In the final part of his Basque Country tour, Tom Garton enters Spain and San Sebastian. But before he can sample the pintxos and Txakoli, he’s got a little dental emergency to remedy…
My tooth was killing me. My dentist had given me some mouthwash for the trip but it wasn’t helping. I needed to find a pharmacy, and it was Sunday.
“What luck.” I thought to myself. Of all the places to have got lumbered with toothache, San Sebastian was the worst. I’d been looking forward to gorging on pinchos and patatas bravas for weeks; now I could barely muster supping the gazpacho at breakfast.
San Sebastian has the highest concentration of Michelin stars in the entire world. It is the essence of good living. There’s the renowned Arzak and Akelarre, both three stars and regularly considered one of the best restaurants in the world, the innovative two-star Mugaritz, and Kokotxa, one star in the middle of town.
Fortunately, I hadn’t reserved a table at any of these fine dining establishments. Given my acute periodontal pain, the 24-course menu at Mugaritz would have been a perverse kind of torture. Instead I was planning on going undercover on the clean streets of Donostia, slumming it with the locals in the bars, slurping down angulas (young eels), and knocking back cañas (small beers).
Before we could do any of that though, we had to locate a pharmacy to sort out this bloody toothache. Having lived in Spain a few years ago I know how difficult it can be to find anything useful open on a Sunday. The ghost of Roman Catholicism is only ever felt as a mild inconvenience in Southern Europe now. Luckily our hotel, the Villa Soro, was on hand.
The Villa Soro is a 19th Century mansion. A twenty-minute walk from the the centre of town it’s a peaceful retreat. A refined, boutique hotel, there are only ever a few guests milling about at any given time. The front of the house seems American Gothic, with two steep wooden gables on either side of the grey-stone-faced property. The grey stone makes it feel even more out of place against the rest of the town’s architecture, which is generally the colour of a thick egg yolk.
Inside it is all white and tiles; typical of sophisticated Spain. You can hear shoes quietly tap against the clean whiteness, almost like a hypnotic Grandfather clock. In front of you, as you enter, is a vast, wooden sweeping staircase, reminiscent of Gone With The Wind. I still don’t understand what the hotel’s Southern States connection is, but it’s undeniably there.
We were having breakfast in the dining room, sat with a view out onto the lawns. At night the room also functions as an elegant bar with high ceilings and a dark wooden floor. My blonde companion was delicately eating a boiled egg. I was hunched over the table in agony. In front of me a visually appetizing Andalusian breakfast: light smashed tomatoes on a toasted barrita dressed with thick extra virgin olive oil and a pinch of salt. If I was going to enjoy this trip I needed painkillers.
In spite of the Sabbath, the hotel reception found me a pharmacy. This was a true European pharmacy, dealing out top-quality benzocaine with no real medical knowledge of my symptoms. While I muttered my way through rusty Spanish, the blonde companion had already ordered herself her first red wine of the morning. After having anaesthetized one half of my face, I was finally able to join her.
We caroused through San Sebastian’s streets, crossing the ornate Santa Catalina bridge before winding up at the favoured local tapas haunt, the 31 Agosto street. On the weekend, throughout the afternoon you see families, couples, groups of friends, tourists all along the street eating plates of patatas bravas and classic Basque pinchos. Atari at the end of the street is one of the best places – serving peppery gin and tonics in bowl-like glasses, and sweet-tasting patatas with aioli and brava sauce.
Having our fill of the bars we headed back to the Villa Soro, heading back over the bridge as the sun was setting over the beach front. The benzocaine was starting to wear off, but I’d been able to enjoy absolutely gorgeous food in the most densely gastronomic city on earth. And then I realised. The next day we’d be heading back up to Biarritz for the airport. I don’t often regret leaving a place, but I didn’t want to go back.
What a world away San Sebastian was from the stuffy French Basque country of Saint Jean de Luz, I thought. Here groups of all ages were drinking and eating in the city’s bars. The great food was combined with a relaxed Spanish attitude which allowed everyone to appreciate it – even if you had toothache.
For more information about Villa Soro, including details of events and offers, visit www.villasoro.es. For information about San Sebastian, including what to see and do, visit the official tourism website at www.sansebastiantourismo.com.