San Sebastian: #1,2, or 3?

May 25th, 2006, 09:31 AM
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San Sebastian: #1,2, or 3?

San Sebastian-Top 1-2-3 in Europe?

A top contender for "most livable" in Europe has to be San Sebastian. [In the summer anyway] Just got back from two weeks there studying a bit of Spanish and in my book it is truly a great place to spend some time. The coast and the bay are beautiful, it's prosperous, clean and cosmopolitan,and eating is a special experience.. It's easy to get around in on foot or by bus, and has good transport for day trips to Pamplona, Bilbao, and Hondarribia. It's clearly in my top 2-3 in Europe.

However, for me, it is the "pintxo" that sets San Sebastian apart. In the Basque country the tapa has been raised to the level of an appetizer both in size and in complexity and is known as a "pintxo" [pincho]. Every bar will have 10-20 different ones spread on the bar. Cruise the line, take what you like and just keep track of the number to settle up when you leave. They range from the simple bocadillo of ham to baked bacaloa finished with a puree of shrimp and cream garnished with fried chives and and bits of green onion. Tortilla with bacaloa, ham, lettuce, and crab salad, fried merluza, aparagus and shrimp on a small skewer - you will be amazed at the assortment. Depending on the bar, they run from 1.00 to 1.50 Euros. And finally, because they are right in front of you on the bar, eating is a simple task and is not filled with suprises. No more staring at posted menus, wondering what size portion to order, or discovering that the strange strange word on the menu means something from the sea that you would sooner leave in the sea. It is truly a wonderful way to dine! To simplify things, groups of locals will often get their beer/wine, and head for a table asking the bartender to put together an assortment of pintxos on a plate which is inevitably followed by another and ....

Traditional restaurants also abound in San Sebastian and are rated as tops in Spain. Somewhere I read that "Basque chefs are to Spain what French chefs are to the rest of the world". Many restaurants are truly elegant, pricey, and world class. [As a solo traveler on this trip, I went the pintxos route not wanting to fork over the money required for a top restaurant meal and then sit at a table alone to eat all by myself]

The seriousness of the Basque approach to pintxos is best explained by the "Concurso Gastronomico" an annual contest to select the best pintxo in San Sebastian. It was just luck but I happened to be in the right place at the right time and got to attend. Held at the 4 star Hotel Londres y Inglaterra , the event featured entries by 35 chefs. These 35 entries were judged for creativity, taste, and appearence. Each chef had his own "posse" of supporters from his bar and as each entry was announced and described, the posses came forth cheers of support. Think "American Idol" with pintxos. The group was trimmed to 12 and those 12 chefs then had 25 minutes in the hotel's kitchen to prepare their second pintxo. This second round of entries was then judged and a ravioli of zucchini and bacaloa was named "Campeon de Pintxos". All entries to the concurso were available in the chef's home bars for several days before and after the event. In addition to live TV coverage there were over 500 spectators and wide coverage in the printed media. [In a weird turn of events, a picture of the event in the largest daily featured me in the very front row!]

A bit on the non-food parts of the trip:

Spent 2 days at Hotel Nervion in Bilbao and was pleased with both the hotel and Bilbao. I think Bilbao centro no longer deserves the traditional "industrial " label it has been saddled with for many years. It's clean, classy, and genuinely reflects the economic power of Pais Vasco. The food comments re San Sebastian generally apply here as well.

Spent a Saturday night in a beautiful small coastal village between Bilbao and San Sebastian called Lekeitio. Much fun. Everyone seemed to be at the plaza and bars adjacent to the marina from about noon until at midnight. Laid back and friendly. Good hotel, Hotel Zubieta. If you are looking for a relaxing, small place on the coast, try Leiketio. Thanks Mikelg!

Finished up with three days in Barcelona at Hotel Sagrada Familia. Nice, newly remodeled hotel. Good value. It's a bit away from Centro but not really a problem. trade a bus ride for savings on the hotel bill. Plenty of nice bars and restaurants right outside the hotel.

One night in Madrid before the flight home. Stayed at Aparthotel Convencion in a residential neighborhood near Barajas. Shuttle service. Every room is really a 1 bedroom condo with sitting room, kitchen, etc. New reasonably priced and very comfortable.

I found all my hotels at a site called TotallySpain, an agency located just outside Bilbao. Their local knowledge paid off. They did a great jobs of making suggestions and handling booking although I did it one hotel at a time and while on the move in Spain. I believe every rate they got me was below what I was offered on the big internet sites. All communication was via internet. I would use Totally Spain and all the hotels mentioned again.

One final item: If you want to attend a school to brush up on your Spanish, I was very pleased with Lacunza in San Sebastian. A serious school but very accomodating to the casual two week student like me. About 50 students in all. In my class of ten, nine different countries were represented. Cool.


weber6560 is offline  
May 25th, 2006, 09:52 AM
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Where is a good place to stay in San Sebastian that isn't very expensive? Would 3 nights be enough to see that region?
smooches114 is offline  
May 25th, 2006, 10:29 AM
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Three days would be enough I think. I can't speak from personal experience as I stayed with a local family when I was there. Hotel Europa is a well located three star. There are also any number of pensiones that got good reports from fellow students. Mikelg who is on this board is local and may have some good insights.
weber6560 is offline  
May 25th, 2006, 11:29 AM
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weber6560,
I've enjoyed your report very much, particularly your very well written and interesing explanation of art of doing the "txkiteo" (pintxos sampling) in the Basque Country. We've been in Pamplona during the annual pintxos competition but never in Bilbao or San Sebastian. Would love to have experienced it!

I'm also happy to read your testimonial to the services given to you by Totally Spain. We've known the "team", Ken, Belén and Alfonso of Cantabria (formerly of Vitoria) for quite some time, and we've trusted our own travel plans to them when we've been too busy to do them ourselves.
I've recommended them on the Forum because they know their product very, very well and provide excellent maps, brochures and personal recommendations to enhance one's trip.
Maribel is online now  
May 25th, 2006, 07:51 PM
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Weber,

Great report ! Makes me wish I was spending more time in this area!

Hola Maribel!

Do you think Totally Spain could help with excursions in Cantabria? I'm just looking for a one day excursion from Santander to Potes/ Fuente De and Valle of Liébana ( Santo Toribio). I'll be this summer in Santander for a few days and would really like to visit that area but I don't want to rent a car so I'm trying to find a group tour.

If you have any suggestions please let me know. Thank you!
cruiseluv is offline  
May 25th, 2006, 10:29 PM
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Im so glad you liked Lekeitio...I spent there 12 summers and still come back from time to time. The Hostal de la Emperatriz, just on top of one of the beaches, offers a stunning menu for just 18 euros!!

Regarding the question about time in the region, Id do a full tour of the Basque country. But it really depends on your schedule. Three days for Bilbao and nearby towns, the same for the Donostia-San Sebastián area, and another three days to visit the Wine region in Araba. This is the minimum. There are many itinerary suggestions on this forum for the BAsque area, in any case.
mikelg is offline  
May 26th, 2006, 05:54 AM
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Mirabel,

Many thanks for your kind words. I know of no one who has helped more people with their travels than you!

Re Cantabrian tours, I have no doubt that Totally Spain can do the job. They are based in Cantabria.
weber6560 is offline  
May 26th, 2006, 08:30 AM
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Hola cruiseluv!
Yes, I think they would arrange just a day trip for you, but if you have any lodging during your Spain trip that you don't want to book yourself, they do that quickly and well. And they always find us the best prices. Totally Spain is a Cantabrian expert. As weber6560 says, they're based in Cantabria now, very near the coast, east of Santander. The business started in Vitoria, where Belén is from, and they moved last yr. up to the coast.

They put together a wonderful two week itinerary, "Cantabrian in depth", for us last July, which, unfortunately, was interrupted mid-trip due to a family emergency (but all is well now).
Before we set out, they sent us a big package of very detailed regional maps, brochures for every possible tourist attraction we could visit in Cantabria (including one that had just opened), detailed driving instructions to each hotel, a list of recommended "off the road" places to discover. They know all the Cantabrian hotels and their staffs very well, including which ones have the most gorgeous interior decor and the best service. We were so well supplied with tourist info, that we didn't have to make a single stop at a tourist office!

Maribel is online now  
May 26th, 2006, 10:52 AM
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What timely information! We are planning a loooong trip (just over a month) to France, Spain and maybe Italy from mid-September to mid-October. From our reading thus far, we expect to spend about 10 days in the region you visited. We're hoping to do it open-ended as we'll have a car and be able to set our own timetable. (It's conceivable that we'd decide we wanted to spend another week in Spain and forget completely about going back to Italy until another trip).
LadyOLeisure is offline  
May 26th, 2006, 11:58 AM
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With the kind of info you described, it's almost going to Cantabria with TotallySpain"s help even if Cantabria is not your first choice. "A trip to a second choice armed with local knowledge is better than a trip to a first choice where you simply follow the crowd".
weber6560 is offline  
May 26th, 2006, 12:25 PM
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Weber,
Great quotation!
Maribel is online now  
May 26th, 2006, 04:26 PM
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Gracias Maribel!

I'll contact them and see what they can offer!
cruiseluv is offline  
May 26th, 2006, 08:52 PM
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We will be in Pamplona for the San Fermin fiestas in July and I was thinking of doing a day trip (as a break from all the partying) to San Sebastian.

I was planning on doing a degustacion lunch at the famed Akelare, but now I'm wondering if we should be focusing on sampling the excellent pinxtos while in San Sebastian.

Any advice would be appreciated.

Thanks!
TravelDiva is offline  
May 27th, 2006, 08:46 AM
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Hi TravelDiva
I will be at San Fermín (working!) as well-our paths may cross.

Yes, getting away for a day from the madness is a great idea but more easily done by bus and better done mid-week.
It's an easy 1 hr. bus trip up to San Sebastián from Pamplona.
The S.S. bus station right at the Amara Plaza Hotel is within walking distance of La Concha beach and the Old Quarter.

In the Parte Vieja (Old Quarter) we hit the incredible La cuchara de San Telmo first (truly miniature haute cuisine made to order right in front of you), when it opens at 1:30.
And from the Kursaal center one can walk to the 3 gourmet pinxtox bars in the Gros section (El Patio de Raimuntxo, Aloña Berri, Bergara Bar) . Actually everything in S.S. is very walkable.

To reach Akelare on Mount Igueldo, you'll need to taxi. We had an amazing degustation lunch there (2 menus, we sampled from both), but we booked far in advance (actually a San Sebastian born chef friend of Subijana's made the booking for us). It's a wonderful experience, but so is doing the "txikiteo".

And don't forget the fantastic Michelin starred (and non starred) restaurants you have in Pamplona-another mecca for gourmets. The following have wonderful degustation lunches, special San Fermin menus, during the festiva that can be equally impressive and festive (minus the sea views). I've sampled many-part of my job. The dining at Alhambra, Rodero, Josetxo, Hartza, Europa, Enekorri and new El Embrujo is fantastic.
But spur of the moment reservations during the festival are extremely hard to snag without some help.

Have fun!
Maribel is online now  
May 28th, 2006, 09:35 AM
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Hi Maribel -

Thanks again for some great advice. I think I might have to go for the txikiteo while in San Sebastian. La Cuchara sounds amazing.

I will look into the Pamplona restaurants you mentioned. Keep your fingers crossed for me...see you in Pamplona?

TD
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May 28th, 2006, 09:55 AM
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TravelDiva,
Bus from Pamplona-S.S. is with La Roncalesa or Conda and costs about 12 euros r.t.
There's a handy bus at 9:30 a.m, after the encierro, that arrives SS at 10:30. For the return, the latest bus back leaves S.S. at 8 p.m.

And typo:
the pintxos bar is the Gros section is Patio de RAMUNTXO at Peña y Goñi #10. It and La cuchara were recommended by chef Elena Arzak in a recent article.

Weber's wonderful explanation of the San Sebastián pintxo sampling experience reminded me of Cristina's post of a great web page with English version that lists several pintxos routes:
www.todopintxos.com
Maribel is online now  
May 28th, 2006, 01:37 PM
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I'll chime in a bit re Pamplona-San Sebastian. I did the trip in reverse via bus. As usual, Maribel is right on. Both bus stations are walking distance from where you want to be altho the SS station is a bit further out. There is a city bus stop adjacent to the bus station. You can easily catch a local SS bus to "Boulevard" which puts you right at the start of Parte Viejo and at the end of the shopping district. If Viejo is too crowded head accross Boulevard into the shopping district - less crowded amd more local. Not as many bars [probably only 2 per block] but some are a bit more elegant and quieter. Should you go into the shopping district try Rojo Y Negro which is just around the corner from Hotel Londres. Kind of became "my" bar and came in third in the competion. In Parte Viejo, it seemed to me that the farther back into the district the better the offerings were. It's not a large district. There are some really nice places on Calle 31 de Augosto but I am afraid I can't remember the names. Probably the best advice I can give you is "don't be shy". Step inside, take you time checking out what's on the bar. If nothing strikes you simply head out for the next bar!

Incidentally, should you walk from the SS station, on the corner,at the end of the second block from the station, on the opposite side of the street from the bus station is an amazing gourmet grocery store. A meat counter that will blow you mind. Take 5 min and check it out. You will be amazed!
weber6560 is offline  
May 28th, 2006, 06:46 PM
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Hi Weber,
A question: We have several friends who have booked a "bay view" room at the Londres for July. Do you have any idea how long the scaffolding that you saw in front will be there? I would like to alert them that perhaps their bay view will be obstructed!

Thanks!

There are more than 50 bars in the Old Quarter- so there is one for every budget, style, taste, age, etc.

Like Weber, we enjoy the ones at the very north end of the Parte Vieja on Calle 31 de agosto.
My favorites there are Martínez at #13, the classic La Cepa at #9 with the hanging hams (seems to be everyone last pintxo stop of the evening as it's open late), Gandarias #25 and the amazing La cuchara de San Telmo, with two young chefs at the helm at #28.

I've put Rojo y Negro on our list to try this summer. I like the bars on San Marcial as well.

They're in the process of building a new bus station in Pamplona, but it's not open for business yet.
Maribel is online now  
May 31st, 2006, 08:28 AM
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I don't have any idea when scaffolding on the Londres might be down. I think I'd jsut give them a call. If nothing else, they might give a break on the room price.
weber6560 is offline  
May 31st, 2006, 01:33 PM
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Exactly!
Thanks, as always, weber.
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