your-own guacamole.
Walk: Paseo Nuevo
As noted earlier: We walked everywhere, including one dicey, 7.6 kilometer section of the famous “Camino De Santiago.”
Our favorite walk, though, was probably a seaside circle route on Paseo Nuevo around Mount Urgull.
Wow. Over the years, engineers have tried their best to keep the powerful Atlantic Ocean from climbing the pedestrian barrier.
It hasn’t worked. A key component of the walk is dodging waves that climb the retaining wall. (see picture).
Day Trip: Azpeitia (Sanctuary of Loyola)
We made several outstanding side trips: Bilbao, Rioja, Hondarribia, Zumaia, Pasaia and two cross-border visits into France: St. Jean de Luz and Bordeaux.
The visit that struck home for us, though, was Loyola, the birthplace of St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits. We stood in the room where Ignatius was born, in 1491, and then the room where he underwent his spiritual conversion.
We visited on a cold day, just after a light snow had dusted the surrounding hills. We, literally, had the sprawling Ignatius home to ourselves. There were no other visitors or tourists. We have two Jesuit-educated sons (Fordham and the University of San Francisco). I’m about to turn 60. It kind of choked me up.