A vacation driving from Bilbao to San Sebastián is a little about the scenery and a lot about the eating.
I have never been to an area where food is the epicenter of culture, quite how it is in the Spanish Basque region. It’s a food-lovers paradise.
Foodie magazines hail San Sebastián and its neighboring countryside as the most densely concentrated area of Michelin quality chefs (with or without stars).
For my 50th birthday, my sites were set on eating my way through as much of the region as possible, with my husband alongside as chronicler, driver, and willing accomplice.
Here’s a bit of where we went and what we ate.
We started our tour in Bilbao. With no direct flights from the US, the best way to get there is by flying into Madrid and then taking a short Spanish airline flight. This is the most efficient way to start eating as quickly as possible. We rented a car upon landing in Bilbao. It’s an easy town to navigate, even if you don’t speak Spanish. Our first stop was the Mercado for a round of pintxos (two-bite tidbit) and small plates. This was a great introduction to the vast array of tasty bites and just a glimpse into what was in store for us. I highly recommend taking a pintxos tour, as this will help you learn how to order and eat like a local. You will be quickly introduced to the Gilda, the first and definitely most famous and widely available pintxos.
The story goes that a patron at a certain Pintxos bar skewered the anchovies, olives, and peppers commonly available as bar snacks with his toothpick. Voila! The first pintxo was born and named the Gilda. Honoring the spicy actress Rita Hayworth, who starred in the movie of the same name. The film premiered in Spain to much controversy in 1947.
(To learn about the differences between pintxos and tapas Please read this travel journal).
After 48 hours of eating our way through Bilbao, we drove through the countryside and to the amazing Frank Gehry-designed hotel at the Marques de Riscal Vineyard.
Upon opening in 2006, it became one of Spain’s first “Wine tourism” hotels and an icon of contemporary architecture. Located in the tiny town of Elgecio, the purple and gold waves of Gehry’s metal structure seem to rise out of the vineyards. The juxtaposition between the medieval village and the modern hotel is both startling and comforting at the same time. A line that the designer straddles confidently in all of his work. A stay at this property offers not just the opportunity to sleep inside a masterwork of art but also indulge in a vinotherapy spa session, dine at a Michelin-starred restaurant, and taste vintages going back to 1948. (Always the over-achiever, I managed to fit all that in one night 😉-two would have been be much better)
It’s a beautiful drive from Spain’s interior vineyards, through quaint villages to the coastline and on to the venerable food Mecca of San Sebastián. The drive takes about 2 hours, probably the longest time I went without eating the whole trip, and gives you a little time to work up an appetite.
Taking the time to learn the ins and outs of how to order, what to order, and what makes a good pintxos bar before landing in San Sebastian is a great idea. Because, quite honestly, the town is overwhelming in its abundance of gastronomic temptations.
It seems that every other address is a bar or restaurant that is vying for the attention and palet.
I remember first thinking, does anyone do anything here besides eat? Because it seems that every pintxos establishment is full at all hours of the day and night with locals. When do these people go home? When do they work? This town truly is centered around the enjoyment of excellent food.
For the reasons above, I was relieved and excited that I had enlisted the help of a local guide to take us on a tour of some of the most iconic and time-honored pintxo bars.
At Ganbara, made famous by Bourdain’s, No Reservations and located on a picturesque square, one of the large plates available is hongos con huevo, mushrooms with egg. It’s deceptively simple, exceedingly rich, and perfectly balanced. Slices of gargantuan local wild mushrooms are sautéed until golden in Spanish olive oil and garlic. When served, they are topped with a 60° egg yolk, sea salt flakes, and fresh parsley. As you cut into the dish and break the yoke, it forms a delectable sauce as it mixes with the olive oil. As I said, it’s deceptively simple and one specialty you absolutely cannot miss when you visit San Sebastian.
At Gourmet Adventures Travel Co., I craft culinary getaways for travelers who love to eat well and yearn to truly savor the authentic side of their destination. From a river cruise through Provencal wine country to a journey through the heady spice markets and medinas of Morocco, you'll taste your way through the world's most enchanting landscapes.