The secret to enjoying pintxos in Basque Country, northern Spain

There's only one problem: your stomach. Namely, its limited size. The fact you only have one. The very real likelihood that you'll get too excited at the first bar and fill it up before you've even had a chance to begin your crawl.

This is the perennial dilemma during a night in the Basque Country of northern Spain. You can't eat everything at every bar. This place may feel like a gastronomic theme park, with the bars as rides, where the excitement builds and builds, where endless rows of bite-sized morsels grab your hungry attention like neon sideshow-alley displays, but you can't do it all. You can't eat it all.

One bar, one snack. When you're in San Sebastian, that's the general rule. When you're in Bilbao or Getaria, in Zarautz or Hondarribia, that's what you're trying to achieve. Walk into a bar, eat the best "pintxo" on the menu, have something to drink, and move on.

It won't always work that way. Sometimes everything will just look too good. But that's what locals do. That's the plan.

Pintxos, for the uninitiated, are like tapas, but smaller. The word means "to skewer", as the original pintxos were all spiked on toothpicks. These days, however, most Basque pintxos are too elaborate for a spike.

These snacks are served hot or cold. The cold pintxos are typically laid out on the bars in row upon row of deliciousness and can be devoured in a few bites. Hot pintxos have to be ordered from a menu, and are usually more complex, and larger.

Don't be tricked into eating only the cold pintxos. Plenty of tourists do because it's easier: you don't have to translate a menu in Spanish or Euskera, the Basque language. You just have to point and eat.

But the best stuff is usually served hot, cooked fresh by the kitchen. These hot pintxos could be as simple as a skewer of prawns, topped with finely diced onion and vinaigrette; or they could be as sophisticated as pan-seared calves liver with apple compote and madeira reduction.

Order your pintxos, grab a drink (maybe a local cider, or a txakoli, the Basque white wine), and wait. Don't pay any money yet: in Basque Country, you only pay when you're ready to leave, regardless of how many rounds of food and drink you consume.

Eat your pintxos with a knife and fork if they're offered, or with your hands if they're not. Screw up your used napkin and throw it on the floor. Say "eskerrik asko" – Basque for thank you – and ask for your bill.

Pay it and walk out onto the busy street, ready for the next bar, the next pintxo, the next challenge, the next dilemma. You only have one stomach: choose wisely.

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