It's 6.30 on a Friday night in San Sebastian and the laneways of the old town, Parte Vieja, are already humming. Outside a corner bar housed in an unassuming sandstone building, two middle-aged women with shopping bags at their feet drink red wine and gossip. At the next table, three punky-looking twentysomethings in leather jackets and mirrored shades smoke cigarettes and gesticulate wildly, while a few tables over, a woman rocks her baby in a pram as she sips a glass of beer.
This, says our guide for the evening – an effervescent young woman named Eli Susperregui, who was born and raised in this impossibly lovely seaside city – is typical San Sebastian. Nights here, she says, are for indulgence: everyone out together, sharing food and drinks, celebrating nothing in particular.
And why not? San Sebastian is generally considered one of the best places to eat and drink in the world, with a galaxy of Michelin stars. Navigating its multitude of choices, however, can prove befuddling for newcomers. Which is why we're grateful to have Susperregui, a culinary guide for local outfit Mimo Food, showing us the ropes.
"First things first," she says as we wander the narrow stone streets around the Plaza de la Constitucion, "We're no longer in Spain, we're in Basque country now."
Basque country, she says, isn't like the rest of Spain. Stretching across the Atlantic coast from the Cantabrian mountains to the French border, it has its own language, culture and culinary traditions, commonly agreed to reign supreme with its wealth of fresh, seasonal produce.
Pintxos, the mini tapas-style snack unique to Basque country, is the focus of tonight's explorations. Every second doorway we pass seems to lead to a pintxos bar, and each is known for a specific pintxos, Susperregui tells us as we walk inside an unpretentious joint called Goiz Argi. The bar is lined with plates, each laden with three or four bite-sized servings of different pintxos. "You pick up what you like, then once you've had enough, you pay," Susperregui instructs.
We sample a trio of spicy skewered prawns, then a delicious morsel called a Mari Juli, a combination of smoked salmon, roasted peppers and anchovies, that's apparently the most famous pintxos there is. When we're done eating, Susperregui tells us to fling our napkins on the ground. It's the Basque way of letting the bar owners know we've enjoyed our food, and that it's time to move on.
It's springtime in Spain and at our next stop, another hole-in-the-wall called Casa Urola further down the street, we sample two seasonal specialities: grilled white asparagus sprinkled with ham dust, followed by an anchovy squished onto a toothpick with a tangy green pepper and olives. This moreish bite, called a Gilda, was the first pintxos ever made.
"These anchovies come from 30 minutes away in a place called Getaria," Susperregui shouts over the noise vibrating from the bar."In San Sebastian, we want the seafood we're eating to have been swimming two hours ago." It's anchovy season and the ones sliding down our throats are briny and fresh. They pair perfectly with a glass of Txakoli, a crisp, slightly spritzy white wine also harking from Getaria, which we watch the barman pour theatrically into tall glasses from a height. "Topa!", hoots Susperregui, the Basque version of cheers. We empty our glasses and file out onto the street in search of more food.
We find it in Ganbara, one of the city's most talked about pintxos bars, where the counters heave with towering plates of seasonal mushrooms and guindilla, spicy-sweet green peppers. We squeeze through the crowd to order a glass of excellent local rosé, then gorge ourselves on sauteed mushrooms dipped in oozy egg yolk, oil- and vinegar-marinated anchovies, flash-fried peppers and txangurro, flambed spider crab served in the shell.
It's dark when we spool back out into the street. Back home we'd be heading home, to massage our bellies and call the fitness trainer for an emergency session. But this is San Sebastian. We have cheesecake to find. The night is just beginning.
Cathay Pacific flies from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Cairns to Barcelona via Hong Kong, four times a week, for about $1300. See cathaypacific.com.au
Abercrombie & Kent specialises in private and small group journeys to Spain. An eight-day private journey through the north of Spain, including two nights at Hotel Maria Cristina San Sebastian, is from $14,855 a person twin share. See abercrombiekent.com.au
Nina Karnikowski travelled as a guest of Abercrombie & Kent and Cathay Pacific.