San Sebastian and Madrid

Ah, San Sebastian! The beaches are pristine, the water is clear, and the mountains are green. I spent a very relaxing few days here recovering from my operatic adventure. I cruised on the ocean. I sat on the beach. I read my book. I ate lots of pintxos. The only sightseeing I did (on a rainy day) was visit the Museo San Telmo. It has very cool architecture—a daring, modern add-on to an old convent. It was also hosting an exhibit about the Italian filmmaker Pasolini. Among (many) other accomplishments, he directed Maria Callas is her only non-singing film role!

Honestly, though, this was mostly about the eating. I already reviewed my splurge restaurant, but I mostly ate in pintxo bars. For the benefit of future travelers, I kept track of my pintxos. So here goes…

Astelena: The tuna ceviche was citrusy and tasty. The foie gras and duck breast ravioli was too rich for me, with a weirdly gravy-like sauce. The pistachio croquettes were crunchy, flavorful, and amazing—they are definitely your must-buy dish here.

A fuego negro: Everything here is sweet. The tuna in the tuna-and-watermelon tartar was very fresh, but it didn’t need the watermelon. The crab ice cream with avocado and licorice was a surprisingly good combination, but the avocado wasn’t ripe. The shrimp with cottage cheese cream, licorice and frozen peas was my favorite—a strange but successful mix of flavors. This place also gets a shout-out for their dessert (patxineta, which combines flaky pastry, honey, and nuts in a dish very reminiscent of baklava) and for their great wine list (I recommend the Gabaxo Rioja and the Txakoli).

Borda Berri: The octopus in the pulpo a la plancha was tender and salty, but it didn’t need the quince that came with it. The orzo risotto was too smoky-tasting for me.

La Viña: The signature pintxo here is a “little cone” filled with cheese and an anchovy. It’s as salty and delicious as it sounds. I also tried the cheesecake, which had been specially recommended to me. It was good—way better than German cheesecake—but it had nothing on the American varieties. The portion was also huge, so learn from my mistake and order a half-portion if you go.

La cuchara de San Telmo: Many people consider this the pinnacle of the San Sebastian pintxo scene, so you need to be okay pushing through crowds if you hope to order. My pulpo was simple and fabulous. The bacon-wrapped scallop was perfection—the ideal juxtoposition of meltingly soft and satisfyingly crispy. Only the pumpkin risotto disappointed, with (again) a smoky taste and some weird textures hiding among the orzo grains.

Casa Acalde: This is a typically mediocre buffet-style place. The Rioja was bad. The pulpo was cold and slimy. The crab salad was nauseating. The cod fritters were pretty tasty, though, and the salmon-and-cream-cheese wrap was solid as well. Still, you can definitely skip this bar in favor of San Sebastian’s more exciting offerings.

Despite being a popular vacation destination, San Sebastian doesn’t have a large enough airport for frequent or affordable international flights. So I took a long train ride south to Madrid and spent a day there before flying back to Munich. Most of that was at the Museo del Prado, where I gazed at masterpieces by Velazquez, Goya, and Bosch. (If I ever understand Bosch, it means I have gone mad and need help. What even.) I then made the best possible decision: visiting the Chocolatería San Ginés for churros and chocolate. Finally, chocolate thick enough to properly dip my churros in! A wander through the Plaza Mayor and past the Royal Palace (with a quick stop to peak into the opera house) completed my day.

One fun incident in Madrid: I was staying just off the Calle de Lavapies. The most famous operatic barber might live in Seville, but Lavapies has its own barber in a zarzuela! Just listen to this super-catchy aria from “The Little Barber of Lavapies.” Now can someone please explain to me why we don’t perform zarzuelas in the USA?