Four years ago, we first visited Spain together. Inspired by a travel magazine article he read on his daily commute, R came home one night and proposed a trip that combined the best of both worlds –FOOD in the Basque Country, and WINE in La Rioja. The perfect fusion – I was sold!
We devoured the fine food and flavours of the north before heading out on the quiet, open roads to the Rioja region for a few days of visiting vineyards and exploring bodegas by bike.
And today, we are returning to Donostia-San Sebastian – the foodie city that captured our imaginations and our hearts and satisfied every food craving imaginable! I still get hungry when I think about it…
I remember that first night in a local bar in San Sebastián’s enchanting old town, absorbed in an atmosphere like nothing I had ever felt before.
The bartender poured txakoli (the region’s famous lightly sparkling dry white wine) from an impressive height into tumblers while, all around, the chatter was constant. (Side note: this was my first experience of drinking wine from a tumbler – it was a revelation).
Laid out on the bar (and just a safe enough distance from the splashing wine) were some of the most decorative displays of “finger food” we had ever seen. These were pintxos, famous in el norte. They are a more elaborate version of tapas, like a meal in one bite. And they are works of art – with regional specialities such as meat, peppers or seafood fresh from the Atlantic, balanced carefully on a piece of fresh bread, all held together by a cocktail stick (which is where the word pintxo got its name, meaning “spike”).
I remember watching on in horror as people discarded their paper napkins on the floor after wiping the delicious remains from their mouth and hands, but I soon came to realise that if there was ever a place to “do as the locals do” then this was it!
Despite the extremity of this casual dining, the quality of these beautifully crafted masterpieces was enough to rival that of any of the world-renowned restaurants that populate this culinary hub (the city has the highest concentration of Michelin star restaurants in the world)!
But we didn’t come for the Michelin stars. We came to sample as many pintxos as we could, and that meant hopping around the countless traditional bars in the labyrinth that is the old town.
We learnt that it was custom to try one or two before moving on (which is easier said than done when everything looks so tempting) and to wash them down with some txakoli or famous Basque cider. This is an experience I guarantee you will want to return again and again for!
But how to choose what to eat? Instead of just vacantly pointing at what I wanted to try from the arty array on show, I scanned the chalkboard menus for help (ordering fresh from la cocina is also highly recommended). My mouth watered as I watched food being served swiftly to more experienced pintxo-pro’s. These were people who knew what they wanted!
But the words written up there didn’t look at all familiar. Even with my lack of knowledge at the time, I knew this wasn’t Spanish. There were too many x’s and k’s for a start, and some letters I couldn’t identify at all!
Of course, this wasn’t Spanish, it was Basque. Or Euskara (as it is known in Basque).
A language completely unique and distinct from any other language in the world, it is incomparable to its neighbouring Catalan, Galician, Castilian Spanish or French. It is a “language isolate”, a language of mystery and possibly the oldest living language in Europe. Wow.
This time, we are returning equipped with more knowledge of the country, and its regions. Over the past year, I have met people from the Basque Country (País Vasco) and quizzed them endlessly about their linguistic experiences (of course).
There is no expectation to speak Basque on this trip. I’m not sure anyone out with the region is expected to know this enigmatic language! But what will I use instead? The Basque people are largely bilingual, which is impressive, but will my Spanish (or my English) be understood?
I will soon find out.
Regardless, I am going to pay careful attention to the Basque language this time round, without the pressure of trying to decipher it, knowing that it isn’t necessary (or even possible) to draw any comparisons to Español.
In a few hours, we will be walking along the picture-perfect beach of La Concha –which must be one of the most photographed aerial shots in the country. We will retrace our footsteps in the sand and remember that first visit and our first impression of Spain. We fell in love instantly with this small coastal city, surrounded by mountains and famed for its beautiful beach and gastronomic greatness (even though it rained for days).
But a lot can change in four years.
This time, there will be less locals flooding the city’s ancient taverns, enjoying the important sociable aspect that has been going strong for generations.
There will be fewer tourists walking along the promenade, admiring the view of the Bay of Biscay whilst contemplating how early is “too early” for dinner.
And there will be no food laid out on the bars for us to salivate over (which is probably for the best). But will this pillar of local culture ever recover from the recent restrictions?
I hope so.
But one thing that I hope never changes is the ancient Basque language that has puzzled linguistic experts and researchers for years.
I hope it is protected and preserved for as long as it has existed already, for its uniqueness and mystery is unparalleled.
And this weekend, I cannot wait to hear those all-important words again: “On egin!”
Enjoy your meal!