The port area in San Sebastian, where a stop for grilled anchovies and sardines is obligatory.
It is Friday afternoon and I have been home for 3 days. The jet lag isn't anywhere near as bad as it could be, thanks to these amazing homeopathic pills my friends gave me. But I am still tired and I miss being there. Tonight I will make paella with some bomba rice I brought back and hope it will be better than the totally lousy one we had in Madrid. I will drink a bottle of 6 Euro tempranillo from Jumilla that I picked up from a wine store on Calle del Prado on the way home. And I will remember another fantastic, amazing, mind-blowing trip to the food capital of the world.
I arrive in Madrid on a Friday evening after drinking 4 splits of something white on the flight from Paris. I check into the hotel, where my best friend is waiting for me. He joined the trip at the last minute, unable to bear the thought of me eating at Akelarre without him. We had discovered San Sebastian together. I phone his room and we meet in the lobby after I shower off the trip over. First stop, En Estado Puro, one of the hottest tapas bars in town, run by yet another protege of Ferran Adria. It is indeed quite cool and the tapas menu interesting. English is being spoken by most of the patrons, but considering it's location (right by the Prado) and the fact it is early for Madrid, we don't immediately label it tourist trap. We order 4 mini hamburgers with mustard and berberechos (which I think translates as cockles) al natural. Plus a nicely chilled bottle of Albarino. The burgers are good but nothing special. The berberechos are spectacular. They come in a trendy looking tin can with the lid half open. We devour them, soaking up the brine with some good bread. We finish the wine and head over to some friends' place on Calle Castillo, where our other two traveling companions are staying and where we begin the evening. There are introductions, a lot more wine on their lovely terazza, and we head out to dinner somewhere around 11pm. I am told that dinner was great, although I don't remember much of it, and we end the evening on the top floor open air bar of a hotel who's name escapes me, drinking champagne (not cava, which my Spanish friends don't like) until 5 in the morning. It's my first night, so I can blame the fact that they were spiking my champagne with Red Bull in an effort to keep me awake on jet lag instead of acute alcoholism.
I roll out of bed around 2 on Saturday and we have lunch at 4 in the Thyssen-Bournemiza cafe, while waiting to see the Matisse exhibit. Neither was anything special, and it was mostly Matisse's "middle period", where he moved to Nice and painted lots of ships and seascapes. A big party that night on my friends' terraza starts at 10 and ends when the sun comes up, not that I remember. Another 2pm wake up on Sunday and truly lousy paella at a famous place near the Royal Palace. Many bottles of champagne back on the terraza and a late night tapas crawl with canas and white wine on Cava Baja and the surrounding streets, and I am done with Madrid.
We miss our flight to Bilbao in the morning, although our two other traveling companions make it. We arrive two hours later, and they are there waiting for us, and fortunately, not at all pissed off. After a 2 hour ride to Elciego, we see the Frank Gehry-designed Marquis de Riscal hotel for the first time. We don't know what to think. Kind of like a mini-but unstructured Guggenheim, the titanium with a pinkish hue.
We check in and have all been upgraded to amazing suites, mine with a view over the vineyards, and my friends' overlooking part of the hotel itself. We meet in the wine bar, where the only wines served are from Marquis de Riscal, which I guess makes sense. We decide to skip the scheduled wine tour and just drink the wine. I wished I liked it as much as the hotel, which was growing on me.
After an evening walk into the village of Elciego for a pre-dinner beer, the hotel always in site and the sun reflecting off the titanium from every vista point along the way, we return to the hotel restaurant. When we are deciding what to order to drink, one of us suggests cava, and the maitre'd says, "I don't like cava." What is it with these Spaniards? An expensive bottle of rose champagne is suggested instead, which we agree to. Dinner is fine, especially considering the hotel's big splash restaurant was closed that evening. I have beef, nicely grilled rare and finished with sea salt. Everything else is pretty forgettable. Including the wine the hotel is named for.
We spend the rest of the evening, moving about the grounds of the hotel and taking in the architecture from various vantage points, with several bottles of wine in tow. My friend wanders off and eventually calls out to us from a top of the structure lounge he discovered, where we end the evening with armagnacs. The only other people in the chic attic are some vacation Venezuelans, with whom we exchange several drunken toasts.
The next morning, we check out and begin what is supposed to be a 2 hour drive to San Sebastian. We get lost and end up taking a small, winding road through the very green Pyrenees, passing through tiny Basque villages, meadows full of grazing sheep, finally making our way down to the sea and the reason we came to Spain in the first place.