BY GAIL GOLD
After winning the Pursue your Dream grant from a Chicago educational nonprofit, I went to a part of Spain I did not know: the Basque country—specifically, San Sebastian, a petite, Belle Epoque city the Spanish royals used as their summer seaside retreat. Queen Isabella II and then Queen Maria Christina put the glorious resort city on the map. Surrounded by green mountains and blessed with the best chefs on the Iberian peninsula, if not the world, San Sebastian is now a gastro paradise.
In la parte vieja, the Old Quarter, you can wander the narrow streets, see hidden plazas, and gaze at medieval houses. There are more than 250 pinxos bars (called tapas bars in other parts of Spain) with the most delectable, gorgeously displayed creations piled on hunks of freshly baked bread. Laden with delicacies of sardines, tuna, octopus, and squid from the sea and garnished with plump green and red peppers, mushrooms, olives, and the ever present jamon Iberico (Iberian ham), you point to the pinxos you want, order a tinto (red wine), and savor. The bartender keeps a running tab in his mind, and you pay when you’re finished eating. Then you move onto the next pinxos bar and repeat. It’s loads of fun and an indescribably luscious way to spend social time.
With good fortune, I was assigned by my language school 16 years ago on my first visit to live with a young mother of two girls. The Spanish keep late meal hours. After 5 hours at school, I would return home and eat with the entire family: mom, her two girls, her parents, and sister. Since then I have stayed with her every summer and refer to her as “my Spanish mom.” It doesn’t matter that I am old enough to be her mom. She speaks beautiful English, as well as Japanese, hosts foreigners in her home, and has now started an airbnb in her deceased parent’s apartment. Professionally decorated and ideally located, it is the perfect place to “perch” for your visit.
One of my most favorite afternoons while in San Sebastian is taking the 30-minute bus ride along the Bay of Biscayne to the small village of Getaria. Years ago I wanted to savor lunch at the family-owned Elcano, a fine dining starred restaurant specializing in grilled fish. It has now become a yearly ritual that I enjoy with my Las Vegas friend Brad, whom I met in San Sebastian on my first visit. After a gorgeous meal, I like to visit the stunning Balenciaga museum. An escalator whisks you up to a higher level and into the modern white and black structure laden with his magnificent dresses, a movie of his life, a small cafe, and the ubiquitous gift store. He is the son of Getaria, so this museum is important. After beginning this 2:30 luncheon feast, no dinner is eaten.
Something that strikes me when in Spain, or any other Hispanic country, is the verbal politeness. Most everyone says please and thank you, good morning, good afternoon, and good evening. Upon arrival in a store, the clerk always greets you with buenos dias, and the customer replies the same. It’s a way of showing mutual respect.
Each afternoon after school and lunch, I head to one of the two gorgeous crescent shaped beaches. The water is warm, the surf is high, the topless girls and women are picture perfect, and the sun is hot—not a bad way to spend your afternoons (enormously satisfying after 5 hours of school) and not a bad way to spend a few weeks in stunning San Sebastian. If you have traveled to Madrid, Barcelona, and Sevilla, your next visit should be to País Vasco: San Sebastian.