Musing from your Post Master General
The other day I was walking past a wine shop near my apartment and noticed a special in the window that caught my eye. This particular neighborhood wine shop offers daily samples of whatever particular bottle they decide to feature. As the store is near a grocery market I like to shop at, I occasionally take a peek and see if they have anything appealing to me. On this day, my interest was more than piqued.
The bottle featured read Isastegi Sagardo. I instantly recognized the type as the script on the label mirrored popular old fashioned Basque fonts I remembered seeing while in Spain. This wasn’t a wine, but a cider, and a Basque cider at that. I hadn’t tasted Basque cider since I had spent a night in San Sebastian two years ago. So I walked into the store and purchased a bottle without even taking part in the free sample, and anyone who knows me can tell you that I never turn down free samples.
When I got back to my apartment that night, I immediately put the bottle in the refrigerator. I watched a movie on Netflix and by the time it was done, the bottle was the preferred temperature for serving. Normally I don’t condone drinking 750ml bottles alone on a Tuesday night, but my traveler’s spirit got the best of me so I poured myself the first glass of the evening. From the lime green glass flowed out a flat pale liquid with a distinct dry smell. The cider tasted just as it looked, flat, sour, and even a little bitter. Typing that out now, it may seem like I’m being very critical, however I am not. My taste buds happen to enjoy sour sensations. More importantly, the cider tasted just as I remembered it did from my night by the Bay of Biscay. The drink returned me to the fond memories of my travels, just as I had hoped.
It was early Spring in 2011 when my girlfriend and I decided to visit my brother who was studying abroad in Barcelona. I like to travel to Europe during this time. The flights are usually cheaper and the crowds are nowhere to be found. You miss some of the romance and fun of summer, but as a fan of cool weather, walking and exploring can be quite enjoyable during that part of the season on the Continent.
It was the second time in Barcelona for the both my girlfriend and I as she had traveled there the year before and I had ventured there with my family a couple years prior. After our stop Barcelona we planned a whirlwind tour of the Iberian Peninsula that included stops in Zaragoza, San Sebastian, Bilbao, Salamanca, Segovia, Madrid in Spain, and Lisbon in Portugal.
In order to move between cities, I needed to rent a car. There are very many things that I do below average and driving stick shift is one of them. In Europe, standard transmissions are the norm as cars with the automatic shifting I was used were a rarity. I was able to secure the one available automatic compact rental car in Barcelona, a Ford Focus, and after saying goodbye to my brother, we traveled to the airport to retrieve it.
When we got to the airport, the person behind the counter at Avis informed us in Spanish that the car we had requested was unavailable but they had pulled some strings and were able to acquire a full size automatic for the same price. Of course I accepted. I had no other choice. I was afraid of driving a larger automobile through tiny winding medieval streets (a fear that was confirmed during a different episode later in the trip when I accidentally drove on the Plaza Mayor one night in Salamanca) but what could I do?
When we walked to the lot, we were surprised to find out that the car we would be driving was a rather wide, gold colored, Mercedes Benz. Despite the size, I decided to be optimistic. We would be traversing a foreign land in style I thought. Sure, gas would be more expensive, but it would be worth the good story to tell friends once we got back home. So we promptly got into the car and were off on our odyssey.
The first stop on our self made adventure was the city of Zaragoza in the heart of the Aragon region. We spent the day there having lunch and seeing sites. I had a rather rubbery squid dish. Of course, as an American, I incorrectly assumed every calamari meal was deep fried and served with a healthy proportion of marinara sauce. After Zaragoza, we made our way up to San Sebastian in the Basque Country. The journey was one of the most spectacular I have ever taken by car. The Spanish highways meandered though the snow-capped Basque mountains. These rocky hills seemed to get greener and greener the closer we got to our destination. The shades of green were remarkable. I looked forward to coming around each bend and seeing a new hill through the mist. Some of the hills served as grazing areas for sheep. The sheep almost looked to be defying gravity as they were almost perpendicular to the highway I was driving on due to the steepness of some of the hills.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Basque Country, it is an autonomous region in Northern Spain known for its very distinct culture and language. The larger Basque region straddles both Spain and Southern France. The Basque County gets its name from the Basque people who make it home. The Basque people ,who call themselves Euskaldunak, have been living in this region for centuries, with a culture vastly different from the rest of Spain. In fact, their language is so old that is considered and orphan language, meaning it is related to no other tongue on the face of the earth. I would soon learn firsthand how unrelated and difficult their language was.
When we arrived in San Sebastian, or Donostia as the Basque call it, it was almost evening. In the Basque Country, everything had a Spanish name and a Basque name that sound nothing alike. As the majority of people in the Basque County speak Basque as their primary language, many signs are written only in Basque, which can be rather confusing for a novice traveler. Suddenly, we started seeing a lot more X’s, Z’s and K’s than we were used to, common letters in the Basque language. We checked into the hotel and decided right away to go out for some food and drinks.
We walked to the Old Town section of San Sebastian to visit an authentic pintxos bar. Pintxos, pronounced like “pinchos” are the Basque equivalent of the tapas found in other parts of Spain. Tapas of course are small savory dishes served with drinks and meant for sharing.
The streets in the old section of town were narrow and beautiful. There was a good amount of pintxos bars to choose from and the neighborhood was lively even for a weekday night in the off season. Later I was told that the summer months bring huge crowds to the pintxos bars. Though there were plenty of people out on this night, there was still a sense of peace I enjoyed and I did not feel claustrophobic at all. After experiencing a little travel anxiety about settling on a place, we chose a quaint looking bar that had enough people so we could blend in, but not too many where we would feel crowded and overwhelmed.
As we walked in, I remembered some idiosyncrasies I had read about in preparation for our trip. The Basque Country has some interesting customs when it comes to eating and drinking at a pintxos bar. First off, instead of ordering something with a waitress or bartender, most of the selections for the night are prepared already and are just sitting at the counter for you disposal. Of course, this only applies to cold dishes and dishes that are served at room temperature. If you want a hot dish, you have to ask the bartender, just as you would for a drink.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Basque pinxtos bar customs is what happens at the end of the night. Instead of paying as you receive something or even receiving the bill from your waitress when you want to leave, clearing you tab involves the honor system. Meaning, at the end of your evening, you simply walk up to a bar tender, tell them exactly what you had that night, and he or she takes your word for it, rings you up and tells you how much you owe. I’m not sure how that would go over in the States. I think some people would take advantage of the system but in San Sebastian, its worked this way since anyone can remember.
For the record, I come from a Dominican-American family so my Spanish is passable but of course, I don’t speak a lick of Basque. If you are looking for someone who speaks English in this city, perhaps you can count on the front desk manager at your hotel, that’s about it. Lucky for us, there was one bar tender who we noticed was speaking Spanish so I was able to order our take for the night with her.
“Una bottella de sidra mas tipico, por favor.” “A bottle of your home town cider please.” I said the bartender. She smiled, instantly recognizing by my accent that I wasn’t a native of Spain. This often happens to me when I travel. If I start to speak English in a place where English isn’t a common tongue, the waiters will act a little standoffish. If I try to speak in the language of the people around me, they might know I am not from the area but they appreciate me giving an attempt and do everything they can to be accommodating.
Along with the cider, I ordered some warm tapas we were familiar with like ham croquettes for example, mixed in with some cold bread based dishes. I had no idea what these were called, I just grabbed the plates from the counter like I was supposed to. For three or four Euro a plate, I will pretty much eat anything. We started eating the cold plates before the bartender came to the table with our cider and our hot plates. She gave us two glasses but did not open the bottle. I thought this was weird. It took me an embarrassing five minutes to figure out how the bottle opener she gave us worked but I eventually got it and poured a glass for myself and my girlfriend.
My girlfriend tried it first. Though someone who enjoys traveling as well, she tends to have a more selective pallet. It was like I had fed her rat poison. She hated it. She refused to drink anymore so there I was, forced to drink the entire bottle of cider myself. I’ve faced much worse problems in my life so I didn’t complain. Thankfully I loved the taste of cider. It reminded me of the Apfelwein I tried in Frankfurt on a previous trip of Germany. I have read that the Basque cider is an acquired taste. I must have acquired it the second it touched my lips.
After we finished our meals and drinks, we spent a good half hour figuring out our plan of attack for paying. I mentioned earlier that I had picked some random plates at the counter and now I had no idea what to tell the bartender as I did not know what they were called. I devised a system where I would point at similar plates behind the counter and hopefully she would understand what I was saying. I knew I would come off as ignorant but hopefully she would understand.
When I finally got the courage to go up and settle the bill, the bartender who served us saw me hesitating, smiled, pressed some buttons on the old cash register, and told me the price in Spanish. Twenty Euros, not bad at all. She knew we were tourists and had remembered exactly what he had been eating. She was a life saver.
After having a full bottle in me, I was feeling a little tipsy. We decided to go back to our hotel room for the night. On the way back, I noticed a traditional Basque outfit in the window of a store. I wanted to purchase it so badly. It consisted of white pants, a white shirt, a red beret, a red scarf and a red sash. It was beautiful and for some reason it spoke to me. Thankfully for everyone, my girlfriend was sober and reasonable enough to convince me otherwise.
The next day we woke up early to explore the city before we left later in the day for Bilbao. We walked down the streets with their gorgeous blend of modern and archaic, passed the Gran Casino to the Paseo de la Concha, the street that runs parallel to Playa de la Concha beach. The weather was nice but not yet warm enough for the beach crowd to be in town. Still, there were some brave beach goers on this morning. The Playa de Concha rest on a beautiful round inlet of the Bay of Biscay. There is a lush small green island in the middle called Isla de Santa Clara that added to the spectacular view. The place looked like it was ripped right out of a post card. I remember stopping several times to marvel at the beauty of the area.
After taking in the sites and sounds of the beach, we walked back passed the casino, over a bridge, and towards another beach called Ondarreta. This beach was known as a good surfing beach in the area and there were already a collection of surfers ready to take on the waves. The waves here were rough compared to the calmness of Playa de la Concha. I was amazed to see such differences in the water only a two or three minute walk from each other.
We spent the rest of our hours in the city walking around among the cities inhabitants. There is not much to do in San Sebastian from a big city travelers perspective, but that seems to be the way they like things there. The town is a relaxing place of natural beauty and great food. For a work hard, play hard traveler like me, San Sebastian provided a nice respite from the fast pace nature of the rest of our tour of Spain and Portugal. I tend to cram in a lot of stuff in a short period of time. I rarely leave time for moments like San Sebastian where I can just stroll around and take in a new place.
Right before we left for Bilbao, I made a promise to myself to return to San Sebastian and spend more time there. I was in love with the little taste I got and I wanted more. I still want more. I wish I could go back there right now and experience everything San Sebastian has to offer. The rest of the trip was wonderful but San Sebastian is the place my mind wanders too most as the months have passed.
Its that very yearning that drove me to the bottle of cider that night in my apartment. The green of the bottle brought me back to the hills I saw on the way there. The taste brought me back to the pintxos, and the bartender who was so kind. As I finished the bottle, I renewed my vow to return to the town once again as the warmth of the travelers heart spread throughout my body. There is serenity in foreign travel. If you haven’t had a chance to do it, I suggest you consider it.
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Some photos courtesy of vinesonpine.com,www.world-guides.com,planetrjl.tripod.com