Living Another Life In San Sebastián

This was my second trip to Europe but my first study abroad trip. To say I was not nervous would be a lie. From meeting new friends, exploring a new city, and living a different lifestyle for three weeks–I would not change anything. Especially after our farewell dinner on Thursday July 8th at La Txuleteria de Iraeta (a steakhouse) where we all shared laughs about different memories from the past weeks, it felt like we all have known one another for years. From talking about our different pintxo tours, to exploring other cities in Spain or just hanging out at Zurriola with other students from Lacunza, I think I can speak for everyone that this trip will never be forgotten. The one thing I will miss the most is biking to class with the most beautiful scene overlooking La Concha. However, this study abroad trip would not have happened in the Covid world without Fern MacKinnon and with that I want to say thank you. Thank you so much for working so hard to let us be able to study in the glorious Basque Country and experience a very unique lifestyle. 

Steak from La Txuleteria de Iraeta

Life in San Sebastián is simplistic and extremely different than the United States. The days felt endless but these past three weeks flew by. We started our mornings with breakfast which is not seen as a full meal. Many people had  fruit, cereal and coffee. Lunch is considered the most important meal. From about 1:00-4:00pm it is called siesta, where many businesses close so people can enjoy a lunch break at a local bar. The most common food found in a bar would be the pintxo. My favorite pintxo was the tortilla de patatas, especially from Bar Zabaleta in Gros. If you have not already, check out the blog posts from the pintxo tours led by Professor Z! If it were not for this tour, I would never have tried an anchovy or squid ink.

The tortilla de patatas from Bar Zabaleta in Gros.

The Basque’s are very fond and proud of their unique dishes. Marti Buckley is an American living in San Sebastián who wrote a cookbook filled with all Basque cuisine, which is called “Basque Country”.  I will definitely be trying to cook some of the recipes at home. We were very lucky to meet with Marti during our time in San Sebastián and hear about her experience about living in the Basque Country as an American. Her words were very inspirational and motivating. Another difference is that lunch and dinner are very far apart. Dinner is usually eaten around 8:30-9:00pm. There is sunlight until 10:00pm, which makes each day feel endless. In between lunch and dinner many people have a small snack and an expresso. I never knew what siesta was and I wish it was common in the United States. Dinner was definitely hard to get used to since it was late at night compared to 6:00pm dinner at home. One thing that this trip helped me with was getting me out of my comfort zone and not being so afraid of change. Change can be difficult for anyone but having the right mindset will only make adjusting easier. 

9:37pm Sunset over La Concha

I could go on and on about every detail throughout our three weeks in San Sebastián. Instead, I want to give helpful tips so if you were to go in the future, you can enjoy your own experiences. First, bring positive energy to every class, restaurant and excursion. It will truly make a difference. A second tip, always have a raincoat and umbrella packed because you never know what the weather might bring. The third tip is to bring a journal and write about each day. Your older self will be reliving the memories you experienced in the past. Lastly, step out of your comfort zone, do not be afraid to try new things. After these three weeks here, the culture and social aspect of living here made me realize that change is good. Before leaving I was extremely nervous about traveling alone. As I sat in the Frankfurt airport for over three hours on my way home, I thought about how much independence I gained from these three weeks away. The Basque Country is a special place and I will definitely be back in the future. If you have not already added a trip to San Sebastián to your bucket list, 110% add it.

View of Zurriola, located in Gros.

To finish up this blog post, I want to give a huge thank you to Professor Zabalbeascoa. You showed the ten of us an amazing city, we are all so lucky and grateful for this experience. It was unforgettable. Thank you once again! 

Trip to Isla de Santa Clara

by Joseph Okafor

Last week on the dreary Tuesday afternoon of July 6th, we took a ferry over to the Isla de Santa Clara which sits directly in the Bahía de La Concha off the coast of San Sebastían. Even in the ferry, the masks were still on, or at least nearby, as we closed the first full week of July in the northern Basque region of Spain. There had been a recent surge of COVID-19 cases in the country due to primarily young students who had finished exams having ill-advised but understandable super- spreading functions. I’m glad to say our group did not partake and was protected as we had received vaccines unlike Spain’s youth population who are not yet eligible. The scene from the boat was immaculate and truly astounding to the eyes and mind. As the ferry departed the shore and we set sail for the Island, the beautiful and famous La Concha beach was straight ahead.

Professor Zabalbeascoa and my classmate, Audrey Waisnor, took pictures for some fellow ferry riders. The excitement to reach the island was palpable! As we navigated the waters, we circled within the yellow sea markers in between the beach and a trove of other smaller boats. It is no surprise that San Sebastían maintains some of the best seafood I have ever eaten, especially the bacalao, from one Casa Vergara in Parte Vieja. The statement does mean a lot as I’m from the bay city of Boston, Massachusetts, known for their lobster, cod fish, and other spectacular seafood.

As I’m pondering San Sebastían’s delectable food, I look forward and view the string of homes that are famously and rightfully the most expensive in Spain: the Mirakontxa. I imagine waking up and having the beach literally right at your footsteps and become once again thankful for the opportunity of that being my reality for these three weeks. As the ferry bends the water, Ondaretta Beach, near our residence hall in the neighborhood of Antiguo, is in our sights with a tremendous mountain landscape in the background.

At this point in the trip, we are reminded of the lackluster weather of the day as we experience a flurry of showers. We covered our heads and hoped to make it to the island as soon as possible. On a more fun note, we also experienced some rocky waters which was a bit exciting for me as someone who does not go on the water very often. I was reminded about how grand the oceanic feats of the Basque people have been — from conquering the animals of the sea using small, dangerous rowboats centuries ago to now maintaining a booming and successful fishing industry. It is no surprise that people from all stripes throughout the globe flock to take in this little city and all it has to offer.

When we made it to the Island, we hiked upward a little and found a patch a grass to sit perched across the sea from the cliffs of Mount Igueldo directly ahead. In our view was the El Peine de los Ventos or the Combs of the Wind sculpture by Eduardo Chillida that we had visited a week prior. It was an interesting metal work of art embedded within the rocks on the Bay of la Concha that caught my attention when first introduced to them. Professor Zabalbeascoa explained a theory of their meaning at that time as signifying the past, present, and future and our duty in life to do our best to maintain a perfect balance of all. We, as humans, are informed by the past and look forward to the future but must always live in the “eternal now” as he called it. That stuck with me along with an additional architectural feat, although less visible, to our left: the Miramar Palace. Queen Isabel II had decided to spend her summers there in the late 19th-early 20th century as did Queen María Cristina, solidifying the bond between the city of San Sebastían and the Royal Family.

As we jokingly sulked over the less-than-perfect weather, Professor Zabalbeascoa lectured a bit of history to us while we pondered what was left to do in our final week in San Sebastían. “Hacer surf” and “visitar el Museo de Guggenheim” were proposed along with some visits to local restaurants and neighboring towns. The wind was quite strong but the temperature hovered around 65 degrees Fahrenheit so I was not complaining although I wished for improved weather in our last days. Our group recapped the trip so far and made plans for some ventures during the final week including a day trip to the Basque city of Saint Jean de Luz right over the border in France.

This study abroad trip in San Sebastían has been a tremendous opportunity to broaden our horizons. Professor Zabalbeascoa beseeched us to “take that spirit that you have found here and take it back home” in order to keep alive the energy of learning and exploring in all aspects of our lives. He said this as he relayed his own abroad experiences as a young college student. Beyond the scenic views and the mouth-watering cuisine, the Basque community is historically and culturally rich. It is a prime reminder that the world is indeed our oyster and this experience should further fuel our desire to traverse the globe.

by Joseph Okafor

Talai Berri

Hola from the beautiful city of San Sebastian! On Saturday, July 3, we took a day trip to a family-owned winery in Zarautz, just about a half hour away from San Sebastian. This winery, Talai Berri, is known for their excellent craftsmanship of the Basque country classic: txakoli. Txakoli is a dry white wine characterized by its fresh and fruity flavor. It recently rose in popularity within the last thirty years, becoming a staple Basque wine. 

Our day started with a morning bus ride at 10:15 a.m. to the town of Zarautz. Once we arrived at Talai Berri, we were greeted by one of the owners and given a tour of the winery. She gave a brief history, explaining that only four family members actually run the winery year round, but they hire 15 more people during the harvest season from the surrounding neighborhoods. As of right now, five generations of their family have been running the winery.

After a brief summary of the history of the winery, we were given a rundown of the actual process of wine making. This included an explanation of the fermentation process of wine and the difference between making white wine and txakoli. The difference lies in the fermentation process itself, where the lid for one the barrels is closed for white wine, but left open for txakoli. She also explained how they go about sales. While txakoli is by far what this winery is known for, they also make other kinds of wine such as vermouth and rosé. Rosé is more popular in the United States, so they make most of their sales there and less in European countries. On the other hand, their other types of wine are popular in European countries, so they make their sales there as well.

The actual wine tasting promptly followed the tour and was accompanied by a view of the vineyard that served as an amazing background for the many pictures that were taken (definitely profile picture worthy). To accompany the wine, we were given bread, cheese, chorizo, tuna, and peppers. We tried the various types of wine that they make such as the txakoli, white vermouth, and red vermouth. My favorite had to be the first txakoli we tried. It had a very light, fresh taste that was perfect for someone like me, who is not the biggest fan of wine. The two types of vermouth were definitely more of an acquired taste and although I could see the appeal for others, I could not get myself to enjoy them. During this is when I learned a valuable life skill: the correct way to hold a wine glass. It should be held by the stem, so the wine doesn’t heat up.

At some point during the wine tasting, the cloudy skies cleared up and the sun came out, emphasizing how unpredictable the weather in San Sebastian truly is. This made it the perfect opportunity for a photoshoot and several pictures were taken. Before we had gone on this trip, Professor Zabalbeascoa had said that the winery was where “profile pictures were born” and I would have to say that my new profile picture was definitely born there. With the incredible view of the vineyard, this winery had to be one of the most picturesque things I have seen in my two weeks in the Basque country. It seemed like the kind of thing you would see in a movie and it was crazy that I was able to see something that beautiful in real life. 

Overall, the trip to Talai Berri was amazing and made me gain a perspective on yet another aspect of  the Basque culture. I think it is incredible how five generations of this family have been able to maintain this business through the years, with only four people working for most of the year. This is impressive, considering that they also do international sales. It was very inspiring and I think shows how important family and tradition is in the Basque culture. The comforting feeling that winery gives off is not something that many businesses in the United States have and I loved it. This was definitely one of the highlights of the trip and something that I will always look back on, wishing I could go back. With only a few days left in this city, I can’t wait to see what more it has to offer and what memories I have yet to make. 

A Tribute to the Basque Whalers and Explorers

By Scott Penfield

Friday afternoon’s excursion took us out of the city and to the verdant coastal town of Pasaia, where we visited Albaola, a shipbuilding museum and school that pays homage to the historical dominance of the Basques in maritime exploration and whaling. Located in a secluded inlet only accessible by boat or mountain trail, Albaola is centered upon a decade-long effort to perfectly recreate the San Juan, a 16th century Basque whaleship that was found sunken off the coast of Canada in the 1970s. There is also a shipbuilding school where students learn the techniques that powered the Basque country to a near-monopoly on the global whaling industry for centuries. Our group toured the museum, saw the current status of the San Juan, and were given a maritime knot-tying lesson by a Basque sailor.

The museum at Albaola contains a vast array of information about the Basque Country’s rich maritime heritage. Exhibits with details regarding shipbuilding technologies, whaling techniques, the lifestyles of explorers, and much more brought the time period to life. It is easy to see how this history is woven into modern Basque life, with the most ubiquitous example being bacalao (salted cod). This seemingly simple food was the staple of Basque ocean journeys, providing a protein source that would last for months at sea. To this day, almost every bar or restaurant in San Sebastian will serve bacalao in one form or another.

A list of the common rations for a Basque sailor on a 2-3 month journey across the Atlantic
Of note: The average sailor would be allocated 3 liters of Basque cider per day

Even as some of the Age of Exploration cultural artifacts persist to this day, many of this unique heritage has been lost since the decline of Basque whaling post-18th century. This is a large part of Albaola’s founding mission: to maintain this vital part of Basque culture through their shipbuilding school. With eighteen students from all over the world currently studying the art and engineering behind Basque shipbuilding, the school is a thriving attempt to resurrect a mostly forgotten trade that, in its day, was the driving force behind the Basques’ ability to dominate the open seas. This resurrection is being manifested most clearly in the recreation of the San Juan whaling boat, a project that began in 2013.

An inside look at the carpentry workshop of Albaola, where students are taught Basque shipbuilding

The original San Juan was on a whaling expedition from the port of Pasaia and made it to Newfoundland, when the North Atlantic whale hunt was at its peak. Before returning to the Basque Country, however, the ship sank off the coast of Red Bay in Labrador in 1565. There it sat underwater for over 400 years, not found until a Canadian historian pieced together clues that led to its discovery in 1978. Because of the frigid temperatures, it is considered by archaeologists to be one of the most well-preserved shipwrecks ever found.

Albaola’s magnum opus gets its own building, set apart from the museum and the school. The goal of the project is as simple as it is daunting: to perfectly recreate the San Juan. This immense undertaking is made even more impressive by the fact that only original techniques and materials are being used: several tons of iron from Basque ore deposits, along with locally sourced oak wood, are the most crucial elements. Seven years into the project, the San Juan is close to complete, and is expected to set sail for Canada in roughly two years, where it will rest at the same location where the wreckage was found over forty years ago. The project is a collaboration between the Basque and Canadian Governments, as a tribute to the shared history that led the Basques to be the first Europeans to establish a permanent whaling colony in what is now Canada.

The San Juan recreation project
While difficult to appreciate the size in photos, this ship would have housed around 60 sailors on a transatlantic voyage over several months

Our time at Albaola was a unique opportunity to learn more about a part of Basque history that, while crucial at the time, is now often relegated to historical footnote several hundred years later. However, modern Basque culture is still strongly influenced in a variety of ways by this history. The spirit of the early explorers lives on here, and Albaola is giving that spirit a place to grow while sharing it with the rest of the world.

Mount Urgull

By Brett Hill

Hello from San Sebastian! It’s been a pretty interesting first week. The weather has been hit or miss most days so far, but that hasn’t stopped any of us from going out and enjoying all that San Sebastian has to offer. COVID is still a very real threat here, as it is everywhere else in the world, but just this past Saturday the outdoor mask mandate was lifted, as long as one can maintain at least 1.5 meters (almost 5 feet) distance from others. Despite the mask mandate being lifted, many people around San Sebastian are opting to continue wearing masks outdoors, proof of how serious the COVID virus is being taken here. I think the extra caution is due in part to a recent outbreak in another part of Spain (Island of Mallorca) that occurred this past weekend involving a couple hundred teens, but the Spanish government was quick to quarantine the students in hotel rooms to mitigate further spreading.

Having been here for just over a week and having had plenty of time to explore some of the city and its offerings, today’s adventure is the much-anticipated hike up Mount Urgull. The weather today is clear, sunny and quite warm, in other words it was the perfect day for a short hike. Mount Urgull is probably one of the most iconic sites in San Sebastian. Located on a peninsula that separates the city and its beaches along with the river Urumea on the east side of the peninsula and La Concha Bay on the other side, and ascending from the edge of the Parte Viaje neighborhood of the city. Resting high on top of the mountain is what catches most people’s eye when looking out towards the sea from the city, it’s a 12-meter-tall statue of Jesus (24-meters tall including the base of the statue), known as the Sacred Heart Statue erected in 1950. The statue is similar to the Christ of the Sacred Heart Statue in Rosarito, Mexico and the Christ the Redeemer Statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Even more interesting than the statue, is that the statue sits on top of a military fortification that was built in the 12th century known as the Castillo de la Mota. Today it is difficult, if not impossible to see the fortification in full from the ground, due to the tree coverage all around the mountain, but once up close it’s truly amazing to see in person.

We all met up with Professor Zabalbeascoa on the edge of Parte Viaje overlooking the port of San Sebastian. The trails on the way up were paved with black top and with laid stone in some sections. While I don’t know how old the stone paths were, they appeared to be quite old and gave the hike a more antiquated feeling than the black top. As I mentioned earlier there is a good covering of trees that surround the mountain and create a canopy of shade. The heat of the day felt like it was stagnated under the canopy, only to be swept away occasionally by a cool sea breeze, and not wearing a mask made this hike that much more enjoyable. As we ascended the small mountain there were numerous sites where one could venture off for a quick breather or a nice view of the city or sea depending on location.

As we neared the top of the mountain, the sandstone-colored walls of the fortification became more visible. We entered the fort through a small entrance way that led us up to a viewing deck on top the fort. From here one could imagine that it was must have been quite an amazing defense for the city as you could see for what seemed like miles out over the ocean, and offered a truly amazing view of the full city from the edge of the Gros neighborhood and Mount Ullia to the Antiguo neighborhood and Mount Igueldo on the other side and the flowing Pyrenees Mountains in the background. The walls of the fort looked to be about 3-4 feet thick and had numerous cutouts that were about 3 feet wide, I imagine these were for canon placement. On the corners and other parts of the fort were what appeared to be jail cells, not very big, maybe 9 square feet in total, and completed with metal jail cell like doors. I thought it might be a lookout position, but the windows inside are far too small for any meaningful watch to occur and it has metal doors that lock from the outside.

After taking many pictures from this part, Prof. Zabalbeascoa brought us into the museum that is located inside the fort. The museum gave a had exhibits illustrating some of the history of the military, industrial, and commercial past of San Sebastian. From there we were led up to the highest point that we were allowed to go, which was right at the base of the Sacred Heart Statue. From here you could really see the whole city and Pyrenees mountains surrounding the city in the background. While we were only able to stay up there for a limited amount of time due to COVID restrictions and the size of our group, it was amazing to have a view and perspective of the city that we have all spent the past week walking around and exploring. After taking in the views from up there, I can completely understand why so many people love this city, it’s not a big city, but not small a city either, its sprawling, but also close enough that everything is a walkable distance. The historical aspect of the fortification made me think about how great of a position San Sebastian was when it had to defend itself with the Pyrenees mountains in the background hindering most land attacks and the great post set up on Mount Urgull keeping a watchful for pirates and adversarial naval fleets looking to attack. Overall, this is a must see for anyone that visits this beautiful city.


Kaixo! Epa! Yepa!  

The many ways to say hello and the less formal hi in Euskera, the Basque language. Historically categorized as more than five thousand years old,  the oldest language in Europe, it is not known where this language and people originated from but it is theorized to have come from Central Europe. The Basque language, unlike most any other language, is a language isolate, meaning that it has no relations to other to any other languages. In the Basque Country, Euskera is commonly spoken in homes, schools, and businesses. It plays a significant role in people’s everyday lives. I learned this during my first ever Basque language class with Stuart.  

I was excited to learn more Euskera in the Basque language class because many people that have been here in San Sebastián for a while say that if you make an effort to learn a bit of the local language, that they will appreciate the effort and be more welcoming. I saw that happen in the first week we were here. Saying “Kaixo” or “Eskerrik asko” shows the locals that we are here to immerse ourselves in the culture and learn more about it.  

Stuart is from Scotland and he has been studying Basque for about 30 years now. He taught our group how to say basic words and phrases to help us immerse ourselves more in the Basque culture. Simple greeting phrases such as, “Egun on, Zermoduz zaude?” Means “Good morning, how are you?” And one of the many replies could be, “Oso ondo, eskerrik asko” which means “Very well, thank you.” When meeting someone for the first time you could say, “Kaixo! Nola izena duzu?” which means “Hello! What’s your name?” And the reply would be “Ni Jennifer naiz” which translates to, “I Jennifer am.” 

Towards the end of our class Stuart had us practicing having a conversation with a waiter at a restaurant, something that will be very useful to us while we’re here in the Culinary Capital of the world.  

Learning about Basque language

The location where we had our Basque language class was at the Basqueland Brewery in Hernani. Kevin Patricio, the co-founder of the company, led us on a tour of his brewery. He explained to us that before they started the company in 2015, there was very little quality beer in San Sebastián and that was bad because the city of San Sebastián is well known for its culinary genius. They set out to rectify that situation and even taught the locals about different types of beers and how they could make it better. On the brewery tour, Kevin explained the process his company goes through to make the end product beer. He said that the in the tanks, it “farts CO2 and shits alcohol” which I thought was an interesting and effective way to explain it to us.  

Tour of the Basqueland Brewery

Kevin also talked about how during the pandemic this past year, there was a “candemic” going on as well, which I did not even realize was happening. The candemic was caused by consumers not wanting to drink beer from the tap in fear of getting COVID at restaurants; therefore, everyone started drinking canned beers and that resulted in a shortage of cans worldwide. Basqueland Brewery started to stockpile cans from whoever they could find that was selling them. Kevin told us that many other companies were running out of cans worldwide. It was interesting to hear about how the COVID pandemic affected different types of businesses in their own way, whether that be in the United States or in Spain.  

Overall, it was interesting to experience a different side of Basque culture apart from the amazing cuisine and pintxos.  

Eskerrik asko! Agur! 

San Sebastián from New Heights

Kaixo from the beautiful Basque Country! On Friday, June 25th, we started our adventure via funicular up to the top of Mount Igueldo, which is located at one end of Ondarreta Beach. Following a week of spontaneous and sporadic rain, we lucked out with clear, blue skies and a calm breeze. We could not have asked for a more perfect day. From the top of the mountain, we were able to enjoy the best view of San Sebastián and even get a glimpse of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France from across the ocean. Our options to take in the breathtaking sights varied greatly. We snagged photos of the city from the safety of the outlook and even captured videos in between shrieks on the rollercoaster, called the Swiss Mountain. This one-minute railway rollercoaster circles the top of the mountain, giving you a full 360 view of San Sebastián, as well as the neighboring province of Biscay. Swiss Mountain is the oldest steel rollercoaster in Spain that is still operating to this day! I was surprised by the operation of the rollercoaster, as the speed was controlled by a brakeman that sat between the two carts. The ride itself was terrifyingly thrilling, but the views helped to mellow the fear of it. I definitely recommend this rollercoaster to anyone that ventures to the top of Mount Igueldo, as the views are quite impossible to beat.

From the peak, we were able to spot the various neighborhoods that collectively make up the extensive and rich cultural history of Donosti-San Sebastián. We pointed out Antiguo, where we reside, la Parte Vieja, where we dine on pintxos and Basque cheesecake, as well as Gros, which is a newer, trendier neighborhood near la Zurriola Beach. This experience allowed me to gain a new perspective on the entirety of San Sebastián, both figuratively and literally. It was eye-opening to glance at the city as one whole piece, rather than just the individual neighborhoods that the city is composed of. From this new point of view, I was reminded of the depth of not only San Sebastián, but the Basque Country as well.

View from Mount Igueldo

I learned that it’s important to take a step back and look at the bigger picture in front of me. While San Sebastián may be home to fantastic Spanish tortillas, beautiful beaches, and a handful of Michelin star restaurants, it is also home to hundreds of thousands of Basque people and their culture.

When traveling, it is easy to forget why a place is so special when caught up in completing a checklist of must-dos. However, in San Sebastián, it is of extreme importance to focus on the Basque culture as it makes the experience worthwhile and illustrates the significance of this beautiful city.

Following our trip to Mount Igueldo, we walked towards the art sculpture, the Comb of the Wind, which is also located at the end of Ondarreta Beach. Basque sculptor, Eduardo Chillida, created this three-piece sculpture in 1976 and it was later installed in 1977. He drew inspiration from his fascination for the waves and wind that hit this corner of San Sebastián. Each piece is made entirely of iron, which is very prominent in Basque history due to the multitude of rich iron ore deposits. In this piece, Chillida integrates nature into his art, via the use of iron and the attachment of each piece to the mountain or rocks. On top of this, he placed his art out in the open, allowing nature to alter his work and continue telling the story. 

Eduardo Chillida’s Comb of the Wind

Given that this art structure has been left up to the interpretation of its visitors, many have speculated and developed their own theories as to its meaning. One popular belief is that one comb represents the past, another the present, and the final the future. The comb representing the past is warped and twisted, displaying how life experiences shape a person. In the middle of Chillida’s work is the comb that many associate with the present. It lies equally in between the past and future combs. It should be noted that this comb is the most photographed and is even sat on by visitors for pictures, which I believe is their way of embracing this theory. Distant in the back, one can study the comb of the future, untouched and intact. This comb tells a story of promise, reminding those who visit of the beauty that lies ahead. Overall, Comb of the Wind serves as a reminder to live in the moment because if you look too far forward or backward, you’ll miss the present. I truly enjoyed learning about this sculpture and its significance to San Sebastian. All in all, I believe this excursion happened at the perfect time in the trip, prompting me to appreciate and focus on the now during my stay in the city. Being present amidst this exciting and new life experience is key and I hope to absorb as much information as I can throughout this amazing adventure. Agur!

The Pintxos of Gros

    Hola from San Sebastián! My time here has been amazing so far. I’m very intrigued by the culture of the people of San Sebastián, and even more intrigued by the spectacular food crafted in this city. I’m usually a very picky eater, so it is hard for me to come out of my shell and try new things, but I couldn’t resist trying some pintxos. If you’re unfamiliar with pintxos, like I was when I first got here, they’re “small bites”. I would compare them to appetizers. They’re also “haute cuisine”, which is basically food that looks elaborate. The average cost of a pintxo is about 2-6 euros. That is around 2.50-8 US dollars. My pintxo adventure today took place in Gros, which is a neighborhood in San Sebastián. It is a relatively new area that has less tourists. Our pintxo tour was split into two groups, one group went to Parte Vieja, and my group went to Gros so make sure you check out the blog post by my classmates as well to get the full pintxo experience!

             In Gros, we first stopped at Bar Zabaleta, which is located on the golden mile. We started with a tortilla. It is important to mention that tortillas in San Sebastián are much different than tortillas in America. This tortilla was delicious and actually was my favorite tortilla out of all the places we adventured to. It contained eggs, potato, salt, and olive oil. The tortilla is versatile, and can be made with Yukon Gold potatoes. Next, we had cider, which was purely natural, with our first pintxo. My first pintxo was anchovy, olives, and gilda pepper. These were all on a skewer. It tasted like something I’ve never tasted before. It was decadent. At home I would’ve never eaten something like this, but I’m glad I jumped out of my comfort zone and tried this unique pincho.

Anchovy, Olive, & Gilda Pepper

        After Bar Zabaleta, we traveled to Bar Begara. This place put Gros on the map. First, we started with a tortilla. In my opinion, the tortilla wasn’t that flavorful compared to the other tortillas I tasted on my tour. Everyone got different pintxos, but I had the ajoarriero style cod. It was hot, and I would compare it to clam chowder. It was really good, and I plan on ordering it again during my time here in San Sebastián. 

        Next, we checked out Xarma. The interior of this place was extremely unique, and we actually got to look downstairs at their dining room. We ordered tortilla de patatas and xuxi de la diosa gilda, which was the sushi version of the first pincho I tried. I love sushi back home so I was pleased to try it at Xarma. The sushi was a lot more toned down than the actual pintxo that I tasted at the beginning of my tour, but it was still something I would order again. I got piquillo parrillero relleno de su propia esencia y carbòn de yuca as my pintxo. It looked like a pepper, but inside it had a carrot-like sauce that was thick and creamy. I was starting to get full so unfortunately I didn’t get to enjoy all of my pintxo, but if I was hungry I could have eaten two!

          Lastly, we checked out Hidalgo 56. I was eagerly waiting for this part of the tour because I heard they sold pig’s ear. Luckily, we ended up ordering pig’s ear, a tortilla, and blood sausage. I know that you’re probably thinking that you would never try pig’s ear, but it was the best thing I tasted on the tour. It has a similar taste to bacon. I also tried the tortilla and the blood sausage. I wasn’t a big fan of the blood sausage, but it did look delicious. The tortilla was a close runner-up to the first tortilla I tasted because they were both flavorful.

Pig’s Ear

         To cap off the tour, we had gelato. I got stracciatella, which happens to be my favorite gelato flavor. I recommend that if you travel to San Sebastián you should try out all the places I listed above. Besides pintxos, a few of my favorites during my time here have been the cheesecake, and the arroz cubana. The cheesecake I had came with a delicious raspberry sauce on it, which could never compare to any cheesecake I’ve had at home, and the arroz cubana was rice with egg and a tomato sauce on top. I definitely will be trying to create my own adaptations of the pintxos, and meals that I listed above and I hope you try to as well! Ciao!

The Pintxos of Parte Vieja

Gilda on left

Coming from the land of McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts to the place with the most Michelin starred restaurants per square kilometer in Europe, I think I speak for all of us when I say that I was hoping to try many new foods. Back home, I have been somewhat of a picky eater, but coming here I knew I’d have to forgo that part of myself if I wanted the full experience. And so far, I have been pretty successful. The more a dish sounds like a food I would never intend to eat, the more I think I should at least try it. This mindset was really useful when it came to the pintxo tour in Parte Vieja, and I even made a rule for myself that I had to try at least one bite of everything put in front of me. I would strongly recommend this method, as it allowed me to discover that some of the dishes I enjoy the most are the ones I expected to dislike.

As I sit in Casa Vergara writing this blog post while surrounded by pintxos, I would be remiss if I did not include which pintxos I personally tried that stood out. Of course, this is almost all of them because everything is pretty amazing, so bear with me. I was immediately out of my comfort zone with the first pintxo I tried, as it included anchovy, olive, and green peppers; all things I typically do not like. Pinxto Gilda ended up being one of my favorite pintxos of the night. I’m especially happy that I enjoyed this pintxo because it is considered the original pintxo, put together in the 1940s by Txepetxa, inside the bar Casa Valles. Moving on, I then tried risotto with idiazabal cheese, and while I usually don’t even like risotto, our group ended up lovingly dubbing it Mac and cheese. Some of the meats that I tried were incredibly good, including the ribs, pig’s ear, and beef cheek carietta. The strangest looking pintxo that I chose to try was sea urchin and I’m very glad I did, I would say it was my favorite pintxo if I had to pick. We also tried jamón from a few different locations which was great as well. We wrapped it all up with Basque burnt cheesecake which is not a pintxo technically but was great nonetheless, even though I usually don’t like cheesecake. 

sea urchin de casa vergara

The food here in San Sebastián is quite different from back in the states. They use way less salt or seasonings at all, and the components to their food is very fresh and natural. This is probably one factor that contributes to Basque women’s long life expectancy. I do not know how I feel about the lack of spice or seasoning, but trying this other type of diet is very cool. Experiencing everything here is so new and trying new things is the main theme of the whole trip for me. When I sadly return to the states I will try to maintain this style of being open to new foods, music, and everything I can possibly experience. 

Living the Basque Life as an American

There is an amazing uniqueness to the culture in the Basque Country in that it is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. Despite being geographically adjacent to the rest of Spanish culture, the Basques lead a very different life compared their neighbors, never mind the United States. While the United States is a melting pot of people from around the world looking for a fresh start exhibiting lots of diversity, the Basque Country is the complete opposite. The Basques, being a very small population, are very weary of outsiders. At first, they may be very cold towards new people, especially tourists. There’s even graffiti everywhere clearly displaying their dislike for them and telling them to leave, as it seems tourists take over the city most of the time. What I have found in my experience here (only three days so far), is that if you show you are making an effort and truly love the city, the locals can be very welcoming to you and want to share more of their beautiful home and incredible culture.

A huge part of the culture here is their cuisine, more specifically their pintxos and bars! People bond over food, whether it’s sharing a meal, cooking together, or just comparing favorite dishes and trying new things. The Basque people are no exception. They schedule their entire day around their eating habits. Here, we eat a small breakfast, quite a sizable lunch, and a smaller dinner. Because their largest meal is during the middle of the day, many places will close for a few hours for “siesta” before reopening. During this time, they go out with their coworkers, friends, and peers for about an hour or so to bars to relax, eat, socialize, and rejuvenate. This time definitely adds to the culture shock for Americans when they come to Spain as we are most used to eating very quick meals during our thirty minute breaks before delving back into our work.

Everything is much calmer and more informal with the Basques because they treasure their physical, emotional, and mental health over everything else. This sets a much more relaxed tone in the workplace, reducing stress and contributing to healthier and longer lives. Since the healthcare is free here for those who contribute to the Spanish social security system, that huge weight is lifted off their shoulders, and it isn’t something they have to worry about paying back later or whether they are able to afford certain treatments at the time. This is very refreshing coming from America where everything is so fast-paced and rushed most of the time, and we tend to prioritize money and work over our own health which results in very high stress levels and a lower life expectancy. So many people have to worry about being able to afford their medicine or treatment that they even consider not receiving the care they need to save the money.

Also contributing to the Basque’s long lives is their super fresh food. They live off the resources they have in the area, so where they can fish, they eat a lot of fish. In the more mountainous areas, they eat more sheep and pig because that is what is most readily available to them. Because the food is so fresh, it is not processed like in the United States. This lifestyle overall is a much healthier one, and there is definitely a lot to learn from the Basque culture. Hopefully, other countries can adopt similar ideologies as the Basques to create a better living environment and quality of life for their people!