Did I mention that Bilbao is the unofficial capital of the Basque region of Spain? I am a little bit familiar with Basque family-style dining due to the heritage of Basque shepherds which has been perpetuated in part of northern California. But nothing had prepared me for the pintxos (appetizer plate) bars which are the pride of Bilbao and San Sebastian. Above you see a typical spread (pardon me and my spouse for having partially blocked the view).
The idea is to browse from one pintxos bar to the next, sampling a glass of wine and a small plate delicacy in each. As you might guess from the decor, many of the pintxos feature the local ham, a delicacy all by itself.
One evening we were fortunate to dine at Aspaldiko, a historic country estate featuring Basque cuisine. This was our first exposure to Spanish formal dining, which involves aperitivos, several flavors of wine, at least five courses, with coffee and cheeses and a digestif of local sherry or port following the dessert. Be prepared.
Another long historic tradition of the Basque country is seafaring and shipbuilding. If you have a chance, take a short boat ride from San Sebastian to visit the Albaola Factory and Museum , where you can watch experts on maritime heritage and boat building working on building a replica of a 16th century Basque whaling ship. What I know about whaling is from reading Moby Dick, and I couldn’t help but imagine Ahab facing the leviathan in one of these carefully crafted boats.
The museum also partners with local cider makers, so don’t forget to make a donation to the museum by purchasing at least a glass of cider to sip while you watch. It blends wonderfully with the smells of fresh-sawn wood.