Barcelona Day/Night 3 – The Grand Finale

2 weeks of travel had finally started to take a serious toll on me physically. I was sore pretty much everywhere and starting to have more AlkaSeltzer to recover from the previous night’s festivities. As I mentioned before, travel like this is a marathon not a sprint, and now I was about to cross the finish line, wrapped one of the foil blankets and then collapse to the ground in exhaustion. OK, maybe not but I was starting to look forward to a day in bed upon at home, which was on the not too distant horizon. Fortunately, another day of great weather was helping me kick into into final gear.

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I had been interested in trying the Catalan version of paella called fideuas, which uses noodles instead of rice. A couple of people had recommended a place, which actually had 3 branches, Arroseria Xavitva, one of which was just under 2 miles away, which in the great weather seemed doable, my aching body aside. The path took me through a more working class area of town called Sant Antoni, where there was a lot more graffiti and not the seemingly ubiquitous chain stores, which after being inundated with them elsewhere was a nice change of pace. The weather also allowed me to finally take advantage of dining al fresco.

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Since I had worked up a pretty good appetite from my long walk, I immediately ordered the Paella Valenciana fideuas given I also knew it would take awhile. About 20 minutes later, this thing of beauty arrived.

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The noodles were short and thin called garrofon, which looked like enoki mushrooms. It was at first a very strange experience scooping up noodles versus rice out of a paella dish but the flavors were still all very much a classic paella Valenciana (well except for no snails, which was a plus really. There was even a noodle version of the sorcarat (aka the crispy bits on the side) and overall, a very tasty paella. I would definitely have this again when available.

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I had walked by the Barcelona Beer Company on my way to Xavitiva and decided to check it out after my lunch. Spanish beer overall is pretty terrible – drink wine instead – but I had heard good things about this craft brewery. Plus, I could get 4 tasters for 6 Euros.

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I had the bartender recommend 4 to try and had a nice variety of tastes and styles, my favorite being, surprisingly, the ginger heavy Belgian style, which normally can be a bit much. Overall very solid, especially for the price.

As I made my way back to El Born for my next stop, I saw a lot why I’m conflicted about Barcelona. It has a lot big city problems, homelessness, crime, graffiti but with also a lot of splendor and grandeur that makes it fairly unique. It also has an undercurrent of danger and instability that can be unleashed at any time given the strong separatist movement and overall Catalan attitude. And finally, it has a ton of crass commercialism that caters to the huge tourism industry. So yeah, it’s…complicated.

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It was time to get my culture on at my favorite museum in the city – The Picasso Museum. While it doesn’t feature many of his masterworks, it is the best representation of his astonishing range of his career – from early neo-classist leanings to his destruction of art in his cubism period to his extensive use of mediums beyond painting, including his great pottery work. Per usual, I didn’t take any pics of the works themselves but I enjoyed some of the new additions since I had been there along with a new appreciation of perhaps the most important work there – his exhaustive recreation and interpretation of Velasquez’s masterwork Las Meninas, which is worth the price of admission alone.

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Since I had a 6AM alarm set for my flight home (ouch), I didn’t want to take my usual siesta, which allowed me to stroll around El Born during sunset. I also finally made a stop at the famous bakery Bubo to pick up Marzipan and gianduja flavored croissants for breakfast.

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I tried to have another wine tasting at the highly regarded Bar Brutal but alas they weren’t going to be open until 7PM. I also stopped off at another wine store looking for a specific wine but struck out yet again. Just not meant to be this time at least, oh well.

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For my final dinner, a few people had recommended a classic Catalan spot for tapas that was also very close to my hotel, a plus. La Puntual, from the street, looked like a small bar but that belied the large backroom that was the heart of the restaurant. My friend Damian had told me to be on the lookout for this Iberico ham brand called Joselito so when I saw there was a chorizo from them, I knew that had to be my starter.

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It was, quite simply, the best chorizo I had ever tasted – tender but firm with an explosion of favor – absolutely incredible. Unfortunately, my main course isn’t pictured because, quite frankly, it didn’t look visually appealing. A classic Catalan winter dish, the best way to describe it if steak tartare and Sheppard’s pie had a baby. It was a very hearty dish of chopped beef, potatoes and some spices that was very tasty. It paired very nicely with the Ribera del Duero I had along side it.

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Since I couldn’t let the last major dish I had on this trip not be pictured, I had to get a dessert and the chocolate truffles with cream sounded like a winner. The things I do for my readers. I wasn’t expecting such an artful presentation but man was it good. Four very generous chunks of delicious chocolate truffles rounded perfectly with the homemade cream. A great way to end my culinary adventures on this trip.

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For my final nightcap, I headed back to ElDiset for a nice glass of cava. My bartender Alejandro wasn’t there alas but I enjoyed sipping my cava at what definitely would be a local haunt if I ever lived in Barcelona. As I had the last vestiges of my cava, I reflected on what a fun trip overall this had been. My body had paid for it in multiple ways, but after long (too long) break from traveling – and of course, this blog, I felt invigorated.

A final recap by the numbers on the trip:

13397 miles in the air
10342 average steps per day
745 miles driving
100+ types of food consumed (I gave up trying to catalog the exact total but close enuff)
28 major meals
32 different Spanish wines sampled
12 different Euro beers
1 very happy, satisfied, stimulated, enlightened and yes, tired traveler.

Hasta vez proxima.

 

Barcelona Day/Night 2 – Strolling Along

I woke up to a truly beautiful day, sunny and in the mid 60s – perfect weather to go for a nice long walk to a beachfront paella restaurant I went to over 25 years ago – Escriba. I was curious to see if it was still as good as I remembered. The path to get there took me out of El Born to the Olympic Park and then eventually to the beach.

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About 30 minutes later, I arrived at the restaurant, which faced directly toward the beach. Known for over 30 different versions of paella, I decided to go with the one called Of Mountains and Seas. My server took my order and then came back with an hourglass, explaining that’s how much time I had until my paella would arrive.

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Sure enough, just as the sands shifted completely in the hourglass, my paella arrived. As the name implied, it was a mixture of both meats and seafood – pork ribs, chicken, wild mushrooms, green beans, Norway lobster, mussels and cuttlefish. This being a Catalan paella, there was no saffron. And yes, this was for 1 person.

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The various meats and seafood all blended together in the rice, giving it a tremendous depth of flavor with the mushrooms and green beans adding some different textural elements. The rice on the side, called the socarat aka the crispy bits, was particularly delicious. A damn fine paella, and I was pleased to see the restaurant still held up.

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Needing to walk off all of that food, I headed back to El Born, taking a slightly different route for variety’s sake.

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The Catalan and Castellano clashes were all over the city.

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After stopping by a very cool wine shop, I ended up at a tasting room for a small winery based in Priorat. It was just me and the proprietor who was very friendly and knowledgeable about wine. I asked her about the “fresh” term I kept hearing with the Priorat wines, and she explained that it was due to a combination of things but mostly due to climate change. The hotter, drier growing seasons are causing wine makers to adjust how they producing the wines. Plus, the hotter weather is making Spaniards want to drink less and less the traditional bold, heavy Priorats in favor of something lighter.

The wines were quite good and she gave me a couple of other pours for wines that were sold out but wanted me to try them. We started chatting about Spanish politics and the Catalan separation movement. She said that in schools now in Barcelona, some are teaching kids in just Catalan. Her kids were older so they didn’t have to do that. We both agreed how crazy that is given the limited scope of Catalan out in the world. She sighed and said even though she’s a proud Catalana, it was foolish to believe that any sort of separation from the rest of Spain would work. She added though that she agreed the region was being taken advantage of, and she supported the desire for more of a voice in the Parliament.

I also remarked that I wasn’t hearing as much Catalan being spoken in the streets this time versus last. She said that despite the separatist movement, there was more of an understanding these days that Spanish language was important too. I had also noticed more people now were willing to engage me in Spanish versus insisting I speak English. That was one of the things that had made me avoid Barcelona for so long because people, quite frankly, assholes about it.

After a bit of a rest at the hotel, I set out again but this time to a different part of the city to a wine bar that the hostess at Ferrer Bobet had suggested given it was co-owned by the owner of that winery. Along the way I passed by one of my favorite buildings in Barcelona, the Palau de Musica.

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After a, thankfully, brief trip through the tourist wasteland of La Rambla, I arrive at Monvinic, a very slick and sleek wine bar with over 40 wines by the glass. All of the servers are sommeliers and I was presented with an iPad to review the wines by the glass. I wanted to stay in the Priorat area so I selected a half glass of what sounded like a good one. It was 100% Granacha and had the now familiar “fresh” taste to it.

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After trying a not so great rose also from Priorat, I saw that there was another one that was from Scala Dei, but a 2013 reserve versus the regular one I had enjoyed. Of course, with that, came a pretty hefty price – 18 Euros for just the half glass. Given I’d probably never have a chance to try it again, I had to try it and wow was it good. None of the “fresh” taste, just deep, flavorful dark cherry notes and super smooth tannins. One of the best Spanish wines I had ever had.


I had asked for the bottle so I could take a picture of it and they said it had been tossed. The sommelier though asked if I wanted to tour one of their 3 cellars while he got another bottle. They had over 200K total bottles – very impressive.

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I decided that was enough of the expensive stuff so paid my bill and headed back towards El Born for some cheap eats. I had been told this place Mosquito was a local favorite and about 30 minute walk back to my hood, I arrived at the ramshackle Asian tapas and beer bar joint.

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The wine and my heavy lunch had left me with not a huge appetite so I ordered a couple of tapas and a local beer which I thought would be more than enough. I sat at the bar and once again, like seemingly everywhere in Barcelona, heard more English than Spanish (or Catalan for that matter)

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The Spanish pork ribs with Xaoshing wine sauce and the smoked duck dumplings were both delicious and a nice change of pace from the usual Spanish fare I had been having. As I suspected, this was plenty enough food so I paid my bill – a mere 12 Euros – and walked back toward my hotel. Knowing though this was my last major night out, I sought out a spot for a night cap and soon arrived at a very nice looking wine bar called Eldesit.

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It turned out they also made their own wine, which my bartender Alejandro, allowed me to try before I settled on a Priorat that he said I would like. He was correct and this one was also in the older style, more full bodied and deeper flavors. I chatted a bit with Alejandro who said my Spanish was “perfecto” – gracias although certainly not true. He let me try a few other of the wines and eventually I had to say “basta” since I didn’t want another hangover. I promised though to come back tomorrow on my final night for perhaps a cava this time.

Priorat to Barca – Going Sideways

After recovering from my inevitable hangover from the previous night’s bacchanalia, I packed up my things, climbed up the steep hill with my bags (always fun with a hangover) and set off to my first winery – Ferrer Bobet. I had a noon appointment scheduled but decided to go there a bit early. I had also purchased a vegan cheese and “meat” boccadillo to eat afterwards. I had no idea if it would be any good but at only 3 Euros it was worth a shot.

I had looked up the route previous so I knew it was relatively close by. This was a good thing as I was staring to run low on gas and would need to fill up after the winery. I drove up into the truly spectacular countryside into a small town. It was then that I started to think something was off given the pictures on their website didn’t seem like it was in a town. My instincts proved correct when it showed I had arrived at my destination – a street called Ferrer Bobet. Shit!

There was also no cell service so I frantically drove back towards where I had come from and finally got enough service to see I was now 30 mins away… and it was noon. Great.

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I zipped down the curvy mountain roads, drove back through Falset (grr) and then took a truly insane switchback with no guardrails up another mountain. I finally arrived at the correct Ferrer Bobet with the tour already in progress.

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I wasn’t expecting a full tour so joining up with a random group whilst my body was dying for a glass of wine to steady my nerves. Still, it was pretty interesting if a bit long. One thing that was fairly unique is that they don’t crush the grapes at all but instead use highly controlled temperature tanks to gradually start the fermentation process.”

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Eventually the tour concluded and it was finally time to taste in a pretty spectacular room.

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They served 3 different bottles – one was a 2016 100% Carrinyera that had recently one a blind Priorat tasting. It had a slightly sour note which was due to the lack of the sugar in the fermentation process, which the defined as “fresh” The second was the same year but now 100% Granacha. However, the usual jammy taste of a typical Granacha was replaced again with this “fresh” taste. The final one was a blend of the two. Because of their process, they said that the bottles have to be stored at cellar temperature. That made it basically impossible for me to buy a bottle. Oh well.

I was now seriously low on gas but had to take that same switchback to get to the station in Falset. Nervously eyeing the last brick on my digital fuel gauge, I somehow made it back in time. Relieved I filled up and then set off to my next winery – Scala Dei.

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The sommelier at Mugaritz had told me this was a must-stop and since it was more or less on the way to Barcelona, it would work out. I drove through some more spectacular countryside side and took the stone bridge into the former Caruthian monastery Scala Dei which was now home to the winery.

I didn’t have time to do the tour so I went straight to the tasting room, which in my slightly frazzled state I forgot to take a pic of but it was very nice. They were pouring 3 versions of their award winning wines. One was a 100% Granacha in the “new style” – similar to what I had at Ferrer Bobet. The next was the Carrinyera of that “new style” Overall I preferred those to what I had at Ferrer Bobet. The final was the “classic style” which was a blend of Granacha and Carrinyera. This was fantastic and I bought a bottle almost immediately, which then covered my tasting – sold!

As much as I was enjoying the wine, I knew I had to get on the road soon so I said adios and started back down the winding road. I had decided to take the scenic route up to Barcelona and that turned out to be a great idea as it was breathtakingly beautiful.

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I crossed through several Medieval towns and eventually ended up on the main road to Barcelona. I was expecting to pay more tolls but got into the city without having to do so. I had to drop my trusty steed at a hotel and after a couple of missteps trying to decipher the confusing directions, finally said adios to the Black Stallion – 1100 kms after our first trip.

My hotel was only a short cab ride away and it was past 9PM so I checked in, dropped off my bags in my small but nice room, and walked into the ancient part of the city I was staying in called El Born.

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Known for its bars and restaurants, even on a pretty cold Monday evening there were a surprising number of people out and about. I didn’t really have a specific destination in mind but soon came across an item on a menu that I hadn’t had since I lived in Spain – Jamon Ibérico with an egg and fries. My senora used to make this which I called the Spanish truck stop special.

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Memories came flooding back as I ate this wondrous combination of fat, salt and gooey yolks. Along with it, I got an order of chorizos braised in Austurian cider, as old skool as it gets. Feeling better I also opted for a very intriguing cocktail simply called – Cava Sangria. It was by no means a simple cocktail though – cava, ginger beer, gin and apple liqueur – dangerously delicious.

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That combo meant I was done for the evening so I made my way back to the hotel, discovered the blackout curtains and hit the sack. The weather forecast looked great for tomorrow and I looked forward to exploring my new surroundings.

Road to Falset – Day/Night 1 – En Vino Vertias

The weather had improved considerably, just in time for me long drive to the Spanish wine country of Monstant and Priorat via the small town of Falset. I had initially planned stopping in Pamplona for lunch but given how good that Bar Zapoleta torilla was, I got one of those to go instead. The Spanish toll system is an incredibly impressive maze of roads which cut through the mountainous regions of northern Spain. This, of course, comes with a price and I ended up spending about $30 in tolls throughout the trip. Still, given it shaves hours off of driving, it was more than worth it.

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I had missed my old friends, the Osborne brandy toros that dot the highways in Spain. The problem with driving yourself in a standard vehicle is that road snapshots are very challenging. This is about as close I could get.

After filling up for the first time (good fuel economy job, Black Stallion!) and a few more tolls, I finally made it into the Montstant region, the entry of which surprised me with a rather large nuclear power plan just off the main highway (my 2 pictures turned out to be rubbish so just visualize in the mind’s eye.) Eventually, I arrived at the ancient town of Falset, which given it was the off season wasn’t exactly bustling with activity. As it typical with these towns, there was a general parking lot and then I had to just carry my luggage inside the city.

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Apartments Falset was located just right off the main square, and the street was in the process of being repaved. My apartment was basic but given I’d only be there one night, it was perfectly fine. After I got my bearings, I was anxious to go try some local wine but the main wine bar was closed given it was Sunday. I ended up at a bar filled with locals and tried a pretty decent Monstant red for 2 Euros.

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The restaurant I wanted to go to, Hostal Sport, wasn’t going to open until 9PM but I found out the accompanying bar would be open so I asked the bartender/server to choose a good Priorat. He brought me one he liked, and it was very good. The wine list was incredibly impressive – basically a phone book – filled with just about every major winery in the area and a lot of smaller ones. I asked if I ordered a bottle if I could take away what I didn’t finish and the server said of course I could do that.

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I ended up selecting one I had read about – a local Falset collective of wine makers called Castell de Falset. They were known for doing some pretty interesting blends and the bottle was only 19 Euros so why not?  It turned out to be a great choice as the wine was dark and rich – superb and exactly what I wanted on this cold night. The restaurant finally opened and I soon discovered I would be probably its only patron of the evening.

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The menu had all kinds of intriguing options but I asked my server for some local recommendations. She said they have a lot of game meat and that the croquettas and the hunter casserole would be good options. Sold.

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The croquettas turned out to be 3 kinds – ham and chicken, wild mushrooms and rabbit with Priorat wine sauce. The last one was the most unique with a nice mix of the gamey rabbit cut by the slightly tangy wine sauce. The hunter’s casserole with rabbit, wild board and beef with elemental gratin was excellent and again perfectly matched the cold weather. Simple but delicious. Not wanting to make them stay open longer, I paid my check and made the walk back to my apartment, noticing now I was pretty much the only one around – except of course for the zombies that were no doubt hiding in the shadows.

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Fortunately, I made it back alive and in one piece. I was tempted to have some more of my wine but once again, given the big day coming up, I thought better of it. Tomorrow would give me ample opportunities for mas vino.

San Sebastian Day/Night 5 – New Discoveries

The weather in San Sebastian had turned nasty – cold and rain. Still, there was enough of a break in the dourness to take a quick walk down to Bar Zapoleta, which had been recommended to me for their tortilla espanola, which was apparently the best in town. It also happened to be in Gros basically right down the street.

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I opted for a slice of the tortilla plus a glass of Txakoli por supuesto. I was excited to try the torilla and boy they weren’t kidding about it being the best in town, if not the best I’d ever had.

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The key different was how moist it was whereas most tortilla espanolas, even the good ones, tend to be on the drier side. This was decidedly not and so good I immediately ordered another slice. Outstanding. I paid the 5 euros – absurd price – for my meal and took off for my next destination, this time one I had been before – Bar Bergana.

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Known for their outstanding and creative pintxos, the place was packed to the gills with locals enjoying their food. I was once again able to carve a tiny space at the end of the bar and got my order in relatively easily.

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Given the cold, rainy weather, I chose 2 of the heartier options on the menu – Puff pastry with duck, apples and Calvados, and one of their signatures – Xtalupa – Baked crab au gratin. Both were delicious and by the time I finished them, I was more than full for my lunch. I headed back out into Gros and took some pics along the way, including several of the truly unique architecture of the Basques.

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After catching up on some work and blogging, it was time to slum it at only the 30th best restaurant in the world, Elkano – I know, for shame, for shame. I had hoped the rain would have stopped by now but nope, still going. This made the trek over to the small fishing village of Getarria a bit more challenging than anticipated. Of course, this being Spain, parking was also very difficult to find although after inquiring what to do at the restaurant, they guided me to the port that was below the town.

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After running up a truly large set of staircases in the rain, I eventually got back to the restaurant. This had been a very tough reservation to get so I was damned if I was going to let some rain get in my way.

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Elkano looked like a classic seafood restaurant, including the de riguer nautical theme. However, it was known for its incredibly fresh seafood, with no set menu – whatever was caught that day and then prepared with minimal fuss on a large outdoor grill just outside the restaurant.

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Most of the main dishes were whole fish meant to be shared amongst a group. Since I was just oh solo meeoh, I couldn’t get, for example, their specialty – grilled turbot – but the owner said they could still do fillets of others. I had read about another speciality I could have, which was the Xtcholoas (throat) of the hake, done 3 ways. First up though was an amuse bouche of smoked hake with an avocado sauce.

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The Xtocholas arrived shortly thereafter – one grilled, one breaded and one with a classic Basque pil pil sauce. All 3 very good and very unusual. I had never had anything quite like it. The texture was borderline gelatinous, especially the pil pil one but still had a meaty firmness of the hake. A nice start.

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Next, I had the cream of crayfish soup. Typically I’m used to having lump crayfish as part of this but this had no meat, just the pure crayfish flavor – it was very, very good.

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As I waited for the main course, I asked what the WiFi password was and was handed this wood block – that was definitely a first.

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I also observed the owner carving up one of their turbots table side for a group that was near me. He explained to each what part they were getting and why he chose it from the fish. That level of detail is part of the reason the restaurant is so well regarded.

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One of the fishes I could get a portion of was fortunately one of my favorites. The owner explained to me that they had chosen the upper chest for me because of its combination of firmness but also flavor. He also gave me a steak knife for it, which really wasn’t necessary given how tender it was. Grilled with just a bit of salt, which is all this magnificent fillet needed. Simply one of the best grilled fish dishes I’ve ever had.

After I finished the grouper, the table next to me motioned me over and asked for me to join them. Three older friends from Madrid on a weekend getaway, they told me how much they loved this restaurant and I chatted with them about my own travels to Madrid. They also told me occasionally the road to the restaurant is under water this time of the year so we lucked out apparently. I was also served some final sweet bites.

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I said my goodbyes and thankfully the rain had now stopped. The Black Stallion once again proved surprisingly adept guiding me home and while tempted to get a nightcap, knew that given the long day ahead tomorrow, probably best not to push it.

San Sebastian – Night 4 – Pintxos Hopping

After recovering from my truly Mugaritz epic meal, I was somehow hungry again so seemed like a good idea to do some pintxos hopping back in the Old Town. This time I gave up the futility of trying to find parking and opted to walk there instead. I needed the exercise anyway.

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The wind had died down a bit so the walk turned out to be very pleasant and after the trek across the bridge, I soon arrived in the Old Town, which unlike my last trip, was bustling with people.

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I had asked around for some recommendations for spots that are more for locals versus the tourists. I got multiple replies to check out La Cucharra de San Telmo so that was my first stop. A fairly small bar that had helped kick off the pinxtos revolution 20 years ago. A mix of traditional and modern, all of the pinxtos are made to order – no toothpicks here.

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I had enough experience now in crowded pinxtos bars so look for a corner and force my way into a small space – this one was a bit of challenge but eventually I prevailed. It was their 20th anniversary which featured a special menu of pinxtos throughout the years. I selected the braised veal cheeks in a red wine sauce and hummus, which was apparently their first major pintxos when they launched. Along with that, given I was in a cheeky mode (sorry), I also went with the pork cheeks with chicharon and a quince sauce.

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Both were superb but the quince sauce with the rich pork cheeks was the real standout. After I remarked to the server how good it was, he said that was his favorite item on the menu. A great start to my bar hopping.

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Next up was a return to the world famous Gandaras, which had been a bit too crowded when I tried to go there Weds. It was still pretty rammed but this time I was able to at least get an order in amongst the masses. Known for its game meat offerings, I chose the duck brochette. At only 5 Euros, I assumed it would be a small bite-sized dish. I was wrong.

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Instead, it was a pretty huge plate of perfectly cooked Margret duck pieces with a thick rich red wine reduction for the sauce. It was fantastic but after finishing, I started to hit the wall hard. Still, I wanted to try at least one more pintxos and went out in search of a lighter offering, perhaps a salmon one?

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I ended up at another local tip, Gastrolexu, which featured a younger, hipper crowd than the traditional pintxos bar. I did in fact find a great salmon option but in my post duck stupor, forgot to take a picture. Trust me, it was delicious.

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I was done with food but had passed an intriguing looking cider bar earlier and though that would make a nice night cap. The cider was made locally and had a very ornate way of pouring it, which I sadly mistimed with my camera but trust me, it was a cool method. The bracing mixture of slightly sour with the alcohol punch turned out to be just what I needed to end the evening and soon after I paid the 1 Euro – yep – for the cider, I headed out into the cold windy weather and staggered my way home.

San Sebastian Day 3 – Mugaritz

Today was essentially the pinnacle of my entire trip – a 3 hour meal at one of the top 10 restaurants in the world, Mugaritz. Located in the countryside about 5 miles from the city, the restaurant is a former Spanish farmhouse that had been transformed into a modern cuisine temple.

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I had come here 10 years ago with my dad and still remembered what an amazing experience it was so I couldn’t wait to get back. A fire 8 years ago had caused the restaurant to rebuild a bit (although thankfully not the main building) and since that time, the owner/chef had decided to reinvent the concept a bit. Gone was the selection of choices for the menu and really any sense of a traditional progression of a multi-course meal, no dessert courses for example as they explained when I sat down.

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Usually they start with a few courses outside on the patio but the rain and 40 mph winds made that not the best idea so instead, I was offered a class of Cava from the winery that first used the word in their sparkling wine. I was also given a little book which was full of definitions for what they said helped inspire the meal to come, including several that were left blank for me to fill in with my other definitions if I wanted.

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Soon after, a team of servers assembled the first few bites in front of me, along with a wet towel and no silverware – ah OK, so use my hands to eat these, got it.  The bites included – a wild mushroom, a Romesco cauliflower floret, a mini pickled carrot, an Icelandic root vegetable with pea soup and a penicillin encapsulated blu cheese. All were quite tasty and a fun way to begin the meal.

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Next up a server poured what he explained was a Greek sweet wine in this bowl and then another server listed off several Greek ingredients, from rosemary to fenugreek and then asked me to guess what other ingredient was inside. I correctly guessed a white grape and they gave me kudos for getting it right.

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Next up was a traditional Basque stew with bread, sea urchin and a very intense chicken stock. This was also the first course I had utensils, which I noticed had been heated. A server explained that they were playing around with temperatures with the utensils to make that match the temperature of the dish. It added an interesting tactile element and the soup itself was delicious.

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Next I once again had no silverware so back to hands with this puff pastry that was filled with foie gras and an absurd amount of shaved white and black truffles on top. I’m not a huge foie gras fan but this was a good use of it, helped out by the truffles.

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Back to soups, this time a squid stock and a fermented onion. Again, the spoon was heated to match the warmth of the soup. An excellent course.

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Next the server explained was a lobster dish that used the entire lobster – meat, roe, bones for the stock and then a scarlet shrimp sauce, which is what gave it such a deep unusual color. Delicious.

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Back to hands again with this bite of what they said was their interpretation of a classic ham and cheese croquette, in this case blu cheese with Iberican ham injected. I was instructed to pop it in my mouth in one bite, which I did and everything liquified instantly.

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The next course was their “sweet interlude” – raw kidney beans that had been injected with sugar and cinnamon. An interesting combination but not a favorite.

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This however was followed up by a true showstopper – their interpretation of burrata except made with pine nuts (!) and a classic Basque sauce called pil pil. Damn if it didn’t taste pretty much exactly like the creamy goodness that is burrata – outstanding.

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After finishing that last dish, I was escorted into the kitchen where the chef introduced me to the team working on my meal. I had done this last time and it’s such a very cool touch to be able to say thanks to the people doing all of the work.

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A few minutes after the tour, I was back at it with this amazing trio of pork-based bites – abalone that had been cooked in Iberican ham fat, making it basically taste like bacon; crispy pig’s tail with lobster caviar and scarlet shrimp sauce (fantastic) and the best of them all – crispy pig cheek with a lobster sauce – superb.

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I was a bit confused when a server came over and cleaned off my palm with a warm towel and then soon after dumped this power into it. The server explained that it was a mixture of dried powdered octopus and crispy onions. I initially tried to eat it like pop rocks but eventually just had to pick away at it with my other hand. A fun, incredibly unique course if not my favorite flavor-wise.

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Next the server explained was the game course – in this case wild duck – since hunting season had begun. He cautioned to look out for buckshot but I explained I had grown up eating game meat and knew the drill. The duck had been lightly seared and covered in an intense blackberry sauce. A great dish.

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This was their interpretation of a classic French Basque dish – sting ray with black butter sauce. I had never had sting ray before so I can’t compare it to others but with the rich black butter sauce and sliced, it was quite good.

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The sommelier came up to me with a bottle that looked pretty old and said this our reflection on luxury. He asked me was what luxury do I crave the most. I thought about it and said probably food and meals like this. He smiled and said that for him, time is the biggest luxury.  He then explained that the port he was now pouring was 100 years old and the chocolate was filled with caviar. This combo was a true holy shit moment and something only Mugaritz would do.

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Next was the beef course – one being a spongecake made of beef tendon, which the server playfully shook the plate to make it jiggle, and the other “beef” which was actually a Spanish yellow pepper cooked drizzled with beef fat. Not a traditional beef course whatsoever but very tasty.

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The server said the courses were over unless I wanted to try 2 others they are working on for the next year. I, of course said yes. First up was what they called “the whole chicken” soup – a rich chicken stock with shredded, dehydrated chicken. I was told to mix the two together, which made the dehydrated chicken melt, creating a truly delicious and hearty chicken soup.

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The other course was what they explained was a traditional Portuguese holiday cake, which in this case was made with sushi rice and then they drizzled honey over the top. Again, no utensils so I popped the whole sticky bite in my mouth. It was served alongside a Madeira wine, in which the casks are left outside for 5 years in the elements to give it some different flavors. Plus, the label on the bottle rocked.

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I was a bit surprised of the lack of sweet courses but this changed when they brought out the final item – the tower of chocolates. The picture below doesn’t quite get how big this thing was – at least 3 feet – in which each container was a piece of what I assume is crazy expensive chocolate, starting from the most bitter to the least.

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I’m not usually a big dark chocolate fan but it’s clear I just haven’t been having the really good stuff. I was surprised that my favorite of all of them was the 75% cacao from Peru, which was simply fantastic. As I was going through the layers of the tower, I noticed the lights appeared to have gone out. Given the gale force winds outside, this wasn’t necessarily surprising. One of the servers jokingly started singing happy birthday as other servers busily scattered to figure out what to do.

My main server came over to apologize and asked if I wanted a glass of cava. I suggested a port instead to go with the chocolate and he returned with a very nice 12 year Nieoport tawny that went great with the remaining chocolates. About 30 minutes later, with the power still coming off and on, the sommelier came over and insisted I try his favorite rose, made in the Champagne region entirely out of Chardonnay. Who was I to say no to that? Like pretty much everything at Mugaritz, it was exceptional.

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The power finally came back on and almost 4 hours since my arrival, it was time to go. Along with the bill, they gave me a copy of the menu and, in a first for me, my actual order ticket – a fun touch.

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There’s no real reason practically to spend almost $300 on a meal but the combination of the service, the food, the ambience and the overall feeling of true luxury make it more than worth it. Mugaritz is a truly special place.

San Sebastian Day/Night 2 – Modern Basque

According to my various weather apps, today would be pretty much the last nice day of my time in San Sebastian. Therefore, a drive through the Basque countryside to a spot that I was told featured the best bargain for a great set meal in the area sounded like a good plan. I hopped in the Black Stallion and navigated my way through the winding roads to the small town of Irun, very close to the French border.  I got a bit lost trying to find the restaurant as I wasn’t expecting it to be in a huge industrial center, tucked away in the corner.

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Inigio Lavado, named after the chef, who cut his teeth in kitchens such as El Bulli, Arzak and Alaine Ducasse, featured a modern take on classic Basque fare. There were 2 options for the set menus but I decided to go with the cheaper one at 25 Euros – 4 courses.

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The first course was an emulsion of potatoes and eggs with wild mushrooms. Basically creamy mashed potatoes with a yolk and some excellent earthy mushrooms. A great way to start. Since I was driving, I opted for just a single glass of Albarino, which was at the perfect chilled temperature.

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The next one for me was the star of the show.  It was listed as a cream of pumpkin soup but turned out to also feature some slow roasted beef cheeks that was in large chunks throughout. This led to a fascinating mix of texture and taste with the velvet smooth pumpkin soup combined with the smoky, salty beef goodness. A top 5 soup all time for me.

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After that, I was glad I had selected the fish option – grilled salmon with a lime cream sauce. The salmon was perfectly good and the slightly acidic sauce paired nicely with it. I particularly enjoyed the salmon skin, which had been made into essentially a chip placed on the side.

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For the final course, a classic that never goes out of style – creme brulee. This was an exceptional version that I eagerly ate every last bite. The total bill was 27 Euros, a complete steal and very much worth the drive.

I drove back through a different route through the valley, which was full of fall colors. No pics alas since there was nowhere to pull over and driving a stick makes a quick snap almost impossible. I had to run a couple of quick errands back in town and afterwards, decided to take a quick walk down the beach area called La Concha.

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I headed back to the hotel to do some work (hey these good meals don’t pay for themselves – or sadly via this blog) and after a couple of hours got back into the Black Stallion for my destination of the evening – The Basque Culinary Center.

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I had stumbled across this place during my research and lucked out in that their monthly “Showcooking” class happened to be tonight. For 2 hours, I would watch their teachers assistants prepare 3 courses which I’d then be able to eat along with matching wines.

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We were led to the bottom level of the center into their food lab where the event would take place. I had been warned in advance that it would all be in Spanish, which I was fine with but it turned out one of the TA, Reinholdt, also spoke English. The theme was root vegetables and soon they started on the first course – pickled beet salad with a yellow pepper mayo.

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I was pleasantly surprised how I was able to keep up with the presentations although I did have to look up – remolacha – which turned out to be a key ingredient – beet. The mayo had already been made but the 2 TAs assembled the other components, explaining how they were prepared along the way.

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I’m not a huge spicy pickle fan so this dish wasn’t my favorite but the mayo – which didn’t have any eggs – was quite good and yelped combat sone of the heat.

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The main course was roasted beets (red and golden) with a kimchi salsa. This time they actually cooked everything in front of us.

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I love roasted beets (especially golden ones) so this was a real winner. The kimchi salsa added some nice heat to the dish and overall a very satisfying main course.

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For dessert, they featured a carrot ice cream with a honey tulle and yoghurt cream. This obviously was mostly premade although they demonstrated how they did the tulle as well as showed off the canister they used to aerate the yoghurt. The ice cream was more like a sorbet which turned out to be wise given the tangy creamy yoghurt. Overall a very fun night.

I chatted a bit with Reinhardt after the class, getting a couple of insider recommendations to check out and eventually drove back to the hotel. It was only 10 PM so I wasn’t ready to go to my room yet so I decided to have a class of cava and just enjoy the splendid Villa Soro, which is even more beautiful at night. Tomorrow would be my epic Mugaritz lunch so getting some rest was important.

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San Sebastian Day/Night 1 – Deja Vu All Over Again

It had been just over 10 years since I first visited the magical foodie wonderland that is San Sebastian, and I had been eager to return ever since. For my first day, since the weather was pretty good, I decided it would be a good time to revisit some of my favorite spots, beginning with one of the highlights from my last trip – Hidalgo 56.

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Hildago 56 is located in the Gros district of the city, the same as my hotel. Although I could have walked there, I opted to drive my Black Stallion (aka my black Fiat 500) as I also wanted to go back to some of the farther regions of the city afterwards. Although the restaurant has the usual spread of pinxtos, they also serve full meals, which is what I was after in this case.

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First up was a complimentary starter of delicious house made/cured chorizo. Always a welcome beginning when dining in Spain.

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For my main course, I couldn’t resist going for the grilled wild mushrooms with foie gras oil drizzled on top and an egg. The earthy, perfectly cooked mushrooms with just the right amount of salt were delicious and the foie gras oil gave an even deeper depth of flavor along with the thick yolk of the egg – outstanding.

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Although I was already getting pretty full, I couldn’t resist the description of this dessert – Smoked “in the moment” Idiazabal cheese cake with fruit compote, walnuts and an Idiazabal ice cream. It was, not surprisingly given the picture above, excellent. The cheese cake surprisingly light with the slightly acidic compote helping with the richness. The ice cream was smooth and not overly sweet. Everything worked together in pretty much flawless balance. A perfect start to my San Sebastian adventures.

I took a walk to work off my lunch and explore the city a bit.

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I made my way back to my car and navigated over to the far end of the city, which ends in a point at the coastline. The wind was considerably gustier here and waves were crashing against the rocks. My main goal though was to check out these magnificent iron sculptures.

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I battled the wind to get back to my car and drove up the steep, winding cliff to get some truly spectacular vistas.

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After reaching the top, I cruised back down into town, drove along a different part of the coastline and eventually returned to my hotel. The Hotel Villa Soro is where I stayed with my dad and one of my favorite hotels. A former mansion built over 100 years ago, the hotel had been expanded to include a back building, which is where I was located.

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After some rest, it was finally time to get my pinxtos on. While it was possible to walk, my feet and back were begging for a break so I decided to drive. That turned out to be not such a good idea as parking in the old part of town is almost impossible. I was about to give up when I finally found a spot about .5 miles away from where I was going – close enuff.

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Even though it was a cold, rainy Wednesday, that didn’t stop patrons from packing the various bars that line the Old Town. I had another place in mind but along the way passed one I enjoyed last time, Bar Atari so made that my first stop. Atari is a mix of a traditional pintxos bar, especially the classic food, but with a slightly more modern look and feel, including deep house music playing softly in the background. All of the tables were full so I sidled up to the bar and found a tiny little parcel of land at the end of it.

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I ordered 3 pintxos staples – grilled shrimp bruschetta, smoked salmon and croquettes of local salt cod also known as bacalao. The shrimps were perfectly cooked, the smoked salmon was delicious with the creme fraiche adding a nice slightly sour note and the croquettes were simple but delicious. Along with a very nice glass of Rioja, this was a great start. I chatted up the 3 amigos who were next to me about their favorite wines and got a couple of recommendations to try in the future. I said adios to my new friends and walked back a couple of blocks to my main destination.

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I had purposefully selected a traditional (at least in terms of the food) pintxos bar in anticipation of my next stop, A Fuego Negro, which was decidedly not traditional. This was readily apparent when I walked inside. A record player was in the corner with an international mix of music. There was a wall of what at first looked like decals from bands or classic ads but upon further inspection were actually the menu – cool concept.

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I decided to go with a trio of pintxos that I thought would give me a broad perspective of their style. First up was a cold green bean salad with a salmon roe sauce and a yellow pepper mayo. The blanched green beans were very crunchy and played surprisingly well with the two nontraditional sauces. I was told to basically combine them like a pasta, which I agreed was the way to eat it.

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Next up was a very playful take on Chinese noodles except the noodles in this case were made with leeks and potatoes, presented in a Chinese to go box. The noodles were in an intense broth, which made them very rich but delicious. The texture was more like a glass noodle, which made it a bit challenging to slurp up but I eventually got the hang of it. Delicious.
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For my final pintxos, I had to go with the one that helped bring their claim to fame – the Kobe beef slider with chips. As seen in the picture above, the mini burger had a bright orange bun, which was slightly sweet, and a perfectly medium rare Kobe beef patty. Unlike most of the so-called Kobe beef burgers one can get in the States, this one had another layer of richness. I ate it in a couple of bites and while tempted to get another one, reminded myself this is a marathon not a sprint.

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I had walked by the world famous Ganbara, which had been way too packed but noticed it was considerably quieter now so I went in for a look. I was looking for perhaps a final sweet bite but that’s not what you go to there for so I was out of luck. Oh well, I’ll be back there soon though for their vast selection of game meat offerings. Thanks to the Parked Car notice on my Apple Maps, I was able to find my car through the various alleyways of the Old Town and drove back to the hotel. Tomorrow would be the last decent day of weather so another road trip was on the docket along with trying a new spot that I had been told was the best bargain meal in the Basque Country.

Amsterdam/San Sebastian – Getaway Day

My time in the wonderful city of Amsterdam was drawing to a close. Still, there were a couple of more things I wanted to do before taking a big silver bird to my next destination. That, of course, started with food. While I already tried the sweet version of the Dutch pancake, there was also the savory kind so I sought out a classic pancake house that several locals had recommended. The funky decor made me think this was te right place.

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While there were several pre-selected combos on the menu, I opted for the build your own with Dutch cheese and sauteed mushrooms. It was just the hardy start I needed on this cold day. The restaurant was also close to my next destination, the vast Rjiksmussen.

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Usually I prefer smaller museums with tighter focus but I was mainly here for a special exhibit they were having with two of my favorite painters – Velazquez and Rembrandt. I had at bought a special timed ticket for the exhibit, which gave me a bit to explore the rest of the museum. As usual, I didn’t take any pictures of the paintings but the arms exhibit was too good not to snap some there.

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Javanese weapons

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Replica of a Dutch battleship masthead

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“Big Rex”

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I made one exception for my rule with Rembrandt’s masterpiece “The Night Watch” because it was behind a heavy glass partition while some art historians are in the process of analyzing the painting’s canvas to determine once and for all if the rumors of the original being larger than what was ultimately framed. It was fascinating to watch the process.

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It was soon time for the main attraction and while the above photo is the only one I took, it was a fantastic exhibit – showing how each artist influenced the other by having some of their major works side by side. I noticed several of the Velazquez works from my time at the Prado – an impressive feat to get that museum to loan some of his more important pieces.

I had some more time to kill before my flight so I wandered around the rest of the museum, from the Flanders Royal Court to a very cool 1940s plane.

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I walked back to the hotel, gathered my bags and headed off to the airport. Since it was dinner time, I decided to have one more round of delicious salmon, this time as a smoked salmon club sandwich, which was one of the better airport meals I had eaten,

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I had purchased a “more room” seat on sale for $7 even though I assumed since I was on KLM, the leg room would be better than a typical plane. I was very mistaken and even my “extra” room was woefully inadequate.

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Thankfully it was a short flight that was non-eventful. Customs was a breeze (thanks EU!) and I made the short walk to get my rental car. By the time I got to the car, it was now 11:30 PM but I had to shake off the tiredness to make the hour plus drive to San Sebastian.

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Fortunately, having to drive stick made staying awake pretty easy and the truly impressive Spanish toll roads that connected the Basque Country were essentially empty, making the various twists and turns pretty fun to navigate. After getting temporarily lost trying to find my hotel in the pitch black darkness, I finally arrived at Villa Soro, which my dad and I had stayed in just over 10 years ago during my first trip to San Sebastian. My room was literally about 5x the size of mine in Amsterdam so I crashed out on the large queen bed almost immediately.