San Sebastian, in the Basque region of Spain, the cuisine may just outshine the stunning scenery.
The cuisine in San Sebastian is at least as stunning as its scenery
Arriving in San Sebastián early one recent summer's morning - at 6.34am to be exact - it was still dark outside and there was a slight chill in the air. The overnight train from Lisbon had rattled noisily over the mountains of northern Portugal, shunting us about in our cabin half the night as we attempted to sleep; now it deposited us at Estación del Norte right on time before rumbling on towards the French border. On the platform, we squinted around for a map. Then we set off along the river on foot, ignoring the taxis outside the station: there is a special thrill in finding yourself in a new, unfamiliar place as the sun is coming up, and we wanted to savour it.
My wife and I were excited about San Sebastián. Located on Spain's northern coast, between the Atlantic Ocean and the hilly, fertile landscape of the Basque country, it has to be one of the most attractive destinations in southern Europe. It also has a world-beating food scene. Throughout the year, gastronomes flock here to indulge in the superb local produce cooked with care and ingenuity in the city's many kitchens - San Sebastián boasts more Michelin stars per capita than any other city on earth.
At midday, our gastronomic adventures began in earnest as we set off for Parte Vieja, the medieval old town and the city's culinary heart. En route, we meandered through handsome, modern streets and ended up on the waterfront. San Sebastián expanded beyond the walls of Parte Vieja in the late 1800s and, early last century, it became a favourite holiday spot for the Spanish royal family. You can see why they were attracted to it. Three large beaches dominate the city, the most dramatic being La Concha, which stretched before us now, a mile of beautiful white sand curving off into the distance.
Beyond city hall, we entered the old town and immediately found ourselves overwhelmed with eating options. San Sebastián is celebrated for its pintxos, the Basque version of tapas often held together by the toothpick-like spike, or pincho, from which the name is derived. If it's pintxos you're after, Parte Vieja is the place to be: the number of establishments serving them on every street is astounding.
In most pintxo bars, the focal point is a long counter laden with irresistible, bite-sized delicacies that first-timers tend to attack in a frenzy of excitement that leaves them stuffed before their pintxo tour has properly begun. Here's a tip: resist these temptations and order direct from the menu, which you'll usually find chalked up on a blackboard behind the counter. Not only will the food you order will be superbly fresh from the kitchen, but you'll also be able to pace yourself a little better. A true appreciation of pintxo culture, after all, requires movement. You sample the speciality of one place - each decent pintxo place seems to have a dish or two that it does better than anywhere else - and then you stroll on to the next.
Our first stop was La Cuchara de San Telmo, one of a new generation of pintxo spots which does away with counter food entirely. All the dishes came freshly cooked from the kitchen, and what we had - rock octopus with sautéed cabbage leaves, sea scallop wrapped in acorn-fed Iberico bacon - were every bit as good as they sounded.
That was just the beginning. During our three days in San Sebastián we ate more amazing pintxos than I have space here to describe. Among the standouts were the charlotte of courgette-wrapped spider crab mousse at Bar Martinez, just around the corner from La Cuchara; the immensely satisfying deep-fried prawns at Paco Bueno on Calle Mayor; and the simple but supremely delicious tomato salad at Bar Nestor on Calle Pescaderia - all within a couple of minutes of each other. We had some great pintxo experiences outside the old town, too, in the Gros district across the river. At Hidalgo 56, the most experimental of the bars on my meticulously researched itinerary, we shared cured anchovies in herb-infused smoke, which was released as the owner lifted the dome of cloudy glass from the plate.
After lunch on that first day, we wandered back to the harbour and went on a clockwise stroll around Mount Urgull, the peak that juts up at the head of the old town and slopes down into the ocean beyond. There was a brisk sea breeze and dozens of little sailing boats were scudding about on the water. We circled around to the other side of Parte Vieja and crossed the bridge at the mouth of the Urumea river.
Past the two wonky cubes of architect Rafael Moneo's iconic Kursaal Congress Centre, we found ourselves on a smaller, less populated beach with bigger waves. Out beyond the surf, a scattering of wetsuited boarders bobbed up and down, waiting for the perfect wave to sweep them back to shore. I sat down on the sand and gazed around, wondering to myself: Is there anything this city doesn't offer?
It turns out there are a few things, but you don't have to travel far to find them. Two big foodie highlights of the weekend both required short trips out of town. The first was to Elkano, a seafood restaurant in the small fishing village of Getaria, half an hour's drive west of San Sebastián. In a proud-looking building in the town centre with an elegant nautical interior, we shared an entire 1.3 kilogram turbot that was cooked on an outdoor grill and served to us with no accompaniments whatsoever, not even a parsley garnish. It was, quite simply, the best fish dish either of us had ever eaten.
Then, for lunch the next day, we took a taxi out to the third best restaurant in the world, according to the much-cited survey carried out by Restaurant magazine earlier this year. Nestled deep in the green hills outside the city, Mugaritz operates from an old farmhouse that looks a bit like an Alpine chalet. The quaint exterior belies the inspired futuristic craziness going on in the state-of-the-art kitchen within. Head chef Andoni Luis Aduriz calls his style of cooking "techno-emotional", meaning that it has the power to unlock long-forgotten feelings and deep memories from childhood. I was deeply sceptical about this until the meal began and a bowl of tiny "tear" peas mixed with hake eggs sent me into a Proustian trance, which left me both elated and indefinably sad.
The meal was a blur of astonishing, thrilling, wildly imaginative dishes - an entire morel mushroom paired with electric ray on a dab of goat's cheese, milk-skin pasta stuffed with clams - and when a bill for nearly €500 (Dh2,400) arrived at the end, it felt like a perfectly reasonable price to pay. This was an experience of the once-in-a-lifetime variety, and we spent the rest of the day trying to come to terms with how extraordinary it was.
The beauty of San Sebastián, however, is that you don't have to spend half your life's savings to eat well there (though you could if you wished). Back in the old town, to which we returned on our last night, you can dine like the king of Spain for less than €20 (Dh96). The very last thing we ordered, at a crowded pintxo bar on Calle 31 de Agosto called La Cepa, was one of the dishes we raved about most when we returned home from the holiday. Billed as "hongos a la plancha", it was very basically a plate of grilled, salted mushrooms served with an egg yolk in a spoon - simple, cheap, cooked to perfection, mind-blowingly delicious.
On our way back from Mugaritz, we asked the taxi driver to take us to the seafront. He dropped us off at the eastern end of La Concha and we walked along the beach, cooling our feet in the water and watching little blanched fish bones of cloud swim across the blue sky overhead. At the far end, we continued out along the headland until we reached Eduardo Chillida's famous Wind Comb sculptures, three great hulking pieces of steel planted into the rocks that claw at the wind as it whistles in from the ocean. We sat down for a moment, dangling our feet over the edge, and surveyed the long beach and the city stretched out around it. Then, after several dozen waves had crashed against the rocks below, gurgling up through blowholes and dissolving into fine spray at our feet, we stood up and walked contentedly back the way we came.