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Sensational San Sebastian

San Sebastian is the foodie heartland of Spain. Yet with a seemingly boundless culinary offering, it is difficult to know where to start when planning a trip there. No matter if you’re looking for seafood, typical Basque cuisine or a meal at one of the town’s many Michelin star restaurants, luxury travel specialist, Jules, points you in the right direction for a weekend away to remember.  

Three nights, four nights or longer, with the addition of Bordeaux, the winelands or Biarritz; San Sebastian can be everything for everyone and every time frame. Or, for the ultimate foodie escape, combine San Sebastian with Seville and Mallorca on our Spain by Private Jet tour.

Arriving at the Maria Cristina was a real eye-opener as I had no idea what a charming hotel it would be. A funky bar, great reception spaces, beautiful rooms with views over the river and gardens and all in the most perfect location. It is also home to a Mimo boutique store where I purchased many ‘must have’ staples after fantastic five hours in their magical cookery school. But all good stories have a beginning middle and end and I am already at the end, so let me take you back to the start of my wonderful stay in San Sebastian.

After arriving into Bilbao at 7pm, we were soon whisked to San Sebastian by transfer and arrived at the hotel an hour later, with enough time to freshen up before walking down to the cooking school for a private tasting with the resident sommelier. He gave us an extremely helpful overview of Spanish wine, the wine regions of Spain and a guide to choosing the best wines to suit our needs during our stay. He explained so much, including the history of the grapes that take center stage in Spanish wine making. Tempranillo, Albariño, Verdejo and Graciano might be the most well-known Spanish grapes but Mazuelo, Garnacha and Viura were all good to learn about. It goes without saying that it was nice to be able to navigate around local wine lists with a little more confidence afterwards.

After walking around the beautiful old town and waterfront before lunch the next day, we headed off for what was one of the highlights of our weekend; a visit to the world renowned restaurant, Arzak, the temple of Basque cuisine and prodigy of Spanish chef, Juan Marie, and his talented daughter, Elena. We were honoured to be shown around the legendary kitchen, the breathtakingly splendid wine cellar and the fascinating Arzak Lab where nothing short of culinary wizardry takes place. Not quite Harry Potter but the countless bubbling pots, thousands of individually coded spices, endless exotic ingredients and orchestra of whirring machines are testament to the otherworldly tastes that are created in this establishment. It made an already heavenly culinary experience reach another level of nirvana!

I have been to a few three stars in my time and Arzak truly trumps them all. Not simply for the food – which was sensational – but because their staff are so proud, helpful and charming in explaining every step of a guest’s gastronomic ‘journey’, adding such a special level to the whole experience. There was not a moment one felt anything but privileged to be part of the Arzak family – if only for a few hours. César chose and helped explain every dish with such passion and a belief that we would eat only what our taste buds ‘liked’. Mariano, the sommelier, was old school charm and expertly led us through the incredible wine list. Giana and I-Noah (please excuse any misspelling of these names!) were our guides as we explored the labyrinth of Arzak ‘behind the scenes’ and more importantly, they showed us how each dish should be sampled correctly. Four hours passed in a flash and I would definitely champion visiting Arzak at lunchtime to be able to enjoy this iconic restaurant at the leisurely pace it so deserves.

The pintxo tasting tour was another highlight in a weekend that was interspersed with so many! We had already walked around the old town and realised quite quickly that with what seemed like a million bars offering amazing looking pintxos and endless choices of wine, it is a veritable minefield when it comes to choosing where to go. Randomly looking at the array of food available was slightly daunting as we did not speak Spanish and certainly only had a basic understanding of all the wines on offer – even after our introduction the night before. On this tour however, we stopped at six unique eateries which all complemented each other marvelously, showcasing different types of pintxos, a variety wines and each with its own distinctive character. Txakoli, a slightly sparkling white wine originating from the Basque country, has to be the best invention of any country as the answer to what to drink with anything at any time. It is the lightest and most easy to drink wine I have ever encountered anywhere in the world and I have spent time in the winelands of Australia, South Africa, Chile, Argentina and Napa. The impressive showmanship of a barman pouring the tipple from a great height makes for so much fun regardless of whether you drink it or not.

After visiting the market to stock up on wonderful ham, cheeses and fabulous tasting olive oils to take home, we went to the aquarium to learn about the history of San Sebastian and the maritime stories of Spain, England and of course privateers and pirates! Walking around the old town on Sunday and seeing the local Basque people in costume as they made their way to the beautiful Eglise Santa Maria San Sebastian was an image we will not easily forget. It was just such a special moment to witness the pride of these people and we spent a little time in Santa Maria enjoying the Sunday service. Beautiful landmarks like the Hotel de Ville, Theatre Victoria Eugenia and the Cathedrale Buen Pastor frame this charming town along with its beautiful beach and bay. For me, simply strolling for hours, stopping to take in the views over the odd glass of wine or pintxo is the best way to explore this town.

With time running out and our long weekend drawing to a close, we had time for just one more highlight; a cookery class in the heart of the town. Spending five hours with Head Chef, Patricio, and his most amusing and talented team flew by as we really got involved with both the preparation and cooking of incredible dishes. From learning the structure of a dressing, to prepping all the ingredients for an authentic paella, it was so humbling to learn to do things I thought I could do, but properly! We learned the art of creating a proper stock; butchering meat, removing langoustine tails, how to confit peppers and poach pears as well as cook lobster tails and roast tomatoes. It is no wonder Michelin starred restaurants charge so much – the preparation that goes into proper cooking takes hours, and a broth or stock of that quality? Days! The best thing is being able to buy some of the real original ingredients in the Mimo boutique and take a taste of San Sebastian home with you.

A few hours after a wonderful lunch tucking into the most delicious paella I have ever tasted, and a last drink in the bar of the Maria Cristina, our chariot arrived at 4.30 to take us to the airport. Sleepy and sated, we tried to justify all the delicious food we had eaten by how far we had walked through the old town, the beach, around the headland (this is a town for walking or biking as a lot of it is pedestrianised and fabulously flat) but if I had a FitBit on, I am sure it would have tracked the hours of fun we had rather than the miles walked!

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