I have no doubt that most of you will have already heard of San Sebastian and its notoriety amongst foodies as having countless Michelin Stars. I set off earlier this year to turn the region from a micro gastronomic adventure into a massive Basque journey through the whole of this north eastern corner of Spain.
Conveniently the gateway to this region is into Bilbao. The city acts as a superb starting point as the food is divine but the centre is on a smaller scale than nearby San Sebastian. You only need 24 hours to soak up its highlights and to acclimatise yourself (and your palate) ready to immerse yourself into all things pintxos! No visit is complete without a visit to the Gugenheim and, lucky for you, Original Travel has chosen not only the two best hotels in the city but two with excellent views over this Frank Gehry masterpiece. The Gran Hotel Domine and The Miro Hotel are both superbly comfortable and if anyone ever tells you to skip past this charming town I can assure you they are wrong to do so.
Red for Rioja
I had my own car which, and as with every road trip, affords you the opportunity to slow down and capture some rare moments at your own pace. Similar to all European road trips the driving is easy to navigate and, lucky for me, I was never going to be behind the wheel for more than 2 hours at a time. Next on my agenda was the region of Rioja, home to wine and an open expanse of landscapes brimming with vineyards. One iconic shimmering landmark was the Hotel Marques de Riscal, again designed by Frank Gehry. I can only describe this as a metallic Spanish version of the Sydney Opera house. It stands out in total contrast to the quaint church towers that crop up on the landscape. The architecture is not the only modern thing about this hotel, their interior design and even their restaurant menus are ahead of the game.
One absolute must is a tour of the vineyard. You can see how the state of art technology has been used here too. I learnt that every September up to 500 people come to the Marques de Riscal winery and help harvest the grapes as it gets turned into wine. After you have had your tour then head into the quaint and traditional town of Eltziego. It couldn't be more different to the hotel but gives you a slice of local life and architecture.
San Sebastian – in Pursuit of Pintxos
What's that I hear, you are starting to get hungry again? It's time to head to San Sebastian where I was surprised to learn there was so much more available than just fantastic food. The beach-front city has it all; in the morning you can surf to your heart's content on the Zuriolla Surf beach and work up a decent appetite for more gourmet goodies. I met a pintxos guide for a lunchtime exploration and it was an absolute treat being shown all the under-the-radar, smaller restaurants that tourists didn't seem to be flocking to. This sort of experience is an example of one of the huge benefits of having a superb, local guide as I would've never found these restaurants alone. I enjoyed talking to the shop owners about the food and where it came from and which each vendor considered to be their speciality. I was getting more out of this tour than I could have ever imagined and I don't just mean by stuffing my face, ideas were already brimming about what I could replicate at home.
Attending a World-Class Cookery School
I had no idea what a treat I was in for in the evening when I was enrolled into a master class cookery school at Mimo Cookery School. I was fortunate enough to be in a small class with three other trained chefs taking part (and myself). We were under the careful instruction of Mateus and the class was designed so that we had a 50 / 50 hands on element alongside tuition. We were to create a five course meal with fillet of beef being cooked at a constant 49 degrees for three hours being the highlight of the evening. Each course was paired with either a local wine or a cider which is amusingly poured from a great height so as to aerate the liquid. It was nearly 11pm and I could not eat a single morsel more but I can state that it was probably the best food I have ever tasted. It was not flamboyant and the ingredients were all fairly local but I was bowled away by their techniques and how this relatively small town has totally revolutionised food.