So we walk into a little town and a bull fight breaks out…

In the middle of a Europe-wide heat wave, Mike and I set the alarm for 5am, and started walking by 5:30 to beat the afternoon heat of 100°F or higher. Our earliest start yet, we found our way out of the town of Los Arcos in full darkness, and covered almost 7km before sunrise.

By the time we reached Torres del Rio, we were jonesing for some tortilla and coffee. This was one of those stops where we could not find tortilla without bread to save our lives, so Mike worked some magic, and talked a bar owner into scrambling up some eggs special. I asked for four (two eggs each), but Mike raised me and ordered six.

With such an early start, we were doing great and reached out halfway point for the day at Viana by 11:00. We entered the ancient walled city through a gate topped with a warrior right out of Game of Thrones, and started to look for a good spot to take a break and rest our feet.

But less than 100 yards down the narrow, cobbled street we found ourselves in the middle of a party! Lots of little kids, all dressed identically in white with red neck kerchiefs, racing around a square, being chased by a costumed man with a huge paper maché head and a whip.

Well I’m not sure what that was all about, but it was certainly intriguing. We continued about a block further, and found ourselves in the middle of a parade! Absolutely everybody was wearing white and red, a band playing, and four giant king and queen puppets dancing and spinning in the middle of it all.

So we joined in! We followed the festivities right into the middle of town where the parade dissolved into the town square, and everyone pulled up seats at tables that filled the square and the surrounding streets from curb to curb, drinking wine and eating pinxtos. I saw a table of pilgrims we knew and Stefan from Switzerland said, “It’s the town’s feast day. And there will be a running of the bulls at 2:00!” What?!?!? Mike and I plopped down our bags, ordered a glass of wine of our own, and discussed the situation. The beauty of not booking anything in advance is that we really don’t have to stick to a schedule, right? And even though we got up early, and have only made it halfway, nothing says we HAVE to keep walking, right? And there’s going to be a running of the bulls… RIGHT DOWN THIS STREET, right? It was an easy decision. If we could find a place to spend the night, we’d stay.

All of the private hotels were full due to the fiesta, but not the pilgrims’ albergue! We were in line when they opened at noon, and had paid 8€ each for our bunks and taken showers and headed back out into the streets by 1:00. We joined the locals at a small table lining the main street through the old walled city and ordered a couple of pinxtos to sustain ourselves until the main event. My restaurant Spanish is getting better: Dos pulpo (octopus) por favor, and uno atún con cebolla (tuna and onions).

Suddenly, the excitement level kicked up a notch, and all of the tables and chairs were getting whisked away. It was pretty intimidating watching these big metal grills get dragged in to cover the doors and windows of the shops to protect them from angry bulls. We lurked at a cross street, waiting until city workers started pulling a big wooden gate closed across the intersection, then we climbed up on the gate for a front row seat!

I’ve learned a few things from my one and only running of the bulls. First, they don’t just run once, at least in a small town like Viana. They run back and forth through town several times. And…

The first time – the bull is fast! No one runs with a fresh bull. At most, the macho guys wait for the bull to run past, and then stick out a leg, or a water bottle to poke at him as he runs by.

As a spectator, you’re more at risk of getting clobbered by a man leaping the fence to escape the bull, than you are from the bull himself. Fair enough!Eventually the bull gets tired. Then men start to run with him. Only the youngest and fastest at this point…

Eventually the bull gets angry. After a few passes through town, he’s hot. And tired. And big plumes of snot are hanging from his nose. He’s not very fast anymore, but he’s willing to get distracted and ram into the crowd. Or a gate. Or a wall. Or pretty much anything.

  • This is when it gets interesting. Young men run with the bull, and jump out of the way. Old men hold sheets of plywood and cardboard across the street and dare the bull to break them. Spectators leap out of the way when a distracted bull charges the fence for no good reason. (this actually happened, but I don’t have pictures. Self preservation) At this point, Mike was happy he decided not to run with the bulls.
  • Finally, the clock strikes 2:30, and the poor tired bulls get to return to their pens. The town’s people grab another round of drinks to celebrate that they are still alive, and then… Siesta….

A Pinxtos Tour of San Sebastian

San Sebastian is known as a foodie city. It possesses 18 Michelin stars. Eight percent of it’s population belong to gastronomic societies. And eating is entertainment! But you don’t have to be on a Michelin star budget to enjoy great food – you just have to indulge in some pinxtos.

Look at all that deliciousness!

Pinxtos are the Basque version of the Spanish tapas. It’s a snack, usually eaten standing up at the bar or outside the restaurant with a glass of wine, to tide you over between the end of the work day and the late Spanish dinner. But here in San Sebastian they’ve elevated pintxos to a culinary art and it’s easy to make a meal of these tasty morsels. After four days of pinxtos tasting, here’s what I’ve learned….

Where to go?

When restaurants brag about being on the “100 best pinxtos bars” list you know there’s no shortage of hot spots. My method is to follow the crowds – if it’s busy, there’s probably a good reason. And you don’t have to stick to Old Town’s “Pinxto-landia” theme park vibe and tourist crowds. The trendy Gros neighborhood is also amazing.

Constitution Plaza at Sunset

Because you only order one or two small plates at each establishment, the crowds ebb and flow quickly – just loiter outside and people watch for a few minutes until there’s room at the bar. And if they ask you to pay each time you order something, it’s a tourist trap! Traditional places will let you order a round, maybe two, and when you’re ready to leave they’ll have magically remembered what you ordered and present a perfect tally.

I’m told this was always Anthony Bourdain’s first stop when ever he returned to San Sebastian

How to Order?

It can be kind of intimidating, especially if there’s a crowd and if the bartender’s speaking Basque! But stay cool. Just kind of wander through and check out the crowd, the platters of deliciousness displayed on the bar, and the chalkboard of “plates of the minute” hot pinxtos specials. Unless you see something amazing and creative, stay resolute and don’t be tempted by the cold pinxtos that have sat out all day. And DEFINITELY don’t ask for a dinner plate. A local told me “it breaks his heart” every time he sees a tourist with a huge plate of stale, bad pinxtos. Instead, order a “txach” of Basque cider, poured from a great height. Or a “gintonic” served in an oversized wine glass with bruised citrus rind, a few juniper berries, and lots of ice. Or keep it simple and go with a vino blanco – the house white is probably perfectly adequate and will only set you back about 1.20€ Now that you’re fortified with a cold beverage, order a hot pinxto from the chalk board. You might have even had a chance to check out what everyone else is eating to discover the specialty of the house. Don’t worry if you can’t translate exactly. It will probably be delicious, and if it’s not quite your thing, well there’s always the next bar down the street! Don’t forget to say thanks a lot, or “Eskerrik Asko” if you remember “Scary Costco” you’ll be close enough.

Grilled fois gras with apples cooked in cider

When I copied the description of the “rice of the day” at Atari into Google Translate I got back “Sailor rice with seaweed ali-oli and salicornia”. While that doesn’t sound very appetizing, it was actually the most delicious clam risotto served with two tiny clams on top and some sort of frothy green emulsion, topped with a few strands of a crisp, salty sea vegetable – easily one of the best things I’ve eaten in years.

“Sailor rice” and “Huevo cooked at low temps” at Atari

While you’re waiting for the kitchen to prepare your hot pinxto, ok – go ahead and help yourself to a cold one from the bar. You’re only human after all!

Some of the best pinxtos from our tour

Other highlights from our pinxtos exploring?

We stumbled upon the wonderful La Cuchara de San Telmo because a) it was crowded and b) several men wearing shirts from the local rowing club were drinking beer outside the entrance, and when we peered inside and hesitated one said “very delicious” in a strong Basque accent.

We treated ourselves to seafood pinxtos from the special 20th anniversary menu and they were some of the best of our trip. Grilled octopus with homemade tzaki and chimichuri sauces, and sea scallops wrapped in Serrano ham and served with a fresh corn emulsion and crunchy granules of toasted corn. OMG!

The name of the bar is fun too. Back when San Sebastian was being built, the church of San Telmo was considered the “poor people’s church.” In fact, they ran out of money and never completed the wall which still shows the rough unfinished sea rock known as cucha today. The rich merchants started using the name “cucharas” as an insult for the working class folks who couldn’t even afford to finish their church. Today, many San Sebastian natives have taken back the name, and embraced it with pride as their own nickname.

We really enjoyed the grilled pequillo peppers at Bar Tamboril because, except for olives, they were the only green vegetable we’d eaten since we arrived.

done we’ve done some long hikes but over a long long ago we did the Appalachian Trail 20 years ago the east coast of the United States and some it’s 2000 miles up the east coast of the United States but that was 20 years ago relationtrip

Wherever you go, and whatever you order, don’t forget to introduce yourself to the person next to you, relax and enjoy the setting sun reflecting off the stone walls, and to laugh and tell stories! You can’t go wrong!