The Category is: Pintxos!

Today was our fourth day in San Sebastián; however, not even a bit of the culture shock I experienced on the first day had settled inside me. Today, a group of half of us made our way to La Parte Vieja, the historic district of San Sebastián, to sample the craft they created and honed over nearly the past 100 years. I’m referring to Pintxos (written in Euskara, the Basque language, and pronounced “pinchos”) which might have originated in San Sebastián in 1946 and was created by Joaquín Aranburu. 

Though the concept of pintxos are similar to that of tapas in that they both are cheap, bite-sized meals, pintxos are distinct because many utilize complicated French cuisine techniques with the fresh Basque ingredients while tapas remain simple. Like tapas, pintxos can be shared amongst friends and to be ordered with a round of drinks before moving on to the next bar. These bar crawls create a uniquely social approach to dining that we in America only get to experience on nights out while, for the Basque– among other Spaniards–, it is an ingrained part of their lifestyles. 

Because this is a vacation to a foreign land, I had set a goal for myself to experiment with new things enthusiastically, which had already proven to have great results so I believed that the pintxos would also have rich rewards for the risks. The first place we visited was Haizea Bar, a quaint location on a corner in the scenic Old Part of San Sebastian. For people like me, the most glaring thing you’ll notice about Spanish bars is the lack of personal space. One must fight their way to the bar to order— and to find a table, you have to wish on a star on the third day of the month while spinning around, or have hawk eyes on your surroundings then pounce when the opportunity strikes. Luckily, we had the expert professor to order for us, but I was honestly doubting his taste buds when he placed the first dish in front of us. It was bright green for one, and I couldn’t pinpoint the few ingredients it consisted of, which was troubling. It appeared to be something similar to green beans, skewered to what I thought was the black tongue of some reptile, topped with an olive, and drenched in olive oil. I wasn’t inherently disgusted, but I felt I should have eaten before going there in case it didn’t work out. This concoction called the Gilda after Rita Hayworth’s performance in the 1947 film of the same name was in fact made up of olives, Spanish peppers, and anchovies on a toothpick. Able to consume it in one bite, it was salty, spicy, and every bit of umami that I didn’t know I needed. To follow up, we had another skewered dish that looked like chicken to which the vegetarians of our group looked apprehensive, but to our surprise, they were actually artichoke hearts. The combination of the peppers, artichoke hearts, olive, and a drizzle of whatever sauce they create in-house was a strange and delicious marriage in my mouth. Our final course at this bar looked more like a Christmas present than something to eat. It was a packet of minced salted cod (Bacalhau) wrapped in thin, fried sheets and secured with a bow. After these dishes, I had the impression of pintxos as something that doesn’t look like it would taste good but defies your expectations.

We moved onto the next bar, Bar Borda Berri, rated amongst the best for pintxos for locals, tourists, and critics alike. However, it was here that things began to get…weird. There were some highs: salmorejo ( a fresh, cold soup like gazpacho, but better), risotto with smoked cheese, and the most tender beef cheek. And there were some definite lows: tripe of cod (yes, the texture of fish intestines is as bad as you think it is) and pig’s ear which I didn’t try but between 3 people, they couldn’t finish a little serving of it.

Next, we visited Txepetxa. In doing my research on pintxos, I discovered that Txepetxa is actually the Basque nickname of the local, Joaquin Aranburu, mentioned earlier that inspired the first pintxo. Therefore, I believe the restaurant is aptly named in that they specialize in anchovies, a core ingredient of the first pintxo. Unfortunately, I didn’t try said specialty because I was stuffing my mouth with a delicious bite of sea urchin on a baguette slice and topped with sea urchin roe. As someone who doesn’t eat fish often, I was pleasantly surprised. By this time, I was thoroughly full, but Professor Z had other plans for us.

Our next stop was Ganbara, a renowned pintxos bar that was packed to the brim with those trying to get in their last orders of food before the gates closed. Here, I ate smoked salmon on a mini croissant. Seems simple, no? Yet the depth of flavor of that salmon was unreal. I could definitely imagine it going well with the local effervescent white wine, txakoli, that many bars serve. Our final stop was La Viña for dessert. This bar is famous for being the creators of the Burnt Basque Cheesecake. It is less dense and more loose than the traditional New York Style cheesecake we are used to in America. I can say that the burnt element of the cheesecake was lacking, but I nonetheless cleared my plate.

By 4pm, my stomach was hurting from all the bloat, but I didn’t feel sick. Basque cuisine utilizes the best of its wealth of fresh ingredients with interesting but refreshing combinations that stay on one’s tongue long after they have left the bar. I think it’s impossible not to understand the Basque’s love of life when you taste their food. I am in reverence that I could experience what the late Anthony Bourdain raved about as one of his top two food capitals in the world.

Mount Igueldo

Our second day of classes started out a bit later than our first with breakfast at Olarain. The second day of riding our bikes to class went much smoother than the first, we only took one wrong turn this time! I don’t think I will ever get use to riding next to the beach on our way to class. The cool breeze and waves crashing on the empty beach has turned me into a morning-person. Our class was outside today which made learning much more enjoyable. After only the second day I can feel myself understanding the language better and speaking more clearly. 

After class some of us grabbed some pintxos and a small beer for lunch which were amazing! This introduction into the classic style of food in Spain was perfect to prepare us for the official Pintxos Tasting Tour that we will go on in the next couple of days. We were surrounded by locals, tourists, young and old people alike. We moved on from our bar and headed down to the water where we could see across the bay, almost all the way to Olarain. Dozens of boats were docked or cruising around. Sailboats had their sails full and kayaks bounced along in the waves. The sun shone down on hundreds of people that lined the beaches in a cloudless sky. We walked around one of the mountains, Monte Urgull, where we had a great view of the island, waves crashing on the rocks, and another one of the historic sculptures. After walking around Old Town a bit, we headed to the next stop with the group.

San Sebastián Spain is full of amazing landscapes, from rivers to mountains to bays. We explored another one of the mountains, Mount Igueldo, by using the funicular with the group. The funicular allows dozens of people to ascend and descend mountains in a matter of minutes. We arrived at the top and stepped out onto the balcony where you could see France in the misty distance. We saw the Plaza de Toros, an arena used for sporting events such as basketball and bullfighting! We could see the island and the stadium where Real Sociedad plays. To the right we saw how the land slides into the sea, known as flysch formations. Layers of rock appear to be pressed tightly together like books on a shelf. This formation allows geologists to read the history of the Earth’s crust going back millions of years. Down the coast, closer towards Bilbao, is where Game of Thrones filmed scenes for the Targaryen’s home: Dragonstone. The views from the top of this mountain were incredible, you feel as if you are on top of the world. 

Along with being a great spot to take Instagram-able pictures, this mountain is also home to the oldest roller coaster in Spain! Made up of the original stone, new mechanics have been added to continue to provide rides. For only €2.80, you can take this one minute long ride! You would think that the oldest roller coaster would be similar to a kids ride and the steepest hill would only be a couple feet high. We were happily mistaken as our stomachs dropped slightly on the hills. The ride brings you out on the far side where you have a spectacular view of the coast. This area also offers a lazy river ride, arcade games, bumper cars and more! 

After taking the funicular back down the mountain we headed to one of the piers. Here we observed the Peine del Viento Sculptures. These sculptures consist of twisted beams of iron embedded deep into the natural rocks along the coast. There are three sculptures, all different, but the same concept of iron beams. The Comb of the Wind, the english translation, was installed in 1977 and was a collaboration between Luis Peña Gachegui and Eduardo Chillida. The three sculptures can mean many different things to everyone, some see them as representing the three Basque provinces, others see them as the past, present, and future, or broken chain links. Whatever it means to you, know that these pieces are very iconic in San Sebastian. 

This trip was truly amazing, we got to see some incredible views of the bay and the Basque Country. Ride in the oldest roller coaster in Spain and travel in the small river cruise along the top of the mountain. We then got to see one of the great open sculptures in San Sebastian. This trip will definitely be one of my highlights. 

My First Day in San Sebastián

My first day in San Sebastián started earlier than one might think. Our group arrived to the Bilbao airport a bit after midnight and we proceeded to make the hour-long drive to our hotel, arriving at around 1:30. After the grueling 24 hours spent traveling to our new homes, we had just seven hours before we were scheduled to arrive at our first day orientation. Factoring in time spent showering, unpacking, and getting breakfast in the morning, this amounted to between four to five hours of sleep for most.

   Now why am I telling you all this? Believe it or not it is not just my attempt to complain to the airline companies for continually delaying our flight without end. It is to emphasize the energy that the small city of San Sebastián carries with it. This first day was jam packed with so many new and unique experiences that my body couldn’t even begin to get fatigued from the sub-optimal (to say the least) sleep and jet lag caused by the extended travel time because my mind was too busy perceiving and interpreting all the stimuli. 

    The day started off with a bike ride to the Lacunza language school. We were confident in our ability to make a 30 minute commute through a city that none of us have ever been to before. That confidence turned out to be our downfall. Soon enough we were pulled over on the side of the bike path with multiple people pulling up directions trying hard to figure out a way over a railroad track that was blocking our paths. Through some great collaboration and our sheer will, we eventually made it to the school slightly (it was more than slightly) late. Our luck turned around later in the day, though, as we got more familiar with our surroundings and we’re able to competently navigate around the downtown area of the city and our hotel. This first day really reminded me of what it felt like to move onto campus at UML for the first time last year. I had been to Lowell before, but never near campus, so learning the locations of all the buildings and the various routes between north and south campus was a large task. Quickly though, I started recognizing some landmarks and forming a mental map of the city. A year later and I know every street on campus like the back of my hand. This is how I want my short time at San Sebastián to go. I want to learn everything there is to know about this city and visit every nook and cranny. Ideally, leaving at the end of these three weeks will feel like leaving home. I recognize that it will take a lot of effort to constantly remain cognizant of my surroundings – mental effort that I have already started to use today.

    The Lacunza language classes are far different from any language class I have taken before. They are largely conversational. You are constantly talking with a partner or the class as a whole so that you can practice what it will really feel like when you are out in the streets of the city. During the spring semester of this year I was on a co-op, so before today I have not stepped foot in a classroom since early December. Normally I might be dreading going back to school, but understanding these facts about Lacunza beforehand made me look forward to trying out the altered style of learning. Sure enough, I thought the class was interesting and engaging and the time just flew by. From my perspective now, preparing for bed, it felt like such a small part of my day. And I suppose that is exactly what I would want out of these classes – a source of valuable information and daily practice, but one that does not impede me from experiencing the city on my own. In addition to the classes we had in the morning, the school also led us on a walking tour throughout the city. I learned so many tidbits about different landmarks and the culture of the city which jump started my desire to learn more and explore.

    What drew me most to San Sebastián were the breathtaking views and today’s experience alone has already more than delivered on my anticipation. The significance of where I am in the world right now still hasn’t really hit me. In all honesty I’m sure it won’t until a couple weeks after the trip is already over. So in order to combat this geographical shock, a perfect trip for me would entail having as many diverse experiences as I can and making the most of all of them so that I have a lot of content to remember from this month. Based on today’s activities and the plans for the next few weeks, I’m sure I am more than capable of accomplishing that.