I fell in love with Spain. First it was a week in Barcelona, then, a year later, a week in Madrid. By year three, following a week’s tour in the Midi-Pyreees, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to return to Spain and travel its length from Bilbao in the north, through its geographic center of Madrid and on to the former Moorish capital of Granada in the south. But first, I was told, I must visit – and eat in – San Sebastian.
Located on the eastern end of Spain’s Atlantic coast, known as la Golfo de Vizcaya (Bay of Biscay), San Sebastian is considered one of the culinary capitals of the world, a distinction largely lost on this non-foodie. But, as much as gourmandizing does not excite me, the idea of bars competing to outdo each other with exotic and cheap finger food called “pintxos” (pronounced “pinchos,” and essentially tapas) was an adequate inducement, along with San Sebastian’s picturesque setting in a horseshoe-shaped bay with golden sand beaches.
I arrived by train from Toulouse, France, with the rugged Pyrenees providing a continual and stunning southern vista. At the border city of Irun, Spain, the civility and cleanliness of the French train, with the melodious lilt of that language spoken in hushed tones, was markedly replaced by a grimy and worn Spanish train, boarded by shoving one’s way in, and the shouts and grunts in Spanish and Euskara, a baffling pre-Indo European language spoken by the Basque people in northeastern Spain. I was back.
San Sebastian’s seaside does not disappoint. Its broad promenade skirts the entire bay where locals and tourists of all ages, most smartly dressed, stroll arm-in-arm or glide by on bicycles or skateboards. White walled restaurants with royal blue awnings and outdoor seating offer exceptional people-watching opportunities on the promenade or beachside, while upscale apartments and commercial buildings line the boulevard, looking over a green-hilled island and bobbing sailboats to sea.
I eagerly waited until after 10 p.m., when restaurants open for dinner and the streets come alive again, to begin my poteo (the Basque custom of going from bar to bar, savoring a glass of wine and the bar’s specialty pintxo, and moving on to the next) in the Old Quarter of winding pedestrian streets on the east side of the bay. Being alone in this unfamiliar city, I hoped to make some new friends.
Climbing up the steep stone streets, I peered into and passed numerous dark bars emitting violent blasts of reggae music. Finally, I entered a well-lit one where the sounds of lively conversation beckoned. Idling up to the long polished wood bar, filled with white plates stacked high with all manner of unidentifiable edibles, I ordered a vino tinto (red wine). The busy bartender poured it and I sipped. Looking around at groups of people eating, drinking and laughing at the dozen formica-topped tables, I felt quite alone.
Then two middle-aged couples entered. The women talked and gestured non-stop to each other, as if oblivious to having entered a new venue, and automatically staked out a few square feet of floor space to the side of the door. Their men, clearly knowing the poteo drill, moved immediately next to me at the bar and, without a sideways glance, ordered drinks and a variety of pintxos that were quickly assembled and handed to one of the men who carried it with one hand to a shelf on the wall next to the women.
Another glass of wine appeared before me. “From those men,” explained the bartender, nodding in their direction. I walked over to them and raised my glass. “Muchas gracias!” I said with a smile. The men nodded. The women glared as I interrupted their serious flow of words in what, I realized, was not Spanish. “Hablan español?” I asked. “A veces,” sometimes, said one of the women.
More desperate than I’d realized for conversation and the opportunity to improve my rusty intermediate-level Spanish, I blurted out, “I’m so happy to be here! This is my first night back in Spain since a year ago, and it is my first time in San Sebastian!”
They looked at one another in what I took to be incomprehension. Then the smaller, more stern-looking woman, wagged her forefinger at me and said, in emphatically enunciated Spanish, “You are not in Spain. You are in Pais Vaso (Basque Country). This is not San Sebastian. It is Donastia.”
“Claro!” Of course, I replied cheerfully, realizing I was meeting real live Basques for the first time. I imagined they were card-carrying members of the ETA, the Basque separatist group that has been fighting for independence of their region and promotion of their language and culture since 1959. The was thought both scary and exhilarating. “I’m sorry. I hope you’ll forgive me. I forgot.”
They all smiled approvingly and clinked glasses with me. “A Donastia!” I proclaimed, and we laughed, the tension dissipated. The other woman asked my name and introduced herself as Arantzazu, and her friend as Maite, who nodded and repeated, “Pais Vasco, sí?” “Sí,” I agreed. The men, Iker and Xabier, each shook my hand.
Iker held out the plate of pintxos to me, from which I took a shrimp-topped canapé that turned out to be perched on a small bed of tasty tuna. They watched me pop it into my mouth and waited until I said, “muy bueno”. Smiling, they each took a different treat.
Xabier went to the bar and returned with another glass of red wine for each of us, explaining it came from Rioja, the best wine in the world. Another plate of pintxos appeared, bocadillos, and we each enjoyed a bite-sized sandwich, making small talk that felt larger for being in a foreign language. They downed their second glasses of wine and suddenly turned like a small swarm, without formality, to leave; on to the next bar.
“Thank you so much for making my first night here so special,” I said, as they were halfway out the door. Maite turned, and with a scowl and wagging finger admonished me one last time, “Don’t forget, this is…” “Pais Vasco!” I chimed in unison. She smiled warmly, blew me a kiss, and my new friends disappeared into the night.
Aysha Griffin, a writer, editor, former newspaper reporter, magazine editor and on-air radio news director. Based in Santa Fe, NM, Aysha offers empowering editing, writing, business and personal coaching. A passionate traveler, she hopes to soon return to Spain. For more info, visit www.AyshaGriffin.com.