The Many Flavors of San Sebastian

It’s old. It’s new. It’s rugged. It’s gentle. It’s shabby and chic, and it’s all deliciously delightful. It is San Sebastian, in the autonomous Basque region of Spain and where Basque, the oldest language in Europe, is still spoken.

I arrived tired at night, after a full day’s drive across the south of France on the Trans-European Motorway, and drove directly into one of the city’s underground parking lot, where I parked the car for $25.00 a day, never to retrieve it until I was ready to leave. This is not a city for cars. Upon exiting the garage, I was dazzled by bright lights illuminating two towers at the entrance of the Maria Cristina Bridge over the Urumea river. The spectacular, belle époque style, five-star hotel Maria Cristina stands majestically opposite the bridge. It is the holiday season and every street sparkles with decorative lights as far as the eye can see. Lights are strung from building to building across every street, throughout town. A walk to my three-star hotel was pointed with exclamations of oohs and aahs at the festive mood all around.

The following day began with a stroll on the promenade of the Concha Beach in the center of the city. The eponymous shell-shaped beach ends with Monte Igueldo to the south and Monte Urgull to the north. Both peaks offer spectacular views from the top. While it is possible to hike the peaks, it is best to take the funicular to Monte Igueldo, where the views are best.

San Sebastian is one of the city’s in the world to hold the highest Michelin stars per square meter, more than Paris. The old town is the hub of social life and comes alive at night when the tapas (pintxos as they’re known here) bars open. This is also where you’ll find the highest concentrations of the best restaurants. I strolled Old Town with the intention of having dinner at one of the Michelin rated restaurants, but the rows of tapas bars displaying their culinary creations on windows and counter tops drew me in. The bars are packed, inside and out. I must wait for my turn to the front of the line.

Going out for pintxos is a social event, so I look at the crowd around me and strike a conversation with a couple from England. They come to San Sebastian often, and they gave me some pointers on ordering pintxos. “Just have one in every bar with a drink. And you must have the gin tonic.” The gin tonic is made from an endless variety of gins and mixes and is served in a glass big enough to be a gold fish bowl. The gin is paired with fruit, spices and herbs and chilled with dry ice. I pointed to a pintxos displayed on the counter for its appetizing combination of color and textures. I don’t know what I had, but I had to have more. So, to the next bar I went.

I have overfilled my capacity for pintxos and drinks long before I covered one side of one street out of the many streets in Old Town. Pintxos is San Sebastian’s miniature haute cuisine at its best, and dinner at the Michelin rated restaurant will have to wait for another trip.


From Tawny Port to Vinho Verde in Three Days

Portugal’s second city, Porto, is compact enough to visit its main sights in a day, but to savor the city it is best to spend a few days. The city center is a UNESCO site, and everywhere you turn imbibes you in its history and grandeur of a time that yet survives in cathedrals, medieval townhouses, and in steep and narrow stone streets that wind down to the Ribeira district, where the Douro river splits the city in two but does not divide it. Six bridges connect the old city to the Nova de Gaia on the other side, where port wine is stored and aged. Some wine cellars offer tours complete with Fado music, the very soul of Portugal.

There are many highlights not to miss—many of them are well documented in any google search. Stand outs are a visit to the Sao Porto train station to admire the elaborate azulejos, the blue tile works that tell the story of Portugal, and the Church of Santo Idlefonso, with its façade sheathed in similar azulejos. Other tile works are evident throughout the city: on building walls, on streets, and ceilings. Don’t miss a tour of the fortress-like Porto Cathedral (Sé do Porto). Its interior cloister is lined with impressive floor-to-ceiling azulejos. Before going in, walk around the cathedral’s terrace to admire the view of red-tiled roofs over this UNESCO World Heritage city.

Wine lovers should rent a car to explore the towns and vineyards that surround Porto. The Douro region is known for its porto and vinho verde wines, which literally translates to green wine, so named for the green valley that produces it rather than its color. Every little town has its own history, art and cuisine, and everywhere are signs of a country recovering from a deep depression. American tourists are everywhere in the city but scarce outside of it. I expect this to change as the popularity of Portugal as a tourist destination keeps growing.

A trip to Porto isn’t complete without a tour of the Rota do Romanico. This consists of three different courses through the Sousa Valley that total fifty-eight Roman monuments through scenic byways, charming towns, rivers, and history. Our short visit allowed for only one route. We chose the Tamega Valley, because of its proximity to our hotel. This course includes twenty-five monuments with Amarante city and the Tamega River at its center. Terrace restaurants cling over the banks of the river and offer excellent local cuisine. We found this to be an excellent starting point for taking in the many aspects of Porto’s regional identity of traditional cuisine, wines, and local handicrafts. There are also trails and footpaths for hikers and cyclists.

The Rota do Romanico (Romanesque Route) consists of three different courses through Douro valley and Tamega Valley that totals fifty-eight monuments stippling scenic byways, charming towns, rivers and history. Our short visit allowed for only one route. We chose the Tamega Valley, because of its proximity to our hotel. This course includes twenty-five monuments with Amarante city and the Tamega River at its center. Terrace restaurants cling over the banks of the river and offer excellent local cuisine. This is an excellent starting point for enjoying a comprehensive visit to the region and taking in other aspects of its regional identity such as the traditional cuisine, the local wines, and the markets where local handicrafts can be found. There are also trails and footpaths for hikers and cyclists. Whether you’re an art or history lover, a gourmand, adventurer, or just want to soak in the sun, Porto has something for everyone.

Love and Watermills in Borghetto sul Mincio

Hear that?  It’s not the roar of revving engines; it’s the babble of the river Mincio as it courses through Borghetto sul Mincio. Borghetto, as the name implies, is a small Italian town located 25 miles west of Verona and 10 miles from Lake Garda. No cars are allowed inside this burgh of cobblestone alleys and 13th century structures. Whatever is in the air causes you to feel in love at first sight.

The river Mincio courses through the middle of the town but doesn’t divide it. A short wooden bridge connects both halves like the outstretched hands of two lovers. A bridge fence is crowded with locks left behind by the innamorati in a symbolic act of locking their love forever. Further on, traffic is allowed on the Visconti bridge that spans over 2,000 feet between two fortresses. One night in June every year, the bridge is closed to traffic to host a dinner for 4,000 people in a Festa del Nodo d’Amore to celebrate the knot of love.

Borghetto’s river bank is framed by medieval structures with restored watermills that have preserved the burgh’s charm, elegance, and romance, making it a popular place for lovers and honeymooners. Il Borghetto Vacanze nei Mulini, one such renovated mill, is now a romantic inn. Many restaurants flank the river bank as well. My husband and I chose to have lunch at Lo Stappo because of the view of the calm river beside us and that of the castle on the opposite side. The specialty here is a type of stuffed pasta called casoncelli and it’s always homemade. Pair it with a glass of local white wine such as Lugana, a wine of old origin but almost unknown outside its small production area. Save your dessert for a scoop of ice cream from one of Borghetto’s gelaterie and work off the calories walking to the nearby bicycle rental. Discover new hamlets along the river’s bike path all the way to Peschiera del Garda, a walled town that Dante described as “fortress fair and strong” in Canto XX in his Inferno. The asphalt cycle path is almost entirely flat and well sign-posted. This is the most famous and most visited cycle route in Veneto, thanks to the numerous beauty spots offered by this territory.

Borghetto is such a little-known gem that even a few visitors can make it feel crowded. But don’t let tourists deter you from visiting! Just try to stay away in the months of July and August Borghetto—which is included in the list of “I Borghi Più Belli d’Italia” The Most Beautiful Towns of Italy