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14 Mar 2017

BY Abigail Healy

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A feast for the senses in San Sebastian

Northern Spain’s San Sebastian is renowned for its gastronomic scene, with pintxos bars lining the streets of its old town. Abigail Healy develops a taste for the city.

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Paella, panoramic views and pintxos: Abigail Healy gets a taste for Spain's San Sebastian on a short break

Indecision is fatal. As I flit from anchovy to artichoke the bartender turns away to serve another hungry customer.

The bar is lined from end to end, double decker layers laden with platters of bite-size morsels all ready for the eating: grilled prawns are speared with a cocktail stick, quail’s eggs quiver atop miniature towers of chorizo and bread, golden croquettes conceal their rich silky contents and that’s before I tackle the chalked up hot options.

San Sebastian’s pintxos bars offer the most interactive style of dining I’ve come across and undoubtedly one of the most exciting.

This tiny seaside city on the north coast of Spain has a population fewer than 200,000 and I’m awed by the number of pintxos joints they sustain.

Located in the Basque Country and just half an hour’s drive from the French border it has a unique culture, proudly distinguished from mainland Spain.

By happy coincidence my first taste of pintxos happens to be in one of the city’s finest establishments. Yet on arrival, Cuchara San Telmo is not what I expect at all.

 

A hole-in-the-wall bar with a couple of tables outdoors and the odd bar stool in the less than three-metre-wide interior. Unlike the pintxo bars my husband and I discover later, there is no food laid out on the bar, just a blackboard touting the dishes available in Spanish.

Slightly perplexed I order txakoli (pronounced cha-col-ee), the local lightly sparkling dry white wine, costing just €2 a glass. We make a stab at choosing some dishes, opting for cod and a croquette before asking for the house specialities.

The barman selects the octopus and pork belly and the order is complete. His decision, not ours.

Every bite of our miniature feast bursts with flavour, bright pink beetroot puree cuts through salty, crispy-skinned cod; unctuous pork belly melts against crunchy crackling and a huge octopus tentacle is soft and tender.

Tasting notes

Our willpower has failed us at the first hurdle. We’ve failed to follow advice of sampling just one dish – the house speciality – before moving on to the next bar.

Resolving to rein ourselves in next time we decide to walk off our lunch and explore another of the city’s main attractions.

San Sebastian’s sea front is a vast panorama and walking its length reveals myriad sights. Playa de la Zurriola on the east side is the city’s surfing beach and while we don’t spot many braving the waves on our February visit, the prolific surf shops and cafes indicate a lively summer scene.

 

On the other side of the tidal river that cuts through the city, the pavement is cordoned off on one side as waves break over the sea wall.

The city’s location on the Bay of Biscay means it often experiences inclement weather. But this is what makes the sea front so mesmerising. We lose hours watching the cascading water and retreating quickly as the waves break, sending torrents across the walkways.

 

Further round at west-facing Playa de la Concha things are far calmer. A pale expanse of sand stretches around a bay-shaped inlet, sheltered by the outlying points.

 

Here the waves gently lap the shore and we spot sand artists, dog walkers, joggers and even the odd brave swimmer as we walk along it.

With calories yet to be expended in preparation for dinner, we hike up Urgull, a hill between the two beaches and a hotspot for military operations such as the Siege of San Sebastian in 1813.

 

Poised atop the mound is Castillo de la Mota, a stronghold for defending the city, with a statue of Christ added in 1950.

We take in the views as our legs recover from the climb; it’s an excellent vantage point with both beaches and the expanse of the city visible from the top.

Soaking it up

Another highlight, and a way to pass time between pintxos, is La Perla. Somewhere between a spa and a municipal health centre it offers a thalassotherapy experience well worth the entrance fee (£27 for two hours; laperla.net).

 

In one pool you journey through a series of jets that massage from feet to shoulders via calf, thigh and lower back while a huge hot tub offers panoramic views of La Concha beach.

But in San Sebastian it’s never long before it’s time to eat again and this time we decide to try something more formal.

 

Having made a spontaneous trip, we’re too late to book one of the city’s three-Michelin starred eateries – make sure you advise clients to book these well in advance if they are on their bucket list.

Instead we head to Ni Neu, set in the surrounds of the Kursaal Conference Centre. Cast away notions of stuffy corporate surrounds however, as the restaurant is right on the point where the river meets the sea and, in warmer weather, diners can sit on the terrace and enjoy coastal views.

Another bonus is the relatively wallet-friendly bill. The six-course tasting menu with dishes such as spider crab gyozas with onion stock, and roasted lamb served with cream cheese, costs €42.50 per head.

Out of town

The following day we venture further afield. It takes around 15 minutes to drive to Pasaia, a one-street seafaring village that runs along an estuary to the coast.

Parking uphill from the village itself it looks somewhat industrial and I wonder if we’ve made a mistake, but as we wend our way down stony steps we’re immersed among ancient buildings and narrow cobbled streets.

A highlight is the house of French writer Victor Hugo, famous for novels The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables.

Another meal is never far away and while it may not have as many establishments as San Sebastian, Pasaia punches well above its size when it comes to quality seafood.

 

Casa Camara is set on the estuary edge – almost overhanging the water. The menu is all about seafood and the paella is more langoustine, clam, shrimp, crab claw and squid than rice.

Heading back to the city, my belly distended with yet another smorgasbord meal, I feel slightly relieved we’re here for just four days, a perfect timeframe to sample the city’s best bites, take in the sights and leave before I need a shoehorn to get into my jeans.

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