One of the best ways to get to know a new location is to explore the local cuisine, particularly in a place like the Basque Country where gastronomy plays such an important role. The Basques call their homeland Euskadi, and they call the delicious miniature dishes served in the bars there 'pintxos'. On the coast, just 20 kilometres from the French border, the city of San Sebastian – known as Donostia in the Basque language – is famed for the quality and variety of these tasty mouthfuls.
The social habit of going for tapas – a drink and a snack – is popular all across Spain, but perhaps nowhere is it so firmly entrenched as in San Sebastian, where any excuse is good to set off on a bar crawl with friends, picking and choosing from the range of tiny temptations that crowd the bar space in the bustling taverns.
Why not take a stroll through the old part of town and follow the example of the locals as they bar hop between their favourite spots, sampling the specialities of each? The list of choices is as limitless as the chef's imagination and can be a little overwhelming.
Don't be put off by the difficulty of the names, though, – brandada de bacalao (brandade of salt cod and olive oil), pimientos verdes de Gernika rellenos de setas (green peppers stuffed with mushrooms), canutillos de queso y anchoa (pastry horns filled with cheese and anchovies), huevo de codorniz con jamon (quails egg with ham)... – whatever you choose is likely to be delicious.
Often you won't even need to know the names as the plates are laid out on the bar and you can just point to the ones that take your fancy. The best setting for a taste test is a stroll through the narrow streets of San Sebastian Old Town, between the Plaza de la Constitucion, the church of Santa Maria and La Concha beach, where the bars are piled with pintxos. And, of course, you should sample the local wines, too, the famed reds of the Rioja Alavesa or the lighter, slightly sparkling, white txakoli.
While you're out on the town, in San Sebastian, make sure you drop by A Fuego Negro, where the tasting menu includes eight small dishes and the speciality is a tempting creation of mackerel, sheep's cheese, mint and cherry, or La Cepa, where the signature dish la gavilla is based on ham, cheese, pork and bechamel.
At the Bodega El Lagar the speciality is a dish of eggs with wild mushrooms, while anchovy addicts should head to the Antonio Bar (Bergara, 3). Meson Martin invites you to sample trainera – a dish of grilled squid and shrimp on a ham base, and at Mil Catas, twice champion of the Gipuzkoa pintxos award, the ensalada de txangurro – crab salad – is just one of many tempting possibilities.
The list of bars goes on – Iombi, Gandarias, Vergara, Haizea (Aldamar, 8), Iturrioz, Izkiña, La Viña, SM Café Bar (Urbieta, 6) – the menus are long and the choice is difficult, so make sure you allow yourself plenty of time to savour these delights of Basque cuisine.
Further information: San Sebastian Tourist Board