Most people look to food, art & architecture for insight into a culture when they travel.Â I also like to get out into the suburbs to see how the middle class live and possibly pop into a shopping center or mall.Â In France, LeClerc is a lot of fun–a Home Depot and Walmart Superstore rolled into one, but way better.Â Advertising and local products are also of interest;Â I find that monuments and historical sites don’t always photograph well, but at least I am amused by a snapshot of a billboard or pack of cigarettes.
San Sebastian, Spain, is just beyond the resort towns of Biarritz and St. Jean-de-Luz, over the Southwest France border–Basque country.Â Fiercely independent, we actually saw a separatist protest when we were there–but for all we know, they happen daily.Â San Sebastian is known for food and beaches, but the bigger attraction in the off season is definitely the restaurant scene–two very different scenes, actually.Â The first is the local Basque tapas known as “pintxos” (pronounced “peenchos”).Â The old town is chockablock with little and large bars with platters of pintxos displayed on counter tops and blackboard menus listing others.Â Each generally has a specialty, eg Iberico ham or spider crab or eels, but there are number of more modern bar/restaurants often bigger and more inventive menus.Â Like much of Spain, there is one foot in the new world and one foot squarely in the old.
It may be known for sunning in season, but in November it was cold and rainy, so we did a lot of sipping.Â When in Basque, drink as the Basque.Â While that could also mean beer, cider or Rioja, to me it meant Txakoli (pronounced Chokali; sp. Txakolina in Basque), the local white wine with a bit of effervescence.Â You can buy a bottle of Txacoli at currentVintage, but to get the full effect, you will need to pour it from at least two feet above your glass or as high as your arm can reach.Â Skip the wine glass and use a tumbler to decrease your (spilled) wine loss–they generally do.
The other restaurant scene San Sebastian is famous for is of the Michelin-starred variety–more stars per square meter than any other city in Europe!Â It is the birthplace of “Cuisine Molecular”;Â El Bulli, the most famous, was considered the best restaurant in the world for nearly fifteen years until they closed their doors last year, apparently exhausted form being booked a year in advance for so long.Â There are a number of pioneering chefs still in the kitchen, cooking alongside the next generation, as well as a new wave of chefs who learned form the old guard and are now doing their own thing.Â One such is Mugaritz, a 2*, where we had a leisurely 4.5 hour lunch.Â It was 11 or 13 courses–I lost count.Â I will never forget the fist course, however–a piece of “paper” presented in an envelope, after opening which we dipped in a lovely tapenade and then ate.Â The amuse bouche of pigeon-blood pudding guised as a chocolate macaron made an impression, as well.Â So clever, so imaginative, so expensive, but only sometimes delicious.Â The highlight for us was trying a series of unusual Spanish varietal wines thoughtfully chosen by sommelier, Nic–priceless!
A visit to Bilbao is a must, if only to see the spectacular Guggenheim.Â Four days in San Sebastian and I felt we hardly made a dent in it or Bilbao, and there is the port of Getaria, home of Txakoli, in between.Â Perhaps we did to too much sipping?