Saturday, August 25, 2012
In the course of visiting 18 countries and more than 60 cities, we've encountered a wide variety of food. We've had some great meals, some good meals and some lousy meals. We've had some cheap meals, mostly in Asia, and some expensive meals, mostly in New Zealand and Australia. One of the best meals we had was in Valencia, Spain, which would be a taste (sorry) of things to come in our final stop in another Spanish city before heading for Paris.
San Sebastian was at the top of my list of places I wanted to visit on the trip. I think I first noticed it in an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations when we were obsessively watching pretty much every travel show on TV. It's on the northwestern coast of Spain, in the Basque region.
During our time ensconced in labradoodle puppies on a house-sit in the Pyrenees, we spent much of our time (when we weren't scooping poop) planning our next stop. A house-sitting job outside of Paris began on July 20th, giving us about eight days between the pups and Paris. The high cost of flying from anywhere in the south of France or northern Spain to Paris resulted in the decision to keep our rental car and drive to Paris, especially since the cost of returning the car to where we picked it up was the same as dropping it in Paris. So we said so long to the dogs and the cat (au revoir!) and drove east toward the Atlantic Coast and the town of Biarritz.
Biarritz is an old-school French holiday destination. It dates back to the 12th century where it flourished as a fishing village. It was also the site of some important battles in the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s, but gained prominence about fifty years later when Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, built a palace on the beautiful beach there. Biarritz has also been a favorite vacation spot of the British Royal family. Plus it's got some great waves and attracts a lot of surfers, so it's got an interesting mix of haute couture and hippy.
It was definitely more on the hippy side of things our first couple of days there as we stumbled onto a surfing competition. The weather wasn't cooperating from a spectator standpoint as a strong wind was coming in off the Atlantic, and the gray skies did nothing to ease the chill.
Plus, when the tide comes in, the water goes all the way to the rock walls, making it unsuitable for surfers to surf, so the competition was timed to the tide being out. We had seen surfers compete when we stayed in Manly Beach, just north of Sydney and really enjoyed that. So, we hoped to catch some of the action in Biarritz.
The apartment we booked was in a decent location, about a ten-minute walk to the beach and a fifteen-minute walk into the part of town teeming with restaurants and shops. The second day of our stay happened to come on Bastille Day, July 14th. We expected to be awash in a sea of French flags and banners, much like you see nothing but the Stars and Stripes in the US around July 4th, but we saw nothing of that. There were some impressive sounding fireworks shot off at eleven that night, but that was about it. Seems outside of Paris, where a military parade is held on the Champs Elysees, La Fete National is not that big of a deal.
The biggest attraction for us was the strikingly beautiful coastline. The city sits on a series of rocky bluffs, with a peninsula of stone knifing into the ocean and separating the two beaches. The one closest to our apartment was accessible by some steep stairs.
The beach on the other side of the rocky peninsula is the one that is famously depicted in paintings and on postcards. It's where Napoleon's wife built her palace and you can see why. The beach is gorgeous and long. Unlike her husband apparently.
Most of our stops along the way have not been in resort-areas, so it was kind of fun to soak in the "we're on a holiday" vibe of the people on the streets of Biarritz.
By the time we figured out that the surfing competition ended on Saturday, it was Sunday, so we missed out on that. Just like in Australia, the buzz from the surfers washed well ashore, with cafes and bars filled with surfers and their followers.
Some of our time in Biarritz was spent trying to figure out how to fill in the four or five days we had before we headed to Paris. My first attempt at finding a place to stay in San Sebastian had come up empty. Everything seemed to be booked up. So we briefly thought of heading there for lunch one day, before turning back around and driving north to some city on the way to Paris for a couple of days. That didn't seem like a very exciting plan so I dug a little more deeply into the interwebs, and finally found what turned out to be a great place in a great city.
The location of the apartment we rented was perfect. Like many European cities, San Sebastian has an "old town", and our place was on a tree-lined plaza in the old town. The front windows of the apartment overlooked the plaza, which was also lined with restaurants and cafes. It could get a little noisy at times, but for our four nights there, we were fine with the atmosphere and the noise died down by the time we were ready to call it a night.
One evening, we heard what those of us over the age of 50 would call a ruckus. People started gathering in the square, banging pots and pans and blowing whistles. There were well over one hundred of them, and some local TV stations showed up to cover the protest.
The signs and banners they carried were all written in Basque, and the best I could tell was that they were upset over the governments financial policies. (Occupy Madrid anyone?) The protests attracted demonstrators of all ages, including a few kids in strollers who were very happy to be encouraged to make noise for a change.
The protestors certainly couldn't have been upset over the food in San Sebastian. Pintxos are the local specialty. They are basically tapas, small servings that can be down in a bite or two, and pretty much every restaurant we saw offered up a menu of pintxos.
It took us one brave attempt at lunch our second day there to get the handle of how the ordering process goes. In some places, you order off the chalk board menu on the wall, while in others you grab a plate off the bar and just pick something from the different offerings and show the server who keeps track of what you've taken.
The first place we had pintxos was very creative in its presentation. One of the items we ordered was a dish involving rabbit, and the chef had formed something possibly out of a turnip or rice paper in the shape of a Playboy bunny head. It didn't add anything to the flavor but did add something to the key ingredient in the experience: fun, and you can't get enough of that, can you?
Once the trepidation about being unfamiliar with the ordering process was eliminated, we dove in head-first. We couldn't get enough of pintxos and the entire experience.
Luckily, our apartment was within walking distance of dozens of restaurants featuring pintxos, so we left the kids at home with some pasta and wi-fi our final night there and Annie and I went on a pintxos crawl. Most of the places were fairly crowded, but that just gave us a better chance to get to meet some people and share some fantastic food!
As we stood elbow-to-elbow with other pintxos enthusiasts at the bar, we struck up a conversation with a woman from Japan. Hitomi was traveling by herself, on something of a foodie tour. She left her husband at home and was traveling for a few weeks, just sampling the local food offerings along the way.
We shared travel stories and chatted about food of course. Plus Annie and I now have an awesome photo to enter into a Biggest Noses Contest (couple's division).
The atmosphere in the cafes and bars selling pintxos was electric and eclectic, with people enjoying the food and drink and the experience.
Besides great food, San Sebastian also offers a nice menu of natural beauty. The older part of the city sits on a peninsula that has two bays on either side. Those bays both feature gorgeous beaches.