~And let us pursue that most tempting of
Friday, June 15, 2012
San Sebastian, Spain – Beaches, Farmhouses and Pintxos!
“Why can’t we ever just get off the train and be at the hostel?” asked Leslie as we walked down the dirt road that we were hoping was Errekalde, Auzoa in Lezo, a small city in the Basque Country of Spain. At this point, we’d been looking for “Bed and Breakfast Marleen” for the last six hours.
The night train had dropped us off at 6:45am and we’d spent the last three hours trying to remain connected to the ‘net to find an email from Marleen. The first place had coffee, no food. The second place had food, no electrical outlet. The third was just right.
Eventually, we found the train stop “Gaintxurizketako-Garalekua” deep in the bowels of www.hostelworld.com and hopped on the local “Eusko” train to head out towards the Bed and Breakfast.
The stop was fairly easy to find, but there was no sign and we spent the next three hours touring the rural neighborhood of Errekalde trying to find the B&B. We met about 2/3 of the neighborhood and while everyone was friendly and trying to be helpful, nobody knew where the B&B was and nobody spoke English. We did confirm that Spanish chickens, sheep and horses look like US chickens, sheep and horses.
Eventually we got tired of lugging the backpacks around so we sat by a small stream in the shade and took turns exploring. Leslie found a young woman who looked up the address, confirmed we were in the right spot and helped us figure out house numbers so we knew which end of the street to be on. We headed towards what we thought was #8 and found a huge gate. We opened the gate to be greeted by two barking dogs running down the driveway followed by a man with a hoe. We shut the gate.
“Bryan!” we heard from behind us. “You found us yourself!” It was Marleen.
Marleen led us into her house and gave us some olives and some tea. It was literally next door to the train station. There house was a mini-UN. Marleen was from Belgium, her husband was Spanish, their son Carlo was adopted from Hungary and their daughter was Basque.
After a short nap we headed out into San Sebastian proper, which was the main attraction, even if we were staying outside in the town of Lezo. We’d heard good things about the town from other travellers, but for me, the main attraction is the food.
A “Michelin Star” is an award of excellence given by the French. Restaurants must pass stringent tests in order to receive a Michelin Star, but when they do, it’s a mark of high quality. San Sebastian has more Michelin Stars per capita than any place on earth. We might not be hitting the €150 per plate places of the celebrity chefs, but our expectations were pretty high.
Tapas are called “Pintxos” in the Basque Country. The “tx” in Basque sounds like the “ch” in English, so it sounds like “pEEnt-chos”. They are prepared in advance and piled high on plates, which are then placed on the bar. You can point and they’ll serve you or hand you a plate and you can fill it yourself. There’s usually a couple more hot pintxos on the menu that are cooked fresh. In the more popular places you cannot eat at the bar because it’s covered in pintxos. Most cost €2-3 but it’ll take 3-4 to make a meal.
We got lucky though and ended up being there during Pintxos Week, sponsored by the local lager, “Keler 18”. (No relation to former Seattle Sounders and USA goalkeeper Kasey Keller, #18) Marleen had given us a map of the participating Pintxos bars which would give you 4 Pintxos and 2 Keler 18s for €10. There was some sort of card you’d fill out to rank your favorites.
We ended up going to a bunch of different pintxos bars during our time in San Sebastien, but our favorite was a place called Kota 31, which we ended up at 3 separate times. Their 4 pintxos offering for the Pintxos week was: tempura fried prawns served with a pimento mayonnaise oxtail pie served with a sweet tomato jelly mushroom, cheese sauce and crunchy-thing risotto spanish-ham bechamel croquettes (our favorite)
We also ended up getting some mild local peppers that were fried in olive oil. Well… most were mild. One out of every 20 was a doozy.
Our three days flew by in San Sebastien. There were three picture-perfect white-sand beaches that we never really managed to make it to. Day 1 was beautiful, but we didn’t bring beach stuff. Day 2 we brought beach stuff, but it rained. Day 3 we brought raincoats… and it was gorgeous. Oh well.
San Sebastian is in a quite strategic location as the road from Paris to Madrid runs right through it. Franco knew it, Napoleon knew it and now you know it! There’s a large hill sitting off to one side of the city right on the ocean that has a castle on top. Napoleon used it to hold the city although at one point a large chunk of it was destroyed as a lightning bolt struck the cache of gunpowder. Oops. A fifteen foot tall statue of Jesus Christ looks over the city from the center of the battery.
Our second day in the B&B saw Ben and Lindsay from Portland arrive, which were a fun couple to hang out with. In order to keep down costs, they made food every day. It was some of the weirdest food that Carlo had ever seen though. The 18 year old Spaniard got up his nerve though and managed to try that weird American food . . . the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He took one bite and will probably never take another.
The third day saw us figuring out what our next stop was going to be and trying to figure out how to get into France. Unfortunately, it looks like the French don’t have many hostels. Our solution… one more day in Lezo.
In fact, the local train that takes us from San Sebastien to our B&B is about fifteen minutes. If you take the train ten minutes the other way, you cross the Spain-France border into the small town of Hendaye.
As a result, our first day in France saw us stay in the same place as our last few days in Spain. Hendaye was a fun little beach town. We took about a twenty minute walk along the water an around the port. Probably the highlight of the day was a ferry from one side of the river to the other. The “ferry” sat about twenty people and could hold 5 bikes, no cars. We got some fun pictures of both sides of the river from the middle.
We got off the other side and I looked at Leslie, “Wait, what country are we in again?” It turns out we had crossed back into Spain, but soon went back to France as the food was very expensive. Lunch was actually quite interesting.
A Rick Steeves French/Italian/German language guide has been bouncing around my backpack for the last few months and is about to become invaluable. That said, I asked if the waitress at the little cafe spoke Spanish and after confirmation, the American and the Frenchwoman spoke Spanish to get through the ordering process. We ordered “hamburgers”, but they were nothing like burgers in the USA.
Eight inch long baguettes showed up with chopped up grilled onions spread across the bun. Three very skinny hamburger patties were laid across the top with tomatoes, a piece of lettuce and a piece of ham. Leslie’s had gorgonzola cheeze while mine had Chevremont. It was nothing like home, but quite good.
That night, we met Marleen and the family as well as the Oregonians back at the B&B to watch Spain defeat Croatia in Euro Cup 2012. Carlo is in English class while I’m learning Spanish so it was quite helpful for both of us. I taught him the word “cool” while he taught me a plethora.
We told Marleen about our problem with the cost of the hostels in France and that we were probably heading straight to Paris for a night or two before getting out of France entirely. She said that there was much more to France than Paris and we agreed, telling her that we were more excited about getting into the southwest of the country, but it was really expensive.
Fortunately, she had a solution.
Next stop, Marleen’s vacation home in Morietz. A little chateau in the south of France.