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!

A hike to the castle (aka, All roads lead to Jesus)

From any spot along the coast of San Sebastian you can see the huge white statue of Jesus gracing the peak of Mount Urgull. He stands at the top of an ancient castle that protected the Old City of San Sebastian from French armies. So we motivated to get our butts off the beach and onto the trail to climb the mountain and see what we could see. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to find the path, so I did a lot of research and read several blog posts and squinted at city maps. Little did I know that there are dozens of entrances to the network of paths that climb the mountain. As long as you walk uphill, you can’t help but end up at the castle!

The path is mostly paved and not very difficult, which is a good thing because I saw many high heeled sandals on the way. Lovely and shady, even in the heat of the day, the walk itself is a pleasant change from the crowds in Old Town and on La Concha beach. As you climb, you pass a series of milliary batteries and lookout points – the higher you climb, the better the views!

Finally at the top, you’re rewarded with the castle itself and a small museum dedicated to the military history of the city.

None of the museum exhibits are in English, so it didn’t take us long to have our fill and join the queue for the main attraction – the chance to climb out on a small viewing platform right at the base of the Jesus statue. Here, the views of the city are first rate and I was thrilled that we’d made the effort!

Stunning San Sebastian

After a full day in Biarritz, these global nomads had to move on! We took a bus about an hour and a half down the coast to San Sebastian, Spain for 13€ per person. Which was kind of sad, ’cause I was enjoying speaking French and now we’re back to Spanish. Or worse yet – Basque! The Basque language is not a romance language so nothing on the signs or menus looks the slightest bit familiar to me. And almost every word has an ‘X’ in it. This would be a great language for Scrabble!

Just in case I’ve given you the impression that traveling full time is easy, let me tell you a story … I booked every night of our first week in Europe at least twice 😥 At first I was thrown off by the red-eye flight and booked an Airbnb in Biarritz on the night we were actually flying to France. (for the record, Capt. Mike reviewed my reservation before I hit the “Book” button and said it looked good) So I went back to the drawing board. Then I learned that in a crazy coincidence, some of our dearest friends from Virginia planned to be in Spain on a family vacation at the EXACT SAME TIME we would be there! So I changed the reservation again to match their tour itinerary. Just before the trip I got a text “so did we send you our updated itinerary?” Oops. They wouldn’t make it to Biarritz after all. So I shortened our stay in Biarritz and added a day at a different hostel in Spain. I’m not complaining, mind you, but it sure keeps me on my toes!

And then there’s the new city blues of getting off a bus in a strange underground bus station and trying to find your way to your temporary home for the night. If you’re still a teeny bit jetlagged the sights and sounds can be overwhelming, and it’s all I can do not to walk straight into traffic! Google maps is a godsend, but not perfect. Eventually we found our hostel in the Gros district which was everything I expected a hostel to be – slightly dirty, slightly stinky, with one bathroom for the entire floor, but in a great location! We were right above a popular pinxtos bar and restaurant which set us up for a wonderful breakfast the next morning!

In the interest of research, we checked out the beach so we could compare the Spanish coast to the French coast, and then met our friends at a cider bar for dinner. As someone who needs to be gluten free for health reasons, a cidery is heaven. Especially when I find natural, cask-conditioned, unfiltered, dry cider! The best cider I’ve had since living in England! And the best part… The bartender pours it from a great height – part aeration, and part theater. Yep, that’s his “I’m sexy and I know it” look, lol.

Did I mention the crazy coincidence that allowed us to meet up with Marybeth and Trent and their kids in Spain? What a cool experience for middle schoolers to travel to another country, play soccer with kids from around the world, and experience new cultures and new foods. (the 10-year-old boys were particularly impressed with topless sunbathers.) It was amazing to have the opportunity to spend time with them 💕

I was thrilled about the cider, but Capt. Mike’s heaven was finding an artisan ice cream shop that really does gluten free right. For 3.50€, you get 2 scoops of deliciousness in a gluten free cone. AND, when you say “soy celiac” they wash their hands, grab a clean ice cream scoop, lift up the top container of ice cream and dig into the new one underneath so there’s no cross-contamination. If that’s not enough, Capt. Mike confirms it’s the best chocolate ice cream he’s had since he visited Greece ten years ago. Heck, I don’t even like ice cream very much, and I ate some. Something tells me we’ll be visiting at least once a day while we’re in San Sebastian!

Back in the Boatyard, Baby!

Sanitas finished the 2019 cruising season at the Puerto del Rey marina in Fajardo Puerto Rico. This marina is massive – it holds over 1000 boats in wet slips, and several hundred “on the hard” for hurricane season storage. It’s so huge, they employ a fleet of golf carts to drive you from a slip to the parking lot or the main office building because the walk can be nearly a mile! I’d often choose to walk, and I could get my daily 10,000 steps just doing laundry!

Once we pulled into our slip at PdR, the vacation was over! Now the hurricane season preparation spreadsheet comes out, and we get to work cleaning Sanitas from bow to stern and making her as safe as possible from tropical storms while we travel for the summer. Capt. Mike and I rented a storage unit on land so that we could remove as much as possible from the boat, giving us the chance to clean very thoroughly and allowing ventilation so that we don’t return to mold or mildew. But remember how far our slip is from the parking lot? Getting everything off the boat is a challenge, even with a rental car.

Once she’s mostly empty, we could get down to business and do some once-a-season jobs like cleaning and marking the anchor chain….

….And inspecting, cleaning, and removing the sails.

Knowing that we are inside the hurricane box, we took special care to remove anything that could be grabbed by the wind. For the first time, we removed all of the running rigging, replacing the thicker braided nylon lines with thin parachute cord “messenger lines”. I almost don’t recognize Sanitas with no canvas and no lines!

While we were in a wet slip, we had access to fresh water so that we could spray a season’s worth of dirt and salt water off everything. We also had access to electricity, which means air conditioning – hooray! We set the thermostat at 72 deg, and I think it actually got the temperature inside the boat down to around 80. Unfortunately, being in a slip so close to land and to other boats also meant LOTS of tiny little flies. I hung up fly paper and by the time of our haul-out, we’d captured hundreds.

One thing that made all the heat and dirt and flies tolerable was the $1.50 rum punch pouches sold in the marina cafe. In all kinds of tropical flavors, and ice cold, it was tough to walk by without stopping for a treat.

Finally, the big haul-out day arrived, and Sanitas got to go for a little ride! Capt. Mike did an excellent job backing her into the teeny little haul-out slip, and the very professional boat yard crew drove her across the parking lot, transferred her to a small hydraulic trailer, and slid her into place in the dry storage yard.

We chose Puerto del Rey for a reason – it supposedly has the most secure hurricane storage in all of the Caribbean. In the boatyard, concrete footings reinforced with rebar provide strong tie-down points. We used ratcheting tie-down straps rated at 10,000 pounds to secure Sanitas to the ground. In theory, all of the boats lined up and tied down together provide additional strength. We have our fingers crossed that it’s true, and that we’ll have no problems during the storm season! To further reduce risk, we hired a caretaker to visit and inspect Sanitas periodically, and to double check that she’s secured before every big storm.

After two weeks of hard work, Sanitas was safe and secure and Capt. Mike and I could have a little fun. We explored Luquillo Beach and the kiosks that serve the tastiest food and drink we had in Puerto Rico.

And we took a day to explore El Yunque National Forest – the only tropical rain forest in our national parks system. True to its name, it rained the whole time we hiked, so we didn’t have great views…but the vegetation and scenery and waterfalls were amazing! We worth the trip and the soggy hiking shoes!

Finally, a little drama to close out our season…. on the day we were scheduled to fly from Puerto Rico to Colorado, Southwest canceled all flights to Denver because of weather. (Although how they knew at 5am east coast time there would be bad weather in Denver at 8pm mountain time, I have no idea 😡) So we were left to reschedule our flights, find a new place to stay in Puerto Rico, extend our rental car, and cancel our hotel in Denver. On the positive side, we had a day to explore Old San Juan. So we made the best of it, hiking through the Castillo San Felipe del Morro fort, and touring the governor’s residence at the Fortaleza.

I could have spent several days just wandering the streets of Old San Juan, enjoying the people watching and sampling the tasty food! It’s the only city I’ve ever visited where the historic streets are paved with blue bricks – due to the iron content of the ingredients.

I realized that we’d been in Puerto Rico almost a month and we had yet to try paletas – the local version of popsicles, made with fresh fruit and all kinds of gourmet ingredients. Well, we certainly remedied that error on our last day!

And of course, we visited the iconic Passeo de Sombrellas or the Umbrella Passage and joined the rest of the selfie-mad tourists. Instead of rainbow colored umbrellas, they were camouflage print during our visit in honor of Memorial Day and in support of the Army National Guard. I can’t wait to do more exploring when we return to Puerto Rico in the fall!

Puerto Rico’s South Coast

Now I warn you… my impressions of the south coast of Puerto Rico may be slightly influenced by how unpleasant the sailing conditions were while we traveled there. You know – those 25 knot trade winds I keep griping about. I’ll stop complaining, but you may notice a certain lack of enthusiasm that might not be completely warranted….

The highlight of our south coast crossing was a stop in Ponce, the second largest city in Puerto Rico. Not only because the boardwalk of restaurants and bars is a two-minute dinghy ride from the anchorage. Or because we shopped at the first American grocery store and Walmart shopping center since Florida. The colonial old town of Ponce is delightful. There are beautiful Spanish colonial buildings, piazzas and parks, and a world class art museum.

The flag of the city of Ponce is red and black, honoring its historic fire station. The station has been renovated and it’s beautiful, plus the historic firefighting equipment on display is fascinating.

Did I mention that the mascot of Ponce is the lion? No accident that you’ve seen lions in most of these photos – even on the ice cream truck!

From Ponce, we made a short hop to Isla Cana de Muertos, or Coffin Island. I was looking forward to a beach day, but the weather didn’t cooperate. Instead, the island made us work to discover its treasures. It was difficult to find a safe place to dinghy ashore, and when we did, the trail was overgrown with cactus plants of every shape and size. They were beautiful, and fascinating, but still prickly! I wished many times for a machete for a little DIY trail maintenance. Capt. Mike wished the same after a baby cactus hitched a ride on his leg.

But we persevered, and climbed up to the spine of the island where a lighthouse dating back to the Spanish colonial days holds the position of honor. We did a little breaking and entering to earn the best views of the island and surrounding seas.

Back at sea level, we hiked to the beach where day trippers visit from Ponce, and after the ferry departed, Capt Mike did a little American Ninja Warrior practice.

After a few days exploring on land, we headed east again. Set the alarm for 4:00am and headed out before sunrise to try to catch a period of calm before the daily trades kicked up. It didn’t work. We actually experienced some of the worst weather and roughest seas we’d seen all season. I tell people that I don’t get seasick, but that day, I might have been lying. On the plus side, I got some great pictures of our buddy boat Soluna riding on one hull in the big waves.

We lived to tell the tale, and soon anchored in Patillas harbor for a few days. Since we were here during the week, rather than on a weekend, town was quiet with very few restaurants open. But Paraiso Bar was open, and here Capt. Mike began his love affair with mofongo rellanos – mashed plantains cooked in garlic and oil and stuffed with fried pork or grilled shrimp.