My very first visitors from NYC – Jenn & Julie 😀
We needed to wake up at 6am the next morning to catch the 6 hour bus to San Sebastián. So, in all sensibility, we drank 2-3 bottles of wine the night before, went out to meet a friend of a friend [of a friend] at an overpriced bar for his birthday, drank calimochos (wine with Coke) at a gay bar called Bar Nike and shouted random obscenities at strangers while en route to a pizza place for drunken binge eating. (Why does this seem like deja vu…)
Three hours of sleep and a six hour bus ride later…
San Sebastián (Donostia in Basque/Euskara), Spain
We knew we entered Basque country when the letters k, x and z began to pop up in every highway and sidewalk sign. In my ignorance, I didn’t even realize the Basque language (also called Euskara) existed. We thought we somehow ended up in Greece for a brief second.
After getting off the bus and stretching our legs, we began walking towards our hotel only to realize that after walking in a giant circle, the hotel was only a block away (in the other direction) from the bus station. Lucky for us, these two fashionable grandmothers decked out in full 70’s outfits and large vintage shades helped us to complete that circle.
Our hotel, Astoria 7, was movie-themed and we ended up in the Kim Novak room. I suppose this beats the chrome space-themed motel room from Blue Valentine. I still have no idea who Kim Novak is though.
The plan for the rest of the day: wander around Parte Vieja (Old Quarter).
What I’ve noticed about a lot of the little towns in Spain is that the neighborhoods are jam-packed with churches and cathedrals. It’s not really a surprise, obviously, but I always get wowed every time I walk down a narrow street or alleyway and bump into a large church at the end of it, like a hinge between the streets.
Also, everyone was stylishly dressed, particularly the children and grannies who seemed to be the demographic makeup of the city. Jenn and Julie speculated that San Sebastián was the Spanish version of Florida, where people go to retire and be fashionably merry alongside the shore. Not sure about the tax benefits though…
Next day’s plan:
1. Ride the funicular up Monte Igueldo to see a panoramic view of the city
2. Picnic on the beach, La Concha
3. Drink wine by the beach
4. Go on a pintxos bar crawl (also known as txikiteo)
Número uno – check.
On top of Monte Igueldo was a tacky amusement park that was closed for the day. It had a house of terror that is probably better off labeled as ‘house of terrible.’ The tackiness, however, was so extreme that it indeed was scary.
Número dos y tres – check and check.
We bought food for our picnic at a mini market but, didn’t get to buy a bottle (or three) of wine. After eating our pre-packaged sandwiches, baguettes and an assortment of cheese, we got our appropriate dosage of the fermented grape at a nearby cafe while looking out into the sea in the sunset and warm breeze.
I dipped my feet into the water. Its aquamarine color made it seem warm and inviting, but I quickly realized that it would be better described as ‘ice blue.’ Egads.
Número cuatro – the real bizznazz.
According to my guide book, “real connoisseurs should head to Gros, noted for its innovative, high-quality pintxos.” The first bar listed in that area, Aloña Berri, had also been mentioned in a NY Times article, and so, we marched on over with hungry stomachs. You can imagine our disappointment when we found the bar closed for either the season or renovations. Grumbling hungry, we resorted to a nearby Irish bar with a lit up Guinness sign that had assured us of its welcoming love and shelter. Sláinte.
We then crossed the bridge back to Parte Vieja and hoped for better luck with the pintxos bars there. At the corner of Plaza de la Constitución, we found heaven in Bar Astalena.
The highlights were grilled squid and pistachio croquettes, all washed down with crianza red wine. YUM! Apparently, in a pintxos bar crawl, “it’s usual to try just one pintxo, preferably standing and washed down with a small glass of red wine…” Um, we each had about three or four, on top of the tortilla we gobbled down at the Irish bar. Nevertheless, we forced ourselves to continue on our crawl despite our nearly full tanks.
Next on the bar crawl…
Ganbara – closed.
Cuchara de San Telmo – nowhere to be found.
La Cepa – OPEN!
And so, we ended our night at La Cepa. So much for a bar crawl. On our way back to the hotel, we decided to take a different bus (one that we’ve never taken before) and found ourselves in a twilight zone of apartment buildings. One minute we found our way via a map, and the next minute we were warped into some circular orbit of hell. An hour or so later, we finally began to see familiar territory.
Monday was a rainy day. After two gorgeously sunny days, a rainy day wasn’t so bad in the end. We meandered around Parte Vieja for some mild shopping, returned to our lovely hotel room and watched Fargo as we pigged out on Cheetos, chocolate and red wine. Aw yea? Aw jeez.
For our last night, we made reservations at a sidrería (cider house), Petritegi, in Astigarraga which was only a 10 min cab ride from town. Although the cider season starts in late January and lasts until early May, this cider house is (thankfully) open off-season as well. And, man oh man, did we feast until maximum capacity or what!
First course: tortilla de bacalao (cod omelette)
Second course: bacalao frito con pimientos (fried cod with peppers)
Third course: chuleta (t-bone steak)
Dessert: queso, membrillo, nueces, tejas y cigarrillos (cheese, quince jelly, walnuts and assorted biscuits)
And, of course, all this comes with a large baguette and unlimited cider straight from the barrels.
I expected cider pouring to be easy, like getting gatorade from a cooler. Instead, you turn a nozzle and the barrel essentially “urinates” into your cup from a distance. When pouring cider from a bottle, you hold the bottle above head level to aerate the cider.
In the beginning, this was no easy matter. If you ever end up in a cider house, avoid wearing long-sleeved shirts and in the event that you do wear a long-sleeved shirt, avoid wearing a white one.
Me, Julie, and Jenn with our buddy Alfy back at the hotel
Bilbao (Bilbo in Basque/Euskara)
Back to a sunny day 🙂 Earlier in the morning in San Sebastián, we set out to buy our bus tickets to Bilbao. For anyone traveling by bus, the station is an open-air parking lot and there are two ticket offices that are, at first, hard to find. When facing the river, both of them are to the left of the bus station (the right side is a hotel). One of the ticket offices is around the corner facing the river. The other ticket office (for the Pesa bus) is on the other/opposite corner, a little further down the street.
Apparently, that Tuesday was some kind of holiday and the first ticket office was running on a limited schedule. Luckily, the second ticket office was still open. (We seemed to have a lot of luck on this trip.) Disaster avoided!
Bilbao has a very efficient, clean and high-tech tram that goes from the bus station to the Guggenheim in less than 10 min and for 1.30 euro one way.
And here, ladies and gentleman, is Frank Gehry’s Museo Guggenheim, accompanied by the creepy spider, Louise Bourgeois’ Maman. Although the spider is supposed to portray protection, it still scares the shit out of me. The museum, on the other hand, is an amazing piece of architecture. I wonder what Howard Roark would’ve thought of it.
Before embarking on a modern art journey, we needed to get our priorities in order, aka go stuff our faces with more food. The guide book highly recommended the bistro within the Guggenheim and sold us with “surprisingly inexpensive lunch menu.” Usually, reservations are necessary but as it was off season, we were seated immediately without having called in advance.
For 18 euros, we were able to order an entree and dessert from the express menu, inclusive of bread, water and and a glass of wine. Sweet. I ordered the cordero asado (lamb) with butternut squash purée, yogurt ice cream with light citrus cream and elderflower sponge cake, and a glass of red. Our order took longer than expected given that the restaurant was only half full (hooray for optimism) and the waitress unexpectedly brought out a free bowl of croquettes and refilled our wine glasses as an apology. We didn’t even complain.
We happily stuffed our faces with gluttonous glee and, on our way out, the host called out to us holding a small basket of chocolate covered rice crisps. More free food? Sure!
We then waddled our way to the ticket line and to the first exhibit. Note to self: never eat a large meal before visiting a museum, unless you like tearing from excessive yawning and struggling against your droopy eyelids. No photos were allowed in any part of the museum, so the above two photos were the only ones I managed to take. My favorite exhibit was Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time in the fish gallery (the second photo), although it is much better seen from an upper level. I couldn’t sneak in that photo as I was being watched by two security guards.
Another funicular ride, another spectacular view…
and a riverside stroll towards Casco Viejo (Old Town).
We walked over to Etxanobe for dinner, from Casco Viejo to Euskalduna. After days of gorging, we thought the walk would be good exercise for our porcine selves. The walk ended up being longer than expected, especially with the darkening sky and increasing winds. When we finally made it, we were the only ones eating at 8:30pm. The restaurant didn’t fill up until an hour or so later.
During our final dinner in this nice restaurant, we felt very upscale and sophisticated…but that was before we finished off our first bottle of wine. Not only did a second bottle increase our volume, but it also increased our incessant, obnoxious giggling. We reached maximum immaturity by the time dessert came out – two plates, one of which had three small pieces of “marshmallow.” After placing said plate onto the table, the waiter then poured hot water over it, expanding the “marshmallows.” The three of us oOooo-ed at the expansion and I, being the brave one, decided to try it first. So, I took a bite, threw it back down onto the plate and broke out into a laughter of embarrassment.
Jenn & Julie: “Wait, what’s so funny?”
Me: “It’s a towel!”
Marshmallow? Nope. I bit into a gauze towel.
Towards the end of dinner, we saw a couple sitting at the next table and became disgusted and yet mesmerized by the gremlin-faced guy. He looked like a Filipino version of Jared Leto which can sound like a compliment, but it most definitely is not. Continuing with our obnoxiousness, Julie pretended to take photos of Jenn but really zoomed in on the guy. To avoid being a complete asshole, I will not post that photo.
Finally leaving the restaurant (which I bet was what the waiters were thinking), Julie and I ran and tried clicking our heels. We both failed, and Jenn failed to take a clear photo of it.
Much to Jenn’s dismay, Julie and I decided to walk back to our hotel instead of taking the tram. When the pathway split into two, Jenn insisted on going one way and Julie and I insisted on going the other. And so, we decided to race.
Julie and I won (but only because we ran for dear life).
Next day, it was back to reality.
próxima parada: Cariñena, Zaragoza, Barbastro, Torla, Ordesa y Monte Perdido (los Pirineos), Aínsa, Salas Bajas, Alquézar, Adahuesca, Radiquero y Salas Altas