As I hop the train out of Donostia-San Sebastián on the way to Zaragoza I have a strong sense of regret. I feel I like I cheated the Basque Country by only giving it four days. And most of those days were spent in my pursuit of the best chefs in the world and their restaurants. I know it's cliched to leave a new place and proclaim, "I could live here", but in this case it feels different. I made a strong connection to this unique part of the world and I don't want to leave. It felt different here than anywhere I've been before. They say the pinxtos culture sums up the Basque perfectly - a sense of freedom of movement, of choice, and a strong commitment to integrity and honesty. I think I COULD live here and the four days I spent here perfectly encapsulates why.
Let's take a step back. I've been to Spain three times already and have only visited Barcelona, Madrid, and Mallorca. It's always been part of a much bigger trip and I could never carve out enough time to see more of the country. The Basque Country always intrigued me but I never had an important enough reason to go. But that all changed when I started planning our global culinary journey this year. If you want to enjoy some of the best food in the world you simply have to include San Sebastián in your itinerary. So the die was cast, the Basque Country would be on our itinerary this trip.
Upon realizing that San Sebastián doesn't have an airport we planned to fly direct from Rome to Bilbao and quickly transit through to our ultimate destination. Now, I can honestly say that I don't usually make many mistakes on our trips and technically this wasn't one of them. But in reality, only having a half day in this amazing city was most definitely a tactical error.
Some would say that August is a poor time to visit as it's hot and mostly empty but we found most places open and the lack of touring hoards meant we could easily get service (read: pintxos and beer). And as would soon be apparent, in mid August the Basque Country goes into full fledged festival mode.
Let's get this out the way now. Basque people are fiercely independent and proud of their heritage and culture. And rightly so. This place is like none other I've ever experienced. But along with those qualities comes an authentic friendliness.
We checked into our hotel, Gran Domine, next to the Guggenheim museum and were greeted with the most amazing views. But the museum wasn't our target, food was. So we quickly refreshed and went in search of a mate's recommendation, Victor Montes, for our first foray into pintxos.
And we were not disappointed! There were so many plates on display, each one more colorful than the previous, higher than what we had seen before. The bartenders were incredibly friendly and helpful and it was clear they knew their audience - my beer glass was never empty. But there was a nagging concern - how much do these things cost? While my Spanish is serviceable, it's not much help in an area where it's simply a backup if you can't speak the local language. I saw signs that appeared to say 10€ but that couldn't be right, could it? So I pretended to be finished to get a tally. Turns our they were 2€ Each and the beers were 1€. Score!
We then made our way through the city streets, grabbing a drink here or there, to return to the hotel and get ready for dinner at Biata Gamaniz. The meal was fantastic but we had to make it to San Sebastián the next morning, so early to bed to rest up for the trip.
And that's it for Bilbao. What a shame. The only other thing we saw was the bus terminal on our way out. And to just drive it home that we were in far too much of a rush, the local festival kicked off on the day we left. I so regret not spending another day or two there.
In any case, the bus ride to San Sebastián was peaceful and I was comforted by the 50 cent Heinekens I picked up at the store in the bus depot. I have to mention that you can pick up olives and anchovies by the scoop at that little store. Really. Amazing.
Now, I do a fair bit of research before our trips. I knew how to get from the bus station to the hotel and even knew its GPS coordinates. But I somehow missed that San Sebastián is a beach town and our room had a balcony overlooking the beach! It was simply phenomenal but I'd soon see a trend in that we only had a couple chances to enjoy it.
We wandered through the old town and discovered Bernardo Etxea, an amazing pintxos bar that serves great food and tasty Txakoli, a Basque wine that is lightly sparkling and poured from a great height to give it a good amount of fizz. After a couple incredible plates we had to put the brakes on as we were visiting Akelarre that evening. On the way back to the hotel we noticed that it indeed festival time here as well and the largest fireworks in a year were on that night - right when we were having dinner out in the hills.
In any case, when we returned from dinner we hopped out on the balcony to enjoy a drink and take in all the commotion and music from the festival. It was magical, to say the least. We crashed out at 2am, knowing that the next day we were visiting two of the top ten restaurants in the world.
The next day started with a quick morning swim and then preparations for lunch at Mugaritz, considered the #4 restaurant on earth. And my good God, it was simply the best food experience of my life. Mind blowing. We started at 1pm and finished at 5:30pm so it was time for a nap because we were due at Arzak (#8 in the world) at 9pm for dinner!
Arzak was also incredible (that post is WELL overdue) and we finished dinner well after 1am, again missing the festival fireworks. The next morning we made a quick jaunt to the train station to zip off to Zaragoza. We had much more to see, you know.
Now, I realise this post may seem self-indulgent. I mean really, it was an amazing two days and I am so appreciative of the experiences we had in the Basque Country. But I learned something - to never be in such a rush traveling that I miss the chance to meet amazing people and have life changing experiences. Sometimes it's great to ad lib things and throw the rigid itinerary out the door. In the end, Zaragoza and Barcelona were great but in hindsight I would have definitely traded those days for more time in the Basque Country. I owe them many more days the next time I'm in Spain.