With Basque- Europe's oldest and most difficult language- spoken everywhere, rather than Spanish, and with a raft or restaurant and tapas/pintxo bars (pronounced pincho) to choose from, I enlisted the help of a culinary guide.
Gabriella Ranelli de Aguirre is an American who has lived in San Sebastin for more than 20 years. She is married to a Basque, and runs Tenedor, which specilises in tailor made culinary and cultural tours. She know everything about the restaurant scene, from which bar serves the finest anchovies, to where to buy the best local produce. And she drives like a local.
She picked me up at Bilbao airport and within seemingly no time we were coasting into the small fishing village of Getaria, which lies next to San Sebastian. It was important to stop here first because Getaria is the centre of the local wine production and the smallest, and most extensive wine denomination in Spain.
With the white grape harvest well under way, we sampled the fruits of last year's labours, at Bodegas Talai Berrie. Their crisp, dry, slighñy fizzy Txakoli 2004 was the perfect aperitif. Lunch was simply grilled sardines in the very basic Mayflower restaurant, overlooking the port. Autumn is the season for sardines, and they were fat, oily and utterly fresh.
Gabriella, I was to learn, likes to introduce her clients gently to the wonders of Basque cuisine, beginning simply and traditionally, getting ever more sophisticated and avant-garde. Dinner was to be a tour around San Sebastian's most intriguing pintxo bars. Most are centred in the old town, which is laid out in a grid, although without Gabriela I'd quickly lost my way and would never have known what to order where.
Pintxo hour-or two- runs between 8-20 in the evening. Etiquette demands you have just one drink and one nibble before moving on to another. Thus we had a shrmp brochetter in Bar Goiz Argi, and anchovies with peppers on toast in Bar Txepetxa.
At La Cuchara de San Telmo, we broke the rules and had two smaill dishes-rabbit leg with caramelised figs and slow-cooked cow's cheel- because it was so delicious and La Cuchara was the bar of the moment. Strolling and getting your bearings are easy in pedestrian-friendly San SEbastian. It has a smatr, recently gentrified shopping district. The sweeping La Concha bay is nearly two miles end-to-end and people swim here yearly round. But I was happy just to walk, watch and wait for lunch, tthe time locals prefer to have their main meal.
It was an experience I shall never forget, and, like the city that created it, it will be lodged in my taste buds for ever.