Pintxos – culture – movies

San Sebastian – an exceptional travel destination in many ways

Article and photos by Mikko Reinikka, English translation Sini Kaukonen

The Tamborrada Festival is the highlight of the year for the people of San Sebastian. It is celebrated every year on the 20th of January.

San Sebastián, or Donostia in the Basque language, lies on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, near the French border in the Basque Autonomous Community in northern Spain. The population of San Sebastian is approximately 180,000 people. The city is a unique travel destination in many ways. The hundreds of restaurants in the area offer exceptionally good food, and there is a remarkably high amount of Michelin star restaurants in proportion to the population.

Its location in the Bay of Biscay, on the Atlantic coast means that there are unusual weather conditions in the area, and it rains almost every day of the year. The rain, however, is often short-lived and foglike. This kind of rainy weather typical of San Sebastian has a name in the Basque language: sirimiri. The exceptional winds of the Atlantic Ocean have also made the city a popular surfing destination.

Food in mind

The people of San Sebastian are quite unlike any other people in the rest of Spain or even the Basque Country. No-one speaks about food as much as someone from San Sebastian. Almost all conversation has to do with food; when you meet a person from San Sebastian, they tell you what they have just eaten, what they are eating right now, and what they are planning on eating next. It is no wonder that there are hundreds of private gourmet clubs (txoko in the Basque language) in the city. The clubs are traditionally only for men, but nowadays women can sometimes visit some of them. Men gather every week to cook together, and the members take turns in being in charge of the menu. In comparison, there are as many gourmet club members in San Sebastian as there are members in the France-based gastronomic society La Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs in 80 countries.

Tamborrada is the highlight of the year

A 24-hour Tamborrada Festival is held every year on January 20th or the Day of San Sebastian. During the festival, the orchestras of gourmet clubs and other associations dress in chef uniforms or Napoleonic military uniforms, and march throughout the city playing music and raising community spirit. There can be as many as 200 members in one orchestra. At the same time, the audience enjoy the delicious pintxos served by restaurants with their family and friends.

Reporter Mikko Reinikka has attended the annual Tamborrada Festival of San Sebastian since 2009. The number of orchestras has grown each year, last time there were almost 200 of them. Inspired by the Tamborrada, Reinikka got the idea to bring a pintxo feast to Tampere, where it was renamed as Tamperrada. This year's Tamperrada was held from 19th to 23rd of August.

Temperature-wise, January is not the best time for travel, but if one wishes to experience the unique Basque community spirit and great drum music, the Tamborrada is worth a visit. The flight time to Bilbao on a Lufthansa plane is reasonable, and from there, a bus leaves for San Sebastian every half hour.

Every year on January 20th, the Day of San Sebastian, the people of San Sebastian dress in chef uniforms and celebrate the Tamborrada for 24 hours on the streets of the city
A three-Michelin-star restaurant owner Juan Mari Arzak (left), reporter Mikko Reinikka holding a Tamborrada baton, and Juan Mari's daughter Elena Arzak, who runs the kitchen of her father's restaurant.

The world's best culinary schools

Because of the Tamborrada, the people of San Sebastian dress up as cooks from a very young age. It is therefore no wonder that cooking becomes a profession for many of them. Cooks are admired and respected. Luis Irizar Zamora is one of the leading figures in Basque cuisine, and his culinary school Escuela de Cocina Luis Irizar is one of the best culinary schools in the world. The university-level Basque Culinary Center is also highly respected, and it is where the world's best Michelin star chefs give their master classes regularly.

A food enthusiast can order either a cooking workshop organized in a culinary school and run by professional chefs, or a more relaxed cooking experience in a private gourmet club for their group.

The greatest selection

The selection of pintxos in San Sebastian is highly exceptional. Even if one doesn't visit the city during the Tamborrada, the amount of pintxos in pintxo bars is equally breathtaking every day of the year. Pintxos differ from tapas mainly in that pintxos are small portions of food meant for one person, and they can be created using several components and cooking methods; tapas, on the other hand, are simpler plates of food (racion or media racion) shared by a group of people.

The reporter of this article has visited the three-Michelin-star restaurant Arzak seven times. - Easily the best meals I've ever had, says Mikko Reinikka. - In addition, the warm customer service, customer knowledge, and respect for ingredients are in a league of their own.

The best way to enjoy San Sebastian is to take a walking tour of different restaurants, ordering the specialty of each restaurant. During the afternoon and evening, there is enough time to visit several restaurants. Here is a recommended day tour:

  • Lunch: Bodegon Alejandro: menu del dia
  • Afternoon tour: Restaurante Martinez: Gilda. Restaurante La Cepa: Jamon bellota and Sopa de mariscos. La Cuchara: Oreja de cerdo Iberico. Atari: Foie á la plancha. Sirimiri: Antxoas
  • Dinner: Restaurante Txuleta: Txuleta de vaca vieja and a bottle of Mauro red wine
Gilda is said to be the first ever pintxo, and the start of the entire pintxo culture of the Basque people. It contains guindilla peppers marinated in white vinegar, Cantabrian anchovy fillets, manzanilla olives, and good extra virgin olive oil. Best enjoyed with a glass of vermouth
Txuleta de vaja vieja is beef from an old dairy cow, grilled with the bone.
Foie á la plancha, pan-fried goose liver, pickled onions, and roasted bread
Huevos de merluza, cooked and marinated hake roes.
Nowadays, Palacio de Congresos y Auditorio Kursaal is the center of action during the film festival. It was completed in 1999, and designed by the Spanish architect Rafael Moneo.

During the summertime, the weather in San Sebastian is better and warmer despite the showers of rain, but that is also when the city is packed with tourists, the pintxo bars are crowded, and it is hard to get a table in the best restaurants. Hotel prices are very high.

Stars and sports

Once the summer season is over, an international film festival Donostia Zinemaldia – San Sebastian Film Festival is held in San Sebastian every year in the last week of September. That is when one can spot international movie stars in the city. The film festival, along with the Cannes Film Festival, is one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world, and has been held annually since 1952. This year's festival took place between the 20th and 28th of September. Hotel prices were sky high during that time.

People also practice some peculiar sports in San Sebastian that are worth seeing. These include the carrying of heavy stones and fast-paced handball. 

Pelota is a popular ball game from San Sebastian. The players throw the ball against a wall with extreme speed using a racket. Tickets should be ordered early for the local matches. The atmosphere in the hall is through the roof, and the Basque cheers go through the stands.