Tapas for Donna

Cuándo tapear

  • Bars, cafés and cafeterías are open for your first coffee and your last glass of wine before dinner; they are open to professionals, retirees, families, young couples and students – that is, everyone
  • Spaniards go out for tapas before the big meal at 3pm because the Spanish breakfast is so light
  • Spaniards go out for tapas between 5 and 11pm during the “paseo,” a leisurely stroll through the streets (which can include shopping) with family and friends
  • It is not unusual to visit 5-15 bars during the “paseo”
  • Bars, cafés and cafeterías usually close by midnight and do not serve dinner
  • Bars that open after midnight serve cocktails, play loud music, and do not offer food; they charge a cover
  • Clubs for dancing, “discotecas,” open at 2am and close at 8am; they charge a steep cover
  • Go out for “churros y chocolate” or “falafel” before bed if you stay out till sunrise

Cómo tapear

  • In bars, cafés and cafeterías every beverage, hot or cold, alcoholic or non-alcoholic, is available except cocktails
  • Sherry is fun to order: “fino” or “amontillado” is dry and cold; “oloroso” is sweeter and room temperature
  • For a quick, single serving sangría-like drink, order “tinto de verano” which is “vino tinto” mixed with “Fanta limón”
  • During the “paseo” Spaniards order at the bar and remain standing up
  • Sometimes you have to wade the crowd and issue gruff commands to bar staff for the best service:  “Oye, dáme un vino tinto y un pintxo”
  • A free tapa or pintxo is frequently served with your drink
  • If you want a plate for sharing with 3 people or more, ask for a “ración”
  • Beer is ordered by the size of glass:  “una caña” holds 6-8 ounces and “una copa” holds 12 ounces or so
  • Ordering tapas is easy if you don’t speak Spanish because they are displayed on the bar counter or listed on a big menu – just point
  • Don’t leave Spain without trying:  croquetas, chipirones, patatas bravas, jamón serrano, pulpo gallego, tortilla, aceitunas, gambas al ajillo
  • In busy establishments, bartenders keep track of how much to charge you by the size and color of plates or the number and colors of toothpicks served with your tapas
  • If you sit down for service, maybe at an outdoor table, expect slower and more formal service; refuse bread if it arrives because it will be charged to you
  • At the bar or seated at a table, pay at the very end, asking directly and gruffly, “Cóbrame, por favor” or “La cuenta, por favor”
  • Tip very lightly for table service, maybe 5%
  • Tip nothing for service at bar counter
  • All water is bottled; order with or without “gas”

Dónde tapear

In general, stay off the beaten path by exploring safe neighborhoods where locals go.  Bars located on main thoroughfares are for tourists, with exceptions.

In Barcelona

Strolling down the Ramblas to the urban beach, Barceloneta, is a good idea, even visiting Mercat Boquería on your right hand side (if you are facing Mediterranean) but keep close to the Market without penetrating its surrounding neighborhood; on your left hand side is the Barri Gòtic which is worth exploring for its rustic wine-drinking establishments (and underground Roman ruins) if you take care around Plaça Real known for drug use

In Madrid

The neighborhood between El Paseo del Prado and La Plaza Mayor boasts more taverns than all of Norway; use Calle de las Huertas to guide your stroll

Leaving the Plaza Mayor, the Cava de San Miguel and Calle Cuchilleros streets hold amazing possibilities

For an after-hours experience, there are several ice-bars in Madrid worth visiting

In Sevilla

For the best, authentic nightlife cross the Isabel II bridge to visit La Triana, turn right or left at the end of the bridge for great tapas bars on the Guadalquivir River; these bars serve food late into the night.  Order “sangría” here, not in Barcelona or Madrid.  If you are lucky, a flamenco performance will spontaneously erupt from the crowd

In Granada

Calle Navas is a must-stroll because it is wall-to-wall tapas; locate la Plaza de Carmen on Calle Reyes Católicos; then walk through plaza to this street spur

Another fun neighborhood can be accessed by leaving the Plaza Nueva on Calle Elvira and strolling down side streets; if you are headed uphill this means your ascending the Albaicín neighborhood which is mostly residential and not one hundred percent safe at night

Strolling downhill, by crossing Calle Gran Vía de Colón, you will discover bars and shopping together in this upscale commercial district where the Cathedral is located; visit the Plaza de Bib-Rambla for lots of choices

Stores in Spain are open 10-2 and 5-9, generally.

Joan Manuel Serrat

SerratSerrat, a Catalonian songwriting powerhouse who has been performing concerts since the 1960s, will be honored at the fifteenth Latin Grammys on November 20, 2014.

I first heard his music in 1983 on a trip to Ciudad Real from Herencia to take my Spanish sister to the doctor.  Her aunt and uncle, who lived in Ciudad Real, invited us into their home for the big meal.  The music they listened to, the clothes they wore and the home furnishings immediately struck me.  These were hippies living a stone’s throw away from the Medieval village where I was staying, Herencia.  Today I do not remember their names or if the sibling belonged to Milagros or Vicente.

Serrat’s early songs coincided with Spain’s exit from dictatorship.  Listening to them you think of the folklore music of the 1960s and 1970s from the western world.  Although many our love songs, the music and lyrics belong to the social revolutions from these decades.  I believe Serrat’s music not only defined the era but participated in the transition from dictatorship to democracy.  Spaniards like Clara’s aunt and uncle were eager to see Spain transformed into a liberal, secular society.  Serrat’s music took them there.  And not only because he chose to sing in Catalán under Franco.  The sound itself, primarily acoustic guitar, mixed with Serrat’s troubador voice connected his artistic work to democratic change in and outside of Spain.  He was a prophet of sorts.

I like Serrat’s sappy love songs from the 1970s for their exquisitely simple language.  Check out Poema de amor, La mujer que yo quiero, Tu nombre me sabe a yerba or, my favorite, Penelope.

Listening to these songs, I remember a Spanish society on the verge of change and the stark contrasts still present between Old Spain and New Spain.

Double Standard

I am still reflecting on the overt religious names of my female peers in 1983 Spain:  Concepción, Purificación, Asunción, Piedad, Remedios, Candelaria, Soledad, Encarnación, Milagros, Inmaculada, and Adoración.  Not to mention, María José, María Jesús, María Pilar, and many other variations.

A wild child of sorts myself, these faith-based names portrayed a different cultural orientation, a Catholic history.  At age seventeen I thought they were beautiful, especially those with four or more syllables, and I would pronounce them over and over like a prayer.  However, it was difficult for me to reconcile the divine protection of women these Christian names denoted and specific events during that visit.

My homestay brother and I were in a bar we frequented (because I liked the fried pork served on toasted bread rounds – cuchi) and it was packed with young people.  A twenty-something man I did not know struck up a conversation with me stating, “Computers are better than women.”  When I protested, he replied, “Women are only good for one thing.”  The implication was bed.  His chauvinistic words did not strike me the most; the silent wife at his side shocked me more.

Living in Herencia, Spain (population 7,000) I had already observed the few freedoms granted to women.  They did not  did not smoke, cuss, drive, wear pants or shave their legs.  Only widows and wives walked the streets alone.  This was a stark contrast from my life in Divide, Colorado (population 1,000) where I drove myself to school, smoked a pack of Marlboros a day, and wore Levi 501s for every day or Gloria Vanderbilt jeans to dress up.

Ideologically, I was a raging feminist.  I had campaigned for Pat Schroeder, the first woman elected to Congress from Colorado, with my mother.  I was reading feminist thought and questioning the world around me.  I would not stay silent as a man in 1983 Castille insisted that computers were better than women.

Weeks after, during our tour of Madrid, I would confront a jarring image of women that did not correspond to the ideal of abstinence and fidelity signified by the chaste names of my new-found friends:

A couple dances in a close embrace, kissing.  Above, a bust, its phallic nose rests face down.  Insects, eyelashes and stones dot the surreal landscape of this human figure.  A woman’s bust – a classic beauty – emerges from the jawline.  A cala lily rises from her cleavage even though we do not see her breasts.  Head turned, she is about to perform fellatio on a male body standing above her, only his lower extremities framed.  What the h#*% is this I thought.  Invisible from the neck down, the woman has no physicality of her own; she purely exists to give pleasure.  I was already angry that in rural Spain my sex was cloistered, censored, and instructed.  This jerk, Dalí, was a misogynist to be sure, I fumed.  His supposedly radical canvases may have questioned reality in their day, but they offended my politics of feminism.

Dalí painted “The Great Masturbator” in 1929 but its grotesque depiction of human sexuality still has the power to shock today.  In 2013 at another Dalí retrospective in Spain’s capital, I repeated to any student who would listen, “Here’s the thing:  Dalí is messed up about women.”

 

Tales from T-4

Madrid_barajas_airport_terminal_t41

Like a rat maze, escalators going nowhere but up and down, opaque glass walls obstruct our view of what’s ahead, and “under construction” panels make the space inhospitable.  Billed as a model of legibility, Madrid’s Terminal 4, which includes a Satellite Terminal (T4s) two kilometers away, was designed to handle up to seventy million passengers per year.  It cost one billion euros to build.

Ranked third in 2013 for the number of visitors received, Spain is a tourism marvel.  Its allure is the old and new, side by side.  Sometimes called “el culto de lo nuevo,” Spain has been distancing itself from its past by funding the most daring construction projects in history.  T4 is no exception.  There is one problem:  the building is unfinished.

We left T4 twice, once to San Sebastian then, on our return from the beach vacation, to Dallas.  We arrived the first time to be told by Iberia that we could not fly out early for our destination even though there were plenty of seats on the flights.  But our search for food was the true test of endurance and patience.  Not wishing to eat at McDonald’s, we walked in circles, and up and down escalators, for close to an hour before finding a Spanish restaurant I had identified.  My inquiry at the information desk was not fruitful; I was given a map that lays on my desk as I write this blog.

Published by the Ministerio de Fomento (roughly, Ministry of Development, but I prefer this translation twist, Ministry of Encouragement), no restaurants or restrooms appear on the map.  More a colorful artwork, than a map, we are instructed to put this paper in the waste basket when finished with it.  This is the farce of Spanish bureacracy:  there is an appearance of order where there is chaos.

On our way to Dallas, we spent another hour searching for the passage from Spain to Concourse U.  We finally exited immigration into a concourse with little air conditioning and no services except a limited coffee bar and vending machines.  Having left the Basque country for Madrid’s airport, we were subject to more security questions at the gate.  In fairness, all passengers were expected to again present their passports and answer questions.  However, the gate agent spoke with me for 30 minutes:  Who packed your luggage?  When did it leave your hotel?  How did it travel to the airport? Did you check it in?  I knew the airline was concerned about my daughter’s 85 bouncy balls (think hard, rubber super balls) but I did not want to seem impertinent or too knowing.  I kept my mouth shut about the bouncy balls.

The same year it opened in 2006, the T4 parking lot was blown up by a van bomb put there by ETA, Spain’s internal Basque terrorist organization.  Two people died, immigrants asleep in their car, and 52 were injured.  This bombing ended the ceasefire which had been in effect since 2003.  I believe terrorism is simply meaningless violence, without comprehensible motivation.  But T4 had become the symbol of Madrid’s central government and its big spending.

Today many projects stand unfinished in Spain’s capital, the real estate boom gone bust.  T4 is serviceable for sure, but not perfect as originally proposed.  An opinion writer for Spain’s newspaper, Jerónimo Andreu for El País, sums up the problem in the title of his article, “Los cadáveres de Madrid” published February 22, 2013, a little over seven years after T4 opened.  Andreu tells us of a related T4 project.  On the new, pink Metro line to T4, an underground check-in terminal was built at Nuevos Ministerios with 34 counters.  It now stands empty.

With a boarding pier of 1.2 kilometers, T-4 has 174 check-in counters and 64 stands for planes.  In 2010 and 2011 49 million passengers traveled through the terminal.  I read the slogan on my T4 map, “Acortamos distancias.  Acercamos personas.”  Ironically it reads, “We shorten distances.  We bring people closer.”

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Abdications

Except for the two short-lived Spanish Republics, Spain has been governed by a monarch or dictator.  This is true today.

Felipe VI, Spain’s new monarch, is named for a succession of rulers, most recently Felipe V who was the first Bourbon king.  He abdicated the throne for his son, Louis, but then reascended when Louis died seven months later of smallpox.  There is only speculation why Felipe V abdicated to Louis, only seventeen at the time.

Fernando VI, the second son, succeeded Felipe V in 1746, then Carlos III, the third son, succeeded him.  Carlos IV, son of Carlos III, ascended the throne in 1788.  What followed was one of the greatest political intrigues in Spanish history.

Carlos IV abdicated the throne in March of 1808; Fernando VII, his oldest son, in May of 1808.  The closeness of dates, on the eve of Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, shows the son’s trickery.  He made a backroom deal with Napoleon to force his father’s abdication, in favor of his own accession, only to be imprisoned by the French invaders for five years.  When Spain overthrew Joseph Bonaparte, Fernando VII became the Felon king ruling until 1833.  He is known today as a tyrant.

His offspring, Isabel II, was a brilliant monarch, and Spain’s only modern queen.  Her uncle, however, jealously plotted her overthrow spawning the carlist wars which lasted right through Spain’s Civil War.  The conservative vision of Carlos V, the uncle, and his follower, explains the ideological divisions that culminated in civil war later.  These divisions first came to a head during the 1868 Spanish Revolution, a conflict which deposed Isabel II.

Amadeo I was elected by parliament to provisionally rule Spain’s First Republic, but he abdicated in 1873.

When the first son of Isabel II, Alfonso XII, ascended the throne, the Spanish monarchy was restored in 1874.  His reign was brief and he was succeeded by his son, Alfonso XIII.

Alfonso XIII abdicated the throne in 1931 to make way for the Second Spanish Republic.  He proved a weak monarch; Primo de Rivera, leader of the Falange, was the de facto dictator from 1923 to 1930.

When the Republicans lost the war, Franco, Primo de Rivera’s Falange descendant, began his totalitarian rule from 1936 to 1975.

During this thirty-nine year regime, Alfonso XIII and his family lived in exile in Italy.  When Franco declared his successor to the monarchy, Juan, Conde of Barcelona, was not considered. Instead, his son, Juan Carlos I, grandson to Alfonso XIII, was invited to live and study in Spain from 1957 forward.  He began to carry out official duties for the state as early as 1962 from the Palacio de Zarzuela, still his primary residence.  Today the term “juancarlistas” refers to people loyal to the king’s actions to dismantle the Franco regime and effect Spain’s transition to democracy.

Spain’s social unrest may have informed his decision to give the throne to his son, Felipe VI.  The Prince of Asturias was married to Letizia during another turbulent period in Spain’s history:  they celebrated marriage just a few months after the March 11 train bombings followed by Zapatero’s electoral upset four days later in 2004.

The Infanta Leonor, first daughter of Felipe and Letizia, is next in line but the constitution will need revising first.  Currently women, including daughters and consorts, are not allowed to succeed the Spanish throne.

princess-letizia--z

 

 

Ideologies

I read in the New York Times (Feb. 23) that a young Spaniard was sentenced to a year in jail for writing tweets in which she threatened government officials and called to arms inactive terrorist groups internal to Spain.  The prosecution described her posts as “mensajes de contenido ideológico de elevado carácter radical y violento” which “enaltecían la actividad terrorista” (El País, Feb 3, Web).   Her 6,700 tweets had 7,500 followers (El País, Feb 3, Web).  In a plea bargain in which the twenty-one year old female plead guilty, she will not serve time in jail.

The New York Times article made allusions to Franco’s dictatorship, far-left separatist groups, and the March 11, 2004 train bombings to provide context for human rights abuses in Spain.  The country’s history is more complex than a list of human rights abusers with very distinct ideological agendas.  A long history of ideological division inside Spain has played a role in the silencing or voicing of the multiple ideologies that define this country.

Spaniards had no freedom of speech from 1939 to 1975 under the Franco dictatorship, however society under this regime was shaped by a totalitarian ideological propaganda machine.  After 1977, under the Law of Amnesty, Francoists were not prosecuted nor were commissions formed to investigate the dictatorship’s state crimes in the name of Spain.  Under King Juan Carlos’ transition government to democracy, some Francoists continued in government roles.   No house cleaning was done.

Meanwhile, the losing side in Spain’s Civil War had not had a voice since 1939, when Franco side won and established its totalitarian political system denying freedom of speech.  After 1975, the losing side still had no voice because the Law of Amnesty shut down any recourse for justice.  This silencing effect was not officially broken until the passing of the Law of Historical Memory in 2007.  Since then, historical discovery and recovery, including the excavation of mass graves, have been underway.

The rise of Falangism and Spain’s Civil War were rooted in an ideological conflict that dated back to the Carlist Wars of the nineteenth century (the original Carlists wished to dethrone Isabel II and place her uncle, Carlos V, on the throne because she was a woman for progress).  There were two distinct visions for Spain’s future, one for no change and the other for change.  The groups for no change defended the economic status quo, namely absolutism, oligarchy and semi-feudalism.  This early chronic polarization inside Spain is visible today in the opposing ideas regarding what to do about Spain’s economy (think Rajoy vs. 15M).  Economically driven today and in the past, different views about Spain’s future intensify divisions.  Extreme views can breed radicalism (separatism is an economically-driven movement, in part).

The young Spaniard in the news for extremist tweets was prosecuted as a terrorist.  In reality, she is probably angry at Spain’s economic situation in which 50% of citizens her age faces unemployment. As a social work student, maybe her vision for Spain is based on equality and justice.  Despite her frustrations with Spain today – acute joblessness, not to mention the financial corruption which led to the economic meltdown in the first place, and a central government which seems powerless to change this fact – clearly she went about expressing herself in the most unconstructive way via extremism.

 

Children Are Singing

IMG_0453Here’s the thing:  a choir of children still sings every morning at eleven inside the basilica where Franco is buried. Spain’s former dictator is buried inside inside a cathedral built into a mountain by thousands of Republican prisoners after the war.  A five hundred foot cross tops this monument.

During a summer study abroad course I was teaching, Spain’s Civil War in Literature and Film, I visited the Franco’s tomb, the Valley of the Fallen, for the first time.  I stood on his tomb, six to eight of my students around me.  The guide, a Spaniard and close friend of mine, spoke of forgiveness and closing this chapter from the past.  I spoke of remembering the past in order to never forget.  A priest who was not part of our group listened.  Then the guide told us that a choir of children – there is a choir arts boarding school for boys located in an underground monastery below the basilica itself – sings daily as part of the worship service.  Chills shot down my spine.

Without touching on the history of the ideological shaping of youth through intense educational propaganda under Franco’s totalitarian regime, the lives of youth were forever terminated or changed by war and this damage continued as Franco waged a war against his own civilians after 1939.   The historian, Helen Graham, makes this point well.  The displacement and death of minors was massive during Franco’s thirty-six year rule especially in the decade following Spain’s Civil War.  Graham, estimates that 120,000 civilians were executed after 1939.  According to Graham up to a million men, women and children spent time in a jail, reformatory or concentration camp.  Mass imprisonment and executions included minors (see the film, Thirteen Roses); the children and teens that survived lived in orphanages or in traumatized, fragmented families.

Juveniles had already suffered the war itself:  Verónica Sierra Blass estimates that 400,000 children were killed during the conflict, and that by 193,  50,000 minors lived in refugee centers across the country and 30,000 children had been sent as refugees to foreign countries.

So here’s the thing:  children’s voices should not tell the official story.  Children should not protagonize a sanitized version of history in which the winners still tell the past.

Remarkably, boy and girl characters do populate quite a few movies about Spain’s Civil War and its aftermath.  Many of these films belong to the horror genre.  Why?

Silence about what was really happening or what happened marked the dictatorship; silence persisted under the 1977 Law of Amnesty which barred prosecution of war criminals.  Spaniards call this amnesty the pact of forgetting.  I would not call it amnesia, precisely, but Spanish society did not break the silence until around 2000.

In roughly twelve films juvenile protagonists elude silence to tell the truth of their own story.  This humane vision of the past events is possible because children do not cling to ideological divisions.  They present the truth of their experience without ideological bias.  Yes, these movies are fictional accounts of the past but they are just as worthy of consideration as the official story in my view.

The 2007 Law of Historical Memory bans political exaltation of any kind at the Valley of the Fallen; instead, the law calls for exaltation of peace.  But the children are still singing.  Is this not a daily retelling of the official story?

Music and Motorcross

What do the singer, Sade, and motorcross have in common? In a single night I criss-crossed the city of Barcelona on the back of a motorcycle to attend a motorcross event and then to see Sade live in concert at an uptown club named Studio 54 (or something like that).

When I returned to Spain to study abroad in 1986 I was still in contact with my homestay family from 1983. My homestay brother, having finished his compulsory military service, put me in contact with an army buddy whose name I cannot remember. I do remember the many kindnesses I received from him and his family during my six-month stay in Barcelona.

This kind friend of a friend picked me up on his motorcycle every Friday and Saturday night to go out with his girfriend and their friends. The evening would start with a pub crawl and progress to upscale discos and high-end clubs where we danced and sipped cocktails. Not once did I ever pay for a drink (I never paid a cover charge either because I was a young blonde American, still a rarity in 1986 Spain). A smoker back then, I probably supplied the group with Marlboro Red cigarettes. Still, their generosity towards me was unforgettable.

I learned the Catalonian language from this group of friends because they rarely spoke Castilian or English to me. Of course I would reply back in Castilian. But eventually I learned some key phrases in Catalonian which served me well. One occasion comes to mind: returning from the beach (Sitges) on the train I asked an incredibly handsome man my age whose uniform set off his green eyes, “Tens foc?” Like a gentleman, he lit my cigarette.

Recorded, techno-pop music played in the discotheques like it does today. The Sade concert in a crowded club was exceptional. More exceptional still was standing against the stage twelve feet from Elton John during a stadium performance. Spaniards went out to stadium rock concerts but rarely arrived on time. A longtime concert goer in the U.S., I arrived early. This is why I saw Supertramp from the first row too.

Rather than take me home, my motorcycle escort would drop me in the Plaça de Catalunya at seven or eight in the morning. The best falafel I have ever eaten was served from a small stand on the sidewalk. I would eat my falafel then jump on the metro to the Sagrada Familia, the neighborhood where I experienced my homestay from hell.

Youth Shift

In my teaching Spanish youth is the lense through which we make predictions about Spain’s future. Not so long ago, our vision of Spain’s future was not optimistic. Profound apathy was associated with young people in Spain. These associations were made evident in short stories we read like Puértolas’ “Billetes” or Rivas’ “¿Qué me quieres, amor?” Clara Sánchez’ novel, “Las últimas noticias del paraíso” summed up the slacker mentality of a generation.

Faced with economic crises on many fronts, Spaniards in general, but particularly youth, have mobilized. The 15M movement, an occupy demonstration in response to the coming elections in May 2011, sparked a global occupation on the fifteenth of October in 2011, rebranded “Occupy Wallstreet” by disenfranchised Americans.

Fed up with government cuts, and the corruption that led to the crisis in the first place, Spaniards (young and old as retirees defended their pensions) took the streets occupying plazas across Spain for weeks in May of 2011. Madrid’s Puerta del Sol occupation boasted of childcare, tech support and other vital services. They repeated the effort in October.

In 2013 Spaniards continue to mobilize to thwart cuts to education and other social programs. Hence the tone has shifted. Having emerged from the long shadow cast by Franco’s dictatorship, today’s generation acts on principles of justice without fear. Silence around the horrors of the Civil War and its aftermath has been broken the effect of which is that Spanish people are raising their voices in response to current economic challenges.

This shift towards activism is heartening, to be sure. But let me offer one word of caution: talented young Spaniards are leaving Spain in droves to find work. Although 40% of young citizens graduate with advanced degrees, 300,000 have left Spain since June of 2012. Highly educated doctors, nurses, scientists and engineers make up this group. This brain drain, a result of Spain’s 50% rate of unemployment for young workers, curbs my optimism for Spain’s future. Activism is an encouraging sign; an exodus of Spain’s best is not. Emigration abroad represents a massive displacement of people that Spanish society cannot afford.

Pintxos

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPintxos or pinchos is not just another word for Spanish tapas.  Pintxos, which is the Basque spelling, have a history.

San Sebastián, or Donostia, Spain is known for the best pintxos in the world.  All bars serve them but some more artfully (and courteously) than others.  I had traveled to San Sebastián in 2007 and sampled the food in La Cuchara de San Telmo and Casa Gandarias.  Excellent.  This time another bar caught my eye on the edge of Old Town (or was it just that my daughter needed to use the bathroom so we ducked in?), Nagusia Lau:  stacks of savory food in wonderful combinations atop baguette crostinis.  We ordered drinks, asked for plates, and filled them by serving ourselves (at all pintxos bars the bartender takes note of what’s on your plate before you consume so that s/he can charge you later).  The bill came to 27 euros!  This was way too expensive for pintxos.

In central and southern Spain a pincho is defined as that free appetizer you ask for when you order a drink at a bar, “Dáme un pincho”  (imagine my shock then at arriving in San Sebastían to pay 27 euros for drinks and pinchos).  If you actually order an appetizer, which is more plentiful and therefore comes on a bigger plate, this is called a “ración.”  In the Basque country, which is known for its innovative cuisine (including beyond the bar), pintxos have become a tourist phenomenon.  A pintxo might be grilled octopus, skewered lamb or fried squid.  You do not sit down and order.  You go to the bar and make yourself heard over the din.  You do this in at least five bars in a row between the hours of 7pm and 11pm.  In San Sebastián, Old Town is best for bar hopping because its location next to the port means that you are eating seafood caught that day.

IMG_1366I traveled to Bilbao in 1986 before it was discovered by Guggenheim.  We went to Old Town to bar hop.  We knew it was dangerous to be in Bilbao at night; this was a rough, working man’s city known for its industrial economic might.  I would not have survived Bilbao’s Old Town without the male friends who accompanied and protected me.  But what I remember best are the pintxos which were quite simply meat and seafood grilled on a skewer, what the fancy pintxo bars now call “brochetas.”  Pintxos were born on a grill, not a menu.

In San Sebastián, we returned to the first bar I encountered (where we paid 27 euros for appetizers and drinks) and quickly left because the service was insolent.  If the food was tasty but expensive did I really need to tolerate a grouchy bartender?  Trip Advisor’s writers confirmed my suspicion:  this bar is located at the entrance to Old Town luring in naive tourists, treating them badly, then overcharging them.

IMG_1431We had already visited the familiar haunts, La Cuchara de San Telmo which is teaming with customers, and Casa Gandarias, which is also overcrowded.  We went back to a family-owned bar with friendly service and traditional pintxos, La Cepa.  Finally we stopped in a bar where I had noticed really big crowds.  We waited ninety minutes for the kitchen to open but it was worth it.  Rations of octopus, patatas bravas, croquetas and pintxos of smoked salmon and stuffed roasted red pepper were delicious.  Unfortunately I cannot remember the restaurant’s name but it is on the corner of 31 de Agosto Kalea as you descend to visit La Cuchara de San Telmo but before you reach Casa Gandarias.