I can't remember how long Northern Spain has been on my travel wish list, but it's been quite a while. I was originally drawn to the region by San Sebastián’s celebrated culinary reputation, the Rioja Valley’s
rich red wines and the Basque Country’s sunny beaches. In October 2017, I was finally able to visit the region and find out if it would meet my expectations.
After spending a few days in Barcelona recovering from jet lag, visiting several hotels and taking a road trip along Costa Brava, my travel friend and I drove up to San Sebastián, which took about 5 ½ hours. Before getting to Saint Sebastián, we pulled off in Pamplona for dinner, to see the city famous for the running of the bulls, and to be honest, to satisfy our craving for pinxtos (a Basque term derived from the Spanish verb pinchar, which means to skewer or puncture, that has come to describe any small plate, throughout the region). We didn’t particularly love this town, but it was a nice stop to break up the drive.
C’est la Vie!
One of the many cool things about San Sebastián is that there are so many places you can visit for a day trip. We absolutely wanted to visit more of Basque Country, so we took a 45-minute drive to Biarritz, France. Enjoying the taste of fresh-caught fish and of steak and frites by the water hit the spot! We wandered through the quaint villages, strolled on the beach and soaked in some world-class surfing—it was a pleasant surprise to learn this town is such a surfer's paradise!
Exploring San Sebastián
Throughout the following evening and the next day, we dedicated our time to wandering, eating and drinking our way through San Sebastián. We took long walks through the charming old town and along the seaside, enjoying eclectic people watching. We feasted on pinxtos featuring pulpo (octopus), simmering vegetables, creatively prepared eggs and, of course, some croquettes. Highlights included: savoring a €1.70 glass of rosé at La Perla overlooking the sea; relishing lunch of pulpo and potatoes at Atari Gastroteka, which we shared with a lovely Canadian couple; and, by far, experiencing Bar Zeruko, where people stand outside for 30 minutes prior to its opening, waiting patiently to enter.
We then took another day trip to the Rioja Valley, which I was particularly excited for. However, the experience taught me that it’s best to visit this wine region if you are either staying at a hotel such as Marques de Riscal or have appointments at several wineries such as Bai Gorri. We tried the old Napa trick of spontaneously stopping into wineries along the road, but found that this wasn’t working as well as we had hoped; thus, we grabbed a few bottles of wine and headed back into town!
The true highlight of San Sebastián, and quite honestly, the best evening of 2017 thus far for me, was Michelin-star dining. There are more Michelin-starred restaurants in this town than in any other town in the world, so the hard task was choosing which one to experience. Choices range from relatively simple dining experiences to world-famous affairs, such as what you would encounter at globally renowned Arzark, which boasts one of the most acclaimed chefs and menus in the world. Because I was confident that I will one day return to the region to experience Arzark, I chose to dine at Kokotxa this time around, as I appreciated what I knew of Chef Dani Lopez and I liked that the restaurant is located in the heart of town.
We enjoyed nine incredible courses of "food as art." Each presentation was more creative, beautiful and delicious than the previous one. Of course we opted for the wine pairing, and each pairing matched perfectly—there was not a single misstep with this fine-dining experience. What truly made this evening so special, however, were the wonderful men and women who presented us with each course and bantered with us along the way. We had so much fun chatting with them, exploring the flavors and learning more about dining in the region. This dining experience was the magical pinnacle of one of my most favorite travel adventures. Thank you, San Sebastián, for delivering on your foodie promise!