Pintxos in Parte Vieja
The following Travel story was written for the Catholic Voice by the Chancery’s Senior Portfolio Manager Dennis Godfrey.
Having just returned from a three week trip to Europe during a northern hemisphere summer, I have been reacquainting myself with the early morning frosts of Canberra and contemplating which of the two temperatures I prefer!
In long walks with my dog in the early hours, wearing gloves, beanie and jacket, I have had an opportunity to reflect on my trip which included in part, five of my siblings and our six spouses enjoying a week together in France celebrating 60th and 70th birthdays.
The last five days of my holiday were spent with my wife Fiona in northwestern Spain in San Sebastian, or Donastia, as it is known in the Basque language. The Basque form Donostia and the Spanish form San Sebastián have the same meaning of Saint Sebastian.
The Parte Vieja (Spanish – Old Town) is the traditional core area of the city and this is where we stayed in an Air B&B apartment situated immediately above a Pintxo Bar – Bar Nestor. (Pintxo is the Basque word equivalent to Tapas)
San Sebastián and its surrounding area is home to a high concentration of restaurants boasting Michelin stars and second only per capita in the world, behind Kyoto, Japan.
On our first night in San Sebastián, we had hired the services of a ‘Chef led tour’ of the Old Town.
Gregory of ‘Basque Bites’ proved to be a wise choice although his website does say: “One should expect a slight hangover the next morning!”
We met Gregory at our prearranged spot only to discover that Gregory was an American – whose mother was born in Perth, and who held Australian citizenship. He had been a resident of San Sebastián for eight years and was married to a local girl.
Gregory gave us a fascinating insight into the history and the food and bar culture of San Sebastián.
The Pintxo Bars of the Old Town are literally everywhere. In fact, there is an average of one bar per 12 residents in the Old Town and finding out which ones to visit, how you do it, and what you do when in one was made simple by our guide.
At first, Gregory asked us if there was anything we didn’t eat. Being adventurous, I suggested that he just order us the dishes that he would normally order. So off we went to try out five different bars and ‘more’ than five different drinks!
The ethos of the Pintxo Bars is that you order a pintxo and a drink, on receiving them, you then find somewhere to eat. This is where you need a bit of confidence.
The idea is that you basically push your way into either a table, shelf or stand up bar, say to the others already there, “Do you mind if I join you?” and before long, you are talking to your new best friends – generally, either locals or from some other European country!
Over the course of the night, I tried about eight different pintxos all of which were absolutely divine.
I can’t believe I would be using words such as divine when talking about foods such as pork cheek, veal cheek, green peppers with anchovies, not to mention Foie Gras (goose liver) and Pigs Ear!
Drinks were many! and varied including vermouth, a local cider and of course wines. On a return visit to one of the bars a few days later, we had a family of Dutch people move in on us saying, “Do you mind if we join you?” We didn’t mind. We shared drinks and found out about each other. Since returning home, we have continued to correspond with this family and arrangements have been made for the eldest daughter to spend part of her gap year with us in 2021.
All in all, San Sebastián – a great and friendly place to visit. Great food, beautiful old buildings, and an incredibly interesting history as well as three very good beaches.
History of San Sebastian
San Sebastian has a very interesting history and up to very recent times.
In 1813, British and Portuguese forces surrounded the town to oust the French, The Basque people arranged for all their men, women and children to come down from the hills and use wooden spoons on their pots and pans as marching drums.
They played these for 24 continuous hours prior to the Portuguese moving into the fight. The British would not enter the fray until after the French had been routed and then set fire to the town.
Every year on 20 January “the feast of Saint Sebastian” the people of San Sebastián celebrate a festival known as the “Tamborrada”.
At midnight, in Constitution Plaza in the Parte Vieja”, the mayor, dressed as a chef, raises the flag of San Sebastián. For 24 hours, the entire city is awash with the sound of drums. The adults dress as cooks and soldiers and march all night with their cook hats and white aprons.
Similar to “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, there has been a long history of internal fighting involving Franco’s Nationalist, Basque Nationalists, ETA, and unionists.
A ceasefire has been in place since 2010. San Sebastián resides in the Basque Autonomous Community with an average wealth 30% higher than Spain’s average.