Ahhhh….Donostia

Donostia is the Basque name for San Sebastian on the northeastern Coast of Spain.  I’m quite sure that I have a prejudice for this part of the world, so pardon me for gushing.  The city itself is elegant and joyful, the people friendly and exuberant, the beach is amazing, the food—well, the food is simply the best. Many of Europe’s leading chefs have their roots here in the Basque countryside and the creative cuisines of the Pais Vasco (Euskal Herria).

We stayed in an apartment near Ondaretta Beach—a great location and because we were (paying) guests of the homeowners, they were able to show us where to park for free in the city.  Last time we were in Donostia, we paid for underground parking lots and prices were obscene.  This time, there’s more of our budget left for food and wine.

We visited the really entertaining aquarium, as well as the sensational Museum of Basque Culture, San Telmo.   San Telmo is a former convent with a new modern addition.   You move from modern wing to chapel to cloister while walking through the beautifully curated exhibitions.  I learned a lot here, and found it to be the best Basque cultural museum I’ve seen—much more comprehensive than the one in Bilbao or Gernika.  And free on Tuesday, which is when we decided to go. We used the excellent English audio guide because text is displayed only in Euskara and Castillano.

While we’re talking culture, a major focus of Basque culture is FOOD! That said, I posted a facebook video of the Txikiteo——that is the Basque word for a tapas crawl. (Here they are Pintxos, not Tapas—a funny scene in the film “The Way” with Martin Sheen illustrates this.)  We had such amazing food.  Our budget doesn’t allow for visits to world-famous Michelin starred restaurants such as Arzak, but we don’t feel the least bit deprived. The bars and taverns here take great pride in their food offerings—displaying them artistically and happily describing and recommending their favorites.  Hot pintxos are sometimes displayed and then heated to order, but more often listed on a chalk board and made one by one.   Our favorite was Bordi Berri, where we enjoyed a slow-cooked breast of duck—still pink in the middle with a wine sauce that defies description.  For non meat-eaters there is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to fish and seafood.  PInxtos of Bacalao al Pil-pil (cod with an olive-oil emulsion sauce, the technique for which I may never master), and possibly the best grilled octopus I’ve ever tasted.   We’ll talk a bit more about pinxtos in the Bilbao post.  House reds are a Euro or two, there’s a list of fancier wines by the glass, and it’s worth ordering a Txakoli with seafood—if only to watch the dramatic style of pouring this local fizzy white wine—made in Getara.

We’ve had a lot of beach time on this trip, so we walked on the beach in Donostia, but didn’t really linger—too little time to waste.  October weather was warm, and although it was overcast people still gathered at the beach.  Swimmers, paddle-boarders, kids playing beach soccer, and all the usual beach activities.   Then there’s the promenade at Playa La Concha—it goes all the way from Ondaretta to the fishing port—a couple of miles.  The white-painted cast iron railing is world famous; the lighting at night is almost theatrical. There is a designated bike and jogging path, and the main promenade is filled, day and night, with people strolling along, enjoying the breeze and observing the action.   Everyone seems to walk A LOT here, and people seemed so fit and happy.   The walkers range from age 2 (with their families) to age 90, with beautiful people stopping by the Belle Epoque bath houses to visit a spa or rent a bike or kayak.

The beaches of Donostia are bordered by two small mountains.  Monte Urgul on one side and Monte Igueldo on the other.   One day, we stopped at the exciting Betxa market, where the meat, fish, and produce being sold was overwhelming.   Who knew there were 50 kinds of bacalao?   We wished we had the kitchen time available to make a nice seafood stew, but opted instead to let the local restaurants cook for us.    But we did buy some amazing cheeses—Idiazabal—a cured sheep’s milk cheese iconic in the Basque Country, and a blue queso pais that rivals the finest French roquefort, in my humble opinion.   Then we bought some apples and wine, and headed for the hiking path up Mt. Urgull.   There’s nothing as motivating to a hiker (at least these two hikers!) as a picnic at the top.   The whole spread cost about 10 Euros.   Not counting the knife and corkscrew we had to buy at the Chinese “dollar store” (euro store?) It was a bit of a scavenger hunt, but the locals were happy to give us hints and tips along the way.

The last day, we rode the tired old funicular up Mt. Igueldo.   A bit of a time warp but worth the thrill of passing two cars passing on the cable line.  At the top, the tacky old amusement park was pretty much empty, but reminded me of some 1960’s beach resorts in their decline. But the views—amazing!   If you can’t decide between a beach vacation and a European city vacation, go to Donostia.

On the way out of Donostia, we followed my cousins’ suggestions and stopped in Getaria—about 30 kilometers west, a town renowned for great food.   Every restaurant had a big wood grill outside, and the fresh catch just coming in from the port was the featured fare.  We had a three course, fixed price lunch at for 20 Euros, wine included!   Asparagus from Navarra, Jamon Iberico (again!) grilled sea bass, and basque tarte for dessert.    We almost decided to take a nap in the square before heading back up the coast, but settled for a coffee instead.

Agur, Donostia!  We’ll be back, I promise.

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