Five go down to San Sebastian

By Ivor Baddiel, February 1, 2007
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When four friends and I wanted a weekend of eating, culture and, um, eating, we headed to the Spanish gastro capital

What do middle-aged Jewish men want from a weekend break? To my mind, a chance to relax, good food, beautiful surroundings, more food, a bit of culture, yet more food and indigestion tablets.

Which is precisely why myself and four friends chose the deeply Basque city of San Sebastian in Northern Spain when we jetted off for a rare opportunity to get away from our families and creditors.

San Sebastian has a reputation as the gastronomic capital of Spain and is one of those places favoured by the indigenous population as a holiday destination — a mark of recommendation, which in my view is very similar to seeing Chinese people eating in a Chinese restaurant.

And it really does not disappoint. It scores highly on the above checklist and can also boast fantastic beaches, stunning architecture and a decent dollop of self-deterministic nationalist fervour, something that genuinely does seem to give the place an extra buzz.

So we set off, but not direct. Rather, to Biarritz just over the border in France. Flying there is the easiest and quickest way to get to San Sebastian, which does have an airport, but you have to go via Madrid to get there. Flying to Biarritz is also a very cheap option if you book early. We paid £9.99 for our flights with Ryanair, which, though recently voted the world’s worst airline, was absolutely fine.

From Biarritz it is a short drive to San Sebastian, though do make sure you have some change on you; our fellow road users were none too pleased at being stuck behind us at the toll booth as we desperately tried to change a 20-euro note.

The other thing to point out is that San Sebastian is the Spanish name for the city. In the local Euskera language it is called Donostia, hence road signs display “Donostia-San Sebastian” — which caused considerable angst until we had the bright idea of checking the guide book.

Accommodation is clearly key when looking for a little R&R, so it was with great joy that we discovered our temporary abode to be perched atop Mount Igeldo, one of three mountains skirting the city.

Newly built, but retaining the look of an old farmhouse, Maddiola is part of Nekazalturismoa, the rural house association that requires properties to hold a licence issued by the Basque government following an inspection. It is pretty much a guarantee of quality and indeed, our temporary abode was a delightful resting place.

The rooms are comfortable, the breakfasts of homemade yoghurt, honey and fruit salad are deliciously healthy and the mini-spa was a most welcome surprise. You simply cannot beat waking up and looking out on to a vast and sprawling coastline, especially when it is unaccompanied by the sound of screaming children.

A short drive down the mountain and you hit the town. At night the place to head to is most definitely the old city or la parte vieja. It is a fantastic maze of narrow streets, thronged with locals and visitors, and it was here that we first encountered the legendary local cuisine in the form of tapas or pintxos. The top of every counter in every bar, of which there are many, heaves with a dizzying array of dishes, and quite simply you ask for a plate, fill and refill at your leisure, and then tell the bartender how many you have had. There is an incredible honesty to it all. Sadly, in Britain you would lie about what you had eaten or just scarper.

As for what we ate, if I am honest, I was often not sure what it was (a kashrut nightmare for those who are that way inclined), but if you stick to the veggie stuff you will be fine. When I could discern what was on my plate, I consumed some delicious mushrooms, cheeses and parts of a fish I had never before considered eating, in particular the cheeks, a local speciality. The whole process is enshrined in San Sebastian culture and even has its own word, txikiteo. It really is not to be missed.

The following morning, refreshed from our gluttony, if such a thing is possible, we set off to explore the city by day. There are plenty of sights to head to, in particular the Cathedrale Buen Pastor, a towering gothic structure that looms over the city centre, and the Baroque Santa Maria church on the edge of the old city. But, frankly, I would advise simply ambling about and seeing what you stumble upon. In our case it turned out to be a Basque self-determination rally in the old city’s central square, Place de la Constitution — not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

We also found time in our packed weekend schedule to head off along the coast to Getari, one of several nearby fishing villages. It is a lovely little place infused with the smell of freshly caught fish being grilled outside the many restaurants, and so overpowered we were that we could not help but wander in to one and order a mouth-watering sea bass — that lived up to all expectations.

But all too soon, Sunday came. There was much we had not had time to do, not least of which was visit one of San Sebastian’s many Michelin starred restaurants, though the creditors waiting at home were fairly relieved by that.

All in all a truly great time was had by everyone, so much so that next year we intend to go back for a week, only do keep it to yourselves, our wives do not know yet.

 

Fact box

Accommodation was arranged through Colours of Spai(www.coloursofspain.com; info@coloursofspain.com; 01865 201001) who offer privately-owned holiday rentals in San Sebastian and all areas of Spain. Many of the properties are Spanish-owned and have never been advertised outside of Spain. Maddiola from £69 (including VAT) per person for a two-night weekend stay. Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) flies to nearby Biarritz from £9.99

    Last updated: 1:54pm, September 10 2008