It's cold and raining when we pull into the station at San Sebastián. We splurge the 6 Euros for a cab to the hotel, saving us a wet 20 minute walk in the dark.
The Pension Edorta gets solid ratings on Trip Advisor; I found a $45 per night rate on a room with a shared bath on Budgetplaces and booked us in. It's been since college that I shared a bathroom with strangers, but the private bath just wasn't worth the extra $40. We luck out and are the only occupants of the tiny guest house, thankfully because the walls are paper thin. The location of the place - Calle Puerto in the middle of Old Town - was fantastic, but the bed would wreak havoc on both our backs over the next couple nights. Though it was cute and the staff pleasant, it's not somewhere we would return.
We drop our bags, check on our digital lives and head out on the first leg of our pintxo crawl. I don't know much about these pintxos before tonight - they're Northern Spain's version of the tapas in the South, but we hear they're superior to tapas and a must try. Armed with a shortlist of the best-rated stops in the area, we stroll through the tiny pedestrian-only streets seeking our first taste of Spain.
The first spot, and one of our faves, is Atari Gastroteka. We walk into the cozy wooden bar and are faced with a 20' stretch of tiered slate trays holding an assortment gastronomic delights. Billy's eyes spark and as he visually devours the display and turns to read the chalkboards of specials, Etta James's voice fills the room singing At Last. It's clearly a magical moment, and I realize I'll have to drag him out of Spain.
We feast at two more places after Atari, each having a drink and sharing a couple selections per stop, but it's Monday and the majority of the area is closed, the rest closing early. Just as we're getting the hang of this pintxo thing, the night is over and we head home.
The thing to love about pinxtos is, well, everything. I grew up eating this way - we'd stop at a restaurant, have an appetizer and a drink, move on to another place and do it again. In Basque Country, the tour is very similar - you start at one bar, order a drink and choose from chalkboard menus and items displayed along the bar. You stand to eat, typically, can belly up to the bar itself with deliciousness within very easy reach, and stick to just one or two plates per person, per stop. With a price per plate ranging mostly between 1.50 and 4 Euros, dining this way can get pricey, but the variety and quality of food is just unbeatable.
Every pintxos bar has its specialties and we haven't made a dent in what's available in Old Town alone, so day two is a continuation of Monday night, with more places open and another four stops on our crawl till we're stuffed and a little tipsy.
San Sebastián is a stunning place, its beaches often called the most beautiful in Europe. The town is built looking out on the water in a protected alcove surrounding a scallop-shaped beach, an inlet from the sea. It's the kind of place you get lost in the waves, watching the c-pattern they crest in, mesmerized by how quickly the tide seems to come and go again. We have the beach nearly to ourselves but for a few dogs and their people taking advantage of the low season and a beachcomber, and spend a couple of hours slowly strolling the sand.
In need of a sugar and caffeine fix after our several mile wander, we stop at Oiartzun Gozotegia for coffee and a pastry. The pastelerias in Spain have mouth-watering selections of chocolates, truffles, pasties, and tiny, nearly bite-size miniature pastries - pastelitos. We're starved, so we skip the tiny ones and opt for three full size - a rice custard tart, a pignoli ball and something strongly resembling a cream puff. The cafe con leche is outstanding - it's going to be a hard battle to give up coffee again after this trip. Billy's pignoli is good, and the tart, a little firmer than egg custard, slightly more mild in flavor, is also delightful.
I bite into the cream puff and almost fall off my stool. It. Is. So. Good. Amazing. This is THE cream puff all others strive to be. The cream is delicate, but thick and moussey. The pastry is flaky, slightly sticky and only faintly sweet. There is an amber-colored sticky sugar coating on top, with the slightest hint of orange blossom flavoring. It sticks to the roof of my mouth when I bite into it. This combination of heaven and sugar is called a petisu (simply Spanish for cream puff or eclair), and we stop once again before leaving town to make sure it was as good as we remembered. It will be a long while till I forget the taste of that petisu, at least I so hope.
We promise to return to San Sebastián, hungry and in warmer weather, so we can continue to troll the endless selection of pintxos and recover between crawls with wine-induced naps in the warm golden sand.