Soon you’ll be saying, “More pintxos please!” What are pintxos by the way? Pronounced “pinchos” this Spanish appetizer is specific to the Basque region of northern Spain. The name is derived from a Spanish word that means spike, where the appetizer is usually held together by a toothpick or skewer. Pintxos come in all forms from raw fish to marinated shrimp or breaded then fried creamy mashed potatoes.
A pintxos itself is usually skewered with a small stick, or layered atop a piece of bread with some form of potato or creamy salad as a spread. The price of each piece or pintxos ranges anywhere between 1.80-5.00 euro. Some bartenders tally your takings by counting the number of skewers scattered on your plate, assuredly surrounded by crumbs. A word of caution, this type of feast is filling and financially adds up quickly. The Spanish standard is to hop from one establishment to another, ordering a drink and pintxos at each. San Sebastian is known for their pintxos. A suggestion for a successful night of pintxos is to follow the crowds, and pull the pintxos that have the least amount of pieces remaining, as they’re guaranteed to be a local favorite. Below are examples of the many pintxos we spotted in Basque country.
For another pro tip, boiled egg whites are often shaved and placed on top of pintxos mimicking mozzarella. It looks pretty, but you’ll catch on quickly as that topping is flavorless.
Below is a little cheat sheet of commonly found pintxos with the Spanish terms and corresponding meaning.
Pintxos Guide: What You Are Really Ordering
Rabas- fried squid
Bacalao- dried and salted cod
Tortilla- Spanish omlette of egg and potato
Croquetas- fried mashed potatoes with cheese or meat filling
Next up, apple cider, sidra, or even called sagardoa is a dry, slightly sour cider that originates back to the eleventh century. An interesting fact about this type of cider is how it is fermented naturally, without any added sugars, anywhere from 4-8% alcohol content. The traditional method of pouring the cider is with stellar hand-eye coordination, in a long stream from a hand reached overhead to a glass held below, with an added stare not at the glass but across the room, or a wink if you’re lucky. The bartender doesn’t even look at the glass to adjust the alignment of his wingspan! One might think this is just for show, but truly this is done to aerate the cider since it is naturally flat and not carbonated.
After each pour you’ll only find a couple inches worth of liquid in your glass. The intent is to encourage timely ingestion for best flavor, which in turn equates to better bartender performance. Cider is found in the Asturias and Basque regions, with slight differences in taste. Here’s a nice list of a few to try. Sidra JR is an Asturian brand I’ve personally tried and recommend. The dry, tart sidra is a nice change from overly sweet ciders.
A simple tip to follow when pronouncing Basque words is to read any “tx” in a word as a “ch” sound instead. This also applies to a Basque drink txakoli, pronounced “chocoli” which is a dry white wine found in this region. Upon first hearing this word, I was expecting a chocolate wine, but not to worry, that would probably be too sweet, where the actual drink is very dry and sparkling. At 9.5-11.5 % alcohol content, this wine is often served with pintxos and a tall pour, similar to sidra.
Lastly, patxaran, or “pacharan” is a liquor (a digestif in the same category as sweet vermouth and cognac, served after a meal) with a slight anise or cherry flavor served on the rocks. It’s a lovely after supper sipping selection, made from fermented blackthorn plum-like endrinas, anise, cinnamon, and coffee beans. Zoco is a recommended brand to try.
Heading northwest from Zaragoza, we were traveling specifically to Ysios Bodega, a winery designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. An interesting fact is that he also designed an addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum in Wisconsin, which was his first project in the U.S. It’s an impressive structure, with movable wings. For a more general secondary fact, in Spain wineries are called bodegas, which literally means a wine cellar.
Below is a suggested road trip to experience some of the best sights and sips of the Basque region of northern Spain. Click here for the saved Google maps trip.
The drive around the Cantabrian Mountains and foothills was so beautiful that we didn’t mind driving in circles, as gps didn’t provide the exact location for Ysios Bodega. A local farmer pointed us in the right direction and soon enough we spotted the distinct curvature of the bodega building. The structure was designed in a manner to represent the surrounding countryside.
Fortunately we arrived just before closing, and were able to snag a 30 euro bottle of 2011 red wine with a free Ysios wine glass. In the neighboring town of Laguardia wine prices per bottle were the same but did not include a free wine glass, so your best bet is to stop at Bodegas Ysios itself and revel in it’s grand architectural brilliance.
Since we weren’t able to enjoy a glass of wine at the bodega, we drove up the steep roads into Laguardia old town. Parking is limited to certain areas alongside the road, but we were able to find a spot and later located a convenient elevator that rides from the lower city level to the top of the old town. Locating the old town square, we stopped at Hospederia De Los Parajes and enjoyed a 5 euro glass of Ysios Reserva 2008. It was a smooth, bold red wine. As a bonus we each received a free pintxos of a small Spanish omelet, which is potatoes and onions cooked in egg, cut into wedges, served on a skewer as a true pintxos.
San Vicente de la Sonsierra
Northern bound towards Bilbao, we came across an old town atop a large hill and had to make a stop. We drove up an endless winding road, with streets so narrow at times, only inches to spare between the concrete and the car. We finally made it to the top, found a parking spot, and pulled the e-brake before entering the Castillo. Built in 1170, the walled castle ruins overlook the Ebro River and valley. Below is a glimpse of that impressive view. We spent over an hour here exploring the trails surrounding the old walled city with a mountain view.
The next stop, Bilbao is definitely one of those towns where one could easily stay awhile. The one-way streets can be a bit tricky when finding your guesthouse, but the seemingly pedestrian-only cobblestone streets are drivable and the main access points to these accommodations and underground parking. The train station is also right in the center of Bilbao for easy commute if not driving. The local airport is another great option. We easily checked into the guesthouse and the small smart car sufficient parking ramp, multiple levels below ground.
The city contains many bridges including the Zubizuri, also built by Santiago Calatrava, pictured below. The Guggenheim Museum was a short walk from this area, also an artistic architectural stop.
Even enjoyable in the rain, we continued walking to the Bilboka Arte Ederren Museoa. We were lucky enough to catch free admission to the museum with a special Renoir exhibit. The art museum was very impressive and professional, even providing umbrella bags to protect the artwork from the outside rain. These protective covers later became swords, as when giving a child a new toy, the box it came in is sometimes more preferred than gift shop trinkets. This was a perfect reminder to take smaller steps, to smell the rain, and to realize that a storm should never sour a travel experience, only provide tools to wage war against the weather.
Later, we explored some of the food venues of Bilbao. Below are a couple suggested options, with pricing included for 2 people.
-Pintxos 1.80 euro each, drinks 3.00 euro each (3 pintxos & 3 drinks= 14.40 euro)
-Pintxos 1.60-1.80 euro each, drinks 2.80 euro each (6 pintxos & 2 drinks= 15.80 euro)
The next day we made our way northeast to Vizcaya Bridge, UNESCO world heritage center built in 1893 and the first gondola worldwide to transport both cars and pedestrians.
Our intended destination was Gaztelugatxe Island on the Bay of Biscay. This small island, only accessible via a walking bridge, contains over 230 steps to the tiny chapel at the top.
Legend has it that you ring the bell 3 times and make a wish.
The island was full of tourists even mid week, yet completely worthwhile, as the view is just as amazing as the rough waters below. The main road leading to the mini pilgrimage was also closed, so it’s a bit of a downhill, then back uphill hike before reaching the seaside. Bring water, a camera, wear good shoes, and don’t forget to make a wish, or two.
After that one-of-a-kind experience, we hopped in the car and continued on our voyage from village to village happily munching on Spanish apricots, enjoying the fresh coastal air. Each turn of the bend was better than the one before, each view more vivacious than the former version. These seemingly minor moments are those that are most memorialized.
With San Sebastian as the next destination, we didn’t make as many stops as we would have liked, passing by gorgeous Lekeitio but made a stop in Getaria in search of a bodega. This small fishing village along the coast had a great area to catch a coastal view, but we were unable to locate the winery. Online directions don’t always deliver the desired destination, but we tried. There’s truly no wrong turn when traveling, as you see something new with every unexpected right or left turn, an ambidextrous adventure.
Eastward bound between the coastal towns we spotted a Spanish boardwalk. How we wished to spend a few days here. The below is a clip of the amazing route.
The sleepy city of San Sebastian provided a calm solace from the storm, perhaps because of the rain, with a beautiful view from La Concha Beach under the overcast skies and ominous sea.
Café de la Concha is right on the water, giving a great view of the beach and 2 euro glasses of txakoli wine.
Since San Sebstian is known for pintxos, we tried quite an assortment. Below are suggested options, with pricing included for 2 people.
-Pintxos 2.00-3.00 euro each (4 pintxos= 10.00 euro)
-Pintxos 2.00-3.50 euro each (4 pintxos= 10.54 euro)
-Pintxos 2.30-2.90 euro each, drinks 3.00 euro each (5 pintxos & 2 glasses txakoli = 18.90 euro)
It’s quite impossible to fully capture the beauty of the Basque region via words and images, so I hope you decide to plan a trip to experience the culture firsthand. And don’t worry, there’s more on Spain coming soon. One article can’t justify all that Spain has to offer.
Last but not least, enjoy this Northern Spain Road Trip Playlist I created on Spotify. There’s no rhyme or reason to this playlist, everything was heard at random on the radio.