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Report 1969: Five Wonderful Weeks in Northern Spain

By caplanco from Colorado, Fall 2011

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Page 6 of 10: San Sebastian via the Picos, with a day trip to Altamira and Bilbao

photo by MEC

Fabulous pintxos

To be fair, we only saw a tiny bit of the Picos at the southern end. We went into Cangis de Onis and got caught in a festival and market day. Traffic was backed up and it took us quite awhile to find a place to park. We went into the “i” which also has a nice small museum about Asturias. We bought a few things in the market for a picnic lunch and went on. M wanted to find some cabrales cheese and we stopped in Poo de Cabrales. A religious festival was going on which we stopped to watch. Many people were in the Asturian dress and participating in the ceremony. I got a kick out of two teenagers in their ancient garb buying helado at the helado truck. Then, on to the Picos.

We live in the Rocky Mountains and I’m more of a give-me-a-beach-any-day kind of gal, so mountains do not excite me. I liked being in and driving through the Dolomites in Italy which I found to be quite spectacular, with broad vistas. In the part of the Picos we drove through, I felt a bit claustrophobic. The granite walls seemed to be closing in, surrounding the road. There were many hikers who looked like they were enjoying themselves and, from a farther point, the Picos are beautiful to look at. They are craggy and rough, similar to the Dolomites. We had our picnic in a parking lot which was the only place on the very narrow road that we could stop.

Twenty years ago, on our first trip to Spain which was spent almost entirely in the south, we drove in from France and spent one day in San Sebastian. I have always wanted to return. This time we rented an apartment there for a week. Before I go into detail, I will say that San Sebastian was even better than I remembered and my next dream trip will be to rent an apartment there for the month of September.

So, about the apartment, Tamarindo II. When trying to decide which would be the best apartment for us (EnjoyRentals has many), emailing back and forth agent Aiser was very helpful. However, once we arrived, there was a different problem every day, so I do not recommend this company.

Jenna and her boyfriend Uria met us at the apartment and helped with the luggage. The apartment itself was just fine and located right across the street from the park leading to La Concha beach. The main problem was the noise. Besides heavy car traffic, there is a bus stop right below the window and the large buses stopped there and idled before turning the corner. It was lovely and warm the middle of September but we could not keep the windows open at night because of the noise. When I called Aiser to find out how to work the air conditioning he told us there wasn’t any and we should just open the windows because it cooled off at night. I told him it was much too noisy to have the windows open at night and he said that no one had ever complained about the noise before but that Uria would bring over a fan the next day. The fan did help.

Here’s a summary of our apartment problems: The WiFi did not work. We had made sure it was available in the apartment because we needed to work while there. It took multiple phone calls and several “fixes’ before an adequate router was finally installed three days later; the toilet stopped up and was unusable for 24 hours and we wasted a morning waiting for a plumber to fix it; the parking lot, for which we had prepaid, was more than the stated three blocks away and when we went to take the car out for the day, we couldn’t get out and had to wait while the attendant called Aiser. Two days later Aiser called to say that the young woman who had met us to give us the keys and taken M to the parking garage, had us parked on the wrong floor; we would have to move the car. Uria came to help us park in the correct place. So you see, even though Aiser always sent Uria to fix the problems sooner or later, the problems should never have occurred in the first place.

But those problems did not diminish the joy of San Sebastian. We knew about the San Sebastian Film Festival and purposely adjusted our dates so that we would be there for the first day. We’ve attended the Telluride Film Festival for 25 years and were excited to see what the San Se was like. After doing some grocery shopping at the Bectxa market on a beautiful sunny day, we went to the Kursaal to see about tickets for the film festival. We sat on a bench, eating good gelato, trying to figure out what we might want to see. It is a huge program which goes on for a over a week in six different locations. Unfortunately we found out later, when it was too late to do anything about it, that tickets go on sale on the internet the Sunday before the festival starts; several of the films we wanted to see were already sold out.

That evening we were off to do our first pintxos tour. We had several pintxos with txocoli (wine) at one of the places listed in the Maribel guide Taberna Gandarias (€10.30) and then just keep walking and looking at what was displayed in the various bars until we found another that looked good. It appears that there are a couple of different methods. At some places, like Meson Martin (€9.90) you take what you want and then, on the honor system, report how many and pay. At others, which serve some hot or special pintxos, you must put what you want on a plate, and let the waiter see what you have and then pay. If you order something hot or special, it will be brought to you. A running tab was kept and when we were done, they knew exactly how much we owed even though the place was packed.

The next day we went to La Concha beach. It was a glorious day and we walked the 1.5 km beach and found a spot and just read and rested. The beach is a scene: hundreds of people (it’s a very large deep beach) of all shapes and sizes. Anything goes, from topless to stomachs hanging out over bikinis, on both sexes. Everyone appears to be happy. The beach is surrounded by beautiful belle époque buildings and green hills. This is a beautiful city.

Our day ended at Bergara Bar where we had the most fabulous pintxos. Instead of doing the customary three and moving on, we had 10, every one super, and several glasses of txocoli (€38). This is one of two places in the Nueva Gros area that have won awards and been featured in magazines. The other one, just down the street, was closed for remodeling.

The next morning was overcast so we decided it would be good for a day trip to Altamira and Bilbao. On the way we stopped to see the highly touted Santillana Del Mar. We walked through what we found to be a highly oversold lovely medieval town. It is well-preserved, but a total tourist site.

The Altamira Museo, on the other hand, is wonderful and well worth a visit. As we are seniors, we got in for free, too. The actual cave is closed in order to preserve it, and the museo has a terrific replica into which you walk after seeing a brief film about what went on in the cave from 15,000 years ago to when it was discovered in the mid-1800’s. As you walk through there are explanations in Spanish and English and the one about how the artist did his work was especially interesting. There is also a large and very well done exhibit space – all bi-lingual.

Then to Bilbao and the Guggenheim (entry €20). Our plan was to have the €32 per person tasting lunch at the well-reviewed Gug restaurant, but it had closed 10 minutes before we arrived. We were disappointed but we enjoyed the menu del dia in the adjacent Bistro. I had grilled hake with salsa and smashed potatoes and green salad,; M had roast lamb with celeriac puree and green salad; both had a glass of wine and great bread sticks (€24). The Gug (or Goog as it is known here) is a very interesting building with – in my opinion - not so great art. It is filled totally with mediocre abstract expressionists and huge installations.

We did have a rather interesting experience when we tried – and failed – to get out of the parking garage at a nearby shopping mall. I assumed that you had your timed ticket time stamped at the machine near the exit ramp and then paid an attendant somewhere at a street exit. Wrong! After several tries, with the arm not rising to let us go up the ramp, I got out of the car and looked for help. I found an office with an attendant who spoke no English. The poor attendant, seeing how freaked out I was, actually locked her office and walked with me to the machine in the garage where one pays, took my money, did the deed, and handed me the paid ticket that we had to put in the exit ramp machine to get out. I was so relieved that I gave her a big hug. Then, of course, I couldn’t remember where I’d left M in the car, and she walked me through the garage to find him. It was nice to have an apartment to come back to and the ability to fix a simple dinner.

The sun was shining brightly the next day. We had a fabulous pintxos lunch at Bar Zeruko(€24.60). If we thought Bergara Bar was great, this place was fabulous! Hard to describe what we had, but everything was beautiful and tasted wonderful. After some shopping, as San Se has some nice stores, we went to the beach in the late afternoon.

That evening we’d made a reservation at Bodegon Alejandro. Our expectations were well-met. We arrived at 9, ordered the tasting menu and a bottle of wine (€104.44), and left at 11:30. These are the courses we enjoyed:

  • Cold marinated anchovies lasagne and vegetable ratatouille with gazpacho cream
  • Creamy rice with baby cuttlefish oil and slivers of Idiazábal cheese
  • Grilled hake on potatoes with virgin olive oil and citrus vinaigrette
  • Glazed Iberian veal cheek served on a potato and bacon terrine with warm roasted pepper jus
  • French toast soaked in fresh cream and egg yolk, caramelised in saucepan and served with cheese ice cream
  • Slightly spicy peach gnocchi with coconut ice cream and vanilla juice.
We really needed a walk after dinner. The promenade around La Concha was the perfect place.

Friday was overcast and blustery, a good day to stay in and get caught up with laundry and work.

It was the opening night of the Film Festival and we had tickets for the 9:30 movie. We left at 7:30, in a light drizzle, and went back to our favorite Bar Zeruko. More fabulous pintxos including langostino and scallops (€35), then off to the film festival. The scene was about as opposite of our Telluride experience as could be. We encountered the red carpet and had to get around it to find the line for the K2 venue where our movie, Bonsai, was showing. The opening night gala movie Intruders seemed to be what the stars on the red carpet (most of whom we did not know) were there for, and every so often a cheer would go up from the crowd. Like Telluride, we had to stand in line – except, not being Spanish speakers, we couldn’t talk to anyone while there. We went into a very nice large theater we got good seats in the center. A woman gave an intro to the film and the Chilean director spoke. It was a nice film and one I’m pretty sure will not be seen in the States.

Our last day in San Se was overcast again with light drizzle, sometimes getting harder, but always warm. We went to Bretxa Market to buy food for the road and wander through the beautiful displays in the fish market. On the way back we encountered a band of older men, led by a woman, playing traditional songs, and many in the crowd had song books and knew the words. People were tapping toes, dancing, singing, including us. I said we were either a part of traditional folk songs or the revolution was starting. It was a great scene. We followed them when they moved onto the square where there was also a group in traditional dress with the women playing accordion and tambourines.

We intended to end our stay in San Se with a good farewell lunch. We didn’t realize that 1:30 is the best time if you want to get in to a restaurant without a reservation, so we left at 2:00. By the time we found Kokotxa, Atelena and Ni Neu, they were all “complete,” much to our dismay. We went to Cuchara, the hidden place near the Heineken sign. It was still raining, and a nice young couple from Ireland shared their table with us. Lunch was just fair (€42): small portions of pork ribs, suckling pig, cod cheeks, and scallops wrapped in Iberico. It was nice having conversation with Siobhan and her husband John.

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