Basking in the Basque Country

Pardon the interim of digital silence on my blog dear readers, I have been busy.  Life moves fast in Barcelona, I feel like I blinked in February and suddenly it was April.  It’s all good things though, my schedule is replete with English classes to teach, Spanish classes to take, I’m stage managing an English spoken play here and I have had some freelancing writing jobs for American Animal Hospital Association (if you’re interested in reading those articles you can go to my “Published Works” page and click on the links).  Enough about my schedule though, let me tell you about the majestic Basque Country, or in Spanish, el país vasco.

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My younger cousin, James, one year fresh out of college and backpacking around Europe volunteering on some farms (who told me that I inspired him to do this which gives me warm fuzzies on the inside), decided to join me for semana santa (the holiday week during Easter and Good Friday).  I have always wanted to check out el país vasco especially after my friend, Nimi, who tells stories with an alluring pizzaz akin to a car salesman told me in his husky Israeli accent that the Basque Country is the “garden of Eden of Spain.”

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James and I met in Madrid for the weekend of my birthday and then took a train up to the little city of San Sebastian, roughly the same size as my mother city, Rochester, back in the good ol’ US or A (about 210,000).  I like cities this size.  They are walkable, more accessisble, a little more personal.  For the week we were there I had two goals; eat lots of delectable Spanish delights and go hiking.

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We toured around San Sebastian for two days, exploring the city and the surrounding hills that you can hike up to be awarded with some fantastic views of the ocean and the city.  Energetic, potent sea and brawny, exquisite mountains sandwich San Sebastian.  The city is the architectually pleasing meat and lettuce between two of my most favorite natural elements, the ocean and the mountains.  The third day we were blessed with clear, blue skies and sun so we planned to take a hike.

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We took a bus to Hondarribia, a small, enchanting town on the border with France.  There you can walk a coastal hike almost all the way back to San Sebastian.  I had been told it would take about two hours.  I figured it was a perfect hike to do early afternoon and be back in time for the food tour I was taking that night.  When we arrived in Hondarribia the sun made the sea appear as though there were infinite diamonds on the crest of each wave and we took our time stopping for coffee at a seaside cafe before ambling up to the trailhead.  The sign pointing in the direction we were heading said it would take 6.5 hours which seemed strange because the person who had told me about the hike had said it was an easy 2-hour jaunt.  I asked a few other people on the trail and turned out the signs held true.  There was no way we would have enough time to do the hike and be back for the food tour.  Also, we were pretty ill prepared for a 6.5 hour hike, not having brought any snacks or sunscreen with us.  We decided to hike for several hours and then just turn around and head back to Hondarribia, red as lobsters and hungry for a menu del día.

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I so wish I had done better research and had known it would be a much longer hike than anticipated because it was a walk to remember.  We hiked along winding paths always in view of the ocean.  Trees and rocks scattered on the cliffs like confetti and all of it dramatically dropped to the sea.  You could hear the ocean swelling and spinning and you could taste the salt on the breeze.  I honestly could have just planted myself down on the side of the trail to watch and listen to the ocean and I would have been perfectly content.  I sometimes long for the time I lived on the Caribbean and spent hour upon hour just sitting and listening to the sea.  It’s more captivating than a good book for me.  It’s more meditative than a yoga class for me.

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But alas, we needed to turn around at some point so I could get back to San Sebastian for my food tour.  People come to San Sebastian to eat pinxtos (pronounced peen-chos, which is Basque language for tapas) and I had signed up for a tour called Pinxto Hunting.  Pinxto bars are basically crowded from opening until closing and it’s difficult, as a tourist, to know which ones are the best to go to and why.  This tour was one of the best tours I’ve taken in all of my traveling, hands down.  The tour guide, Eli, was a local and so excited and enthusiastic to show us the best pinxto bars in town.  I ate so much food I felt like most Americans do on Thanksgiving, having the great urge to unbutton my pants, let my gut hang out and genuinely not move for the next 8-10 hours.

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What I liked about this tour is that Eli dove into the culture behind pinxtos, like the fact that you only go in each bar for a few snacks and this is why a lot of them lack tables and chairs, you only need to sidle up to the bar, order what you want on the honor system and when you are finished you tell them how many pinxtos you had and what you drank.  When you are finished eating, you throw your napkins on the floor, so the dirtier the bar floor is, the more likely it is to be a fantastic place to eat.  This concept felt a bit foreign as an American but I was excited to get into it and I gleefully, if not a bit hesitantly, chucked my napkins to the ground.  The Basque people have traditions long rooted in food and they only use seasonal and local ingredients.  One pinxto bar we went to, they had their seasonal vegetables proudly on display, shining and imperfect red peppers and leafy artichokes adorned the edges of the bar like males birds strutting in competition for the female.

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Because it was semana santa there was a special food vendor selling a typical Basque farmhouse meal that I wouldn’t have known if we hadn’t passed it on the tour.  Even though it wasn’t part of the tour, Eli took the time to explain what they were cooking.  The women were making corn tortillas by pounding out balls of dough on what look like round cutting boards.  They wore traditional farmhouse dresses and the men were cooking chorizo on a grill and frying bacon. You chose what you wanted on your corn tortilla and paid per ingredient.  Because this vendor wasn’t included on the tour I made a point to return with James the following day to sample the wares.

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Having lived in Mexico and Guatemala and having tasted unbelievably delicious homemade, and literally handmade without a tortilla press, tortillas, I was eager to see how these would match up.  I have to say these corn tortillas tasted different, they had a slight hint of sweetness to them and they were utterly amazing.  They were also much bigger than the corn tortillas you’ll find in Central America.  Your ingredient choices were chorizo, bacon, cheese and chocolate and you paid per ingredient.  I stood in line for one with chorizo and cheese.  Each bite melted in my mouth like a perfectly cooked steak, but this was honestly, way better.  James and I devoured our tortillas and then went to find a restaurant to eat at.  It was a Friday night and every restaurant we went to was packed to the brim.  I was in panicky hunger mode which was soon to turn me into an irritable bitch so I decided to go back to the tortilla vendor and buy another while James went to a craft beer bar to have a brewski.  As I waited in line I decided to just get two and call that dinner.  I had to laugh at myself as I had bought a glass of hard cider to go with my two tacos and juggling all three standing up and eating was no easy feat.  Pinxtos aside, this vendor was the Zeus of San Sebastian food in my opinion.  Now if only they offered their corn tortilla services in Barcelona…

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