Following on from the “Where to Eat”
blog post I thought I’d suggest several options on how to get there.
I often hear people say San Sebastian is not a weekend destination due to its distance from the airports. This is true, it’s not a “15 min transfer”, more like an hour long drive or coach through the beautiful Basque countryside. Elsewhere you may have to endure the suburbia or various below ground trains, but here, the drive/bus/coach trip is so thrilling it’s a steal at 10 or so euros. Another way around the “weekend” predicament is to simply go for longer. Steal a day off work to go Donostia. Lie, be sick…resign but make sure you go.
London to Bilbao. The obvious and quick route. Low cost Vueling and Easy Jet will get you there in just under 2 hours…quicker than your commute to/from work….think about it. You can get a coach from the airport direct to San Sebastian.
London to Bordeaux. Slightly shorter flight at one and a half hours but a longer drive or coach ride at 2 and a half hours.
London to Biarritz. Options from Ryanair, Airfrance and others. Unless you are driving the transfer is complicated. Coach/bus probably easiest but there is also Eusko train but you have to get to the train station, Hendaye, from the airport. Personally I think Biarritz is a great destination in itself so perhaps plan to visit and eat your way around town before moving on to Donostia (as part of your 6 week grand tour of the Basque Country!).
Everybody loves the sleeper, remember the wine
Ok so you’ve resigned, packed up and decided to take the slower lane in life. Forget security checks, long queues, seatbelts and other restrictions that offset the speed of air with the frustration of the entire process. Sleep your way there on…the train.
From Kings Cross catch Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord station. You have to change station in Paris to Gare d’Austrlitz, which is annoying but by cab it’s only 15 euros or so. Don’t get the Metro as it doesn’t fit in with the vibe of this slow motion option of getting there. You will be travelling overnight, leaving around half nine and arriving in Hendaye at 9am, from here you get on the charming Eusko train to San Sebastian.
This is not luxurious travel but an experience in itself. The couchettes are small and old but on our trip were very clean and comfortable. Of course you don’t want to share, if you are 2 so make sure you double check the options when you book. Don’t forget to buy at least two bottles of French wine, some baguette and other bits for the train picnic. More info available here
Train and luxury
Take the train hotel that is Elipsos
, a Spanish operated overnight service from Paris. It’s the more expensive option but nothing selling your car and house to finance your permanent move to the Basque Country won’t cover. There is one unsatisfying experience here, the train arrives to Vitora-Gasteiz at 4 o’clock in the morning. An hour drive will get you to San Sebastian.
The restaurant on Ellipsos
Just as slow but not as comfortable (if you suffer frm travel sickness anyway!) option is to go by ferry. The allure of the sun, sea and fresh air is quickly brought to its knees by the comedy show, expensive beer and the truckers. Maybe a bit harsh…how do I put it, don’t go with your girlfriend/boyfriend…group of guys, yes. There is only one reason to get the ferry, the boot of your car rental and the back seats. The Duty
on “good times” in the UK is, Wine £2/btl, Spirits £7.41/btl, Sherry £2.67/btl sad times I know, so get a lot of boot space and leave the kids at home because HMRC limits allow the following:
Please feel free to contribute your own travel experiences and suggestions in the comment box below!
A few years ago we stopped by in Donostia – San Sebastian, fell in love with the gastronomy, left our day jobs and opened Donostia Restaurant in London. Everyone should go to San Sebastian…as many times as possible.
We are often asked by our customers and friends about where to eat, how to get to, where to stay in San Sebastian. We are no experts but very keen tourists with an insatiable appetite for Basque cuisine and drink. In the following post we would like to share our discoveries in San Sebastian, beginning with; where to eat.
Donostia is famous for its gastronomy. The town and its surrounding area has the highest number of Michelin stared restaurants by square mile. Mugaritz, Arzak, Akelare are just some of the well know names. We salute these ambassadors of modern Basque cuisine but our focus is more on the everyday pintxo bars and restaurants. Ones you can visit several times during your stay and which will not make your credit card provider jump with joy.
Old Town Pintxo crawl
A Fuego Negro – Modern pintxo bar, famous for the mini kobe style burgers, a must try! Our Head Chef Tomaz spent a couple of weeks working here before we opened Donostia in London. To drink, try the Enate Chardonnay 234 from Somontano. www.afuegonegro.com
La Cuchara de San Telmo – just off the main street at Calle 31 de Agosto, 28 – this is a legendary pintxo bar. It’s best to go at the quieter hours as it is tiny and can get very busy. The pork belly (among other things) is amazing. www.lacucharadesantelmo.com
Slow cooked pork belly. Order two.
A lot of the pintxo bars have a speciality and the idea is you move to those that do a particular dish best. Some good examples also in the Old Town:
Txepetxa at Calle Pescaderia 5 which specialises in boquerones/white anchovies. A personal favourite is the coconut anchovy pintxo. Also worth trying the boiled chorizo. Drink: Txakoli!
Anchovy with coconut and blackcurrant jam at Txepetxa.
Tamboril, run by twins a few doors down which is famous for its ‘txampis’ (mushrooms), make sure you order at least a portion or you haven’t been to Donostia. Drink- cider. www.bartamboril.com
Nearby is Bar Zeruko at Calle Pescaderia 10, a relatively new place but the spread on the bar is a sight to see! Eat…well, everything. www.barzeruko.com
Gandarias: traditional Basque pintxo bar and restaurant. There is a bit of a story with us and this particular restaurant. When we first stopped in Donostia to get some rest from driving all day from London we stayed in a hostel on Calle 31 de Agosto. I had never heard of San Sebastian until then and had no idea about the food. So when we ventured out looking for somewhere to eat we used a well know technique of spotting out restaurants where old geezers gathered. These guys have a nose for sniffing out good food at reasonable prices…they know! We had one of the best meals ever and can now credit their vaca vieja txuleton (old cow rib eye steak) as a life and career changing experience.
We visited Gandarias many times since and have become close friends with the owners who, once we decided to open Donostia in London, gave us loads of advice, put us in touch with their suppliers (Txakoli Agerre just one example) and fed us through some tough times during the restaurant opening period. Soon to feature on our menu is their Vaca Vieja Txuleton direct from Gandarias. Try the suckling pig, the roasted Gernika peppers, these are seasonal and available in summer only. The restaurant is also very good for simple rustic pintxos. Fantastic wine list featuring some well-known names from Rioja and Ribera del Duero. www.restaurantegandarias.com/en/
Jose-Marie, one of the Gandarias owners showing us what to look for in a steak. Legend.
Some other resources:
A video about Pintxos in Donostia and Gandarias
Here are a couple of videos on San Sebastian our Sous Chef Damian found; a good overview of the Basque passion for gastronomy:
The fun thing in San Sebastian is to walk around and find your own food discoveries. The list above is just a small selection of popular places. Please add in comments below the many other pintxo bars and restaurants I have missed.
If you fancy taking a guided tour, I’d recommend Jon Warren, a friend of ours who runs www.sansebastianfood.com
Our passion for Basque cuisine took us back, once again, to the wonderful San Sebastian. We'll let the pictures do the talking..
Txuleta @ Gandarias
The cooked version..
Pork belly at La Cuchara de San Telmo
The decision to open Donostia is a reflection of our passion for Basque gastronomy. We finally “pulled the trigger” at the start of the year having found our premises in London, W1. Since then the starry eyed daydreams of serving pintxo, txakoli, bacalao, steak… have been replaced by the real life challenges of opening a restaurant. It’s nothing short of Heston Blumenthal’s recipe – simple if you know how (and have practiced a lot) ! Take one small pot (restaurant site) add one landlord, one solicitor, one mechanical engineer, an interior designer (luckily we have our own), a builder and an architect. Cover and let stew for some time. Patience required. Season with local licensing authority (the lovely Westminster), planning authorities, health and safety and kitchen advisors. For great taste, throw in the best chefs and front of house staff and only use the very best suppliers. Finally, a big wallop of passion, hard work and a pinch of hope and you’ll have the restaurant you dreamt about.
The Donostia stand at the annual Portman Village summer party
Coming from a non-restaurant background, we were suddenly immersed in a world we didn’t fully understand. Sure our wine business helped as we gained advice from our experienced clients (“Oh no not the extractor!” – now we know) and our business experience made the numbers understandable but still hard to estimate. So it was a great when we were given an opportunity to take part in the Portman Village
annual summer party. With the works on-going we could only represent Donostia in form of a stand outside the restaurant. You lose sight of the food, wine and service when wondering about the airflow and gas certificates so it was wonderful to see so many locals give our concept the thumbs up. This is why we started the restaurant! The Jamon, Txakoli and Rioja (our very own Fincas de Landaluce 2006
) went down a treat. All the hard work had paid off in those 5 hours; we got to serve our new neighbours and receive numerous positive comments on the jamon, wine and our ideas. The one negative comment.. that we are not opening until January.
Jamon Serrano carved by the experts!
On our latest sourcing trip we drove from Galicia through Asturias, Cantabria ending up in "Pais Vasco", the Basque Country. This time we were not in search of wine (discovered some great ones anyway) but cider or as the Basque call it, “sagardo”.
Cider has grown in popularity in the recent decade, even Stella are doing it (yikes!). The UK government was quick to catch on the trend too, with a 10% duty hike in the 2010 budget. This decision received such a public outcry; loudest coming from the South West of the country naturally, the new government quickly shelved the decision.
With growing popularity come risks. Industrialised and unloved, the big business has done for cider what generic blends have done for wine. Funky labels, long shelf life and big advertising budgets have reduced the delicious taste of cider to a “one-for-all” supermarket product line. Ask any self-respecting cider drinker about the products which currently represent the cider industry and watch their cheeks flush up in rage.
Northern Spain has a long standing relationship with gastronomy so it was no surprise to find the cider was well produced, cloudy and natural. But what makes it different, why has it caught our attention and seduced our palate?
With so many great wines in this region, at first our interests were easily side tracked by the likes of the delicious Txakoli (pronounced cha-co-li), a light, slightly carbonated local white wine gem. The mistake not to make is to think once you have found one discovery there will not be others. This terroir here has an insatiable offer as our cider discovery has shown.
As we set out to satisfy our inquisitive appetite and further this encounter, the more we travelled and spoke to locals the more we realised just how big a part cider was to this society. It was entrenched in the history, tradition, gastronomy (of course) but most of all everyday life. Everything from how the apples are grown, selected, crushed, bottled and served is unique. But just being different is not enough. We are surprised just how humble and unpretentious the locals are with something of such high quality.
A string of taste provoking metaphors to describe this cider simply wont do here, you have to try it to appreciate the flavour of the hand selected apples and the fizz induced by the overhead pour.
A fine demonstration of the traditional pouring method. The cider is poured in small quantities and drunk quickly before the natural fizz disappears
Well... one needs a snack