The Maria Cristina, built in 1912 and extensively restored in 1987, is part of ITT Sheraton’s Luxury Collection of exclusive hotels. It maintained as San Sebastian’s finest hotel and one of the gems of European Belle Epoque luxury hotels. Its central location is extremely convenient with the beach of the bay of La Concha, but a few blocks in one direction, and the Parte Vieja (old part of the city) and its tapas bars, a few blocks in another direction.

Tapas in the Parte Vieja

We skipped dinner the night we arrived in San Sebastian, or Donastia, as it’s called in the native Basque tongue, preferring instead to enjoy the txikiteo at the many tapas bars in the Parte Vieja. Txikiteo is the Basque version of an extended “happy hour.” The term refers to the small or txikito (chiquito in Spanish) drink taken with a snack in each bar. You don’t have to speak Basque, but a little Spanish is helpful. While they are not unfriendly, most of the bars do not exactly cater to tourists.

Choice spots at the bar are not quickly relinquished, and a bit of determination is required to get to the bar, let alone to be served at the more crowded spots. However, a crowd is a sign that the food and wine are good. Vino tinto is the usual order, but beer is also a popular choice. A zurito is a small glass with but a finger or two of beer. It’s an expensive way to get drunk, but a reasonable way to bar hop, tasting an open sandwich here, a bit of ham there, and so on without consuming much more alcohol than food.

After several servings offered on a self service basis, we ordered a few hot items. A red pepper stuffed with dried cod puree was tasty but didn’t compare with one I had earlier at a restaurant on the French side of the Pyrenees. The evening was most enjoyable, if not a gastronomic treat. It was a mild teaser for the heights of Basque cuisine that would come at lunch the next day.

Restaurante Arzak

As certified Guide Rouge carrying francophiles, with all the chauvinism that applies, we have to report that one of the most memorable and satisfying meals we’ve ever had, was neither in France, nor at a French restaurant. With three Michelin stars, an 18/20 rating and a singularly glowing report in last year’s Gault Millau Magazine Vacances issue, Restaurante Arzak was too inviting for us not to extend our Basque Coast intinerary into Spain.

Apprehensive at the thought of getting into the car right after lunch, even for the very short drive back to France, we decided not to undertake the Men Degustacion, although it is a good way to experience the best capabilities of a restaurant, and eliminates the need to translate or choose from the menu. Even with Esilda’s native Spanish we needed a little help and sought translations for some of the Basque dishes and unfamiliar local names for seafood from our multilingual hostess. Noting that we were having trouble narrowing our selection, she suggested we each order a complete meal and have the kitchen divide each order and serve them in successive courses. Thus, we ended up with a five course tasting menu after all, but of our own choices.

Unable to decide between two of the shellfish dishes, we had them both. Ensalada de verano con cintas de pasta fresca y bogavante templado (summer salad with pasta ribbons and warm lobster) with its coral juice was followed by langostinos salteados con txangurro (sauteed langostines with spider crab txangurro refers to the meat of the spider crab after it’s been shelled and seasoned) and salad in a scallion and anise dressing. Both courses were contemporarily light, refined and subtle.

Many of the fish courses were also tempting, but squid is a favorite of ours and chipirones de anzuelo a la plancha (grilled squid – caught on a hook rather than in a net, Chef Arzak is very exacting about his provisions) with seasonal mushrooms and corn, won out over the traditional squid in its ink. It was another wonderfully simple but brilliantly understated dish.

When advising us on the menu, the hostess suggested the pigeon, if we liked rare meat. There’s little we like more than rare pigeon breast and the pichon asado (roast pigeon) seasoned with coriander and cumin, served in its juice, was sublimely rare, perfectly seasoned and a testament to the pleasure of basic cooking.

For dessert, we split an orange croquante with a tarragon flavored pear sorbet. While the tarragon lent a suprising taste, it successfully contributed to the dessert’s delicate blend of flavors.

A bottle of Txakoli, local white wine with plenty of flavors, and the right combination of fruit and acid to be an exceptional companion to the sea food dishes, was only 2,350 pesetas ($19). The house Rioja red at 325 pesetas ($2.50) a glass was luscious, if uncomplicated and went just fine with the pigeon. Riojas are justly famous wines. The Txakoli should be better known, but you may have to travel to taste it. We’ve seen it offered in Bordeaux, but not in New York. By sheer coincidence, the price of our food came to 8,750 pesetas ($69.40) per person, or about forty cents more than the tasting menu. We were more than pleased by our choices in food and wine.

Perhaps it’s our overwhelming prejudice for French food, the misfortune of our past experiences south of the Pyrenees, or the drab exterior of the restaurant, but we were totally unprepared for the exquisite delicacy of the food as it was presented. It was all fresh, perfectly cooked and elegantly arranged with a minimum of sauce, a stroke of coral juice, a swirl of infused oil, a bit of herbs, etc., artfully added to the composition. By the time we had reverently finished the second appetizer, we knew this was one of our all time great meals.

On the way out we met Chef Arzak and told him that our lunch was spectacular and every bit as good as that served at the top restaurants in New York. With the confidence that his food had already spoken for him, he modestly replied that New York has some very good restaurants. We realized that this unassuming tone had pervaded our entire lunch of exquisite food, with wonderful service in a room more comfortable than elegant, behind an exterior that gave little hint of the glories within.

Pays Basque, France

French Pyrenees

Our first real taste of the Basque Country came in the ourdoor market of St. Jean Pied de Port. By early September the height of the season was over and the market was not extensive, but we found several stalls offering the local sheep’s milk cheese and very interesting dried sausages, more reminiscent of Spanish sausages than French. The flavorful hard cheese, entitled to the Appellation d’Origine Controlee Ossau-Iraty-Brebis-Pyrenees, dominates the cheese production in the region. Samples were delicious and merchants were pleased to sell just a few slices of one sausage, or another, and a small wedge of cheese. In no time we had assembled a picnic lunch.

We added a loaf of whole wheat bread from a local commune. The baker, with a long beard and overalls, could have come off a farm in Vermont as easily as the green hills of the Pyrenees. He spoke to us in English which he had learned from the many Americans who had stayed at the commune. Soon, an elderly Basque gent joined in the conversation and we were chatting away in English, French and Spanish. Basque, which is making a comeback on both sides of the mountains, is totally unrelated to English or the romance languages, and remains well beyond our grasp.

Once out of town, we found a picnic spot with an incredible view of lush green meadow and Iroul guy vineyards right up to the top of the ridge in front of us. At their western extreme, the Pyrenees no longer act as a natural frontier as the ridge is not continuous and the peaks are lower. In Gascony where the sunflowers and corn all seemed to have been just harvested or drying on the stalk, the landscape was brown.

We heard gun shots as we drove down a narrow street into the main square of one small town. We were ultimately on our way to San Sebastian and recalled vividly, our daughter’s tale of hearing an explosion and walking out of her pension in San Sebastian, not so long ago, to see men with guns drawn chasing someone in a ski mask. To our relief and pleasure, these shots were fired to announce a point scored in the game being played in the fronton, a one walled court, usually in the center of every Basque town, used for playing ball games. Then entire village, and I assume, most of the nearby countryside had turned out for the event. After watching the two teams play for a while, we remained hard pressed to explain the rules of the game, but we learned quickly to keep an eye on the pelota, a leather covered ball which came whipping out of the chisteras, long basket like scoops, at great speeds, after a young woman next to us was hit by a foul ball.

Hotel Restaurant Ithurria, A’nhoa

Red Peppers Drying

We correctly assumed we wouldn’t need reservations in the area at this time of year. The Hotel Restaurant Ithurria, in the picturesque village of A’nhoa, seemed particularly inviting. Our room was small, but the hotel was charming and although we were just passing through, we noted that the swimming pool, access to hiking trails that began in the town and a Michelin starred kitchen make this a choice spot in which to spend a few days.

We were looking for good Basque cuisine more interesting than the poulet basquaise found in bistrots all over France. We found it in Maurice Isabal’s delicious plate of stuffed red peppers and his cassoulet basquaise. The famous and moderately hot local red peppers, piments d’Espelette, are stuffed with codfish puree and served in a rich pool of reduced stock studded with minced ham. The cassoulet basquaise is made with red beans and included duck, sausage and boudin noir (blood sausage). Basque boudin noir is highly spiced and more akin to those of Martinique than to the typical boudin noir found in French charcuteries. Basque cuisine is the spiciest of French regional cuisines. We saw red peppers hanging and drying everywhere in the village of Espelette, and we purchased small bottles of a local Sauce Piquant, similar to Louisiana hot sauce, as a practical souvenir.

Biarritz and Bayonne

Biarritz may be an international resort rather than a Basque fishing village, but Bayonne, it’s picturesque neighbor, retains its small town character. The old town, with its narrow streets, half timbered houses and markets along the quays of the Nive, seems far removed in time and distance from the glitter of Biarritz. The copes in the market, though not much less expensive, contrast with the Hermes scarfs on display in Biarritz.

Bayonne and Biarritz share a taste for sweets, with branches of many of the same confiseries in both cities. We did our best to sample from Darantz, Cazenave and Henriot, but we didn’t have time to try the others. The rich goteau basque, a pote sabl’e filled with black cherry preserves, especially like the ones we enjoyed from Henriot in Biarritz and the Moulin de Bassidour at their stall in the Bayonne market, should not be missed.

The simple basque linens that caught our eye in St. Jean de Luz are also available at two Helena shops in Biartitz, at the same price as in the market. One of the shops is a block from the Hotel du Palais.

Hotel du Palais

Built in 1854-56 as Villa Eugenie, the imperial summer residence of Napoleon III and his bride, the Hotel du Palais is a palace in more than name. Had it not become the grandest hotel in town, it might well be the major tourist attraction. After the fall of Napole on III, it housed a casino before it’s transformation into the Hotel du Palais in 1883. In 1903 it was destroyed by fire but rebuilt in 1904 with an additional wing. The pool and terrace are relatively recent installations. With its elegant antique furniture and modern plumbing facilities, it occupies a prime place among France’s great luxury hotels.

Standing in the ultra-spacious Winston Churchill suite, one of six Imperial suites, with its balconied French windows commanding a 180-degree view of the beaches, pool, garden and cityscape, one can feel rather regal and certainly privileged. The hotel, with its prominent location on the beach seems to reign as empress of Biarritz and any room would make an indulgent base for a vacation. Spain and all the beaches and fishing villages in between are less than a half hour’s drive as are the Pyrenees. Biarritz is also a golfer’s paradise surrounded by excellent courses, including a few of professional stature. We enjoyed sipping wine while watching the spectacular sunsets outside our windows, sleeping late, eating chocolate and taking a vacation from driving for a few days.

For more information about the Basque culture and tourism, link to the Basque Page a site maintained by Blas Pedro Uberuaga, a first generation Basque-American.