By Chrissie Walker
San Sebastián is an attractive seaside city and municipality located in the Basque Autonomous Community of Spain. There is no doubt when you are here that this is physically within Spain’s borders but culturally and politically outside. The majority of flags flying here are Basque. It lies on the coast of the Bay of Biscay and just 20 km from the French border, and that’s a country with which it has always had close ties. It has long been one of the most celebrated tourist destinations in Spain, even though San Sebastián is not a big town.
It’s about food!
San Sebastián is famed for it, but there is so much more here, and to make the best of it you should have a local guide. A very enterprising one is making a career of creating bespoke tours for the discerning traveller. Jose Macicior has deep roots in this region and is well-placed to introduce visitors to everything from hidden gems of local architecture that are not usually open to the general public, to those iconic tapas bars – he has been patronising them all his life and knows the specialties of each one. His knowledge and contacts across Spain will open doors for his clients.
Travels & Tapas is somewhat high-end, with fewer numbers of travellers on their bespoke trips than one would find on group tours with the usual travel operators, “but with outstanding service,” says Jose. “We can be versatile, we can design anything the client wants, we can be guides, we can accompany our visitors, we can be in contact by phone with advice about what to do, where to go. We travel nationwide, although the gastronomic interest is more concentrated in the north of Spain and in south-west France.”
A group of friends can contact Jose and give him an idea of their interests, then Jose arranges everything, from accommodation, restaurant bookings, to entrance to sites and events, and can act as personal guide for the group or provide them with the bespoke itinerary. That tour could cover both Spain and France as the border is close.
Jose and his wife Isabel guided us around San Sebastián and the nearby villages, and there is a lot to see within a small area. The beaches are wide and golden and half-empty at the start of the summer. The Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa fashion museum is a draw for anyone inspired by the classical elegance of this celebrated designer, and the sartorial retail opportunities are endless. But let’s face it: your days here will be punctuated with some of the best food to be found in Europe.
Tapas in San Sebastián are known as pintxos but it’s unlikely you will have to call them anything at all. Pintxos bars are the ideal grazing venues for the linguistically timid as one has no need to consider incomprehensible menus. Simply pile your choice of pintxos on your plate and keep count of how many you have had. The barman will likely have a mental note, so no cheating. Boxes of paper serviettes are provided and one is expected to screw these up and throw them on the floor in the more rustic establishments. That does give one a rather childish thrill, but take your cue from the locals as to specific bar etiquette.
The food is displayed in tempting ranks of vivid tomato-red, ham-pink, crust-gold on overflowing platters and piled dishes. Jose will take you here for tortilla, there for octopus, the bar around the corner for garlic mushrooms. Yes, one could buy a guide book, but things change, and only a local will be able to tell you what’s popular just now and also be able to plan a pintxos ramble for you that will offer the most-prized small plates, and some that are only available on that very street.
Pintxos bars are not the places where one might readily expect to find haute cuisine but the food here is as haute as it gets. The competition is fierce and that assures a high standard, and the variety of tapas will provide even the pickiest of eaters with enough to satisfy a gargantuan appetite. There will be slices of freshly cut and glossy Iberica ham, sweet and explosive peppers, and hosts of more elaborate savoury confections that will include each bar’s signature tapa.
This isn’t a town that has just recently woken up to the idea of food tourism. The snack-laden counters were not just invented for the epicurean delights of visitors. The locals are passionate about their food and that’s contagious. Jose says there have long been amateur gastronomic sociedads, which have traditionally allowed only men as members. These groups would meet at their own professionally-equipped kitchens and dining rooms, and the members would take turns to cook for the assembled company. It seems that these culinary brotherhoods have spawned a breed of men that have higher aspirations than the weekend BBQers of other nations, although I hear that they remain reluctant home cooks.
Spain is the place for the foodie high-flyers these days, and San Sebastián is considered the most exciting place to eat in the country. There are said to be more Michelin stars per head of population here than anywhere else, and the curious may consider why that might be. There is an abundance of good food from both sea and land and so perhaps these lucky folk have higher expectations than most. Travels & Tapas tours can introduce the food lover to not only the pleasures of pintxos but fine dining restaurants as well, and Jose knows many owners of those Michelin stars – one might even get to meet a celebrated chef or two.
Don’t miss the covered market! Go early to take advantage of fresh fish. There are stalls that specialise in local pastries, oils and vinegars from across Spain; whole hams hang on rails and cheeses are piled on cool counters. Vegetables and fruits range from the locally grown to the exotic. But be warned: if you are a hotel-stayer then this might be a frustrating visit. One dreams of cooking with all these fine ingredients but hotel management might not appreciate guests setting up the camping stove to rustle up a little potato tortilla or a delicately seasoned shellfish soup.
What Jose offers is a unique insider’s view of food and culture in a fascinating corner of Europe. “They say the North has stews, the Centre has roasts, and the South rice, and this is true, generally speaking. And of course all over Spain there is a lot of art and a lot of extremely attractive stately homes that can be visited, and one can even have lunch or dinner there.” Jose is a member of an organisation of stately-home owners who don’t normally show their properties, but Jose can open even those usually locked doors.
Jose and Isabel Macicior fill a rather classy niche. They provide tailored packages to visitors who want to experience the best at their own pace. They give support to tourists who want to tread the path less travelled. They unroll a tapestry of culinary, architectural, historic and cultural delights that are difficult or even impossible for the lone visitor or the regular package-tourist to access.
Learn more about Travels and Tapas here http://www.travelsandtapas.com
Read more about Chrissie Walker and her travels at Mostly Food & Travel Journal http://www.mostlyfood.co.uk