On Thursday July 22nd myself and a group of ten eager college students got on a bus with the intention of learning about a sport most had never heard of. Jai Alai is a sport that takes a copious amount of speed, strength and strategy to become proficient in. However, when we got there the building was completely empty and a mix up in schedule meant we didn’t have an appointment, so this blog post will be about fishing and the maritime history of San Sebastian! I entered San Sebastian as a twenty year old college student that grew up fishing on a small pond with his father, but knew absolutely nothing about the vast world of ocean fishing and oceanic travel that makes up the livelihood of tens of millions of people around the globe. I left San Sebastian as a twenty-one year old college student who knows slightly more than that. During my first two weeks in San Sebastian I visited one Museum completely dedicated to maritime history of the area, and another with an extremely in-depth and breathtaking exhibit about the same topic. Reading true stories and authentic testimonials from individuals who had circumnavigated the globe over five hundred years ago was an eye-opening experience to say the least. The unimaginable struggles those individuals chose to face in the name of exploration is awe-inspiring to the point where I honestly felt drawn to the ocean and all it has to offer. Spain sent out five ships filled with many Basque members of society in 1519 with the goal of gathering spices from India and around the world. Only one of those ships would return and that would happen after it accidentally discovered the Pacific Ocean. Just the thought of the men on those ships thinking they were about to come right back home through the quaint, in comparison, Indian Ocean and instead having to travel almost one hundred days and nights across an ocean they didn’t even know existed is so painful it is almost humorous. I said almost. The end of that voyage ended with the first successful circumnavigation of the globe, but also the death of more than thirty men. I often found myself thinking about these museums and the idea of exploration and the sea after those experiences. As I had mentioned, I have gone fishing with my father throughout my whole childhood and I found myself craving to go out on a fishing boat and travel along the San Sebastian coast and really take in new sights for myself. I had been bringing it up to my classmate and girlfriend for days and for my birthday she actually found a fishing charter to take us out for a sunset fishing experience. I wanted to make this more than just a fishing trip, I wanted to ask our guide questions and really learn about fishing and modern sea exploration in San Sebastian. Lucky for us, we were the only clients on the charter. Even luckier for us, the guide was one of the most charismatic, kind, enthusiastic, and passionate people I have met in my entire life. While on the boat I heard the phrase “fishing is my life” multiple times, and every single time you know he meant it from the bottom of his heart. He first told us how he had been a professional fisherman for over twenty years across the entire globe, and had even been a professional diver for a period of time. He stated how he now gets to do what he loves every day and how that is the whole point of life. I never expected to have a moment of existential enlightenment based on words spoken to me by a fisherman who barely spoke English, but I would not have wanted it any other way. Everyone knows the sentiment of “follow your dream,” or even “If you love what you do, it isn’t work,” but hearing it at this moment in this context changed my life. I don’t think I will be able to think about life the same after this and I am so grateful for that. He then explained to us his methodology and philosophies about fishing. One of my favorite quotes of all time is now, “My philosophy is that to catch the fish, you have to think like the fish.” Further explaining you have to know the reasons they do the things they do, and the places they are, and swim in the directions they swim to be able to predict where they will be and how to catch them. He showed us his fish finder and explained how technology makes his job so much easier. He told us that, when he started, a fish finder was simply a pen and paper, and plotting points on graphs. As we were passing a set of absolutely beautiful cliffs with houses nested at the top, I mentioned how amazing it would be to live there, and he pointed to one of the houses and said that it was his. He said that it was perfect because “I can see who is in my house,” referring to the ocean. I was immediately filled with a longing. Not a longing for his life, but a longing to love whatever my future career is as much as he loves his. That task even now seems almost impossible, but I now realize that I cannot give up or give in for the sake of anything other than the happiness of myself or my loved ones. Ever since I stepped off of that boat, I have not been able to stop thinking about it. I now truly feel the necessity to live a life that I love, and love the life I live. I am currently leaving San Sebastian a few days early to travel back home for a family member’s funeral. Because of that I am allowed to write this blog post on the plane, and being able to write this blog post on my return flight from San Sebastian allowed me to take time to just think and reflect on the time I spent in that beautiful country. I never thought that traveling for such a short time could have so drastically changed my perspectives and the direction of my life. Not that I plan on moving to San Sebastian to become a full-time fisherman, (although I would be lying if I said that the idea hadn’t crossed my mind), I just feel as though my stay in San Sebastian opened my mind to a whole new collection of perspectives that I had not been able to understand prior to this trip.
We are approaching our final few days in San Sebastián so we took some time for reflection. So, while sitting on Santa Clara Island enjoying the view we talked about the trip so far, how our expectations have compared to the reality of being here, how we feel about the city, what we want to do before we leave and how we will plan to capture this experience in our creative projects.
Before arriving in San Sebastián I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was extremely excited to travel to a new country, but I was also nervous because I didn’t know what to expect in this new country and city and I did not know any of the other students in my group. However, these fears quickly disappeared once arriving in the beautiful city of San Sebastián. This is for a number of reasons, one being that the people of San Sebastián are extremely kind, patient, and welcoming, which made myself and others feel welcome and at home in this city. Another reason is that although most of us came into this trip as strangers yet we quickly became friends. Being in this new place and sharing all these new and incredible experiences with people we barely knew has definitely brought us closer together. It’s only been a couple weeks but it feels like I’ve known them for so much longer.
When talking about San Sebastián and what we thought of the city there was a very common feeling of home. There is just a sense of familiarity and safety that I get here that makes me feel like I’m at home. I think this feeling in part is because of how kind the locals are, and that we’ve gotten to know the area pretty well in our time and explorations here, but I also think part of it just comes from the city itself. This sense of home really came through when some of us went to France for a day and when we got back to San Sebastián there was a sense of relief that came from being back. We all enjoyed France but it felt like we were home when we got off the bus and were back in San Sebastián. I definitely want to continue to travel to new places and learn about more cultures but San Sebastián will always have a piece of my heart and I definitely want to come back in the future.
In the time we’ve been in San Sebastián we have had so many incredible experiences. We have gotten to learn about the culture as well as experience it through all the amazing food here, and just by observing it and taking it in while we explore. We also got to go up Mount Igueldo which had an amazing view of the city. While up there we also got to ride on a roller coaster that was almost 100 years old which was a new experience because it was definitely different than the roller coasters we are used to. We also got to go to a winery and learn about Txakoli and the history of wine making in the Basque Country which was interesting. We also took a Basuqe language class where we learned some Basque and about the history of the language. We also went paddle boarding off of Ondarreta beach which was a fun experience we got to share as a group. Some of the more memorable experiences are the more relaxed things I’ve done like enjoying the sunset at the beach. We are also taking a Spanish class where we get to meet other students from all around the world. Overall, we’ve had a lot of experiences while in San Sebastián and they will definitely leave me with plenty of memories to bring home. These memories will then be turned into a project to represent our time in San Sebastián. Some students plan to make paintings or collages from the trip, while others are going to try and recreate their favorite dish or make a video to capture their time here.
We definitely plan on taking advantage of our last few days to make as many memories as possible here before we have to go back home. For example, we plan on taking a surf class before we leave. This trip will be extremely memorable not just because of how amazing San Sebastián is but also because this has been our first real chance to explore and live our lives since the pandemic. We’ve spent the last year or so stuck inside surrounded by the same scenery and now we have this amazing opportunity to explore and make memories in a new place. So as much as we all struggled during the pandemic (and there are still restrictions in place), I think it made the trip more special and memorable.
I’m currently laying down on a beach towel overlooking the stunning sight of the waves breaking in front of me, at Ondarreta Beach in San Sebastián. As I’m listening to the soft pop lyrics blasting through my AirPods, I close my eyes and feel grateful for the opportunity to travel during these critical times when others push back. I’m grateful for every morning walk leaving our residence to take the bus, for every talk with people I wouldn’t have met unless I took that leap of faith. And mostly, I’m grateful because I have the chance to collect memories, lock them in a special place in my brain, and carry them with me for the rest of my life. I have made quite a lot of these memories throughout our trip but there’s one more I would like to talk about today, our one-day trip to the city that never sleeps, Madrid.
Madrid is a city where you can experience the complete opposite of San Sebastián. It’s the heart of Spain and the place to go as a tourist. On Friday, July 23rd, six of us packed, attended class in the morning, and headed to the big city in the afternoon. After a long 5 hour ride, we arrived at the Barajas T4 airport and waited for our Cabify, or as others would call a Spanish version of Uber, to pick us up. Our adventure started the moment we all got in the SUV, our rider asked us if we wanted music and as we all agreed, we were heading to our hotels while blasting disco music, looking out at the houses and streets illuminated at night. There wasn’t much to do on Friday. We dropped 3 others off at their Airbnb and 2 of us headed to our hotel, got comfortable, and appreciated the balcony in our room that overlooks Puerta del Sol, where people were talking and hanging out at night.
The next morning we all gathered at the hotel, checked the agenda I had prepared weeks before the flight to head to San Sebastián, and at around 10:50 am we were off to the streets. The moment we stepped outside of the hotel, the beautiful structure of Puerta del Sol
Puerta del Sol, 10:50 am
The moment we stepped outside of the hotel, at the heart of the city, the beautiful structure of Puerta del Sol greeted us. Its popularity and reputation made it a significant point of our tour, and we had to take a moment to appreciate it, snap a photo, Check out “El Oso y el Madroño” known as the statue where a bear is eating fruits from a tree.
Chocolatería San Gines, 11:01 am
Our second stop was our breakfast place, and clearly, we couldn’t come to Madrid and not have a taste of its famous churros con chocolate, chocolate-dipped churro to start the day. Chocolatería San Gines was founded in 1894 and has been in business ever since, becoming the most famous place to get chocolate with churros, and also the oldest chocolaterías in Madrid.
The staff was great, we had a table in less than two minutes and the food was just to die for! You’ll regret it if you ever visit Madrid and can’t get a taste of this original and creative dish. Don’t forget how healthy it is! *sarcastic laugh*
Plaza Mayor, 11:46 am
This is a stop you just can’t miss. Plaza Mayor is now known as the main market area in the city and I can see why. The main square features an open courtyard surrounded by buildings housing various shops, cafes, and restaurants. This is also the place where we ended up getting lunch at and the structure of Plaza Mayor reminded me of Centro in San Sebastián.
Mercado San Miguel, 11:55 am
This spot is located just on the other side of Plaza Mayor. I would call Mercado San Miguel an exclusive tour for food in Madrid. I was glad the place opened up after the pandemic. Even though we didn’t end up getting anything from the market, since we were still digesting our food from earlier, we did enjoy our quick walk through the different spots inside. You can enjoy a variety of tapas and drinks here and what’s better is that each spot is right next to the other so this will be a perfect place for some bar hopping or tapa hopping actually.
Next, we passed Plaza de Villa, continued to Catedral de Santa María la Real de la Almudena, where we got inside, watched the live mass, and bought a couple of souvenirs for friends and family.
The Royal Palace, 12:53 pm
After waiting in line for about 14 minutes, we finally headed inside one of the most beautiful exhibitions I’ve ever seen. Words can’t even explain it but for anybody who is looking to do something unique in Madrid, don’t miss out on this stunning building! Purchase your tickets ahead of time to skip the long lines and enjoy the elegant banquet rooms, residential areas, throne room and don’t forget the armory room! (It’s a hidden gem)
Other highlights from our trip included trying to get to the terrace at Círculo de Bellas Artes, riding Lime scooters, and checking out the nightlife in Madrid which is why I can confirm that it is indeed the city that never sleeps. The streets were crowded, people were chatting and walking around at around 3 am and it sure is the total opposite of the quiet streets in San Sebastián, which is something we missed until we got back the next day.
Museum of Illusion, 2:18 pm
Puerta de Alcalá, 7:34 pm
Temple of Debod, 10:24 pm
Palacio de Cristal, 8:18 pm
Dinner, 11:30 pm
Even though we came to the city without much context and without knowing what to expect, we can confirm that we all had an amazing time and there are infinite routes you can take when visiting new surroundings because sometimes the unexpected is the best and when you are at the right place with the right people at the right time sometimes it’s okay to dive in headfirst, without feeling your toes in.
During our trip to the beautiful San Sebastian, Spain, my classmates and I were lucky enough to get the chance to speak with Marti Buckley, a cook and author who specializes in Basque cuisine. She is the author of “Basque Country: A Culinary Journey Through a Food Lover’s Paradise.” Those who have read her work will quickly come to find that this is not your average cookbook. The pages are filled with delightful photos of Basque delicacies that will make your mouth water. The book also takes a deeper dive into the history behind the recipes and what they mean to the Basque culture. Having this group discussion with Marti was truly enlightening, as Marti was once in my position, studying abroad, falling in love with a whole new country and culture. She explained to us how when she was studying at Louisiana State University, she had the opportunity to study abroad in Spain and just like that, her obsession and love for this country began. I found myself relating to her story so significantly. This adventure I have begun in San Sebastian is my first trip abroad and I feel as though I am truly seeing what this country and world has to offer. I remember my teachers in high school saying if you ever have the chance to study abroad, do it. I always knew studying abroad would be a great experience, but no stories or photos can explain just how eye opening throwing yourself into a whole new culture and lifestyle can be.
After giving us a brief backstory on how she found herself living in San Sebastian admiring the Basque culture, we were able to get into the topic of Basque food. Marti spent a long three years full of research and interviews amongst hundreds of people including Basque chefs, friends, families, and other locals about their cuisine to create a collection of a whopping nearly 100 recipes. Marti even shared with us some of her favorite dishes and meals. She said she finds herself ordering tortilla de patatas quite often, one of my favorite pintxos, as well! In fact, something that makes the Basque pintxos so unique is that every bar or restaurant you go to will have elements of the traditional Basque pintxo recipe, but the restaurant will add their own flare to it. I have certainly experienced this with the tortilla de patatas. I have ordered about six tortillas so far in San Sebastian and not one has tasted the same, although they have all been delicious! Marti also shared one of her favorite meals, which include grilled squid or octopus. This dish tastes like your typical seafood with a hint of smoky delightness creating a flavor your tastebuds will thank you for. Marti truly immersed herself into the Basque culture. She wanted to be as authentic as possible and felt obligated to stay dedicated to Basque tradition without adding her own spin to the recipes. Her admiration and dedication to this culture in which she fell in love with is so admirable. Having been studying here for just two weeks, I completely see why she fell in love with a city full of tradition, delicious foods, and some of the most warm-hearted people I have ever met. Although the discussion was focused around food, I got so much more out of it, which I feel can be seen as a metaphor for this entire trip. After our discussion with Marti, my mind felt opened and illuminated with the tons of opportunities there are in the world that awaits me. I admire Marti’s ambition, hard work, and dedication to her interests. Hearing about her upbringing and how she got here in San Sebastian has really made me realize that I do not necessarily need my whole future planned out for me. There is an entire world out there waiting for me to explore.
I sit here and think about what to exactly write about, the exact words that could somehow describe the special day that happened on July 19, 2021.
Currently, I’m wearing my hair in a messy bun, a comfortable band t-shirt, and I’m doing this all on my phone (currently condemning any other technological device to the furthest depths). Of course, it is not much of a comfortable sitting process, as my sunburn from traveling to France con mis amigos dampened my body, but never my spirit. The idea of a sunburn happens when you don’t apply sunscreen, then you burn. It is kind of a chain reaction, right?
That is how this day went.
Before we all arrived together, I walked around with my friends, exploring the beautiful city, picking up these fashionable disposable masks (blue polka dots), trying new food and expanding my palette. We shopped at souvenir stores, observing the little gadgets, laughing at these adorable little beret magnets. Then, we all met up. We walked up this steep path, stopping at a place that is apparently the “only Michelin starred restaurant around here”, and a perfect place for a first date. If you want to impress someone, go here.
Walking up the hike made me sweat, my hair puff up and my clothes felt slightly looser and damper than before. Obviously, hiking was out of my comfort zone. But despite the challenging parts of hiking, the good outweighed it more. The sights I saw, the nooks and crannies and narrow passageways we took (that made me feel like I was in the 1920’s and unveiled a secret passageway in my mansion). Laughing when someone was too tall and had to crane their neck to go down the stairs, or when someone would start humming a tune to an advertisement and we’d all join in. When we reached to the top, immediately what drew my eyes was this very large statue of Jesus. It felt powerful, like I had to be near it. Honestly, I don’t think I have ever been as in tune as to my religion as I was staring up at that statue. It really unlocked parts of myself that I never explored. Nonetheless, we braved even more steps and went to the top. The view from the top is honestly something I don’t think I’ll ever be able to burn from my mind. From there, we walked down another path to talk about the book. We sat in the shade with Professor Z facing us, ready for us to reload and shoot our questions about the novel All That Followed at him. And boy, were my questions locked and loaded.
Now, the book is really intriguing to me. It is honestly completely different than the books I have ever read. The book starts and ends the same way, which was asked during the question section. We sat down, asking questions, narrowing in on the terrorism that happened in Basque Country. I was really interested in learning more about the terrorist group that disbanded a few years ago and was the prominent group in the book, ETA. We discussed the characters, such as Marianna’s kidney transplant, Iker’s choosing to sacrifice himself to prove a point, and of course, my slander towards Joni. I dislike Joni, a lot. When Nathan had asked about the meaning of the book’s ending and starting the same way (because it is a technique used to emphasize the future), hearing everyone’s questions made me think about the hook even more. Gabriel Urza did not only create a world or thinking for his book, he created a universe. The three people (Joni, Iker, Mariana) and their own different lives, but somehow coming together…magic happens. Which is why this day was so special to me, it is just like us.
When we went to our very special Basque class with the infamous and comical Stuart, I felt much more in tune with myself. Sitting myself at the end and watching how everyone reacted to the environment. I’m not sure if anyone realizes it, but we all feed off on each other. Just like in the book and sunburns, we all are a chain reaction. Pieces of special significant moments in our individual lives fall together to bond us as a group. And when we come together, magic happens. In a way, we too are like the book. Different lives with different chapters, yet somehow we all find a way to come together for the final piece.
It has been my dream and my lifelong goal to travel the world. I want to visit Italy and see the Leaning Tower of Pisa; go to Paris and stand atop the Eiffel Tower; travel to Japan and walk through it’s one of a kind temples. And this is barely touching the tip of the iceberg. The list just goes on and on.While unfortunately going to every place I dream of might not be possible, this summer I took a small step in that direction. In a time when everything is uncertain I managed to end up in Spain, San Sebastian, one of the most beautiful cities I’ve seen so far.
With a population of only 186,665 San Sebastian isn’t a big city. Definitely nothing like New York, Boston, or Los Angeles. As a result, one would think there really isn’t much to do except go to the beach. Even though it does have three beaches with a beautiful coastline there’s so much more to it than that. For example, one of the places I visited was a bodega (winery) called Bodega Talai Berri. The winery is run by two sisters who are the fifth generation winemakers. There, my group and I had a wine tasting tour where we learned a little bit about how Txakoli, white wine native to the Basque Country, is produced.
The grapes to make the wine are harvested from September to October. Then they’re crushed and put in cold tanks to be fermented where the temperature is closely monitored. This is an important step of the process since by controlling the temperature it’s possible to control the quality of the Txakoli. The wine is usually opened for the Christmas holidays and never put in wine barrels for aging. A new Txakoli is supposed to be drunk each year as a symbol of new beginnings. Furthermore, this wine isn’t poured from very high up since this causes it to lose its flavor and aroma.
What I was surprised to see was a preserved 200 year old grape tree the grapes of which were used to make the first Txakoli. At that time the winery didn’t yet exist as the people who made the wine were making it for their own consumption. It’s interesting how the business took off from there and now Talai Berri has been making Txakoli for 5 generations.
Something else that our group saw that I found memorable was a tree a group of men were working on. The tree had a seashell on it as well as the words “Bide On” or “Good journey”. When done, the tree was going to be placed on a path that is used for pilgrimage. I believe I was told that for the Basque shells symbolize good luck and fortune.
Not only was the little lecture we got fascinating but the view of the wine fields was gorgeous too. It also didn’t hurt that we got to try some traditional Txakoli and Red and White Vermouth. The Vermouths are going to be exclusively released in the United States so we actually got a sneak peak at them. While the wines were too strong for my taste, the scenery was fantastic. Rows of vineyards kept on stretching for as far as the eye could see. It was all so green and picturesque. I could even see some houses down below. The landscape is worth taking the tour in and of itself.
This trip as well as several others around San Sebastian before it made me realize that big cities and capitals are often overrated. At the same time, the allure of less popular destinations is underestimated. That’s unfortunate because small towns far away from the major cities are the best way to become immersed in that country’s culture. That’s where you learn the language as well as about the people and their history. However, the good thing about less traveled places is that you won’t find as many tourists there. As a result, most of the interactions will be with locals and the food will be more traditional – not adapted to suit foreigners. Such a discovery made me realize that the next time I travel, whenever that might be, I shouldn’t just head straight to the usual tourist destinations, but should rather visit smaller cities where I can experience local life – get to know the city and its people. And that’s exactly what my experience in San Sebastian has been so far. I feel at peace, absorb the surrounding energy, and every day venture on a new adventure in San Sebastian, a place that seems like a fairytale.
As Nathan took a bite of the bacalao (smoked cod) pintxo, I asked him for his initial thoughts. “So Good!” he responded with a wide grin as he eagerly awaited another helping. This turned out to be a recurring theme at each restaurant we visited on our Pintxo Tour of Parte Vieja with Professor Zabalbeascoa. While Neil Diamond’s classic hit “Sweet Caroline” may not have been written about the food San Sebastian has to offer, the famous refrain aptly describes all the unique dishes we tried.
History of the Pintxo
In Basque, the word “pintxo” translates roughly to “spike” in English, which refers to the mini-skewer holding together pieces of meat or seafood. The pintxo is a Basque invention created around January 1948, when the movie Gilda was controversially released in Spain. As a tribute to Rita Hayworth’s beauty, a pintxo with anchovies, olives, and hot peppers was named “Gilda” in her honor, with the spiciness of the dish perhaps reflecting her character in the film.
Pintxos also hold social and economical value in the Basque Country. As a response to the 2008 Crisis Económica in Spain, the idea of “pintxo pote” was introduced. Since pintxos were already an integral strand of the cultural fabric of Spaniards, the pintxo bars offered a special where one could buy a pintxo and a drink for 2 euros, with a limit of one per restaurant. The special helped Spaniards afford their tradition of socializing over food during a time of hardship. The limit also encouraged people to start bar-hopping, which helped spread customers among more restaurants and keep them in business.
Stop 1: Haizea
Embarking on our bar-hopping tour, we entered Haizea where Professor Zabalbeascoa was seated at a small table and invited us to join him. While we had no idea what he already ordered for us, we looked forward in anticipation of what was to come.
And so it arrived. A beautiful presentation of a plate highlighting the influence of Basque chefs who had studied the culinary arts in France and brought back ideas which elevated Basque cuisine. A brick of bacalao garnished with grilled vegetables and a drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette. Slicing into the bacalao, I was surprised to discover a soft, creamy center wrapped by the crispy skin. The contrasting textures combined with the subtle taste of balsamic vinaigrette created a harmony of flavor that my taste buds couldn’t get enough of. Or as Nathan would say, “So Good!”
Stop 2: Borda Berri
The quality of the bacalao set the bar for the rest of the tour, and I thought there was no way we would try any better dish. I thought wrong. At Borda Berri, Professor Zabalbeascoa warmly greeted one of the waitresses he knew, and he emphasized the link between socializing and food within Basque culture. What sets Borda Berri apart is that they only serve pintxos made to order, instead of the typical bar setup where various pintxos are in display cases for guests to awe at and select from. Here we explored just how far we were willing to stretch our culinary boundaries.
When the first dish arrived, Professor Zabalbeascoa offered a warning to us that previous groups had not been overly enthused with the plate. However, the potential of cod tripe in a creamy parsley sauce simply excited our group. There was an unspoken understanding between our group in that we were fearless in our determination to try food we wouldn’t typically eat back home. After devouring the cod tripe, we were presented with more dishes we were not accustomed to: beef cheeks surrounded by potato puree, and grilled pig’s ear. A person sitting nearby noticed the pig’s ear on our table, and laughed before saying “Good luck, it’s very unique…”. The group was unfazed by the challenge and enjoyed both dishes, reinforcing our adventurous identity. In particular, the beef cheeks reminded me of the way my family in Morocco slow cooks lamb tagine, ensuring the meat falls off the bone when gently prodded with a piece of bread.
I can’t leave Borda Berri without mentioning the risotto, which really took our breath away as we shared two bowls. The dish is prepared with local Idiazabal cheese, which has a rich, almost nutty flavor as the risotto melts in your mouth. Jacob and I both agreed we needed to come back for another portion. Mac and cheese lovers, you are in for a treat!
Stop 3: Casa Urola
Casa Urola is similar to Borda Berri in the sense that they specialize in made to order pintxos; however, they do have a small display case of ready pintxos as well. Having proven ourselves as capable culinary explorers, Professor Zabalbeascoa offered us the chance to order what we wanted to try. Jacob, Nathan, and I sat at one table and decided to each order something different so we could try more dishes as a group. We settled on vieras (scallops), pulpo (grilled octopus) with potato soup, and taco de chuleta (steak). While you may be thinking of the traditional Mexican tortilla shell, taco actually translates to “piece” in Spanish. While each dish was delicious in its own way, the steak was the crown jewel for me. I wasn’t used to eating meat with such a dark red center; but after the first bite, I understood why San Sebastian is considered one of the greatest food cities in the world. Without a doubt, the steak was cooked to perfection. I’m not sure I can go back to eating well-done steak back at home where the juiciness of the meat doesn’t compare.
Stop 4: La Cuchara De San Telmo
Walking up to La Cuchara De San Telmo, we noticed another group queueing for the chance to dine at one of the finest pintxos bars in Parte Vieja. Glancing at his watch, Professor Zabalbeascoa informed us that the kitchens would be closing in 5 minutes, but as long as we were shown to a table, we would still be able to order food. In San Sebastian, most restaurants close their kitchens around 3:30 PM for a siesta before opening up again for dinner around 7:30 PM. Luckily, we managed to find a table to accommodate the 6 of us. When the waiter arrived, Professor Zabalbeascoa ordered one plate for us. Then another. And another. One more. By the time he had finished bouncing around the menu, he had ordered everything except for 2 dishes. We all stared at each other in disbelief, not able to fully process what transpired before our eyes. “We are going all out here!” Professor Zabalbeascoa chuckled.
We quickly recovered from our state of shock once the waiter started bringing out plates of mouth-watering food. Among the dishes we ordered, the vieras and the goat cheese stood out for me. Chloe and I ended up taking a bite of the scallops at the same time, which resulted in a collective, satisfying “Mhm!” And as for the goat cheese, I simply felt uplifted after trying a spoonful. It was as if I had been transported to another world, untethered from any concerns as my mind focused on this pure state of happiness generated by this cheese.
Stop 5: La Vina
Although we had essentially eaten an entire menu’s worth of food, we weren’t quite done yet. Our final stop was La Vina, renowned for its Basque cheesecake. After taking our cheesecake to-go since it was approaching the end of siesta time, we walked to the boardwalk overlooking Zurriola Beach. Splitting my container of cheesecake with Valerie, I considered the flamed flavor of the dessert while I watched the waves crash onto the city’s coast and slowly recede. Fluffier and not as sweet as its New York counterpart, the Basque cheesecake is in a league of its own.
As my gaze wandered out into the Bay of Biscay, I reflected upon our day and what we learned. In what was by far the best lunch of my life, I considered the importance the Basque people place on the quality of their food. Each dish was prepared with local, fresh ingredients that weren’t processed in a factory hundreds of miles away. Each dish was prepared with the intention of facilitating relationships between people. It’s a way of life that has served the Basque people well, with the highest life expectancy for women and second-highest life expectancy for men in the E.U. (Eustat). Finally, we learned as a group to seek out new experiences in our life, embrace challenges, and be curious about the food and the world around us.
Thank you Chloe, Jacob, Nathan, Valerie and Professor Zabalbeascoa
Hasta luego, agur 🙂
One of the aspects of Spain which I got increasingly excited about in the weeks building up to my flight to Bilbao was the country’s landscape. I had heard numerous times about how beautiful Spain was and after searching for pictures online, I definitely agreed. This being said, I still grossly underestimated the natural beauty of this country. In the Northeast, we have grown accustomed to mountains with gray and rocky peaks. Upon my decent into Bilbao, I found myself at eye level with some of the liveliest mountains I have ever seen. Seemingly endless amounts of these mountains stretched for miles in every direction. I noticed rather quickly that this trend would continue for my entire shuttle ride to San Sebastian.
From the moment we arrived at Ondaretta, I knew I wanted to climb Mount Igueldo (seen on the left). I knew the view from the peak was going to be breathtaking but as I said before, I grossly underestimated just how beautiful it would be. Our trek up the mountain began (as most do) at the bottom. We were told that we would ride a funicular up the mountain, and I will be honest, I was not quite sure what a funicular was, and I decided to surprise myself by not doing any research. I will say, I was definitely surprised.
I will admit, I was a bit nervous on the ride up (I was definitely more nervous on the trip down) but we made it to the top safely. We exited our funicular and were almost immediately met with one of the best views in my entire life (only to be beaten by a view that I will discuss later). All of San Sebastian was spread out in front of me. From Ondaretta to the far end of La Concha and beyond. More of these luscious mountains cascading as far as the eye could see.
As beautiful as this view is, it is limited compared to what we saw next. Of course, before we took the climb up the tower in the center of the park, we needed to ride the oldest rollercoaster in the world. While some of us may have been nervous getting on, our crew of eleven boarded the ride. We were met with the calming final message of “It was nice knowing you all” from Professor Z. but we did, in fact, all survive the one-minute ride around the peak of Igueldo.
On our climb up the countless stairs at the tower atop Igueldo, we received glimpses of the view to come at the top. Upon reaching the top of the spiral staircase, I was initially met with a blast of fresh air and the sunlight (which we had not seen in a few days). Then I was met with the view that made me feel like I was on top of the world.
We were so high up that we could see the town of Biarritz, France from 40 kilometers away. Coming from Massachusetts, I never knew just how blue water could be. Standing on top of the tower, I finally began to realize how much I had been missing by not traveling outside of the United States. I pity anyone who has not had the opportunity to experience this country’s pure beauty in person because pictures will never be able to do any of these breathtaking sights justice.
After we reluctantly came back down the mountain (after purchasing gelato of course) we took a walk along the water until we were met with a beautiful piece of art known as “The Combs of the Wind” created by sculptor Eduardo Chillida. This piece was created to show how art can be with nature. It has been said that the pieces of iron protruding from the rocks comb the air as it flows into San Sebastian. Many deeper meanings have been interpreted from “The Combs of the Wind”. My favorite interpretation explained the separate pieces and their relation to time. The three separate pieces of this work can be seen blended with the rocks in the picture below.
When standing next to the middle section of this piece, its deeper relation to time can be more easily seen. Two the right of the picture, the second-closest section of this piece, and its warped iron, can be seen. This represents Spain’s warped and dark past, kept close to us but not darkening our current lives. In the center of the photo in the piece that represents the future. It can be seen far off in the distance as something we can all look forward to. This is also not meant to be held too close to us. The closest section can be seen on the right of this photo. This represents our present. The here and now. This is arguably the most important part of this piece because it represents how we are the closest and most in control of our lives right now. There is nothing about the past we can do, and we can only look forward to the future.
Tuesday afternoon, the six of us set off hungry with the goal of eating as many pintxos as possible in the next two or so hours. Our mission was met with great success as we visited four different restaurants for pintxos.
Pintxo is a Basque word referring to a small serving or plate of food. It’s like a snack, not enough for a full meal. Traditionally, one would meet up with some friends, go to a bar or restaurant for a pintxo and a drink, finish, move on to another bar, and repeat.
The birthplace of the pintxo is San Sebastian, where we are staying and studying, and in the neighborhood of Gros (in the eastern part of the city) we tried what is recognized as the first ever pintxo in Bar Zabaleta. That’s right we tried the OG pintxo itself: La Gilda. Take a look:
La Gilda includes pickled olives, chili peppers and anchovies, skewered together and meant to be eaten in one go. As you’d expect it is very salty, very acidic, and a little spicy. It kinda felt like an assault on my senses to be honest. But others must like it since it remains popular. Definitely worth trying at least once.
Also at Bar Zabaleta we of course had to try the iconic, the universal, tortilla de Espanola (Spanish omelet). Virtually every restaurant in the city will serve you a slice of tortilla. It is delicious, despite being quite simple. The only ingredients are eggs, potatoes, onions, and salt. It’s hard to get good tortilla in the US for health reasons (stupid government always trying to protect my health), but you can try making it at home. I had made several attempts before coming here, with varying degrees of not success, and none of them were nearly as good as the tortilla from Bar Zabaleta. We unanimously agreed it was the best we had ever had.
After one more pintxo at Bar Zabaleta – green peppers topped with salt, which we were lucky to get because the local peppers are seasonal – we visited Bar Bergara. After a round of tortillas we each made some diverse, individual selections. Myself, I ordered a Croqueta because I knew the Iberian ham had a reputation for being the best in the world. Croqueta is like a deep fried dumpling filled in this case with mashed potatoes, cheese, and the best ham in the world. That won’t be the last time I order some Croqueta.
Our third stop was a restaurant our professor actually had yet to visit; Bar Txangai. We were feeling pretty stuffed by then, and only stayed long enough for one pintxo: another tortilla. In opinion this tortilla was the best, narrowly beating out the one from Bar Zabaleta. It had a beautiful orange color that you can only get from local eggs.
Our pintxo tour ended at Casa Senra Donostia, where we ordered so many different dishes I couldn’t possibly describe them all in detail. One of which was octopus tentacle which you can see below. Octopus may seem daunting, but if you push down your fear of it coming alive and wriggling inside your mouth it actually tastes a lot like bacon. I also had shredded crab mixed with mayonnaise on some toast which was amazing.
This pintxo with professor Zabalbeascoa was a great introduction to the local Basque cuisine. The region is well known for it’s food and I definitely want to appreciate that as much as I can. Of course you can find good food in the US, but I do envy the social culture of bar hopping with friends and trying several different pintxos. I am somewhat disappointed that I wasn’t able to join the second pintxo tour today in Parte Vieja. I highly recommend a visit to San Sebastian, and also that you attempt your own tortilla to bring some of that pintxo culture back home. Naturally we ended our tour with some gelato which always makes a good day great.
By: Chloe Chanthompalit
As a student who 1) has never had any experience with the Spanish language, and 2) has never traveled outside of North America, suddenly being thrown into the world of Donostia, Spain is doubtlessly terrifying. Waiters and bartenders ask you questions that you don’t understand, so you just reply with the only word you know: “si.” Street signs are written in Spanish, so your only tool is a forever-loading Google Maps on your phone. You try to find a local bank to exchange your currency, but are unfamiliar with Siesta, a daily occurrence where all businesses close from 2pm – 4pm. Now you have no money and are lost.
However, you will find such beauty in the misadventures like I have on my first day in San Sebastián. Walking through the city, I first noticed how close it felt to home with small alleyways created by shops and restaurants clustered together. I couldn’t get enough of the fresh air, which subtly smelled like a floral perfume.
In a surprising contrast to this city-like feel, I found that the overall style of architecture had suddenly changed into a grander, more open place to walk. It’s almost like San Sebastián is made of two completely different societies; one with graffiti and the lingering smell of pastries, and the other with luxurious, ornate buildings and cars zooming by.
I then quickly learned that the Basque Country is very prideful in their history and origins. This is prominent in the architecture itself, where decisions were made to preserve certain buildings that were damaged and “unpretty.” More modern buildings, like that of Hotel Maria Cristina (a grand hotel that costs about 500 euro a night!) were named after or dedicated to historical figures that built the foundation of Basque society. This discovery was a peak of interest; in America, businesses typically forego the past in order to progress into a more modern society. As a result, certain aspects of historical knowledge are lost among generations. However, in San Sebastián, the environment tells its own captivating story. Bullet holes left in a wall are a reminder of the Spanish Civil War and the numerous political conflicts that the country had withstood. What’s left of a building that had caught on fire many years ago stands tall as a token of strength and perseverance of culture. The Basque people find beauty in the past, which in turn creates unity and a welcoming environment for those who want to learn more.
Traveling through San Sebastián, you will find adventure in the misadventures. The locals are kind and patient in helping visitors, and you will find yourself immersed into the culture whether you intended to or not. As time went by, I found myself using Spanish words that I had picked up to order drinks, as well as engulfed in the spectacular cuisine. I definitely agree that any aspect of the city is an unforgettable experience, especially if you order pintxos!