Part 5 and the final part of my early summer travels to the Basque Country and Pyréneés, takes us back west to the Atlantic Coast, but this time down over the border into Spain and along the Bay of Biscay to San Sebastián. But first, we had one final stop in France and to the city of Bayonne.
Bayonne stands back from the coastline and constant barrage of the Atlantic waves instead choosing the quieter confluence of the rivers Nive and Adour some 5km inland. We stopped on the east bank at Grand Bayonne for lunch. Grand Bayonne contains the old town with narrow winding streets, twin steepled Cathédrale Sainte-Marie and the rows of quintessentially Basque houses with their white façades adorned with colourful timber shutters. The old town retains a bohemian feel with chocolatiers mixed in with hand crafted arts, antiques through to your more modern kitchen shops and river side cafes and food market. It was of course the food market where we started our journey, partly for our love of markets and more over to avoid the pouring rain. This curtailed our trip to Bayonne as we briefly toured the main streets ducked under a umbrella, before catching a cheap lunch at at cafe and continuing sadly on our way. We felt that we didn't get the best of Bayonne and actually returned here for another quick trip on our last day before catching our flight home from the neighbouring Biarritz.
The short drive and many tolls later we arrived in San Sebastián. Huddled under one tiny umbrella we set above exploring the city, but soon realising that the umbrella was only really suited to one person and to avoid rapidly the escalating marriageable un-bliss, we had to make a quick stop to buy a second umbrella. The rain continued all of that night and the next day before finally breaking and revealing the blue skies we had been hoping for on our final day.
Knowing it didn't rain inside the bars we retreated to a small bar on Plaza de la Constituciòn for some mid-afternoon pintxos. Astelena was one of the bars on our list to try, but it was by accident we ended up here and only realised afterwards it had been on our list. Going into this trip I had mixed feelings about pintxos. Resulting from tapas in other parts of Spain and from bad tapas bars back home, the thoughts of cold slices of tortilla, breads with various toppings claggy with mayonnaise and other canapé type dishes which have been sitting out onto of the bar for god knows how long, didn't really appeal to my appetite. While there is still a lot of these types of pintxos available through out San Sebastián, which being honest, are more bar snacks than meals and are still better than your average pack of nuts or bag of crisps bar snack back home, I arrived in San Sebastián with high hopes for a better pinxtos experience given the culinary reputation of the city. Astelena, as it turned out was the prefect starting point. San Sebastián has taken the pintxos, modernised it and added its own special gastronomic twist. Hence, first up for us ordered hot and fresh from the kitchen was a small plate of ravioli stuffed with duck breast and foie gras - now we are talking! We returned here later on in the trip for more delights including more foie gras but this time grilled with balsamic glaze, mango and applesauce and small plates of seared tuna and risotto.
The pintxos highlights of the trip was definitely A Fuego Negro, which is at the modern cutting edge of molecular pintxos, branding and design for both their food and establishment. This bar and restaurant offers bold, exciting, playful and innovative food which is mirrored in the deep red and black interior décor and enormous funky pintxos blackboard hung above the bar (PS brush up on your Basque). The first night we opted for pintxos at the bar which include playboy bunny rabbit and miniature wagu beef burgers, but we had to return the next night for the full experience of the super 11 course tasting menu. From the LP record place mat and cassette tape that greets you on arrival to your cutlery which arrives with an artists paint brush, the meal starts off on playful note with an easel of edible 'paper' and 'paint' and was followed by pintxos dishes including black quid, cerviche, quinoa salad, lambs tongue and many more delicious dishes. It was up there was some of the most enjoyable meals we have had.
The miserable weather curtailed our plans slightly, so we ended up relaxing in La Perla, a spa specialising in thalassotherapy. The spa fronts onto La Concha beach and offers panoramic views of the bay. The thalassotherapy comprises a circuit of seawater pools for hydrotherapy, jacuzzis and relaxation pools of various temperatures as well as your more normal steam rooms, saunas, cold plunge pools and ice fountains. A little sceptical at first, but I was dragged along and ended up enjoying it and feeling quite invigorated afterwards. We also ate in the french restaurant attached to the spa for lunch on our final day. The menu consisted of a set menu of three courses including water and a bottle of house wine for 18 euro each. Fantastic value and lovely food.
The rain finally broke after lunch on our final day and we were treated to blue skies and an aqua ocean. We explored the Parte Vieja (Old town) with my wife stopped at various shops along the way. I find street photography works best when you find a great spot and then let the action come to you rather than running around chasing it. The next two images were just such cases. For both these pictures, my wife was browsing the merchandise inside and I stayed outside to shoot the streets. I liked the advertisement in the window and thought it could work in a shot, so I just stood and waited for someone interesting to walk by the window. I was lucky when this gentleman with a glorious moustache arrived with his girlfriend and even luckier that his girlfriend turned to look back at the shop window. I think it looks like the model poster was checking out the dude and the dude's girlfriend has just caught her. The third shot I just happened to come across and loved the little jack russell onto top of the wall looking back at me.
San Sebastián has two beaches, La Concha and La Zurriola, separated by Mount Urgull and the mouth of the River Urumea. A costal road runs around the base of Mount Urgull allowing you a pleasant 2km walk from the small fishing and recreation port in the old town, taking you briefly out of the city before arriving back in the city at Zurriola Bridge to cross over the River Urumea and arrive at La Zurriola beach. The walk takes you along the cliff tops of the Bay of Biscay with the waves of the Atlantic Ocean below and provides temporary respite from the hustle of the old town. Had we more time or better weather, we may have walked to the top of Mount Urgull and would have definitely the funicular railway to the top of Mount Igueldo which lies to the west of the town and provides spectacular panoramic views of the Bahía de la Concha and the surrounding coastline and mountains. I would have loved to do this in the twilight of the setting sun with the lights of San Sebastián just starting to come on, but I suppose this gives me an excuse to go back in the future.
However, we felt we explored the most of the city so decided to leave a little early to give us a little time to go back and do some more exploring in Bayonne to bring our latest travelling to an end.