San Sebastian: A City that Loves You Back

At this point, you’re done for. San Sebastian has burrowed deep into that forgotten part of your brain where neurons light up like branches of fire through a night sky. It’s love, you think. That’s the only explanation for something that can’t be explained. The chemical reaction to the impossibly familiar. This town, this place you’ve known before, perhaps in some fever dream, some time before the adult you pulled the switch on imagination, it doesn’t need you, and you can’t get enough.

You wander blindly through the maze of cobblestone streets that is Old Town, the scallop-shaped bay breathing you in and out. Under your feet is earth that has been packed and sifted, run through 26,000 years of fingers, yet all you can feel is an undeniable sense of purpose, that this is what you’ve been searching for. It’s almost too easy, too comfortable—almost.

You steal glances of lovers paused along the promenade, streetlights casting lustful angles across their bodies that swell and recede like the Urumea. Victims of the moon, you think. The push and pull of the most natural of urges: the struggle to survive, to love, to eat. All one desire repackaged for the meek. But not you. You understand your primal compulsions, and tonight you feast.

Between flashes of insight that come to you like pangs of hunger, you lazily look for street signs that don’t exist. Then, after abandoning the ridiculous notion of finding the restaurant whose name you hastily scribbled onto the back of a guidebook, you give in to the cacophony of scents and follow your nose to La Cuchara de San Telmo.

foie gras

By the time you wade through the sea of discarded tiny white napkins covering what you can only assume to be a floor, the young man behind the counter has a short glass of perfectly aerated txakoli waiting on you. He’s good, so you surrender the wheel and let him take this pintxos exploration wherever he wants. What follows is a flavor voyage that spans both land (seared foie gras with apple compote) and sea (chipiron a la plancha) and reduces space-time to a pile of crumpled white squares of paper. There’s nothing left for you here.


san Sebastian octopus  

The doorway choked with flesh spits you out into an eerily calm side street, the memory of how you arrived in this back alley hidden beneath layers of effervescent white wine. However, the urge, the primordial requirement, is still very much alive, snapping its thorny whip.

From here on out, it’s all lizard brain, all instinct. You snake through the crowded stone pathways grinning like a lunatic, visions of spider crab and orzo dancing in your brain. Your nose pulling you forward like a bull into a field, snorting and grunting, smelling smoke, searching for the black fire, searching for A Fuego Negro.

A Fuego Negro

Around the corner a red light pours from a dark entryway and you charge through and crash into a stool beneath a giant black board. You buckle down and the next two hours pass like a speeding train of tiny plates, the conductor howling at the moon. Más rápido! Más rrrrápido! He shovels razor clams and coaled cod, endives and black aioli. Tiny puffs of smoke dot the star-speckled night sky as you roar forward, indicators of progress, signs of industry and thought…until it all comes crashing down.

You look around to see if anyone noticed. They did. A woman comes to peel you from the floor, Garnacha puddles at your feet and shattered plates like crescent moons lie next to the toppled stool. She assures you it’s all very normal. Bueno, she says. Bueno. It is not bueno, you think and shuffle to the door.

Once outside the cool air rushes over you and slowly you regain your constitution. What is this place? What has it done to you?

Back on the promenade the only sound is the crashing of waves into distant stone cliffs. You pause and breathe deeply. The lovers have receded into the embrace of the city and now it’s just you and the ink-black water. You stare out and imagine love as an ocean, as a ship unmoored. There is no destination, you think, no preset path to follow. You turn to the city, and as you walk slowly back into the forest of brick and stone, a smile like spray against a hull creeps over your lips and then falls, tumbling back into the deep, dark sea.


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