Sitting down in the high-backed chair set against the window that looked out over the Bidassoa river and back into the Pyrenees, I peeled off my two layers of socks for the last time. Brian and I were done with our walk – our seven days of climbing and descending, navigating by map and guessing by instinct, from the centre of French Basque country to Hondarribia, a Basque seaside town just over the Spanish border. We were tired. We were dirty. We were excited. We were hungry.
We knew that Hondarribia’s pintxos – the Spanish Basque version of tapas – were as good as the ones droves of tourists enjoy in the nearby city of San Sebastián, but without the crowds, and the prices, that go along with a Top 10 Trip Advisor destination. At our hotel’s front desk, we were told that the pintxos scene got going in the early evening. It was after 6. After seven nights of multi-course French Basque meals at the inns along our route, our stomachs indicated it was time to eat. We wandered down the stairs of the Hotel Obispo on Calle Apezpiku Kalea, and toward the Calle de San Pedro, where we’d seen the promising bars and restaurants on our walk into town.
Children and their parents were strolling down the pedestrian thoroughfare; older couples walked arm and arm, stopping to talk with friends; a musician played an accordion; a group of Basque separatists staged a peaceful rally. But where were the pintxos?
We walked up to the top of Calle de San Pedro, peeking into the open doors of the brightly painted bars and restaurants where two or three people stood or sat, quietly talking. We’d clearly jumped the gun and were now (as if we weren’t before) obviously clueless tourists rather than the sophisticated travellers we like to imagine ourselves to be.
We were also still hungry. Very hungry. We made our way back down the street and stopped in front of the Yola-Berri, a small, informal bar with some barrels out front for patrons to place their wine glasses and small plates. There was food on the bar – thick wedges of tortilla, golden slivers of potato and egg glistening with olive oil that were immediately recognizable.
“This is pintxos!” I whispered to my husband.
“Great!” he whispered back. “How do we get to eat it?”
After a week of speaking French, I assumed that this town, right on the French border, would be as multilingual as many of the other towns we’d been through. My French is good; my Spanish is what a kid growing up in New York City learns from subway signs, billboards, and listening to schoolyard insults. My Basque – like almost anyone else who didn’t grow up in this region – is non-existent.
“Bonjour !” I said to the bartender. “Vous parlez français ?”
“No,” she said. The smile I was hoping for was missing.
“No,” she said, now smiling.
“OK,” I said, and ran back to the street where my hungry husband was eagerly waiting. He saw me empty-handed. “Quick, Brian, how do you say, ‘I would like this?’ in Spanish?”
We dug deep into our collective language memory banks and cobbled together the verbs and nouns we needed: vino, tinto, blanco, uno, dos, esto, por favor. I re-entered the bar where the bartender smiled at me again. I pointed at a plate. “Esto, por favor. Y dos copas de vino tinto.”
Food, drink, and euros were exchanged and I exited with tortilla and two glasses of red wine, relieved my awkward entry into pintxos happened before the crowds had appeared. By the time 7pm, and 8, and 9 rolled around, we were pros at pointing, nodding, and saying por favor. Each bar had its own specialties – hard-boiled eggs and shrimp skewered through onto a slice of baguette with saffron mayonnaise; cod fritters; fried croquetas stuffed with béchamel and jamón, the famous ham of the region; grilled mussels; Manchego and quince paste on a toothpick. We learned that the locals throw their napkins on the ground, that you only order a single pintxo per person in each bar, and that there may be no more fun way to make a meal than this traveling feast.
It was so much fun, in fact, that the next night we cancelled our dinner reservations in town. Instead, we consulted with our Spanish phrasebook, and armed with real sentences rather than random words, we headed back out to Calle San Pedro, to do it all over again.
But this time, we went out at 7pm.