The making of memories

What would happen if you took 13 random college students of various backgrounds and interests and dropped them in a city that none have been to before with scarce knowledge of the culture and few who speak the language? The answer to that is having one of the greatest learning in experiences there is. Too often we forget how big the world is, that there’s more to life than work and school and tat things are done in ways that we as Americans are used to. 

At the beginning of the three weeks we started out as strangers, many of whom have yet to leave even North America but after the first week we could all consider each other friends. It started on the first night where those who had arrived at the same time went out and had our first meal as a group. It was here that the that the unyielding craving to indulge in the amazing and unique foreign food was born and the discovery of the refreshing drink of the summer was shared; as well as the first of many explorations through the winding city and view of the beautiful beaches. 

The next ay was the beginning of classes where each of us started or continued to grow our knowledge of the Spanish language in addition to getting first hand insight into the local culture, customs, and things to do from the teachers who, for the most part, were locals and have called San Sebastián their home for many years. Here many laughs would be shared with people who have come from many parts of the world to learn alongside us. The tour afterwards was a good introduction to the city and it many parts an posssibilitits. We had an aerial view of the city and a stunning view of the ocean and three beaches the next day from atop monte igueldo where we shared churros and took a ride on one the oldest, still operational roller coasters in the world, Montaña Suiza. 

The group got to know eachother better over the next two days when we feasted upon various basque foods on our expertly led pintxo tasting tour. We discovered and tried foods that were both local and historical such as the infamous basque cheese cake and tortilla, as well as new foods like pig’s ear, peppers stuffed with squid and ink, and beef cheek. The information about the city and foods in addition to determining what each of us liked and disliked was well timed as thursdays is pintxo pote, a tradition in San Sebastián where, starting at 7:30, many bars and restaurants in old town offer a deal of one pintxo and a small drink for extremely cheap. The idea is to go to many places, which gets people together and gives business to the bars. It was a lot of fun, running around the city with friends enjoying the food and drinks without breaking the bank. The first week concluded with the daytime to the Txakoli winery where we could see firsthand how and where the wine was made, and got to try some with cheese and chorizo.

The first week set the pace for the rest of the weeks and it was clear by the Friday of the wine tasting tour everyone had gotten to know everyone else pretty well which made for more fun and excitement (and plenty of jokes) among the newfound friendships. The rest of the trip was largely the same; go to class, eat, then explore a different part of the city or have a relaxing day on the beach with various activities sprinkled in that gave a greater understanding of basque life such as jai alai and the basque language class. It wouldn’t be a school trip if not for a little bit of pain and suffering though. We went on two long walks up very uneven terrain in in the hot sun, one up to matako gaztelua, the large statue of jesus where we met Amati Buckley and discussed her basque cookbook, and the other on Santa Clara island were we took the basque language class and got slow roasted in the sun. One of the last major events was the free weekend where the guys explored the historic city of Bordeaux and the ladies did the same in Madrid. 

The trip culminated at the farewell dinner. Feelings of both woe and glee emanating from everyone. There was great sadness that we were leaving the beautiful city of San Sebastián and that most of us wouldn’t be seeing each other until the academic year started in the fall. But there was much more joy shared as we reminisced about the amazing experiences we had, the good, the bad, and the unusual, but it was all for the experience non the less and we enjoyed the foods we had learned to love over the past weeks. None of us will forget this trip, the people we met, the friends we made, and the experiences we shared.  

Wave Breaker: A trip to Santa Clara

Not too far from the coast, an island is seen in the distance. It’s hard to miss considering its mostly a small mountain. The island is called Santa Clara, and its a five minute ferry ride from the port to the island. On the way you will see quite the number of people swimming around the island, some on kayaks, some on rafts, even people swimming from the Ondaretta beach! Upon our arrival, we could see people jumping from the dock and into the ocean, for there was no sand bar to stop them. The sun was out and the day was pleasant. We climbed up the mountain for a bit, which for the untrained, may be a hassle, as the climb is steep and the path is uneven. However, the view is definitely worth the climb. Even from our final stop, you can see the majority of the San Sebastian coastline with just a slight turn of the head. On one side you can see the famous Combs of the Wind, resting on the rocks they were built on. We sat on a meadow just to the side of the main path, where we stayed for a while and talked. A good friend of Julian’s, named Stuart, gave us a short, but simple class on the Basque language and sayings. After the class, Julian and Stuart shared stories about their time in San Sebastian during a politically unstable period. They spoke about a political group that named themselves ETA, after the Basque word of the same spelling. The group was formed due to the hardships and biases towards the Basque population during and after the Franco dictatorship. Julian and Stuart described the years as turbulent; at first ETA consisted of Basque college students forming a non violent protest group, but as the years passed, violence turned into their main form of protest. The sun was beating on us for the duration of the trip, if you’re going to stay for a while bring sunscreen! After the discussion regarding San Sebastian’s and Spain’s political climate during the end of the 20th century, we went back down to enjoy some leisure in the water. I, myself, did not enter the water (salt water does not agree with my skin for extended periods of time) so I relied on my good friends and group mates to fill me in on the details. As mentioned before, you can dive off the dock and into the water without consequence, and so they did. The water was warm and there were no waves that close to the island, so it made swimming around a breeze. To finish off the day, a small bar was located near the dock, allowing tourists and citizens alike to have a light drink and snack before departing. The ferry’s leave every half hour on the hour. I recommend visiting the island, if not for the challenge of the climb, then for a nice swim in the ocean, away from the busy beach, and take in the sights and relaxed atmosphere.

Euskara 101

Euskara is the language of the Basque people, and it is older than nearly any other language in Europe. In fact, many historians are of the opinion that it is a “pre-Indo-European” language and could very well be the oldest living language on the continent. The language of the Basque Country predates the French and Spanish dialects that surround it by thousands of years, and as far as linguists and anthropology have discerned it contains no significant connection to any other language on the planet. It was for these reasons that I found it quite interesting that our class on the Basque language was led by a Scottish instructor. It was made evident, however, that Stuart’s 30+ year journey studying, practicing, and teaching the language made him more than qualified to instruct us.

In the class we learned basic greetings for every part of the day and some simple phrases to make navigating the shops and bars of San Sebastian just a bit smoother as we interact with the locals. By the end of the session, we were able to pair up and have mock conversations ordering in bars. The language is far from easy to learn, but being taught how to pronounce the unusual phenomes within the language and stringing sentences together brought about a certain sense of empowerment as we stoked a lingual connection with our adopted home.

Engaging with the language of our new home allowed us an opportunity to peer into the history of the county and the role that their ancestral tongue has taken in the story of the region. Prof Zabalbeascoa detailed the persecution of the Basques during the Franco years and the rise of ETA, and Stuart was able to fill in the details of the story based on his firsthand experiences living through years of instability in the country. We were told the story of one girl and her mother, who had been forced to move from the Basque country to one of the most nationalist cities in the nation. In the grocery store, when the young girl used the Basque word for apple, “sagarra,” heads turned. Her mother was forced to respond, “Si, agarra mi mano,” and take her by the hand in order to cover up the use of their native language.

The tragic reality of the cultural oppression which has taken place in the Basque region is harrowing, and it makes engaging with the language all the more important. As students adopting San Sebastian as our home for only a short period of time, it is vital that we do everything that we can to soak up the culture and history of the region, and it is impossible to do that without understanding at least some of the language which creates such a large distinction between the Basque country and its neighbors.

Unfortunately, because of the timing of this session, we have little time now to practice our Basque with native speakers in their native land. This does not mean, however, that the class was in any way wasted. As we sat in our “classroom” on the side of the Isla de Santa Clara, we looked out at the place which had become our home over the past two and a half weeks. From that vantage place we could see a number of places in which we had spent time. The theme park we visited towering high above on Monte Igueldo, Chillida’s “Combs of the Wind” along the foot of the mountain, and the waves crashing on the shore at Ondarretta. Although we had already been living in San Sebastian for weeks and had explored much of what it has to offer, we were able to see it in a brand-new light during this class. As we listened to the sounds of the language and learned about the ways that the culture has changed throughout history, we were able to see that San Sebastian, and the Basque country as a whole, has much more brewing beneath the surface than one would think.

Scratching away the veneer of the beautiful beaches and the mountains marching off into the distance, we were able to consider the deep wounds that the people of this land nurse and understand that the strength of the Basque people is even more beautiful than the landscape. Discussing the manner in which reconstruction occurred in the post-Franco era and the “Pact of Forgetting” opened our eyes to the fact that many people today live with the memory of a world against them. The Basque people are not long removed from a period of time in which they were oppressed and slaughtered, but still they stand proud. History has ensured that the Basques are no strangers to violence, and it has sadly become an integral facet of their story. As Professor Zabalbeascoa told us during our class, “the problem with violence is that it become the primary form of conversation.” This was certainly true in the Basque country, where the people were both victim and perpetrator for many years. Euskara allows the people of the Basque country to change that conversation, however, and focus on preserving themselves and their legacy. Learning Basque with Stuart gave us an opportunity to play a small part in that conversation and preservation even as our trip comes to a close and we make our way home, because we will forever be connected to this place through its language.

Bordeaux: A Weekend Trip Full Of History

In San Sebastian, yesterday was Saint James Day which meant the group did not have Spanish class at Lacunza. A few of the guys, including myself, took this opportunity of a long weekend to visit Bordeaux, France. Bordeaux was a small four hour bus trip away and when we arrived, I could feel the cultural difference easily. It was a Friday night, which in San Sebastian would equate to thousands on the street, live music, open bars, and overall commotion, it was the complete opposite in the main Bordeaux area. It was only eleven in the evening yet many places were closed or stopped serving any food, there were few out having wine, and it was eerily silent throughout the main roads. Nonetheless, I was still looking forward to what the city had to unveil.

Monument aux Girondins in one of the largest squares in Europe!

Saturday was full of diving into Bordeaux’s history as the group took a 15 kilometer bike tour throughout the city where we had the privilege of seeing many pieces of Bordeaux’s ancient architecture. Our first stop was at the Bordeaux Cathedral which was erected in 1096! It’s hard to believe such a massive church (pictures below) has been standing for nearly a millennium and still has active services weekly! A few of us even had the privilege of attending the Sunday service and even receiving communion and listening to the beautiful choir. The acoustics of this building were unlike anything I have ever heard due to the extremely tall ceilings and the massive wall-to-wall organ on the back wall. Similar to the cathedral of San Sebastian, the one in Bordeaux was clearly a gothic style with a hint of Roman influence regarding the statues and sculptures surrounding and attached to the building itself. Most of the cathedral has been renovated with most of the current structure dating back to the 13th and 14th century when the gothic church style was extremely popular. The two main towers are an astonishing 81 meters tall which for the time of construction, is a rather impressive feat. An interesting fact about the cathedral is that King Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine were married in the church in 1137. Adjacent to the cathedral is Pey Berland Tower which was built in 1440 and was to hold and display the 11 ton bell which was once apart of Saint Andre’s Cathedral which is about a mile away. Archbishop of France Pey Berland was the one who funded and designed this gothic style tower.

It’s so massive I couldn’t even fit it into one picture! On the left is the Pey Berland Tower
The ceilings are not deceiving whatsoever, this was the Sunday even liturgy which had a large attendance

Moving on, we also visited two other very important pieces of architecture that define Bordeaux’s history and show the influence different culture’s had on the city. The first of which was the “Big Bell” or “Grand Cloche” in French which stood in the center of downtown Bordeaux and constructed in 1246. The city used to be mostly fortified with castles and grand walls guarding most of the inside of the city but King Louis XV wanted the city to be more open and requested most of the infrastructure of that manner be torn down. One of the few that stayed was the Grand Cloche which was used to hold juvenile delinquents and the bell is rung on special occasions. The other important piece of ancient architecture we saw was the Palais Gallien which dated back to the 3rd century and was built by the Romans. It was by far the most ancient piece of architecture in the city and was a marvel to see such a relic in person. Unfortunately, most of the amphitheater is gone at this point because during different French revolutions and wars, many pieces of it were taken apart and used to construct brick pathways because for obvious reasons, did not care to identify with roman culture. At some point, they realized they were removing ancient history and ceased deconstruction but at this point, it was far beyond restoration and only a few arches stand today.

What remains of the Roman Ampitheatre

This essentially wrapped up the bike tour which I found to be the most eventful part of the weekend. The only other planned activity that occurred was visiting the wine museum which was very interesting but somewhat overwhelming to a non-expert in wine. We enjoyed a freshly caught seafood dinner on Sunday night and wrapped up our stay with shopping on Rue Saint-Catherine, the longest shopping street in Europe! Overall, while I enjoyed my long weekend in Bordeaux, I felt San Sebastian fit my lifestyle and habits much better for a few main reasons. The first is one I mentioned previously which was the very silent streets and overall more quiet nightlife, I really enjoy the buzz and music of San Sebastian and have almost become accustomed to it. I also found the people to be less friendly and sociable towards tourist although it was nice that most spoke English. If I had to sum the city up in one phrase, I would describe it as, Bordeaux: A city full of rich culture, ancient history, wine and great food.

When in Madrid…

Our Airbnb for the weekend was located in the neighborhood of La Latina, a neighborhood right in the center of Madrid– strategically picked because of its close proximity to the tapas bars and museums. The first plan of the weekend was to explore the famous tapas street “Cava Baja.” The street was lined with restaurants left and right, and even though it was not an easy decision, we settled on La Concha. We all stepped out of our comfort zone and I ordered squid in its own ink: definitely better than I was expecting! Even though we had planned to go on a tapa crawl that night, us falling asleep at the dinner table got in the way and we decided to return home for the night to get some rest for the busy day to follow.

When we first heard that we had a free weekend, the four other girls and I knew exactly how we were going to spend it: in Madrid. The culture and liveliness that Madrid encompasses is so unique– and a six hour bus ride in 105 degree weather was not going to stop us from getting to experience this opportunity. Madrid is the complete contrast of the small, quiet San Sebastian- with it’s crowded, touristy streets and chaos- but we were excited to get to compare the two and see all that the big city had to offer.

My squid for dinner!

After waking up early and getting breakfast at a nearby cafe, we headed to our next stop, El Prado. Not all of us were huge art fans, but the art here was so different from the art back home and we ended up spending almost four hours here! It captured centuries of Spain’s history- from wars, to monarchs, to political revolutions dating back to the 1400s. Goya’s “Pinturas negras” collection was a personal favorite. 

El Prado

After the museum, we were ravenous and decided to head to the San Miguel market to find some food. When I first walked in there, my senses were overwhelmed. It was crowded, and there was a wonderful mixture of smells and noise coming from all around. It was set up with a number of food places and drink stations to choose from: one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make! My friends and I decided to pick a few interesting things and share them all, settling on empanadas, tacos (some even with octopus!) and some macaroons for dessert.

That was all just a preview before the highlight of the night: the flamenco show! Barely knowing what a flamenco show was going into the night, we all knew that we had to experience this improvisational art that Madrid was known for. The three dancers all had drastically different skills, and combined with the beautiful song and guitar made for an entertaining hour and a half: unanimously our favorite part of the weekend.


Madrid would not be as fun without churros, so luckily we found ourselves pretty close to the world-famous Chocolatería San Gines. They know what they are doing: the way the churros melt in your mouth explains why they have been Madrid’s go to for churros since the late 1800’s.

Churros from Chocolatería San Gines

The night ended with exploring some of Madrid’s nightlife– including a seven story club with a karaoke bar! People stayed out quite literally all night in Madrid, something which again illustrated the difference between the city and laid-back San Sebastian.

We had a late start to the morning Sunday, so most of our day was spent wandering throughout the city. After having breakfast and checking out, we stumbled upon Plaza Mayor and Puerto del Sol, which were incredibly bigger than they were in pictures. The rest of our day was spent shopping for souvenirs in Gran Vía. After stuffing our faces with food and doing some more wandering, we headed towards the bus for our six hour ride back to San Sebastian.

The weekend was full of us experiencing anything and everything there was to do in the city: always justified by saying “Why not… when in Madrid!” Needless to say, although I spent the weekend adventuring and taking in Madrid’s culture, the minute I stepped off of the bus in San Sebastian, I felt relieved to be back at home in the Basque country.

Imagine Wall Ball But On Steriods

Coming off the bus to the arena, I had no idea what to expect from this game. All I knew was that the game required a hook glove and a ball thrown against the opposite wall. However, el remonte is a game more complex than that. Remonte requires you to catch the ball off the wall and throw it in the same motion. When watching the pros do it, it looks not that difficult. However, it is quite the opposite. The remonte court is the same court use for another popular sport known as jai-alai. In fact, remonte is a special version of jai alai. On the remonte court, many grooves and numbers indicateing a player/ the ball position. The groves also serve another role in the game besides position. Remonte is one of the fastest sports in the world, with the ball going up to 300 km/h or 186 mph. With the ball going so fast, it’s hard to see where it lands. This is where the extra features of the groves come in. When the ball hits the groves, they make a unique sound. In fact each surface has a different type of sound. This makes it easy for spectators, players, and officials to know where the ball is at all times. After learning about the sport we had the chance to practice throwing and catching the ball. The ball the pros use is a hard plastic ball wrapped in resin but for our safety, we used a tennis ball.

Remonte court

Once the glove was put on my hand, I had difficulty getting the ball to reach the wall from throwing it with the glove. It wasn’t just me, however, almost everyone in the class had trouble figuring it out. But after 20 minutes of constant throwing and catching, most of us got the hang of it. To prove our new skills we had a competition to see who could throw the ball the farthest. Everyone was able to make it past the 4th mark, and a few people were able to hit it from the 7th mark, which is half of the court. It was super impressive. 

Ad for Remonte match

The sport of remonte is a sport I would never have been interested in if I didn’t come to San Sebastián. It’s a very unique sport and requires a lot of skill, patience, and determination. Like most the things I’ve seen in the city, the basque people thrive on taking something that is already popular and elevating it to a new level. For instance, the basque people took the popular game of jai alai and transformed it into a the fast paced game of remonte. The food in San Sebastián is very similar to the food we Americans eat at home, like hamburgers and sandwiches. However, the burgers and sandwiches here are made with different ingredients and meat products, giving off a fantastic new flavor. The basque people take pride in doing this and do it well. There is comfort in knowing that something is similar and yet still new. 

Remonte shows me how much the Basques value community. Remonte is not just a sport for the players but also a vast spectator sport. In the stands, they have live betting in which they throw money into a hollowed-out tennis ball and throw it to the bookie. When watching a match in any competitive sport, random people come together and cheer on their team. They feel the emotions the players feel, like the joy of winning or the sorrow of a bitter loss. The Basque people feel genuinely connected with the game. This fosters a tightly knitted community in which everyone can prosper. 

Remonte Ball

Rmonte also shows how dedicated the basque people are. The gloves to play the game cost around €800 for amateurs and €300 for professionals. A hefty price just to even play the game. Each glove is handmade and can take up to 3 months to make. They only last up to 15 matches before they are too worn down. remonte requires a lot of investment, yet the basques still play and dedicate themselves. They understand the price but won’t let it stop them from playing.

Practicing our skills

My experience in this beautiful city has been breathtaking. Every day I’m surprised by the new things I find, such as a delicious pintxo or a new walkway. This city is not that big, but you still spend days walking around finding new things. Like most beautiful cities in Europe, everything is a picture. A picture that will live in my brain till death does me apart.

From Up at Urgull, Down to the City Below

While unsure of what would be the hike up Mount Urgull, I was still more than eager to go on this adventure. Though identified as a mountain, Urgull from the perspective of the city seems more like a looming, large hill, overlooking the many people below. This may be why a church was built at the top along with a towering statue of Jesus, a seemingly appropriate way to acknowledge a large mass of land — that is to build something on top.

Statue of Jesus atop a small chapel at the top of Mount Urgull

The first settlement in Donostia (the Basque name for San Sebastián) was built in the shadow of Mount Urgull. Slowly, the town progressed from a few homes and warehouses to a city and fortified garrison. The initial fence marking the area for taxation was gradually turned into thick walls in the 16th and 17th centuries, which protected the city and its inhabitants.

Depiction of Mount Urgull and San Sebastián (Koln, 1572)

As we went up the mountain, it is fair to say that the views were arguably better than those in the forests of Massachusetts, but it depends on who you ask. Unlike the trails back home of worn down pine needles, these paths were made by carefully laid stones (along with some concrete). While not always even, the stones provided a unique walking experience that is rarely found in the United States. Some of the stairs did prove a little tricky if you weren’t watching your step, due to the lack of light and unevenness of the stones, however even those in their usual flip flops and sandals (you know who you are) were able to make their way up just fine.

One of the many paths on Mount Urgull

Looking back on the hike, it seems to me that the story of the Basques can be in a way tied to this hill. After being oppressed so much by many different groups of people, the Basques were always able to preserve their one-of-kind language and culture. Though climbing a steep hill is definitely not the same as overcoming hundreds of years of invasions, the incredible views at the top were definitely a reward for the sweaty journey up. About two-thirds the way up we had an incredible view of Playa La Zurriola, as pictured below, and at the top we were about to look out across the whole city, with great images of Playa de La Concha and Mount Iguedo. Today, San Sebastián and the people of this city are able to enjoy their culture without the worry of attackers, and they get to enjoy the unbelievable scenery around them, something I’d definitely consider a bonus.

View of Playa La Zurriola and part of San Sebastián

Before we got to the main path though, we had to climb up the crooked stairs, past the many bars and restaurants of the Parte Vieja (Old Town), a place unlike anywhere I’d been before. Given I have never been to Europe before, this part is far beyond what I expected from the streets of a place that is well-known for their bars and food. When I think of a restaurant  being crowded, I usually think of every table taken with no seats open at the bar. Here, crowded is being lucky to get into the bar. People are packed so tightly that I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more people than square footage of the place. 

But I mean, after eating the food, I can’t really blame them. You’ll know a good place when you see it, as the line will be out the door, crowding up the street. And even still, at the less packed places, you’ll find delicious pintxos (small bites, but you can read about that in another blog) made of the freshest ingredients. The stark contrast with the American eating culture is very appealing as well. Unless you get the Menu Del Dia, you’ll most likely be hopping from place to place spending just a few euros to get the best mouthfuls of food you’ve ever had.

Image from a bar-lined street in Parte Vieja.

As with everything we have done so far on this trip, quoting Thomas, “Everything is a picture.” From the incredible dishes of food, to the views of the bay on our daily bicycle commute to Spanish class, to a picturesque ham shop, everything really does deserve its own highlight. It truly is hard to take in everything around me, and appreciate the flow of the Basque lifestyle, while still getting accustomed. I enjoy not having to eat a meal at a certain time, since I know that there will always be some bar just a block or two down the road that will have pintxos to hold me over until dinner, or to take dinner’s place. As of now, half-way through my time here in San Sebastián, I can’t really think of anything more I can ask for. This experience is changing my perception of living life each day, giving me new ideas about how to reach that next view at the top of the mountain.

Food is Culture w/ Marti Buckley

After a long hike up the Parque de Ursull we stopped somewhere along the way back down that had a beautiful view of la Concha beach, where we got to meet Marti Buckley, who is the author of Basque Country: A Culinary Journey Through a Food Lover’s Paradise.

Marti shared with us some of her back story and her journey of writing and publishing this book. She first visited Spain in 2005 through a study abroad trip in which she was situated in Pamplona which is a near by city close to San Sebastián. Pamplona is where they celebrate the fiestas of San Fermin with the running of the bulls. Through this trip she got to try and learn all about the Basque cuisine, much like how we are now. Eventually she went back to the United States but really embraced cooking after this study abroad trip and she slowly got into cooking. She knew she wanted to come back to Spain so when presented with the opportunity to move out to Spain for a year, she took it and flew out to Spain with her family. What was supposed to be a year turned into many more and she is still here in San Sebastián now. While living in San Sebastián she got the idea to write a cookbook about the Basque Country cuisine as it had never been done before and she felt it important that it had to be done and she wanted to be the one to do it. After thorough research which included learning about the history of the recipes, going out to all the different provinces and talking to different people etc., she was able to start getting her cookbook together. After three years she was able to finish her book and publish it for everyone to read and enjoy.

Something important to consider about her book is that it was heavily meant for an American audience which is why there is the inclusion of very specific measurements of ingredients for the recipes but a key note here is that she still wanted her book to keep the Basque culture in it as it is being written about the Basque culture through food. Marti didn’t want any American touches in the book she wanted it to be “Basque grandmother approved” as the only cookbooks there are in the Basque Country are all grandmother type books with minimal instructions and just mainly ingredients. Marti mentioned how she wanted this cookbook to be a way for not only people who know nothing about the Basque Country to learn about the food culture here but also for those who are from the Basque Country or have family from the Basque Country but aren’t living here at the moment. She wanted this book to serve as a connection to their Basque culture and for them to be able to maybe cook a recipe for their family or friends. She also wanted the book to cover all the seven provinces of the Basque Country in order for the audience to understand how vast Basque cuisine really is. I can truly say that reading this book before coming to the Basque Country was the best thing to do and I recommend everyone do it when thinking about visiting the Basque Country. It was so informative about not only the food in the Basque Country but also the history behind each dish and the traditions behind the different foods and their significance to the Basque culture.

The most unique aspect about Basque cuisine is not just the food itself but the whole experience. Basque cuisine is about knowing the culture and history behind the food but also the landscape of the country and the timing of when you eat the food. Basque cuisine is not just eating a dish it is a whole experience into the Basque world. Through the food you can really immerse yourself in the Basque culture and learn so much about their traditions and how the Basque people live and interact.

The timing of the dining experience here in the Basque Country is one of the most surprising and amazing aspects that I have gotten to enjoy on this trip so far. It is typical for bars and restaurants here to open up for lunch around noon to about three and then take their “siesta” break and then reopen at around seven until midnight. Now for someone who usually has dinner at like five this was a big shift and shock but after having dined this way for a week, I love it. It allows for a better break between lunch and dinner in which you get to digest your food and just relax while you take a stroll around the city, go to the beach, or just take a nap!

Something beautiful that Marti mentioned is how in Basque cuisine there is not one unified or correct way to do things. The recipes and experiences change depending on the area in which you are trying a specific dish. So it can technically be the same dish but different parts of the Basque Country will do it differently and put their own little spin on it, which makes it seem like you are trying something new all the time.

So if you ever are considering to come to San Sebastian, don’t forget to pick up a copy of Basque Contry: A Culinary Journe Through a Food Lover’s Paradise by Marti Buckley. Trust me you won’t regret it!

Wine Tasting and Tour at Talai Berri Winery

When Professor Zabalbeascoa told us that “people’s profile photos are born” at Talai Berri winery in Zarautz, that man was not joking. Today’s winery tour and tasting left us all (mainly thanks to Cate and her photography skills) with a camera roll full of gorgeous photos and, most importantly, happy taste buds.

The History of the Winery

We began the afternoon with a history of the winery, told by one of the two sisters who own and run the winery, and whose family has owned the winery for five generations. Originally the wine was made only for friends and family, but by the third generation they were selling their wine locally, and then to larger populations like Barcelona and Madrid. 

Three generations of Talai Berri wine makers

The wine produced at this winery, called Txakoli, was given the Denomination of Origin status in 1989, meaning the quality of the product is regulated and guaranteed, and that the grapes used in the wine are grown in that area of the country. 

There are three provinces in Basque Country that make this kind of wine, and despite all being sold under the name “Txakoli,” they all have different characteristics based on the ingredients used and the production process. Bizkaia is the main producer of Txakoli, and theirs is much different than the Txakoli produced in Getaria. While the product made in Getaria is a “young” and “fresh” wine meant to be consumed right away, the Txakoli made in Bizkaia has a longer and more complex production process. Bizkaia Txakoli is harvested in September and is in bottles by Christmastime, making the production a very short process. 

The Wine Making Process

Each grape used in Talai Berri’s wine is picked off the vine by hand and into crates, which, once they’re filled, are left underneath the vines for a truck to pick up and bring back to the winery. They typically have 16-18 workers picking the grapes from 8am to 3pm each day. The grapes are sent down a chute inside the building and then into a press, which squeezes the juice out. By 5pm that day, the grapes are done pressing and the whole thing starts all over again the next day.

The juice from the very first press of the machine is always the best, while the last squeeze is usually from the skin of the grapes. This last bit of juice is not used in their wine-making process, but instead it is sent out to a distillery where it is made into Grappa. 

Seen in this photo: the chute and pressing machine, crates for picking the grapes, and stacks of empty wine bottles

After the juice is squeezed out, it is sent to a room where temperature-controlled tanks are filled. This is where the natural fermentation begins. Sedimentation occurs in these tanks as particles sink to the bottom, leaving the clean liquid on top. During the last two days of the fermentation process, the tanks are sealed off to trap the natural carbonation inside the wine. This carbonation process is unique to this area, which gives the wine its dryness and acidity. 

After this whole process the wine is put into a -40° tank which helps to get rid of any crystals and sediment that may form. They do this there at the winery ahead of time so that crystallization doesn’t occur in consumers’ freezers instead. Finally, the wine is bottled and left to come to room temperature before being labeled. This prevents condensation on the bottle from peeling the label’s adhesive. 

Storage tanks where fermentation occurs

Tasting the Wine

The majority of the wine made at Talai Berri is white wine, as the red wine requires exceptional weather and growing conditions. They also produce a rosé, which is actually not as popular here in Europe as it is in the US. Today we were able to try both the white and the rosé.
Most of us have already tasted Txakoli on this trip at restaurants, but I think it was nice, for me at least, to get to slow things down and actually taste the wine rather than simply drink it. Out on the gorgeous terrace of the winery, with a panoramic view of the vineyard and the mountains in the distance, we sipped the wine, ate tuna with peppers and bread and cheese, and enjoyed the taste of Basque.

Pouring the wine!

This particular Txakoli had a crisp taste with notes of apple and lemon. It was cold (as it is meant to be) and refreshing, a perfect wine to drink on a hot, sunny day like today. Julian also taught everyone that white wine glasses are meant to be held by the stem so as not to warm the liquid with your hand.

A panorama of the vineyard

A Meaningful Trip

Today’s tour was further evidence of the idea we’ve been hearing since before this trip started: that Basque Country is all about modern life intertwining with nature. The fact that Talai Berri’s wine is still made authentically by hand with the same traditional recipe as the first generations of their family’s winemakers (despite using updated technology) proves that the people here value authenticity and quality over convenience. Back in America we seem to gravitate towards the mass-produced food and drink that everyone else around us is also consuming, and that lifestyle simply lacks the charm that the Basque Country possesses in regard to what is consumed and how. Our life in America is so fast-paced and work-oriented, and I think we need to take a page from the Basque Country book and just slow things down to enjoy life. 

OMG, Gros! – A Flavorful San Sebastián Neighborhood

The Art of Pintxos

Pintxos, a Basque word that might as well mean “small bites,” are a staple of the culture here in San Sebastián. On Thursday, July 14th I set out with half of my class to join Professor Julian Zabalbeascoa on a pintxo tour through one of San Sebastián’s bustling neighborhoods, Gros. In just one afternoon we hit a total of five bars to experience for ourselves the very unique pinxtos Gros has to offer. I jumped into the day with one goal: eat what’s on my plate, and ask Julian what it was only after I ate it. This mindset led to me trying octopus, goose liver, squid and squid ink, as well as pig ear all in one day.

My personal favorite pintxo was called a piquillo pepper stuffed with txipirones en su tinta, which is stuffed peppers featuring squid and covered in squid ink. The black ink was intimidating and if I had gone into Txiki Taberna with any other mindset, I would have probably said, “OMG, gross!” Instead, I took a bite and was introduced to a new world of flavors. The peppers provided a powerful tang, the squid held a rich taste, and the ink was a perfect consistency: neither watery or too thick. As a seafood lover, both my stomach and my heart were full.

Piquillo peppers stuffed with txipirones en su tinta from Txiki Taberna in Gros, San Sebastián.

Some of my classmates were not as big of fans of the squid stuffed peppers as I was; however, another seafood pintxo blew their minds and stole their hearts. Brocheta de pulpo y gambas – which means octopus and shrimp skewer – from Bodega Donostiarra consists of octopus tentacles, large shrimp, and roasted vegetables hanging over a baked potato. The mere sight of the brocheta is nothing short of amazing. The combination of the hanging skewers, the bright colors, and the octopus suckers create an overwhelming but breathtaking presentation. This too could have been an, “OMG, gross!” moment, but instead it was one full of excitement as Julian encouraged us to dive into the Basque culture and appreciate the beauty and artwork within the food. The brocheta was several students’ favorite dish of the day, ironically including Ardon, who is allergic to shellfish. At the end of our tour he expressed, “I didn’t even eat that and I think it was my favorite!”

Brocheta de pulpo y gambas from Bodega Donostiarra in Gros, San Sebastián.

The Authentic Experience

Having the opportunity to explore the neighborhood of Gros for the pintxo tour was – and still is – such a blessing for me. While all of the neighborhoods of San Sebastián are incredible, Gros is unique in the fact that it lacks in tourists and is full of locals. This allowed my classmates and I to truly immerse ourselves in the Basque culture as we surrounded ourselves with the local Basque people. We experienced authentic flavors popular in Basque cuisine full of only the best of the best ingredients, and only when their in-season.

The relationship Basques have with food is starkly different from what we are used to in the United States. As a teenage girl I have grown accustomed to the excessive counting of calories or worry over “unhealthy” foods that is common in America. In San Sebastián, that harmful kind of relationship with food doesn’t exist. Here, food is something to enjoy, not tracked. It is an opportunity to be creative, not bland. It is made to honor the traditions of Basque ancestors, not to be a stressor. They use high quality ingredients and very few extra additions such as seasonings or heavy sauces, so the true flavor of what is being presented can shine. Here in the Basque Country, you will never find a dish of squid or octopus that is overpowered, only enhanced.

Traditional tortillas, gilda pintxos, and padron peppers topped with only a Basque finishing salt from Bar Zabaleta in Gros, San Sebastián. Also pictured: a Basque specialty wine called txakoli.

Gutxi ta Maiz

There is a Basque phrase, “gutxi ta maiz,” which means “a little bit all the time.” I have only been here for five days, but I think I’m beginning to truly understand it. It is essentially a much more beautiful way to say everything good comes in moderation. The tradition of pintxos is a perfect example. It’s not necessary to have the biggest or fullest plate on the table in order to enjoy an authentic, tasteful dish. A small bite is all you need. Bigger doesn’t mean better, and sometimes a small portion is a blessing. Enjoy the little things, and you just might find yourself enjoying everything. Just like I did with the pintxos in Gros: I enjoyed one small bite at a time and when the day came to an end, I discovered I had really enjoyed a neighborhood, a city, a culture – and that is a blessing.