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Archive for November 23rd, 2006

San Sebastian BoardwalkOne of the best things about San Sebastian (in fact the thing that sets it apart from the perhaps-better-known shore town in Basque country, Biarritz) is its beach and boardwalk.

Jon and I loved our runs along the boardwalk, past the Playa de Ondarreta and down to the Paseo del Peine del Viento.

The boardwalk is beautifully tiled and edged with a confectionary wrought-iron fence, and the Paseo del Peine del Viento takes you to the northwesternmost tip of the Conchas Bay where there are huge rocks on which the Altantic waves crash.Strangely enough, there are iron artworks bolted into the rocks. The installation, Escultura Peine del Viento, is by an artist named Eduardo Chillida, whose descendants happen to own the Hotel Niza, where we stayed. I don’t really understand the art, but I like that San Sebastian is a place where people bother putting up art even though it’s exposed to ocean salt and waves.Jon had read in the NYT about a restaurant sitting atop Monte Igueldo, which you reach via funicular. The funicular is this really solid-looking Funicular in San Sebastiantrain car painted over with a CocaCola design and pulled up a hill by a series of pulleys and motors. (I’m no marketing expert, but it’s totally unclear to me what Coca Cola gains from sponsoring a dinky little funicular in San Sebastian. On the other hand, I did just bother to write about it here, which I’m sure makes the spend worthwhile).

I was a little doubtful that this heavy wood thing was going to pull us up what looked to me like a 70-degree incline, but it was quite the little engine that could. There are two funicular cars in operation simultaneously – one going up and one coming down – and they share the same track except for one bit in the middle where the track butterflies out, and the upward-bound funicular moves to the right wing of the butterfly, and the downward-bound one moves to its right. If the funicular cars were moving any faster, it might be a hair-rasing maneuver, but instead it’s just mildly alarming and interesting.

At the top of Monte Igueldo, we found an eerie closed-down carnival ground. The View of Concha Bay from Monte Igueldorestaurant that the NYT raved about last year was closed, too, so we took in some gorgeous views of Concha Bay and then made our way back down the funicular.

At this point, it was already 2:30, and I was hungry and getting frustrated that we had managed to waste a good part of the day on not much. In search of a fast, moderate-priced lunch, we ate lunch at La Pasta Gansa in our hotel. The place is all cheery blonde wood and has a warm wood-fired oven, from which emerge bubbly-topped pizzas. Lots of Spanish speakers had crowded in, adding a nice buzz in the room. It was exactly what we wanted and needed. A quick, not-bad lunch. The pizza was better than it had to be for a beach-side hotel restaurant. Jon’s pizza romana (with anchovies) was seriously salty, but I fared better with my pizza campagana (mushrooms). There was that ever-annoying bread charge and the crust of the pizzas were a little too thick, but otherwise, service was friendly and the pizza was fresh.

We spent the afternoon in the Parte Vieja neighborhood doing some shopping, and then after a lot of leisurely walking around, we swung by the Solbes gourmet deli/wine store to pick up a few wines and ended the shopping portion of the trip.That evening, we checked out the Gros neighborhood on the other side of the Urumea River to try some “award-winning” tapas (that’s pintxos to you Basque speakers) that our guidebook raved about.First, we tried Alona Berri, Calle Bermingham, 24, where the servers were friendly and pointed proudly to plaques on the walls honouring Alona Berri tapas on displaytheir tapas in “tapas competition.”

The problem is that the award-winning tapas don’t seem very original anymore – they just seem fussy and expensive.

For example, for four euros, we tried a (single) grilled squid on a skewer that’s intended to be eaten with a sliver of spun sugar and chased with some squid broth. It tasted fine, but just seemed like a lot of effort for effort’s sake. And then there was a (again, single) shrimp-and-vegetable dumpling that also tasted good, but at the end of the day, it was a really seafoody won ton for yet another four euros. I guess I’m saying if you drop by, the food is fine, but you’re not going to be wowed and the décor is nothing so elegant that you’ll feel the premium price was justified. There were also a lot of tourists there when we arrived at 9 pm.

Because it’s the San Sebastian way to progress through tapas bars, after trying four different tapas at Alona Berri, we moved just around Bergara Bar in San Sebastianthe corner to try Bar Bergara, Calle General Arteche, 8, which I’d recommend over Alona Barri. The place also has award-winning specialties, of which we tried only one: the txalupa (aka langoustine gratineed with mild mushrooms). Creamy and seafood-y, like a lobster roll, except so chopped up that you can’t identify what the seafood component is. I liked the vibe at Bar Bergara – the long communal tables and the mixed crowd of young and old, tourists and locals.After having sufficiently appetized ourselves on tapas, we drove out to Elkano in GetariaGetaria again to have dinner at Elkano (Herrerieta, 2, Ph: 943 14 06 14). The décor of the restaurant was familiar now that we’d spent a few days in Basque country – a rustic, timbered, yellow-lighted interior. The dining room was large and bustling, though not full. There was a long table seating almost 20 people. It looked like quite a celebration.We were seated up on a lofted area with a few other couples – thankfully it wasn’t some sort of English-speaking ghetto. We have this perverse need to struggle through our order when we don’t speak the local language. In this case, Jon had to run back to the car to get our guidebook in order for us to decipher half the seafood on the menu – hake, mackerel, turbot . . . these are words that we sometimes have trouble matching up with the right fish in English, much less in Spanish.We had hoped to order a grilled turbot, just as Chez Pim had raved about, but unfortunately, the only turbot left at the restaurant was 2kg, and while we are hearty eaters, we weren’t about to polish off 4.4 pounds of fish on our own. Our waiter brought the turbot out on a platter just so we could witness how enormous it was (as if we doubted that he was left with only a 2 kg fish), and we ended up with a 1.3 kg sea bass that still tested the limits of our appetites, but given that it came perfectly grilled, salted and doused in lemon juice and olive oil, we were up to the challenge. I was glad I hadn’t ordered anything else, though Jon’s fish soup was a rich starter that was mildly tempting.We ordered a bottle of 2003 Finca Valpiedra for 21 euros that was kind of sour – or more accurately, it lacked the bold berry flavours of the one we’d had at the Fuego Negra, so I’d be curious to know what the vintage was at Fuego Negra.Here’s my big gripe about our meal – I actually don’t mind (too much) that we paid 97 euros, before tip, comprised mostly of our wine, Jon’s soup (11 euros) and our grilled sea bass (52 euros). What angers me like nobody’s business is the insistence on a bread charge. It’s a practice that we haven’t run into except in Rome, to be honest, and I just don’t get it. The bread in question at Elkano was stale and inedible, and I am ranting about it because two portions of said gross bread cost 3.20 euros. Could the restaurants in the area please just get rid of this annoying custom? Go ahead and charge me another 3 euros for the main course, but stop it with this bread charge. I don’t understand what it’s intended to accomplish except to piss off diners.By the way, our guidebook categorizes Elkano as “inexpensive,” which it certainly is not. If you ordered carefully, maybe you could call it “moderate,” but it’s a well-known seafood restaurant serving very high-quality seafood. Unless you’re in a third-world country, this kind of food doesn’t come cheap. So if anyone from the Cadogan Bilbao-Basque Country guide is reading this post, take note.Overall, the restaurant certainly knows how to grill fish. Stop by if you’re in the area or on your way from San Sebastian to Bilbao, but it’s not a destination.

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