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Five Places To Feast In San Sebastian

Travel editor Neil Sowerby gets over a Michelin snub

Written by . Published on October 26th 2011.

Five Places To Feast In San Sebastian

 On the second stage of his Basque odyssey Neil Sowerby relishes the anchovy-blessed delights of foodie mecca San Sebastian...

SAN Sebastian boasts a bigger concentration of Michelin stars per inhabitant than any other city. Arzak, Akelare and Martin Berasategui-Lasartel  are the three-star beacons in the culinary firmament. Like Icarus, I aimed high but fell to earth without a reservation.

I’d badgered those accommodating folk at Relais et Chateaux, I’d asked my hispanophile mate Gerry (the first guy to alert the world to somewhere called el bulli) to put the arm on ... all to no avail. Joints like these are booked up weeks in advance.

Is This My San Sebastian Doppelganger Regaling The Town's Youth With A Salty Tale?My Basque doppelganger regaling the town's youth with a salty tale?

We were going to have to slum it. I’m so glad we did. So what if we didn’t get to worship at the gastronomic temples. The wayside shrines were simply delectable, too. If you were prepared to scrum down to liberate pintxos (tapas) from a heaving bar.

After the post-industrial chic of Bilbao (Manchester with better food and berets) San Sebastian is initially a culture shock. It’s a fin de siecle seaside resort dedicated to the flaneur and the gourmet.

Basques Love Dancing Of A Saturday NightBasques just love dancing of a Saturday night

As you stroll along the esplanade, inhaling the salt tang from the scimitar-curved Bahia de la Concha, it’s hard to believe this has traditionally been a bastion of Basque nationalism, a safe house for those ETA diehards. Imagine Brighton as a haven for the West Sussex Liberation Front or Nice being quite nasty under the surface. Initially there is a French feel to the place. No surprise since the border is not far way and a certain French finesse has always infiltrated attitudes to cuisine here.

Basques On ParadeBasques on parade (don't ask me why)

After dark, though, the kinship is to Basque soulmate Bilbao as you join the throngs in the narrow streets of the Parte Vieja (Old Town). It’s here that serious troughing takes place (and more evidence of public drunkenness than you’ll find elsewhere in Spain). Here are five places to savour San Sebastian – all within a stroll or stagger.

Mushrooms?Mushrooms anyone at Ganbara?

1. Rick Stein’s favourite pinxtos bar is Bar Ganbara (San Jeronimo 21). Wild mushrooms and spider crab tarts (txangurro) the speciality. The joint’s just a little smooth for my tastes. But then we had just been whirling round the nearby Plaza de la Constitucion, caught up in a frenzy of communal Basque dancing.The image of the swarthy kilted senorina playing the pipes will stay with me.

Txepetxa %26#8211%3B GloriousTxepetxa – simply glorious pintxos palace

2. The real deal, a raw working class bar devoted to the myriad ways you can treat an anchovy, is Texpetxa (Calle Pescaderia 5). Hard to say, easy to like. We dropped in twice on our pinxtos crawl. On the telly Villareal were winning in the first half but were pegged back by the time we were on our fourth glass of tinto. Just point out from the plated assortment on the bar, which variation of anchovies on bread you want. But don’t try to pick one off; it’s a plastic model!

Pintxos Range At BergaraJabugo ham in croissants head the pintxos range at Bergara

3. To find the Bar Bergara, it’s a 10-minute toddle across the bridge into the Gros Barrio (General Artexte 8). One step up from the plastic food, the pinxtos here are all pictured in a technicolor catalogue, but don’t let that put you off. The food here is innovative, full of mousses and sharp tastes. The anchovies here are marinated in vinegar and oil with chillies. Ask for Bikote.

4. La Cuchara de San Telmo (Calle de Agosto 28) is more expensive. You can pay up to 10 euros for a pintxo, but the creative kitchen aims high with its stripped down version of “nueva cocina vasca” (Basque nouvelle cuisine ) featuring foie gras and scallops. Recommended:  Carrílera de ternera al vino tinto (calf cheeks in red wine).

Cosy %26#8211%3B The Bodegon AlejandroMellow yellow below stairs in the Bodegon Alejandro

5. All these places were busy, busy on a Saturday evening. The next morning at lunchtime the streets were even busier if not quite so rowdy. With the car ride back to Bilbao Airport ahead of us, we need a sit-down six courser and found one at the Bodegon Alejandro (C/Fermin Calbeton 4, www.ixogrupo.com).

It was almost a case of a wheel come full circle if only the wheels hadn’t come off in our Michelin quest. It was once the family restaurant of Martin Berasategui-Lasartel (let’s just call him Michelin Martin, it’s easier), where he gained his first star before moving on to greater things and larger premises. He kept it as part of his empire but relinquished it the other year. It consists of two yellow-painted basement rooms, very folksy, very calm.

The Menu Degustacion, promoting refined regional dishes, cost 38.50€. A bottle of uncomplicated but delectable Inurrieta Medioia rose from Navarra was only 9€ (My advice is avoid the harsh local Basque whites called Txakoli). The meal with extras lasted two and a half hours and came to 100€. Highly recommended and a fifth of the price of a basic three-star meal!

• OF course, it can be daunting ordering pinxtos at the bars. I tend to point and hold out wads of euros. It seems to work. And I am steeped (is that the word?) in Spanish wine culture, which helps. There are English speaking guided food and vineyard tours available in San Sebastian. For details of these and cooking classes, visit www.sansebastianfood.com.


Fact file

Astoria7 %26#8211%3B Film-Themed HotelAstoria7, film-themed hotelA place to stay:
Astoria7, C/A Sagrada Familia, 1 200010 San Sebastian (Guipuzcoa), Spain (+34 943 445000, www.astoria7hotel.com). The presence of the San Sebastian Film Festival inspired the conversion of a former cinema into this unique contemporary hotel, each of its 102 rooms dedicated to the great and the good of the film world, who have attened the festival since its inception in 1952. For the record, we got the Harrison Ford Room. We expected Quentin Tarantino next door to keep us awake, but no. Great film library, as you’d expect (and a viewing room in the basment). We paid 165€ plus 16€ for parking. A 15-minute walk to the centre, but highly recommended.

Getting there:
easyjet runs a three times weekly service from Manchester to Bilbao. Flights start from £29.99 (one-way, including taxes). It is an hour’s drive east to San Sebastian and there is also a regular bus service from the airport. Note the name on the front will be Donostia, the Basque for San Sebastian. www.easyjet.com.

Car hire:
Book cheap car hire with www.rhinocarhire.com with prices from approx. £12 per day or from £87 for seven days' car hire in Bilbao. Rhinocarhire.com is an award-winning online car hire company, perfect for those seeking cheap car hire for a summer or ski holiday, city break or business trip.  Launched in June 2008, Rhinocarhire.com has quickly established itself as one of the leading car hire websites operating in over 20,000 locations worldwide and comparing rates with over 550 leading suppliers to offer the lowest prices, albeit for just one day or for an extended visit.

Hassle-free parking at Manchester Airport:
Leaving our car at Manchester Airport, we took advantage of their affordable and convenient Short and Long Stay, Valet and Meet & Greet parking. This is available for all three terminals. You can pre book up to 11.15pm the night before you depart or turn up and pay on arrival. All car parks have been awarded Park Mark security status giving reassurance that your car is safe while you are away. Free AA ‘Get You Moving’ service to give you peace of mind should your car fail to start on your return. Free of charge, 365 days a year.
Parking options:
VIP Valet – drop and collect your car right next to the terminal and get fast tracked through security. Your car is parked on site.
Meet and Greet – drop your car off with staff next to the terminal and collect on your return. Your car is parked on site.
Multi Storey car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ultra-convenient multi-storey car parking right next to the terminal. Park and walk under cover to reach the terminal.
Long Stay car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ground surface car park offering free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.
Shuttle Park – secure parking at great rates for cost-conscious travellers. Free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.
JetParks –  low-cost parking option run by Manchester Airport, fully manned 24/7, parking from £2.99 per day. 

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