Basque Country

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Basque Country

“Everyone who has visited the Basque County longs to return; it is a blessed land.” Victor Hugo

Timeless is perhaps the best way to describe the experience of visiting the Basque Country. It’s the chance to come face to face with the Basques themselves, a people who have lived in Europe longer than any other, and whose language Euskara, predates any of the Indo-European languages that you hear spoken around the rest of the continent. 

 The region’s history with the ETA, the Basque Independence group, is complicated and has been at times, bloody. We saw a protest in Ordizia to send the prisoners in Spain for terrorism back to the Basque country. The ETA has disbanded and most Basque people are willing to share their views.

Our base was in Donostia (Basque for San Sebastian) and we did day trips to both the Spanish and French side.

We arrived on a dark windy and rainy day. Our goal was to see El Peine del Viento, three sculptures in steel  by the artist Eduard Chillida, that are anchored into the rocks at the foot of Monte Igueldo. it is a half hour walk from the  center of San Sebastian along the coast.

Actually it was really cool to see it in the wind and rain. 

We  took the funicular up to the top to see the views (?) and the old amusement park.

There is something very creepy about being in an empty amusement park in the rain. It felt like the beginning of  Law and Order and we were about to find the body.

Many of the places we visited were on the Northern route of the Camino Del Santiago. Religious devotion was once the prime motivator for taking this 800 km long hike to see the relics of St. James the Apostle in Santiago de Compostela. 

These days the route is taken by travelers who want to experience Spain in a different way, challenge themselves or are on their own spiritual journey. 

I would recommend joining the trail at some point and enjoying the rolling green hills of the Basque Country. dotted with  monasteries.

We  take the train to Zarautz. Zarautz is a coastal town with a beautiful beach famous for surfing.

We pick up the Camino  in the hills.

The yellow arrow or shell in the ground (in towns)  means you are on the Camino route.

We hike for a few hours passed txakoli  and tomato vineyards, animals and green fields with crazy beautiful views over the Bay of Biscay.

When Imanol our guide almost fell in the creek because of the mud, we went with the fence.  Nobody said there would be climbing.

Getaria is a small seaside town with a picturesque harbor and beautiful beach.

We have lunch at Asador Astillero. It is another best meal on a trip of best meals.

I have never tasted fish this moist and delicious and I cannot believe there is no butter.

They showed us the kitchen. Basque people love to show you how they cook.

We stop at a txakoli vineyard on our way home. Txakoli is the wine of the Basque country. (TX is pronounced CH). The wines are light, bubbly and low in alcohol content.

  The most widely planted grape variety, by far is Zuri meaning white, with a very small amount of the red variety called Beltza.

The word txakoli means farm wine or homemade. It is hard to grow because the climate is cold and wet.

It goes well with the exquisitely fresh fish of Basque cuisine, except that the locals also drink Txakoli with red meat. Why? Because historically it was all that they had.

We had a great time with Imanol who’s knowledge of the the Basque culture, kindness, easy going nature, intelligence and great taste in food made San Sebastian and the Basque Country an unforgettable trip.

Fly safe,

JAZ

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Pinxtos In San Sebastian, Spain

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“Laughter is brightest where food is best.” Irish Proverb

San Sebastian is one of the best eating cities in the world, it has more Michelin star restaurants per square foot than anywhere else.  If you are a foodie, San Sebastián is utter food paradise. The quaint, narrow streets of its Old Town (Parte Vieja)  are home to a countless number of bars serving pinxtos. 

Luckily we have Imanol from Cultural Xplorers to organize our first night of pinxtos and recommend other bars.  Imanol grew up in San Sebastian. There are over fifty pinxto bars in the Old City and trying to narrow them down and find them can be daunting. 

The fare at traditional pintxos bars is pretty straightforward, and heavy on meat, cheese and seafood.

Items like: gildas (a spanish chili pepper wrapped around an anchovy and olive, speared with a toothpick), tortilla (Spanish-style frittata), jamon (Spanish cured ham), fried croquettes stuffed with salt cod, anchovies (in many forms), and grilled shrimp with ham, can be found in almost every pintxos bar.

It is tempting to just grab a seat or a place standing at the bar and feast away, but you should fight the temptation. Pintxos culture encourages people to bounce around to different establishments all night, sampling just a few bites from each. Since most of the best pintxos are found within the compact Old Town section of San Sebastian, you never have to walk more than a few minutes to your next destination.

Our first pinxto  lesson  came at Astelehena. It quickly seemed to me that the best pinxtos were made to order in the kitchen.  We ate Duck Magret with corn and pineapple sauce, octopus with a cream of avocados & potatoes and ‘Gilda’ composed of tuna, olives, anchovies and guindillas (local green peppers).

We drink Ribera de Duero which  is a red wine from the neighboring region. I don’t really like anchovies but after having this dish a few times, my life is not the same. 

Our next stop was Haizea for codfish (Brick de Bacalao) with leak and carrot and scallop and shrimp brochette.  Bacalao is a word you should learn when traveling to Northern Spain and Portugal. There is always bacalao. Haizea is the bar that Chef Arzak  (of the three star Michelin restaurant) takes Anthony Bourdain to on No Reservations in 2008. We had our first glass of Txakoli (pronounced chock a lee) -the light local white wine. Yes it is another Anthony Bourdain day.

Mendaur was our third stop. We had boiled egg with truffles and parmesan cheese, mushrooms and crispy Iberian Ham.

But my most favorite pinxto was the European squids with caramelized onions and three sauces (mustard and honey, chimichurri of Txakoli and black garlic). I have no words for how good this was.

We were full and I thought I couldn’t eat any more but I was wrong. We went to Urola where I was about to have what turned out to be one of the best desserts of my life.  It is called ‘Torrija’, and is similar but not to bread pudding, served with coffee ice cream and caramel.

We did a few nights on our own of pinxtos as well but since I told the chef in my bad Spanish to give us his favorites and they were crazy busy, I don’t know what they were called. It involved shrimp, meat, fois gras  and risotto -all were delicious.

We also found our way back to Astelehena for duck breast and anchovies. (which involved a lot of walking in circles).

If you are looking for a romantic, relaxing night out, pintxos bars are not for you. They are all about socializing, eating, and drinking in small, confined spaces. The more cramped, the more frenzied, the more you have to fight your way to the bar, the better.

Fly safe,

JAZ