It’s impossible not to fall in love with San Sebastián. The food here is what dreams are made of, ranging from the small rustic bars serving tapas, here known as pintxos, to the many Michelin-starred restaurants. And if that’s not enough for you, just throw in a few beaches and the city’s belle epoque infrastructure, all originally built for Spain’s Queen Isabella (arriving on doctors orders to bathe) in the mid 19th century. In fact, the whole city seems to face outwards to the sea – meaning astonishing panoramas and exhilarating walks.
In many ways, the city’s abundance of whitewashed mansions and Art Noveau architecture of leisure contradicts the city’s somewhat schizophrenic past. The bloody events of the Spanish Civil War are still etched into San Sebastian’s contrasting identity, with bullet holes still visible on many of the magnificent facades. Ironically, yet at the same time very telling, General Franco would later return to the city for holiday – spending the last 35 summers of his life here.
After the war, San Sebastián quickly retained its glamorous reputation, hosting the International Film Festival in the 50’s. Nevertheless, Basque tradition was more important than ever and in the 1960s, Eta began its terror campaign, targeting San Sebastián and its people, claiming 96 lives in the city alone. As late as 15 years ago, the financial director of a major newspaper was assassinated right here in San Sebastián.
Thankfully, a lot has changed since then, and in 2011 Eta declared a permanent ceasefire. And whilst still clearly affected by its recent conflicts and violence, San Sebastián is starting to come to terms with its wounds. Next year the city will be the European Capital of Culture, and the now established peace has started to attract investors and tourists alike. Every autumn, the local hotels host the junkets of the annual (and very glamorous) film festival and its guests – running a red carped across the square and to the theatre.
Perhaps most interesting of all, at least for foodies like ourselves, is the city’s clutch of Michelin stars. In fact, San Sebastián has the highest number per capita globally, with 45 (!) starred joints. Sure, it’s hard to beat the Old Town’s plates of goodies (Ganbara and Bar Martínez being our favourites) with patatas bravas and mussels in spicy tomato sauce and tuna dripping with olive oil and garlic, but then again, with places like Arzak – nothing is impossible.
Sporting three stars since 1989 and recently named one of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, this family-run restaurant remains (much like our recent 7-course lunch pictured throughout this article) beyond awesome. If you’re somewhat interested, most of you will have heard of a certain Catalan chef and his restaurant on the Costa Brava who made waves a few years ago.
But before El Bulli and Ferran Adrià, there was the mighty Juan Mari Arzak, and after El Bulli we’ve now got the restaurant’s second generation, Elena Arzak Espina. Like her father before her, Elena describes herself as “hard-working, thorough and restless”, and it’s that combination of inquisitiveness and rigour that has kept Arzak on the cutting edge – celebrated consistently even in this most creatively fertile of regions.
The contrast between the old-school façade of the restaurant and the uncompromising commitment to innovation inside sets the scene for a night full of surprises. This being Basque country, the influence of the sea is ever close, but Arzak’s outlook is broad, featuring things like cumin crisps which complements the lobster and spinach as well as a sublime Korean chilli sauce ssämjang that makes a lentil ‘cookie’ pop and sing.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, San Sebastián and Arzak face a similar challenge: protecting its authentic character from the homogenising effects of tourism. For a places like this however, with historic merit, years of stark contrasts, and perhaps the world’s best food, we think and hope they’ll be just fine.
PS. If you’d like a taste of Arzak but don’t feel like going to San Sebastián for it, you can try out London joint Ametsa with Arzak. Also run by Elina, we hear it’s slightly more uptight than the original, but with just as amazing food.
All photos from Arzak is taken by photographer by Oskar Bakke