Our Pintxo Tasting Tour in the Gros Neighborhood

When people say that San Sebastián is the world’s food capital, they are not wrong. Initially, before going on this study abroad trip, I wondered what the food would be like because of all the praise it receives but San Sebastián never disappoints and has lived up to the hype. As we first entered the city of San Sebastián, I could not help but see all the restaurants and bars that are present with all of them having their own unique style and foods. However, there is one thing that always stayed consistent throughout each restaurant/bar and that was Pintxos.

First, before I dive into all the fantastic foods from this day, let’s explain what a pintxo really is. A pintxo is a small snack that is commonly eaten in bars with a drink. Usually, they are presented with skewers or toothpicks and can include foods like meat, seafood, olives, peppers, and bread. Pintxos are a cultural staple food throughout the Basque Country, but especially in San Sebastián.

For this tasting tour, we decided to go to the neighborhood of Gros. For many of us, this was our first time in this specific area since in most cases we only would go to the Old Town but Gros was an inviting location with mostly locals roaming the streets. It is surrounded by the beautiful, Zurriola Beach where many of the surfers go but for this day we came for the excellent pintxo bars of Gros.

To start off our Pintxo tasting tour, we met Professor Zabalbeascoa at Bodega Donostiarra Gros where we tried one of the most famous and first pintxos to be created, “La Gilda”. First, just by looking it did not look too appetizing because it consisted of guindilla peppers, manzanilla olives, and anchovies but of course, the group had to be adventurous and try it for the culture! For the taste, it was not bad at all but I would say that it had a strong pickled and salty flavor which surprisingly worked and is worth trying! Next up, we got a raciones of the bacalao or salted cod which was one of my favorites from this tasting tour. The quality of this was amazing because of how delicate and juicy the cod was, and the hint of salt topped it off. Also, we tried a tomato salad which definitely surprised me because of how fresh and crisp the tomatoes were. They were also covered with oil and salt to give them that extra taste as well which made it that much better. Another dish that we had was the Ensalidilla rusa which reminded me of a really delicious potato salad with anchovies on top. The flavors were bright and tasted really well alongside bread because the flavors balanced each other. Finally, for the last dish at this restaurant, we got a brocheta de pulpo which basically was a large skewer with huge shrimp, octopus, and a variety of vegetables with a potato being doused with the dripping oils from the skewer. The presentation of this dish was absolutely amazing. The taste of the seafood and vegetables was very fresh and it had a delightfully grilled taste. All this food was accompanied by a glass of a popular white wine called Txakoli, which was a perfect way to have these delicious foods in the Gros neighborhood.

For our next location, Professor Zabalbeascoa brought us to JJ Janari Jauregia which was a fairly new bar/restaurant that opened up recently. Like most other bars this place had the pintxos displayed in the front but we got a table in the back and the interior of the restaurant felt very modern. At this restaurant, we got a Tortilla and each person in our group got a choice of a Pintxo. First, the tortilla is a very popular dish here in San Sebastián and is similar to a giant omelet but cooked a lot differently with it being filled with potatoes. This dish itself filled up everybody and was also very delicious with it being perfectly cooked on the outside while the inside being gooey with all the potatoes oozing out. For the pintxo I selected, I decided to be confident and got a Morcilla which is a blood sausage. Initially, the morcilla was frightening. However, it was a lot better than I expected when trying it out. It was definitely a unique taste but if I had to describe it I would say it was meaty and slightly tangy. Another pintxo that was ordered that caught my eye was a Tuna Heart Bao that Professor Z ordered which was definitely interesting. With this food, we were drinking a cider called Cidra which had a very crisp taste. Besides how great the food was here, I noticed how friendly the workers were because the service was incredible and it felt very comfortable in the restaurant’s environment.

The final bar/restaurant that we went to is called Xarma. This place has a Michelin recommendation and a Guía Repsol so it was definitely exciting trying this place out. However, when we arrived they were about to close so we only had the chance to try out a few pintxos. The first pintxo we tried was a Gilda Sushi which is maki sushi with olive oil pearls, anchovy caviar, and wakame mayonnaise. This bite-sized piece of sushi was slightly salty but delicious. It was nice to see this combination of sushi and pintxos because it just shows how the chef for Xarma is making them more unique. Also, another pintxo that most of us got at this bar was Tataki de Solomilli which included Sirloin Tataku, with carrot-vanilla cream, homemade pickles, and wasabi nuances. This was probably one of the other best food items I had this day because of how excellent the quality of the steak was. Also, the presentation looked super elevated and the flavors as well. Even though we were slightly in a rush, this bar/restaurant seemed very unique which is why I enjoyed this place the most.

To end off this delicious tasting tour, Professor Zabalbeascoa brought us to two locations for dessert. The first location was a Gelato place called Papperino Izozkiak which is arguably the best gelato in San Sebastián. This place had a wide variety of different flavors but I decided to go with Tarta de Manzana (apple pie cheesecake) and Pistachio. Of course, it was as creamy and flavorful as always and I do not think that I will ever get tired of getting gelato! For the second location, we went to a very homey cafe called The Loaf where some of us got café con leche (coffee with milk) and basque cheesecake for all of us to share. As someone who does not drink coffee much even at home, I have learned to really enjoy it, especially here where it is simple yet tasty. For the basque cheesecake, it was as amazing as it looked because of how soft and flavorful it is. Unlike cheesecake in America, the basque cheesecake has no crust but instead, the burnt sides of the batter are the crust which added texture and flavor to this dessert. It was a perfect way to end this tasting tour!

All the different types of food we ate on this pintxo tasting tour, opened up my view on food as a whole. I quickly realized that here in San Sebastián, most of the dishes are prepared and plated simply which allows the natural flavors of the ingredients to shine. A prime example of this is pintxos because of how simple they are. I knew that coming to the Basque country would introduce me to many new and beautiful foods but did not expect to like almost everything. It was also interesting to see how different chefs would take their own spin on pintxos and enhance them into a more modern style. This Pintxo tasting tour will definitely be one of my favorite things from this study abroad because people are absolutely correct when they say San Sebastián is the food capital of the world!

Our Pinxto Tasting Tour in the Old Part

First, what is a pinxto? A pinxto is a handful of local ingredients that blend together to make unique tastes and are held together by a toothpick. These tastey bar snacks have become a staple in the Basque Country and especially in San Sebastián. They are meant to be accompanied by a drink at the bar and it is customary here to have a pinxto and a drink at a bar and then move on to the next. 

     For those who are unfamiliar with San Sebastián, the “Old Part” is the heart of the city where some of the oldest buildings and streets are found. The Old Part also has the most bars and restaurants per person in all of Spain if not most of the world. Walking from pinxto bar to pinxto bar allows you to try endless combinations of local foods and drinks while also enjoying the beautiful architecture and art of the city.

Our pinxto tasting tour started off with a classic, definitely an oldie but in my classmates and my opinions, not a goodie. The “gilda” is the oldest pinxto combination in San Sebastián and it consists of pickled guindilla peppers, an olive and a salted anchovy. The gilda had an odd sour taste and slimy consistency, but you can’t go on a pinxto tasting tour and not try the oldest pinxto. The salted cod or bakalao pinxto made up for the gilda with a delicious taste and a soft consistency where the fish melts in your mouth. The presentation of this pinxto only made it that much better as it was presented with a bow made out of edible plants. This pinxto was my favorite of the day. We also tried pinxtos with fried shrimp as well as grilled shrimp and a scallop, both of which were very tastey. The thing that tied all of this together so beautifully was the Basque white wine, txakoli, that we decided to try with our pinxtos. Txakoli is a white wine that is immensely famous in Basque Country and is a can’t miss when visiting this beautiful city.

 In the next bar, we tried small portions of food that are called racciones. It is important to distinguish them from the pinxtos, however they are still Basque classics. Each one of these tasty dishes was extremely unique in its own way. From the more basic foods like risotto and tomato soup to the fish jowells and pig’s ear, the food never failed to surprise! The thought of eating either pig’s ear or fish jowells is completely repulsing, however these dishes are cooked masterfully and are completely delicious. 

 The next bar was an absolute show stopper. The bar itself was beautifully decorated and the food was the most interesting thus far. Along with some classics like cooked green peppers, and a cod and potato omelet, we tried squid in ink sauce. This is a rare, all black dish that is frightening at first glance but absolutely amazing to eat. Not only was the squid cooked to perfection, the squid ink sauce gave it an oniony-sweet that made the taste buds sing. Yet another dish that most people would not think to order because of its oddness that the Basques have perfected. There were also fried balls of beef mixed with peppers that were a little spicy for my pallet but applauded by my classmates. We were able to check off another classic with the bakalao omelet, which the locals call a tortilla. These tortillas are commonly made of eggs, potatoes, whatever the main ingredient is and a little bit of the Basque cooking magic.

Our second to last stop on our tour was by far the best overall. There was not a single dish that we tried that I didn’t love. We specifically sought this bar out to try their octopus, because it is what they are known for, and they did not disappoint. It was clear to the naked eye that we were eating the tentacles of the octopus, which would have been unsettling if it were not so delectable (you’ll see this is a common theme in this bar). Along with the octopus, we were coaxed into trying several other unique dishes that I simply never would have dared to order on my own. These included blood sausage, beef tongue, and baby pig. To think too deeply about these choices would be to turn one’s stomach but the truth is, each one was to die for. The baby pig was a tender pulled pork that was beautifully crisped on the top and bottom giving each bite a satisfying crunch. The taste resembled a sweet pulled pork that had a savory side to balance it out just enough. The beef tongue (yes literally the tong of a cow) had the tender but chewy texture of a well cooked steak and the flavor was a savory masterpiece. The Basques do not disguise these unique dishes, their transparency screams “don’t think, just eat” and it is true because once you take a bite, you’re in love. Finally, and most shocking for me, is the blood sausage. Served in a shape and look of a hockey puck, the sausage was crispy all around the outside and extremely soft on the inside. Blood sausage uses pork blood and fat to cook the sausage and it gives it a uniquely rich, decadent taste. I am someone who gags at the smell and taste of blood, so I was extremely hesitant to try this particular dish. Once I was convinced, I took a bite of the dish and could not believe how good it tasted. You cannot tell that it involves blood at all, it just tastes like a rich, deep flavored beef or pork and the crunch on the outside adds to the quality. The blood sausage ended up being among my top three favorite dishes of the day. 

Our final stop on the pinxto tour was to get Basque cheesecake, a treasured desert in San Sebastián. When we got there, the bar was swamped and they were also closing soon. The only reason we got to sit down was because Professor Z knew the owner personally and has been a loyal customer for years. Sadly, they had already run out of their famous cheesecake but they were able to save four chocolate mousse cakes just for us. They were delicious and a perfectly sweet way to end our tour and we vowed to come back for the cheesecake another day. 

     I have to say that I could not have been more surprised by this tasting tour. All of the food was presented simply, with emphasis on the individual, natural ingredients. Food is one of the things that Basque Country takes the most pride in and this tour made me realize why. They turned ingredients that are repulsive to think about into tasteful, elegant dishes and pinxtos. The craft and skill of each cook was obvious in every dish we tried and I cannot think of a better way to introduce yourself to the Basque Country than through the kitchen. 

Day Two: Adventure to Mount Igueldo and The Combs of the Wind

To truly appreciate the nature of San Sebastián, exploring Mount Igueldo provides a perspective like no other. We began the funicular ride beginning near Ondarreta beach towards the top of the mountain that rests nearly 130 meters above sea level. The ride glides past beautifully crafted houses that sit within the tangled grass and trees; these houses reflect on the true beauty of French Basque architecture. Upon arrival at the top of the mountain, the first level revealed a breathtaking view of the city as a whole. As it is only the second day for our three week adventure, this provided a perspective of the size and vast beauty San Sebastián has to offer. However, walking up the stairs to the top level left me speechless; I felt as though I was at the top of the world. The pastel and faded colored homes, businesses, and apartments allow the light blue water, yellow sand, and forest green trees to stand out. Even though the clouds dominated the sky, we were still able to see the coast of southern France on the left side of the lookout. 

It was difficult to step away from this amazing view, but we continued on to see the attractions – a small amusement park for children. Bumper cars, a small pond with boats to ride in, trampolines – which did not look too safe or enticing – and small touristy stands filled with merchandise and games are scattered across the top. For those with sweet tooth’s like myself, the gelato stand cannot be forgotten to mention; unfortunately I had already had some prior, so I did not try it. However, the most exciting attraction we tried was the Swiss Mountain ride. Only 2.80 euros to ride, Professor Z directed us towards the most frightening, but amazing roller coaster I’ve been on before. This ride is the oldest steel rollercoaster to survive in Europe prior to World War ll, built in 1928, and it shows. Professor Z proceeded to inform us this short roller coaster that wraps along the top of the mountain is mechanically operated and “slow and calm.” That is truly an understatement. Although it is short, it is still thrilling with 3 quick and unexpected drops that resulted in a sore throat from screaming. 

View from the rollercoaster before I lost my voice

Following this, we hopped on the funicular and gravitated towards a sight that highlights the adopted values of protecting San Sebastián’s natural beauty. The Combs of the Wind perched not far from Mount Igueldo on the coastline. By the actual structures, we learned about the stone platforms that have large holes in them. As the waves crash onto the boulders and rocks on the shoreline, the water compresses the air within the concrete ground; this wind gets pushed up through the holes and creates “music.” These were created to reflect different notes of the environment naturally created. Although the wind and waves were not strong enough to play notes for us, this showed me the importance of nature that has been culturally valued since the beginning. As we walked past these towards the edge, we came across the Combs of the Wind: three ginormous iron structures – one attached to the rock wall where we stood, another to an enormous rock parallel to us in the water, and another perched on another enormous rock directly in front of us. These twisted structures were composed by Basque architect Eduardo Chillida from the iron minerals found within Mount Igueldo. He produced these looped, ring looking structures within his studio and positioned them exactly as they stand now. With many different interpretations, Professor Z unfolded an optimistic and inspirational explanation. The first structure we stood next to represents the present, the other which is parallel symbolizing the past, and the last which lays in front signifying the “not so distant future.” Important to remember and recognize is the red tint of rotting iron and faded black spots from the waves crashing on them. In life, we are always experiencing the present, reflecting on our past, and hoping for the future. Meanwhile, people, events, and outside forces constantly crash down and wear on the person we are. These structures no longer look as new and shiny as they did upon being built. However, we must recognize their purpose. These structures comb the air and water that enters this beautiful coastline to maintain the natural beauty. Chillida intended to remind those who visit and those who reside here of the true purpose of these combs; we must appreciate the beauty in each and every aspect of the present, past and future.

A Glimpse Into Our First Day in San Sebastián

By Sameera Jangala

Running on 3 hours of sleep and a powerful dose of Tylenol, I suddenly find myself seated on the bus to San Sebastián. The gentle hum of the engine and the endless winding roads lull me to sleep, but the views of the Basque countryside have captured my full attention. Valleys upon valleys of luscious greenery surround us. Speckled upon the scenery are small villages and towns, settled at the base of the mountains that envelope them. I try to soak in the little details–tiny red-roofed houses, sheep grazing the hills, locals hanging their clothes out to dry–but words are not enough to capture the moment.

There is a feeling of peace in this city. The days are not rushed, but relished. There is beauty in how slow the days go, giving us the time to be present in the moment. We wake up early the next morning to bike into town and grab breakfast before our first Spanish class. I had not ridden a bike in a while–I forgot how freeing it was. The wind whips through my hair as we pedal through the city. The beach looms into view, and I cannot help but stare in awe. Alas, I keep my eyes on the road so as to not run into an innocent passerby.

My stomach grumbles as we stop at La Tahona, a bakery not far from class. Rows of pastries line the display case as the smell of freshly baked bread wafts through the air. After much consideration, I grab a chocolate croissant and a glass of pineapple juice–a decision that I thank myself for later on.

Pastries at La Tahona

Upon arrival at Lacunza, our language school, we are greeted by a chorus of “Hola”s and bright smiles. I take my seat in class feeling a bit nervous. My Spanish was rusty from years of not using it. As we converse, it comes back little by little. I learn that my deskmates are from Luxembourg and England, and had come to San Sebastián to improve their language skills as well. It feels good to be immersed in the language once again, but it is even better to be able to use it to interact with so many different people that I would have never otherwise crossed paths with.

After class ends, we change into our bathing suits and head to Ondarreta Beach. The water is crystal clear. It changes shades of blue, gradually becoming darker as the ocean fades into the skyline, which is interrupted by islands lush with blooming foliage. The clouds from earlier in the morning had cleared, the sun now beating down on us as we swim and walk along the shore. The smell of salt sticks to my hair and my clothes–a reminder that I am actually here and not living a dream.

Later in the evening, we head to La Parte Vieja, or “The Old Town”, where we attend a walking tour of the city. The streets are bustling with excitement as people weave in and out of bars and stores, oftentimes with a glass of wine or a cone of gelato in hand. It is close to 8, but the sun has not even begun to set and the scene is as lively as ever. Professor Z acts as our translator as we follow our guide through the narrow walkways, learning of the history behind each of the buildings and art installations. The Basques take a great deal of pride in preserving their past for future generations, made evident by the brilliant architecture lining the streets. As the tour concludes, we head to the first pintxo bar we can find in search of dinner, and then finish off with a gelato for dessert.

A church in La Parte Vieja

Biking back to the hotel, we again pass the beach–this time lit up by the city lights. We pull over and sit along the railing, appreciating the view. High tide sends waves crashing into the stone wall, white foam reaching our toes before being pulled quietly back to sea. Conversation, laughter, and music fill the air as we venture onto the beach to scavenge for seashells. Up until now, this whole experience had felt surreal, as if I were watching a movie of someone else’s life. But as I stand here, with my hands sandy and full of shells, surrounded by a group of wonderful people, I realize just how lucky I am to be living it.

Picture taken post seashell collection session


Follow UMass Lowell students as they take learning outside the classroom and are exposed to structured situations and experiences through a Humanities lens in San Sebastian, Spain.

Chosen as the 2016 European Capital of Culture, San Sebastian offers students the best of both worlds: a modern Europe-an city with an Old Quarter that preserves its rich legacy of history and culture.

Students will be immersed in the culture of San Sebastian through field trips and excursions, on-site lectures, an examination of Basque and Spanish history, politics, culture, geography, cuisine, literature, cinema, sport, and art.

To learn more please visit our About the Program page or contact us.