I come home at the end of September after a month away, feeling relaxed and rejuvenated, and full of creative energy. And wondering what to do with it. But before I’ve had time to put away the suitcases and pack up the summer clothes, a project lands in my lap. Completely out of the blue. And it’s a cracker!
The project is to design the garden for a house on the edge of the Ashdown Forest, a stunning 17th century cottage which is undergoing a transformation and needs a garden to go with it.
I couldn’t ask for a better job. But it’s a big deal for me. My first proper project for someone other than myself. Which feels pretty mega… And a little bit scary. But there’s no time to ask myself if I’m up to it. Because it has to be done immediately. Like right this very minute.
The situation is that my sister, (who owns the stunning 17th century cottage), has found herself in a bit of a fix. Along with writing cookery books and becoming a bit of a media superstar in the past couple of years, (which you can read all about at https://trufflehound.wordpress.com/) she has been up to her eyes with the planning and construction of an extension for her newly purchased home. She’s adding a kitchen, and a bedroom and bathroom linked by a glass walkway to the original house. The builders have been hard at work since June.
This project started a couple of years ago, when architects were called in to help turn a lovely but impractical house into a lovely but practical one. The lovely but practical house needed a lovely but practical garden to go with it. At the time I was still on my garden design course, and not in a position, time-wise or experience-wise to take on such a challenging job. So my sister briefed other garden designers, and they visited the site and drew up plans for her.
But now it comes to the crunch. Because, as tends to happen with these things, plans changed and the build cost went up. Which meant the original plans for the garden were no longer viable. The builders are at the stage where they are ready to start on the outside space. But the original plans can’t be achieved within the new budget. Time to call for the cavalry. In this instance the cavalry is me!
We’re talking about the perfect country cottage here: the oldest house in the village, tucked in between the church and the school. The garden folds itself around the cottage like a security blanket. There’s an orchard and a well and an old brick path leading into the churchyard. It’s very very lovely.
Or rather… it could be very very lovely.
But the cottage was a weekend retreat for the previous owners, and, both inside and out, shows the lack of attention that goes with people not spending much time in it.
The architect and builders are doing a great job of turning the building into something amazing. Now it’s time to do the same for the garden. But time is what we have very little of, so I take the site survey away with me, and I get going, and over the weekend I come up with a solution to the most pressing requirement, which is a plan for the courtyard garden in front of the new extension.
I turn up at the house on Monday morning, talk my idea through with my sister, who likes it (phew!), and passes it on to her builders. They begin marking out right there and then. At this stage it’s still on tracing paper. I haven’t even had time to put it on the computer.
So I’m hard at work. And loving it. This site isn’t easy – it drops away by several metres from top to bottom, there are gardens to be planned front and back, a request for different areas for sitting and eating and screening needed from nearby neighbours. My sister’s thing is food, so she wants to be able to cook outside, she wants a space to entertain, a separate seating area in front of the downstairs bedroom because she’s thinking about doing bed and breakfast; she wants places to sit and contemplate; and both she and the house demand a cottage style planting plan.
All this has to be achieved with respect and consideration for the spirit of this wonderful place. Because this cottage has been here a very long time. The architect and builders have done a superb job of adding an extension that fits perfectly with the old building. Now this stunning new old house needs a stunning new old garden to go with it.
It’s happening before I have time to draw breath. I do get a chance to tweak and make changes. After they’ve started! And I do manage to put the plan into the computer. But there’s been no time for any frilly bits – this is all about producing something that the builders can work from. ASAP!
And there’s no time to rest. Because there’s the front garden to consider. And again another plan to be produced at speed, because the builders have to lay a terrace and want to know how and what and where. And then there are the planting plans to be done for the courtyard and the front garden.
So no pressure then!!!
But it seems to be going ok. My sister is happy. The builders are happy. I’m happy. And on top of that I’ve got a garden to plan for sister number two.
Looks like I might be a garden designer after all!
So I know that paraphrasing someone else’s title in order to attract attention is a cheap trick. But I have a sneaky feeling that if I called this post something like ‘The Life Cycle of the Cycad’ people not so interested in cycads (of which I recognise there may be many) might not read it. And I’d hate for you to be missing out!
Because who would have thought that a garden terrace in downtown Puerto Pollenca would see so much action? We’re not just talking sightings two days running of a Pine Marten, (see Pinch Me post) which is one of the creatures that David Attenborough has never seen in the wild but wishes he had. There’s another extraordinary thing happening out there which I simply have to tell you about.
A couple of years back, when I arrived in Majorca after a winter at home, it was to find that the cycad (for those cycad novices that’s the frondy green plant in the black planter) on the terrace was behaving rather strangely.
A cycad with a head the size of a football. Is that normal?
I kept a close eye on developments. The head grew bigger. It was unnerving.
Then the following year this…
Even more unnerving.
By the beginning of this year the weird eggy looking things had gone a bit flaccid. When we arrived from the UK in June the few remaining leaves had began to go brown. I prepared myself for the worst. Clearly this was a cycad on its last legs.
So imagine my surprise when I returned at the end of August
And it’s not just one cycad. Now there are four!!! Three little baby cycads are battling it out for space in a very crowded planter.
Now if you happen to be an expert on this kind of thing, you will probably tell me that this is entirely normal behaviour for a cycad and only to be expected. But to me it’s… well, quite frankly, it’s very curious.
You do the same thing for years. And then one day you decide to do it differently. And it’s like a door opening to a whole new world. A world on your doorstep that’s been there all along, only you just didn’t know about it.
Take this summer, when, after many years of flying to our house in Majorca, we decided to take the car and drive instead. There were practical reasons – we had stuff we wanted to take with us that we couldn’t fit into a suitcase, we were going to be out there for a while so it made sense to have our own car. And we had had enough of airports; we felt like a change.
But it wasn’t just about practicality. We were looking to combine function with some fun. What we didn’t realise was quite how much fun was in store for us.
I’ve written about our boat trip to Bilbao with Brittany Ferries, and our first night in San Sebastian in my post The San Sebastian Crawl, so I won’t go over it again. Suffice to say we had a ball!
But the Pintxos bar tour we enjoyed, in the company of the lovely Esther from San Sebastian Pintxos Tours, turned out to be a good metaphor for the journey. Bite sized portions of experience; little tasters of amazing places. There and back we didn’t stay more than a night anywhere. But thanks to the meticulous research and careful planning of my top-notch concierge (aka my husband), our experience of each place we visited was memorable, enough to give us a real flavour without overfacing us.
After our unforgettable night in San Sebastian we headed south, stopping for coffee on our way in the mediaeval town of Olite with its fairytale castle.
And then on to a blow out lunch at Restaurante 33 in Tudela (described in my post A Serious Case of PTS). The drive to Barcelona took us about five hours in total, taking us away from the wooded mountains of the north into the flat, dry expanse of central Spain. Not always the most exciting of scenery, but great roads. And we kept ourselves amused listening to podcasts of Cabin Pressure with Benedict Cumberbatch playing a useless pilot and Roger Allam as his cynical, world weary co-pilot. Greatly to be recommended; the time flew by.
We came into Barcelona in the late afternoon, negotiating our way through this busy, beautiful city with the help of the satnav (absolutely essential bit of kit without which we would probably be filing for divorce by now. How did people manage without them?) A few hours to fill before heading for the port to catch our ferry to Majorca, a bit of anxiety about where to leave the luggage filled car in notoriously thief friendly Barcelona, a complete lack of hunger due to massive eight course lunch eaten in Tudela; we were a little uncertain of what to do with ourselves.
So we headed for the Olympic Park area which is near the port, found a secure car park to leave the car, and went for a stroll. This part of Barcelona is part beach holiday, part super modern, stylish city. Look to your left as you wander along the esplanade and there are people playing volleyball on the beach, couples strolling barefoot along the water’s edge hand in hand. Look to your right and there are skyscrapers and fountains and wide boulevards streaming with Friday afternoon traffic.
We went in to the achingly stylish Arts Hotel for a drink, feeling a little out of place in its hushed corridors and elegant reception. We were carworn, battered and dusty, and ready to sit in a heap and rest up a bit. This hotel was crawling with the beautiful and the best of Barcelona, and we couldn’t help feeling we were not quite fitting in. Still it was an experience, and a beautiful place, and worth a visit if for nothing else than the stunning flower arrangements in the lobby. After a drink in the bar, and a promise to ourselves to come back when we were a little less scruffy, we went back to the car and headed for the ferry port.
ANOTHER BIT ON A BOAT
This was the trickiest moment of our journey. Roads are mega busy, night has fallen, and the satnav takes us to a road closed by a barrier, and a mean looking policeman is waving us away from where we want to go. Luckily we’ve left lots of time, and the satnav rethinks and leads us through tunnels and around roundabouts, so we get to the port with time to spare. Which is a very good thing. Because there seem to be no signs and no way of knowing where we are meant to go and what we are meant to do. We just follow the herd, hoping that the herd is going where we are going. Graham stops and winds down the window to ask directions from a guy in a reflective jacket, who could be anyone but fortunately turns out to be someone who knows what’s going on. He tells us that we have to swap our printout ticket for a proper ticket or we won’t get onto the boat. We park and Graham goes off to do the necessary, comes back and informs me that I’ve got to go on board by foot.
This is going to sound daft, but it was a weird and rather unsettling experience, leaving him in the car on the dockside and heading off in the dark to a building in the distance, to stand in a long and extremely chaotic queue, which snaked in and out of the building and seemed uncertain whether it was a queue for Alcudia or Cuitedella. Turned out it was the queue for both; the ferry was dropping off in Alcudia and then going on to Menorca. Phew!! I stood at the back of it, played Tetris on my phone and tried to look unconcerned, while the people in front of me argued in angry Spanish, and children screamed around me.
Graham and I found each other on the boat and fell on each other with relief. We had to queue to hand in our ticket in exchange for the key to our basic but perfectly acceptable cabin. This ferry was not in the same league as the Brittany Ferries boat from Portsmouth but we were only on it for six hours. As we pulled away from the dock and slowly made our way towards open sea, we slid past a long, lean, multi-decked boat that was crying out to be stared at. It was moored alone against the quay, well away from any other boat. It’s five decks were lit up, and we could see spacious seating areas with fabulous furniture, a beautiful dining table with inlaid wood, a super cool bar. There seemed to be nobody on board until we caught sight of a couple of figures leaning on the rails, watching as our ferry went slowly past.
It was too dark to take a decent picture. But I found this photo online so you can see for yourselves. Because of course we googled the name!
It’s called Eclipse. And it turns out it’s one of Roman Abramovitch’s fleet of five. Five!!! This boat has two helicopter pads, two swimming pools, 24 guest cabins, 70 crew, several hot tubs, a disco hall and a mini submarine. How have we managed all these years without a mini submarine???
Once we were under way we found our cabin and slept. Up at 4.30am (!) in time to peer out of the porthole as Pollenca Bay loomed up and past us in the darkness, lights twinkling in the distance to tell us we’re nearly there. Back down to the car, dock in Alcudia, drive off ferry straight into dark streets, twenty minutes to our house; only sign of life in Puerto Pollenca at this hour is staggering teenagers weaving their way home after a long night at Chivas.
And we’re there. Three days journeying as opposed to six hours. A fair bit of time in the car. But what a great way to travel.
We’re in Majorca for just over three weeks. Weather unsettled for some of the time, but not so it’s a problem. We do what we usually do, which is enjoy ourselves. Make a few new discoveries: walking over to Cala San Vicenz before breakfast, eating tapas by the side of the lovely bay of Puerto de Soller, enjoying a spectacular dinner at the fantastic Marie Nostrum restaurant in Sa Pobla.
We spend a lot of time sitting by the water’s edge in our own lovely bay of Puerto de Pollenca, enjoying some truly spectacular sunsets, and telling ourselves for the umpteenth time that there really is nowhere else we’d rather be.
And all too soon it is time to think about packing up and going home. But the great thing is that this year the holiday doesn’t end when we leave our house to head for the airport. This year it started when we walked out of our front door in England, and will end when we walk back in again. The getting there and the going home are as much part of the holiday as the being there. Which means that, as the day approaches when it’s time to leave, we don’t feel blue at the thought of it all coming to an end. Instead we feel excited at the thought of our journey home.
BACK ON A BOAT AGAIN
We leave on one of those perfect days you get in Majorca at the tail end of the summer, when the sun is just beginning to lose its intensity, the air is soft and clear, the wind has melted away so that the sea in the bay is as still and reflective as a mirror, the temperature in the shade is spot on body temperature, you feel completely at one with your surroundings, and very very happy. It’s hard to say goodbye on such a day. But rather than feeling sad to be going, we feel blessed to have such great conditions for travelling by boat, because we will get to see the island at its best.
Fifteen minutes drive to the ferry port. The same weird procedure where passengers have to go on board separately from the car. But this time when Graham and I say a temporary goodbye to each other it’s in bright sunshine and we’re prepared for it, so it’s not quite so traumatic! I find a spot in the bar on the top deck, and gaze out at people on sun loungers, sunbathing in their bikinis and swimming trunks (this is a ferry with a swimming pool!). Do I miss Palma airport? NO I DO NOT.
When Graham joins me we go and find a place to say a proper goodbye to the island. The boat slips gently out on a turquoise blue sea. We lean on the rail and drink in the view with our eyes. On a day like this one there simply cannot be anywhere in the world more beautiful than this glorious island of Majorca. And we feel incredibly lucky to be seeing it this way.
We watch for as long as we can, while the island softens and dissolves into the distance, until there’s no trace of it on the horizon. Then we find a spot to settle down and talk and eat and read for the six hours it takes us to reach Barcelona.
RETURN TO BARCELONA
Barcelona. It’s a wonderful town. The skies as we approach give a hint of what is in store for us. They’re eye catching, dramatic, beautiful.
We drive off the ferry and check in to the supremely comfortable, very friendly and welcoming, couldn’t be in a better position, H1898 hotel; located a matter of metres off La Rambla, the street that is the soul of Barcelona.
This is the old town, very different to the super modern and stylish Olympic area that we had visited on our way out. But equally as stunning. We have dinner on the roof terrace of the hotel: really good tapas (and we’ve eaten a fair bit on this trip so we know what we’re talking about!) and great views across the city. The tower of the cathedral is close by, piercing the roofline, changing colour before our eyes, one moment pink, one moment purple, one moment green; a light show to let us know (as if we didn’t know already) that we are in a pretty extraordinary place.
After dinner we go for a quick ramble down La Rambla (has to be done – walk and pun!) and then back to the hotel and our completely gorgeous bedroom. Oh, it’s a tough life!
Breakfast the next morning was in a class of its own. The spread that met us as we entered the dining had to be seen to be believed. It was tempting to spend the morning there scoffing. The pastry table in particular… OMG!!!
Still Barcelona was calling us. And we only had a few hours. So we enjoyed our breakfast, and then went out and strolled again up La Rambla, with its crowds and its street traders and its nifty flower stalls.
As we wandered Graham suggested going into the Mercado de la Boqueria. Now if I’m honest I’m a bit myeh about markets. In my book a somewhat overrated experience – too often they’re full of the same old tat. But not this one.
Then on to the cathedral to wander and marvel.
Next stop – a walk with Gaudi at the Gaudi Exhibition Centre. When you don’t have much time in a place you have to focus. So we did – on the unique architect who has had so much to do with making this city what it is. A Walk With Gaudi is a brand new museum/exhibition, right next to the cathedral, which takes you through the story of Gaudi, his life and influences. And it’s excellent.
We left the museum, grabbed a taxi, and headed to the Sagrada Familia. Because when you’ve been given such a great taste of Gaudi, you have to go and see his most famous building.
It is his unfinished masterpiece. Showcases his passion for the organic, the free flowing, the natural. The son of a coppersmith Gaudi had inordinate respect for the skill of craftsmen. So the fact that this building is work in progress, that the city of Barcelona is finishing the job Gaudi started, seems completely and utterly right, so that the cranes and the workmen seem as much part of the experience of the building as the building itself.
We headed back to the hotel, ate a light lunch on the roof terrace, and left Barcelona to drive north – making our way towards the extraordinary Marques de Riscal Hotel.
FINISH WITH A FLOURISH
Four hours drive, and we are deep in Rioja country: hills and valleys and a ridge of far mountains, vineyards on all sides, tractors pulling trailers loaded with crates of grapes, slowing the traffic to walking pace in front of us. We take the road to Elciego. On the hillside ahead and to the right something winks and flashes in the late afternoon sunshine.
As we drove towards it I wasn’t entirely convinced. Did I like it? I wasn’t sure. But the more time I spent with it, the more I liked it. Until I ended up completely smitten. You know the really great paintings, where the more you look the more you see. Well this building worked the same kind of magic. As we explored I could see the undulating hills and valleys of Rioja, wine pouring and flowing, red and white and rose, the foil peeling back from the necks of bottles. The gleaming surfaces reflected the sky, the scenery; the building shifted with the light, changing character from one moment to the next. It was utterly and gobsmackingly fantastic.
Our bedroom was super comfortable, ultra modern, teched up to the eyeballs so that even the curtains drew back at the touch of a button. Of course there was a bottle of wine to welcome us. And the windows opened out like an eye onto bodega and hills, framing the sensational view.
The only bit that didn’t work quite so well for us was the public space: the hotel reception, the Bistro dining room (where we ate an absolutely delicious dinner and drank, as you would expect, fantastic wine), the library/bar on the top floor. These areas with their towering ceilings were more high than wide; the white walls and minimalist decor, whilst completely in keeping with the building, felt a little lacking in character. We couldn’t escape the feeling that at dinner we were eating in a corridor. And the piped music that played everywhere – it was rather like being stuck in a lift.
We spent a very comfortable night, lay in bed the next morning and watched the sun come up on the hills, ate an excellent breakfast (although I was beginning to suffer from an overabundance of food) and headed to the stylish and elegant wine shop to stock up on a few cases before embarking on the last leg of the last leg of our drive.
An hour to Bilbao. We were going to stop at the Guggenheim Museum and add another Frank Gehry building to our list of experiences. But the traffic in Bilbao was stopstart, all the carparks we drove past seemed to be full, and we didn’t want to leave our loaded with goodies car on a street. So we drove past and had as good a look as we could, and then headed to the ferry port.
THE LAST LEG
You might have thought that this last stretch, twenty four hours on a boat, with all the fun stuff done, might drag. But it really didn’t. It was helped by the fact that it was a beautiful day, warm and bright and calm. It was helped by the fact that the ferry was half empty.
That night, in the restaurant, I was one of only two or three women. All around us motorbike enthusiasts and classic car buffs were enjoying their dinner. Conversation focussed on crankshafts and spark plugs and the best place to get a decent cup of coffee on the A3. My lovely lovely dad, who died four years ago this week, was a passionate lover of old motorbikes and cars. I grew up with these conversations. It felt very familiar and rather wonderful and the perfect way to end a memorable holiday.
A good night’s sleep, breakfast, a couple of hours playing Candy Crush (there… I’ve admitted it) and we can see land on the horizon. We go past the Isle of Wight and come into Portsmouth in sunshine.
Down to the car, off the boat, back to driving on the left, back to bumpy surfaces and lots of traffic. And in just under an hour we’re turning into our driveway. And it’s all over. We’ve had the most wonderful time.
It’s been a big year for clouds. They’ve been everywhere. Even out here in sunny Majorca. When I’m here I’m used to waking up to blue skies without a cloud in sight. But this year it’s been the other way round.
Now you might think that’s not a great thing. But as with everything in life there are compensations. And the compensations are that when there are clouds around you get to see some pretty amazing sights.
In June it was this:
We’re eating lunch at the Mirador de la Victoria restaurant near Alcudia when a cloud genie rises out of the Tramuntana mountains to hover in the skies above our heads.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, as we headed towards Alcudia early one morning, the sun was negotiating with the clouds for the day ahead.
Later that same day, the clouds were winning. But we weren’t complaining.
Because, as with so many things in life, you’ve got to have clouds. If for no other reason than to give the sun something to work with.
Without clouds you wouldn’t see this:
Sometimes it helps when man joins in:
But nature does a pretty good job on its own. As we made our way to the ferry port in Barcelona on our way here the sun was setting over the sea.
Even the moon was joining in!
I was looking for a quote about clouds to tie this post together. Something meaningful. Something worthy and deep and philosophical.
So here you go:
“Aren’t the clouds beautiful? They look like big balls of cotton… I could just lie here all day, and watch them drift by… If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the cloud formations… What do you think you see, Linus?”
“Well, those clouds up there look like the map of the British Honduras on the Caribbean… That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor… And that group of clouds over there gives me the impression of the stoning of Stephen… I can see the apostle Paul standing there to one side…”
“Uh huh… That’s very good… What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?”
“Well, I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsie, but I changed my mind!”
― Charles M. Schulz, The Complete Peanuts, Vol. 5: 1959-1960
Something so extraordinary has just happened that I’m sitting here wondering if I really saw what I thought I saw. Surely not! It couldn’t be! Could it? Luckily I’m not alone. If I was, I’d be telling myself I was seeing things.
Because I’m lounging on the sofa on our terrace, thinking about important things like where to go for lunch and whether my Candy Crush habit is turning into an addiction, when what looks like a cat slides under the gate and putters up the garden path. Most of the houses around us are unoccupied so maybe this thing that looks like a cat thinks there’s no-one home. Because it’s looking pretty relaxed. Until it catches sight of us, stops, stares, and slips away under the hedge while we’re still registering that this thing that looks like a cat isn’t.
The terrace in question is in Puerto Pollenca, Majorca. It looks out over a (very small) garden, with a gate opening onto the pool area we share with thirteen other houses about ten metres away from me. So we’re talking seaside, built up, urban – not pine forest, secluded, unpeopled. Which is the kind of habitat what I’ve just seen prefers.
Because this thing that looks like a cat is a Pine Marten. Honestly. I promise you. In Great Britain they are incredibly rare; shy, secretive creatures you might catch a glimpse of in Scotland if you’re very very lucky.
And I’ve just seen one. So close I could have reached out and touched it. Unfortunately I was too stunned to get myself together and take a photo. But even so…
You know that feeling? When you are so full you literally cannot eat another thing. Until somebody mentions pudding. Which is when PTS (or Pudding Tummy Syndrome) kicks in. It’s been happening to me a lot lately. On the bar crawl in San Sebastian, the following day in Tudela, and then a few days later in Sa Pobla, Majorca.
In San Sebastian it was the basque burnt cheesecake that I wrote about in my last post. Five pintxos bars visited in one evening before we ended up at La Vina, five different places where drink was drunk and food was eaten! And, as my kids used to say, I am full as an egg. No room for anything else. Until you wave a plate of the best cheesecake in the whole world in front of me. And I don’t hesitate.
Next stop – Tudela. Which is not the most prepossessing of places. But we’re searching out Restaurante 33. Great reviews on Trip Advisor for its food. And we’ve got a bit of time before heading for Barcelona to catch our ferry to Majorca. (And I’ve got hangover hunger from the night before!) So we settle in and go for their set menu. Which is a masterpiece of eight courses. Yes eight!
The plates are small and delicious but I’m struggling by five. By seven I’m completely stuffed. But then… Burnt milk! With chocolate delicious thing on the side!
All I can say is that you have simply got to try burnt milk. It’s up there with the basque burnt cheesecake in the list of puddings to bring on a very serious case of PTS.
And finally to Mare Nostrum in Sa Pobla, Majorca. Where I had one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.
No choice menu. Bread and aioli to start, then six exquisite courses. Each one is small and perfectly formed, and memorable in its own right. But still we’re talking five courses by the time pudding arrives. And, despite evidence to the contrary in the rest of this post, I’m really not the biggest of eaters.
But who’s going to say no to this…?
So. A marathon of eating. And you want to know what I’m thinking? PTS isn’t a curse; it’s a gift.
Can’t remember the last time I went on a pub crawl. I’m ashamed to admit that I can’t actually remember the last time I went to a pub. So it took visiting San Sebastian last week to reintroduce me to the joys of bar to bar drinking. And I had a ball.
So what was I doing in San Sebastian? Apart from getting drunk, that is? I was taking the long way round to get to Majorca. After thirty years of airports and queues and being crammed into plane seats that are never quite big enough, 2015 was the year we decided to drive.
We kicked off by spending twenty four hours on a Brittany ferry, experiencing the Bay of Biscay in all its choppy glory. But we were leaving rain drenched Portsmouth for sunnier shores and we weren’t going to let a little bit of bumping around stop us from having a good time.
The sun was shining in Bilbao when we made land. We had an interim night booked at a hotel in San Sebastian, so that’s where we headed, eager to make the most of a town we knew little about apart from the fact that we’d heard that it was the food centre of Spain. Which seemed like a pretty good reason for going there.
It’s quite a challenge spending only one night in a place you don’t know. What to do? How to make the most of the time while you’re there? How to make sure you’re not having dinner in the place next door to the place that when you get home everybody will tell you was the only place to go in San Sebastian?
The answer… we booked a local to guide us. Or more accurately, Graham booked a local to guide us. I have to be honest and tell you that this wasn’t my idea. And I wasn’t entirely sure it was a good one. Did we really want to spend our only night in this supposedly super-special place with a stranger? Would conversation be difficult? Wouldn’t it feel a bit awkward?
The answers to the above questions are Yes, No and Absolutely Not! Because the local turned out to be Esther from San Sebastian Pintxos Tours. Who we met outside the tourist centre in the middle of the old town of San Sebastian. Who took us straight to our first Pintxos bar. Who introduced me to a drink called Tzakoli, (pronounced chakoli), a local Basque slightly fizzy white wine. Who ordered us our first few plates of Pintxos, the Basque equivalent to tapas. Who was smiley and charming and really good company. We were on our way.
The streets of the old town are lined with Pintxos bars. On a Thursday night in downtown San Sebastian the world and his wife are out to have a good time. There’s a bustle and a buzz and a liveliness that is crying out to be joined. But you need to know which bars amongst all the bars are the best, which Pintxos out of all the plates out on display are the ones to choose, which way to turn when darkness falls and you’ve lost your bearings and, if you’re a lightweight like me, your ability to walk in a straight line!
What you need is an Esther!
We were booked to spend two hours with her: 7.30 to 9.30. She said goodbye to us at 11. Petite and determined, she threaded us through the crowds and bars and food choices like a tug boat with a couple of liners in tow. We went from the first bar to our next, where I had more wine and we tried a green chillie/olive combination which Esther explained was known as a ‘Hilda’ after the famous film actress.
Famous film actress? Hilda? Hmmm….
Confused? So were we. We couldn’t think of a famous film actress called Hilda either! (Later, after doing a bit of research, we found out that the dish was named for Rita Hayworth. Who was famous for playing the part of the wild and spicy… Gilda. Aha! Something got lost in translation there!)
Next bar, more food, another drink. Things were loosening up, we were really beginning to enjoy ourselves. I wish I could tell you what we ate. I know it was delicious. But it was all beginning to get a bit blurry.
The one thing I can tell you was that Esther rarely chose from the plates on display. She ordered specials, the dishes you need to know about in order to ask for. Another advantage to being with a local.
More bars, more food, more drink. We got to the point where Esther and I were both in such a merry state that Graham (who was sober, thank goodness) had to remind us, as we left one bar for the next, that we hadn’t paid.
Our last bar was one of the best. So good that I can remember it clearly in spite of the state I was in. It was called La Vina and we stopped there for cheesecake. Because one of the things that La Vina is famous for is its cheesecakes. And let me tell you that this is not just any old cheesecake. This is the best cheesecake I’ve ever eaten. Drunk as I was I remember the taste of it like it was yesterday. Even if San Sebastian wasn’t as fantastic as it is, I would go back there to eat this cheesecake.
So we said goodbye to Esther. And Graham poured me into a taxi. And we went back to the hotel.
And I’m really glad that when I woke up in the morning – with a mouth like the inside of a parrot’s cage and a cracking headache – I could still remember that bar crawling in San Sebastian with Esther for a guide is the only way to travel.