It seems funny writing a travel piece set in Spain as it feels like my second home. I always feel while I’m here that I don’t need to plan my day too thoroughly, but just live in the moment and see what unfolds. However, its no accident that I’ve ended up in the Basque country. As a fervent foodie, its hard to ignore. Being blessed with great natural ingredients, farming traditions and culinary heritage, and complimented by modern innovation, has result in it having the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants per capita in the world. Add to this countless non-starred establishments and I start to think the seeking pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago are here for more than just nourishing their souls. So, I’m not sure if its much of one, but I do start out with a plan – walk, eat, walk, eat, walk, eat.
On my first day I set out for breakfast from Casco Viejo in Bilbao and head for the Mercado de la Ribera, laid out on three floors and Europe’s largest covered food market. Almost immediately I’m confronted by what I’m looking for – spread out at the bar is a vast array of pintxos (or tapas). A favourite of the region and sufficient fuel until the next stop.
One of the lovely things about Bilbao is that if you start walking away from the centre in almost any direction you’ll soon find yourself surrounded by greenery. So only 10 minutes away from the Mercado and I’m urban trekking, walking along a shaded path by the Nervion river that cuts through the city.
I do appreciate being out in nature, but my stomach is nudging me to head back into town. In a fortunate twist of fate, Bilbao has the appearance of being built layer upon layer, like a monumental wedding cake, a perfect design for burning of calories more quickly as you move from layer to layer. So I amble along and soon find myself at a pasteleria and ready for another hit of nourishment. The particular delicious treat I choose carefully combines cream, egg yolk, and chocolate. The presentation probably deserved more than the few stuffed spoons that swiftly empty the glass.
After Bilbao, there’s one place that’s been calling, and in my own much earth grounded version of the Camino I find myself on the road to San Sebastian (Donostia in Euskera). For many years of its past Donostia had been a military stronghold designed with defenses to keep people out. However, in its modern day guise the drawbridge is down, and like many food lovers from around the world I have no defense able to resist this culinary haven where the concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants and well stocked pintxos bars starts to get ridiculous.
There’s only one thing to do, burn off calories more quickly by walking faster in between pintxos stops. But when I set out in the morning I’m halted by a sign that draws my attention, AUPA HI!, and I soon end up chatting with Julen, a local who specialises in experiences of happiness. He also happens to be a member of a Sociedad Gastronómica, a local tradition of a member-based food clubs, and he invites me to meet him at the market at 2pm for lunch. That’s the definition of an unrefusable invitation. So at 2pm prompt I’m there at the market like an eager puppy as we head off to buy our ingredients for the meal. First vegetables at the outdoor market and then inside just in time to catch the last traders for some jamon. The lunch we cook is a local classic, with green peppers, broad beans and jamon serrano, all simply seasoned with salt, pepper and olive oil. The fresh, flavoursome ingredients would find anything else an insult to their own vibrancy.
Its just warm enough to sit outside with a bottle of locally grown cider as we enjoy an impromptu picnic. Just like the food, this seems a good way to live, simple, uncomplicated, yet to be savoured. Its only then that the flaw in my rudimentary planning hits me, the glaring mistake I made was not planning to stay for longer.