Avid Traveller, San Sebastián, Spain, TravelWatchNews

Six Amigos’ Donostia San Sebastián Cultural Adventure

Donostia San Sebastián CultureDonastia San Sebastián taken at night from near Ondarreta Beach.

In our first venture to the North of Spain we visited the elaborately named Basque city of Donostia – San Sebastián. A city which is difficult to get to particularly from Gourock, a journey of three flights (Glasgow – London – Madrid – San Sebastián).
Ever since watching an episode of Rick Stein and more recently Anthony Bourdain both visiting San Sebastián I have looked forward in anticipation to the gastronomic delights, the world class beaches, and the city’s beautiful buildings.

The city lies on the coast of the Bay of Biscay and only 20 km (12 miles) from the Spanish border with France. Donostia is the Basque name of San Sebastián (the official name of the city in Spanish). Both names are official in their respective languages. With its origins in the Basque language mainly a mystery, it is believed that the “Don” in Donostia comes from “Domine”, the latin word for “Saint”. The second half of Donostia is believed to be an evolution of the shortened saint name for the city so effectively Don Sebastiane became Donostia.

Summary Video

In contrast and confusion some locals will tell you the name Donostia comes from the Basque words “Dono” (Lord) and “Sitio” (Place), which together mean “Lord’s Place”.

No matter what you choose, either names are acceptable!

San Sebastián is very much a fun filled city with a real outdoor vibe, particularly in the summer. The winter weather can be very wet as it’s so close to the Bay of Biscay.

With the city having many Michelin starred restaurants, San Sebastián is a famed culinary capital not just of Spain or Europe but world renowned. World class chefs provide both modern and traditional recipes. There are also pintxo bars (pronounced pinchos), food markets, and gourmet food shops selling local ingredients and dishes. Much of the cuisine includes seafood, but you’ll also find a local twist on traditional Spanish tapas. Dining is a true experience in this city.

San Sabastian a culinary adventure

A very impressive display of Pintxos in Bar Portaletas.

Pintxos are slighty different from tapas, sometimes resembling a smaller version of larger meals, but more often held in place by a toothpick on a piece of bread. The word pintxo means “spike” which maybe linked to the toothpick but then again that’s maybe my mind working overtime!

Pintxos are quintessentially Basque and form the backbone of the superb local food culture in San Sebastián’s old town.

There are two official languages in San Sebastián, Basque and Spanish. While almost everyone speaks Spanish, Basque is spoken by around a quarter of the population. English is also spoken and taught from a young age in most local schools however it’s less common compared to the south of Spain and other more popular Spanish tourist destinations. In the bars, restaurants and hotels of San Sebastián most staff will speak some English and enough to get by with no problem.

Many locals will encourage you to speak in Basque or Spanish and you will be respected for giving it a go. Most locals will give their time to make sure your pronunciation is correct or at least recognisable.

On this trip we’re joined along the way by Anthony & Cath and Janis & Jim, friends who have appeared in previous adventures, we spent 8 fabulous nights in and around San Sebastián.

Five places to visit

Old Town

Nestled between Alameda del Boulevard and the base of Monte Urgull. Known locally as La Parte Vieja, the Old Town is the most popular district of San Sebastián. Most of the buildings in this area date back to the mid-19th century. It is essentially a maze of small streets endlessly lined with pintxo bars, shops and historic buildings such as the church of San Vicente and the basilica of Saint Mary of Coro. Trust me, it will initially be difficult to get your bearings but it will happen the more you visit.

Plaza de la Constitución

A square of 2,000 sq metres right in the heart of San Sebastián Old Town. Rectangular in shape and framed by 4-storey arcaded buildings, this former bull fighting arena is now a pleasant open-air space amid the maze of narrow lanes that is the Old Town. If you look closely the former arena’s seat numbers are written above each of the balconies which surround the square. An ideal place to sit on the terrace of one of the restaurants or pintxo bars lined around the plaza and just soak up the pulse of the city.

Donostia San Sebastián Historic sites

The impressive Plaza de la Constitución a former bullring.

La Concha Beach

Sunbathe on what locals proudly claim is Europe’s most beautiful urban beach. Named after the shell shaped bay it sits in, the beach is 1,350 metres of golden sand sheltered at each side from the Atlantic Ocean by Mount Urgull and Mount Igueldo. In the centre of the bay lies the impressive Santa Clara Island. Sunbathing, swimming, paddle boarding and sea kayaking are the main activities available. The impressive beach also features toilet facilities, showers, lockers and in the summer life guards and Red Cross emergency services.

Donostia San Sebastián beaches

Stunning La Concha Beach, left looking towards Mount Igueldo and right looking towards Mount Urgull.

Mercado de La Bretxa

Basque country fish market in San Sebastian

One of the many fish counters.

We always like a local market, this one located in the basement of the Mercado de La Bretxa shopping centre. A picturesque fresh market where according to locals the top Basque chefs source their ingredients. The displays of fish and seafood, olives, wine, ham and much more are a photo opportunity in itself. Just a pity we couldn’t find a corner and sample the ready-to-eat local specialities.

Mount Igueldo

We didn’t manage to cover this one but I’m told that for a truly breathtaking view of the city, travel up the mountain in the 1912 vintage funicular railway to reach the summit of Mount Igueldo. A very impressive panoramic view across Concha Bay towards San Sebastián city. There is a lighthouse and an old school amusement park with a rollercoaster.

Our Trips and Tours
The Ultimate Pintxos and Wine Tour

the six amigos 3 men and ladies

First glass of rosé Txakoli on our Ultimate Tour

To get a local education as well as tastings of local produce we decided to do the Ultimate Pintxos and Wine tour with the amazing Amaia.

We met Amaia in front of the Goikoa Palace, then after a short introduction moved quickly onto our first stop at Bar Sport. Not a typical Basque, Spanish or even French sounding name but absolutely packed with locals. We tasted Astarbe Basque dry cider and chiperones a la plancha which was just delicious. Although the name of the bar initially put me off it turns out it’s been there for hundreds of years. A real local favourite and I instantly liked the busy bar.

We moved on with Amaia passing on her impressive local knowledge during the short walk to Zapore Jai where we shared some fantastic cured Iberian ham. Amaia informed us about the background to this family-run business and briefly introduced us to one of the owners and his son. The tastings were fabulous and allowed us to experience two of the most-renowned (and most expensive) cured hams from the region.

fantastic cured Iberian hamFather and son hard at work in Zapore Jai.

We moved on and walked through Konstituzio Plaza, the Old Town’s picturesque main square where bull fights used to take place in the 19th century. Here I learned courtesy of Amaia that if you’re born in the Basque region you are Basque, not French Basque or Spanish Basque, simply Basque and very proud of it!

The next stop was Txepetxa Taberna which specialises in anchovies and are just so tasty. Our education continued with stories of how the first pintxo was invented while we sipped at a glass of Txakoli, the regional lightly sparkling dry wine. We had three different anchovy dishes. A gilda to start, anchovies with spider crab cream and slightly sweet anchovies with blueberry jam!

We then made the short walk to Restaurante SSua Arde Donostia, another pintxo bar where the past meets the present. Top class pintxos are produced here using the best local ingredients and creative cooking techniques by younger chefs starting out in their careers and eager to impress. We sampled our first rosé Txakoli (Agerre) which was perfect. Our pintxo of pork cheek tacos worked perfectly with the rosé, an impressive combination of flavours.

A mouthwatering pintxo of tender sirloin steak was next on the agenda, this time at another local favourite Gandarias which was absolutely packed out. The steak was tender and delicious as was the paired Pagos De Araiz Navarra wine. The combination was so good we returned for several other tastings at this bar later in the evening. Ema who works behind the bar took a shine to ‘Our Jim’, she loved his Scottish accent but didn’t miss him with her Basque humour in broken English. She certainly made us all laugh.

Lastly and for dessert we made the short walk to a restaurant which has been open since the 1950s. On our way there Amaia pointed out community kitchen/restaurants where members only can utilise the kitchen and dining area. This particular cooking club (Amaikak Bat) was formed in 1907 and is not run for profit, only covering costs through member subscriptions. On arriving at Bar La Vina we tasted a Pedro Ximénez sherry which complimented the local speciality of baked cheese cake perfectly.

Thanks to Amaia for an amazing evening, the tour just confirmed how incredible the San Sebastián food scene is. Walking around the Old Town, stopping at six family-run pintxos bars for delicious tastings and pairings with local cider and wine. The tour and Amaia’s local knowledge is the perfect way to experience the Old Town. It also provides great insight on local cuisine and takes you to local haunts that you probably would not find on your own.

Topa Amaia! Eskerrik asko. (Cheers Amaia and thank you)

Petritegi Cider House

 

 

 


Petritegi Brut Cider and the whole range.

Sagardotegia Petritegi is a cider house located in the surroundings of Astigarraga, the most important cider town in Basque Country. It is located about a 15 minute drive from Donostia San Sebastián. We booked the gastronomy visit with ‘bottomless’ cider. Not our usual go to drink but it’s a speciality of the area so let’s have a taste.

Our excellent guide for the day Aiende, explained the background and process in making the cider, the history of the producers in the area and everything else there is to know. She also provided a short movie of Petritegi’s history and interesting historical facts.

Petritegi farmhands help with the cider making
Two new Petritegi farmhands
Aiende providing background history for the tour.

From the very start we tasted various ciders all for different occasions. There were displays of original cider presses and various other equipment used hundreds of years ago in the cider making process. We soon moved onto lunch which was a typical cider cellar menu, simple and plentiful food. During the meal, we were encouraged to visit the halls where the cider is kept in huge barrels. Each barrel contains different varieties of cider and you can taste them all. The challenge is can you catch them in your glass as they shoot out of the barrel. Host Aiende guides you through the process. A really good day out which was educational and fun.


historic equipment for processing and making cider

Aiende setting the challenge of catching the cider and some of the historic equipment.

Gros

Gros stretches from the slopes of Monte Ulia to the mouth of the River Urumea and back to the Egia neighbourhood in San Sebastián. The youthful and vibrant oceanfront district is known for its lively nightlife and surf culture. Zurriola Beach attracts hardcore surfers who when going to or from the surf just wander around the streets mostly barefoot, carrying their boards. The bustling streets are where you’ll find pintxo bars, some hosting live music virtually every night of the week. Gros also hosts world-class restaurants and unique shops. It draws a younger crowd, thanks to the thriving surf culture in the neighbourhood.

view from Bar Urgulleko Polborina

Incredible view from Bar Urgulleko Polborina and the exit stairway.

 Urgulleko Polboriña

After our wander to the top of Mount Urgull to see the impressive statue of Jesus we dropped in to this bar for a cold beer and to take in some of the fabulous views. As Kirsty and Phil say, Location, Location, Location and this bar has it all! Situated just below the castle with directions only visible from only a small sign pointing down some historic stairs. Fabulous views, laid back jazz vibe, good local drinks and snacks.

Highly recommended.

Getaria

Getaria

Main square in Getaria and the narrow street entrance.

A beautiful small town on the Urola coast, bordering Zarautz to the east and Zumaia to the west.

A recommendation from Amaia for a short visit by local bus from San Sebastián. If you get the timing right it’s less than 30 minutes by bus (UK9, 10 or 11) which takes you high into the mountains and back down through the picturesque town of Zarautz. Little tight pedestrian alleys take you from the bus stop to the harbour passing impressive seafood restaurants and shops on the way.

Take a walk under the very impressive Church of San Salvador with its gothic and baroque architecture. Most of the good restaurants are booked up in advance so something to think about before any trip. The better restaurants have large charcoal grills outside their premises, watching the chefs at work becomes a sport although don’t go to close as the chefs are grumpy and grills are hot!

fresh fish ona Basque BBQ

  Fish on the outside charcoalgrill.

The town is beautiful, the local area is filled with Txakoli wineries and the locals are proud to share their first class produce with tourists. Getaria is far more compact than San Sebastián but certainly recommended for a visit.

San Sebastián Siren

When out and about in the city we were surprised to regularly hear a military siren. You needn’t worry as it’s nothing to be afraid of with locals well used to the sound. There is no fire nor air attack, it simply signals midday. It’s been sounding since 1930, although previously it was a cannon which was fired in Plaza Guipuzcua. The siren itself can be found at the International Clock Shop on Garibai Street. Back in the day, the midday siren meant that stores were about to close, so any shopping had to be concluded quickly. A city tradition which can momentarily unnerve tourists if you’re not in the know.

Accommodation – Zenit Convento San Martin

The bar where people ‘pray’ in Hotel Zenit Convento San Martin.

Our hotel was located about 100 metres from the Paseo Marítimo and La Concha Beach. It stands in the heart of San Sebastián behind the classic façade of a convent built in 1887 with stones from the Igeldo quarry. The beautifully restored chapel from the old convent is now the main reception and bar area. The hotel provides good facilities with meeting rooms, solarium terrace, rooftop pool, bar/café, restaurant and parking.

Although smaller than some nearby it is a good hotel right in the heart of the city and close to everything from bars to shops and much more. The main reception retains the look and feel of the original Convent building however all other areas including the bedrooms are modern and very well presented.

I would definitely recommend the hotel although one or two things annoyed me such as the bar closing at 10.30 pm and no service even for water available after that. Complimentary drinking water is provided only once at the start of your stay!

Most staff are friendly and helpful, Lilibet was a star working behind the busy bar by herself, while 4 or 5 colleagues sat at reception staring at computer screens. Borja, the concierge did his best to help and engage with you. Despite my moans this is a decent hotel and an ideal place to sit with a glass of Txacoli (pronounced Chacolí) and watch locals and fellow guests come to ‘pray’ at the bar!

Local Basque Drinks
Txakoli

how to serve Pouring Txakolicider in Restaurante SSua Arde Donostia

Pouring of Txakoli in Restaurante SSua Arde Donostia

As mentioned above Txakoli is a slightly sparkling, dry white wine with relatively low alcohol content produced locally in the Spanish Basque region next to Cantabria and Burgos in Spain. Generally served as an aperitif and as its unable to be stored for a long period of time it’s normally consumed within one year of bottling. It’s available in red, white and rosé although the white is the most commonly available. Theatrically poured from a height into tall glasses to increase fizz content it’s also used as an accompaniment to pintxos.

So proud of their unique drink there is a museum near Bilbao dedicated to txakoli.

Basque Cider

An apple cider served in local cider houses known as Sagardoa, it’s another Basque specialty and solely produced in the apple growing region of Spain. Bottled flat and non-carbonated it’s also poured theatrically from height similar to txakoli, essentially to provide effervescence and release the aromas. The Basque cider houses traditionally serve it with the local staple of salted cod omelette and t-bone steak or hake followed by walnuts and quince jelly.

Production methods are similar to wine with the harvest in September and October each year dependent on weather conditions during the growing season. The apples are then fermented until the middle of spring when consumption commences!

Kalimotxo

At first glance, combining red wine and cola sounds like sacrilege, but locals say don’t knock it until you try a Kalimotxo (sometimes written as it is pronounced, Calimocho). This easy-drinking combination originated in the 1920s in the Old Port area of Algorta, a coastal town in the Basque region albeit Coca-Cola was not widely available. That changed in 1953 when the first Coca-Cola factory opened in Spain and it’s now a regular in the cafes and bars in the Old Town of San Sebastián.

Restaurants, Cafes & Pintxo Bars

Restaurants in San Sebastián range from fine-dining options in elaborate venues to quaint al fresco eateries. With a dining scene that revolves mainly around pintxos using local ingredients and fresh fish, there are plenty of places for you to enjoy a romantic date night, a lively family dinner or a simple beer/wine and pintxo standing at a bar.

Kokotxa

Street view of the inconspicuous entrance.

This Michelin star restaurant sits in the heart of the old part of San Sebastián. Located in the area next to the Basilica of Santa Maria, it is at the top end of the gastronomic delights in the city with the cuisine based very much on local and seasonal food produced throughout the region.

Strange restaurant name you may say but this restaurant bears the name that pays homage to one of the finest dishes in Basque cuisine prepared with the delicious barbels of either hake or cod, essentially a fish stew.

All of the top end restaurants are booked up well in advance, some as far ahead as 3 months so thankfully managed to secure a table for 6 persons for a late lunch.

Correspondence with Sofia Caram about the booking was excellent and all staff worked exceptionally hard in their effort to guarantee the quality and excellence of the experience.

We opted for the Market Menu which was a marvellous reflection of the skills of the chef, the dishes were served at the perfect pace, allowing us to enjoy each course of sumptuous food. The service was friendly and relaxed. Ksenia one of our hosts effortlessly managed a couple of food allergies affecting one of our group and ensured suitable alternatives were provided, this was much appreciated. Kokotxa even in late afternoon has a great informal atmosphere to it and fabulous decor blending old with new. This certainly enhanced our experience.

The sommelier, Romain took the time to provide an excellent suggestion of Vi Brant Xarel Lo Vermell Cava as an aperitif . Romain then helped us choose our wine options for our meal, both red and white.

The wine list is extensive and despite one or two of our first choices being unavailable Romain guided us with a few alternatives. We eventually settled on a Ribera Del Duoro Lambuena Reserva 2022 and a Famille Hugel Gewürztraminer.

Another waiter, Gulen described the ingredients of every course and suggested how best to taste the food.

We started with an amuse-bouche of lobster soup which was warm and comforting.

The next appetiser was three different offerings of mussels in a red pesto broth, a wooden spoon with white tuna in a tomato vinaigrette dressing and a black pepper biscuit to finish.

Next course was Pirinean trout and liquid salad topped with codium which is a green seaweed.

This was followed by artichoke, tupinambo, butter beans and pesto.

We then moved onto succulent beef tongue on a bed of celeriac.

Next was bacalao (cod) served with chilli tomato and grilled heart of lettuce on the side.

Our second main was succulent Iberian pork shoulder on a bed of spinach with mustard glazed chives and black sesame paste. The pork just melted in your mouth!

 

 

 

 

Three different appetisers, Iberian pork and the bacalao.

Desserts were paired with a delightful Collantes Los Cuartillos Moscatel Oro.

First was a yoghurt mousse on a bed of apple with hibiscus.

Lastly we had ice cream with chocolate sponge crumb on a hazelnut mousse with a dark chocolate chard.

The desserts paired with the right wine

Three different petits fours were served with a coffee.

The meal, the setting, service and company were just perfect, one of those unique restaurants where the staff were most probably fed up with me saying ‘thank you that was lovely!’ I can’t recommend this restaurant highly enough and will definitely revisit given the chance.

Thanks to Janis and Jim for picking this one up and happy retirement when it comes!

Café de la Concha

Five minutes into our first morning stroll we found ourselves staring at the stunning and very sunny La Concha beach. Needing a coffee we spotted Cafe de la Concha with its scenic views of the crescent shaped beach and surrounding coastal area. In total contrast to some reviews on Tripadvisor we got a table for six and were served very quickly and efficiently. A strong coffee, delicious natural orange juice and tomato bread sitting in the sun people watching set our day up perfectly. A venue with beach and city views which is hard to beat.

A recommended place to sit and chill!

Bodega Donostiarra Gros

Bodega Donostiarra Gros

Bodega Donastiarra in Gros

There are several of these dotted about the city but we stumbled upon the one located in Gros, only to realise it had been previously recommended to Janis. The place was busy and on speaking to the very helpful staff we were told a table would be free in 10 mins and to have a drink at the bar. We ordered a bottle of Lurretik which is a local Txakoli. No sooner than we had taken a sip of this very nice wine our table became free. The girls decided to set Anthony and Jim the challenge of ordering dishes for all six of us. Thankfully the boys’ choices hit the mark very well. Morcilla with red peppers, pulpo salad, indurains (which are spicy-sweet quintile peppers) and bonito tuna belly. Not forgetting the mouth watering but simple gildas which are made up of an olive, a salted anchovy and one or two pickled Ibarra chilli peppers crammed onto a cocktail stick. There you have it, the perfect pintxo lunch chosen by the boys! A highly recommended restaurant come pintxo bar and well worth the walk into Gros from the Old Town.

Eibartarra

This little gem was a find, we were wandering around the very busy streets where the pintxos bars and restaurants were jam packed. Seeing a table to accommodate six people standing become free we jumped at it. A cold beer accompanied by two delicious pintxos of anchovies on bread, goats cheese with tomato jam along with warm tortilla stuffed with potato and red pepper was just what was needed. Arkaitz and Iker worked hard behind the small bar to make sure every customer were served their orders promptly. A great little place and recommended for a quick drink and pintxos before moving back out into the busy pedestrian streets.

Atari Gastroleku

The restaurant is a bridge between tradition and avant-garde located on the stunning corner of Calle Mayor and 31 de Agosto right in front of the mythical Santa María Church. Advertised as a venue where locals and tourists combine to sample the impressive Basque gastronomy and local culture.

This was a bit of a miss, our food was nice although several dishes we ordered didn’t appear. The bar has a wide selection of pintxos which looked spectacular and the ones we tasted were really good but how can you just miss three dishes on an order? A decent wine list and reasonably priced for a prime tourist location. Each time we passed it was completely ‘rammed’ as Anthony described it. Queues form regularly for tables and you can see that potential diners are eager to sample the cuisine and ready to pounce as soon as a table becomes free. But is it worth it? I’m not sure if I’d recommend Atari but if you go I suggest you book online well in advance. There’s a handful of tables outside, overlooking the stunning Santa Maria Church, which would be perfect in warm and dry weather.

Ttipia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bar Ttipia and our barman theatrically pouring our drinks.

Great little bar on the harbour just outside the Old Town walls. Sitting people watching is a favourite past time and this place is perfect for it. Great service and food if you’re early enough as it disappears quickly. We tried our first local cider sitting in the sun, impressively poured theatrically by our barman!

Found ourselves back the next day, recommended!

Safety

San Sebastián is a very safe city for both tourists and residents. Crime rates in Donostia are very low although like in any other world city, it’s worth paying attention to your valuables when you’re out and about.

Happy Travellers

Notwithstanding the fact that the six amigos had a wonderful time in San Sebastián, all other tourists we met also spoke positively about the vibe, the food and the stunning scenery. In what probably became our ‘go to bar’, Gandarias, we firstly shared a drink and a good chat with Harrison from Wilmington, North Carolina in the U.S and Patrick from Helensburgh in Scotland. Both guys hosting top end guests in the region with Perry Golf. Next time we visited Gandarias we chatted to Les and his wife (unfortunately I didn’t catch her name) from Perth, Western Australia who were on a tour of European cities.

All kind people, happy to chat away about their travels and experiences. Everybody just seemed so happy and relaxed in a fantastic city.

End of a successful trip

As the six of us headed back to our different towns in the United Kingdom the question was how could we emulate what was a tremendous trip with culinary delights, delicious local drinks and stunning views.

Answers on a post card please!

San Sebastián is 100% worth a visit. It has it all, a very high standard of food – you’ll struggle to find better anywhere else in Europe, amazing beaches right in the city centre and beautiful mountainous regions dotted on its outskirts.

The north of Spain can be very much overlooked. Most tourists to Spain tend to head to the main cities or the popular beach resorts in the south of the country. However there aren’t many places that have as much to offer as San Sebastián, so making a trip north is well worth it.

I am delighted that some airlines are now making it easier to travel directly to this destination, even from Scotland.

Undoubtedly this means we will be in Donastia San Sebastián again!

Happy Travellers – Donastia San Sebastián Six.

Related links

Other Blogs about Spain – Nerja
– Anda;usia
– Seville
– Frigilliana

All Blogs – http://AvidTraveller.news

Calum Glenny – Gourock’s ‘Avid Traveller’

Check out my other travel blogs and more like this – The AvidTraveller.News

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