day 4 :

tuesday, 29 may

We slept so soundly last night that we completely overslept. We had set the time on the alarm clock but neglected to turn it on, so we didn't have enough time to stop by the famous Basque city of Guernika this morning as we had planned, since we still wanted to see a bit of Bilbao in daylight before we left. We had only a short time before we needed to leave for a lunch reservation, so we walked along the riverfront, toward the market. We snapped a few photos along the way, and wandered through the huge market building, which was bustling with resident shoppers.

We left Bilbao and embarked on the second-most frustrating drive of the trip. (See Day 17 for the winner.) We were going to Etxebarri for lunch – highly recommended by various foodies on – and had read everyone's accounts of getting lost and arriving late. We left early, armed with our Michelin map and our GPS, not too worried. With the help of the GPS, we arrived in what we thought was the right village of stone houses on a hillside. It looked sort of like a picture someone had posted online. We got out of the car and wandered around for minute, but no restaurant. Hm. Back in the car, we drove down the road and saw a couple of men chatting along the roadside. Ok, time for Eric to try out that Spanish he's been practicing for this trip. "Perdón. ¿Dígame, por favor, dónde está el restaurante Etxebarri?" "¿Etxebarri? ¡Sí, sí!" they respond, their expressions changing from skeptical to smiling realization, and perhaps a smidgen of surprise that they understood what the foreigner had to say. They proceeded to point down the road, saying something that sounded like "take a left at the school." Armed with this knowledge, we drove down the hill, and found an intersection and some more stone buildings with wooden roofs, but no signs or anything that looked like a school. We went a little further on, passing some houses along the road, but it soon felt like we had gone too far. We went back to the intersection, this time taking a right, and drove a bit more, until the paved road turned into a dirt road and passed under a group of trees. Having no idea if we were on the right track, it was Dawn's turn to ask the random person who happened to be on the side of the road where we could find Etxebarri. Straight ahead, he told us, just below in a plaza. Bingo! The building is barely marked – you have to stand directly in front of it, and then you see the name etched above the doorway. A minute later we parked and went in for lunch, late for our reservation.

For those of you who want to visit Etxebarri someday, we have some valuable data for you – the GPS coordinates for the restaurant: 43 deg 6’ 56” N latitude, 2 deg 35’ 54” W longitude. Program these into your GPS device, and you may be the first person not to get lost on the way to the restaurant! This data is courtesy of our Sony GPS-CS1 logger that we used during our trip. Every 15 seconds, it records your current location, so that later you can see your route superimposed on a map, or even sync it up with the photos you took and figure out exactly where you took each one.

The main dining room was beautiful, with a high-vaulted wood ceiling and views of the mountainside behind the restaurant, and opera playing in the background. We were the most underdressed diners for lunch today – it's apparently the place where locals go for business lunches during the week. We looked for a degustación offering on the menus they gave us, but we only saw à la carte options. In our broken Spanish, we asked our server if they had a tasting menu; she smiled, said yes, and walked off, leaving us with our menus. We waited, and waited some more. Hm, maybe we hadn't asked for a tasting menu after all? After what felt like quite a while, a different server came by our table with a piece of paper with the hand-written menu of what the chef could make for us today. She recited the list of dishes, and the few names that we understood sounded great, so we ordered it. Twelve courses arrived over the next couple hours, all sharing a common trait: the food is grilled or smoked. No exception! But what amazing flavors. Their plate of house-made chorizo is a must-have – better than any we've had in Spain or elsewhere. Another dish was a single, giant langoustine that had turned brilliant red from grilling. The meat inside was amazing – tender, sweet, with a very subtle hint of smokiness. Definitely Eric's favorite dish of the meal, and one of the best on our trip. Another course was a single, heaping spoon of smoked caviar – so delicate that it melts in your mouth, and leaves a slightly salty, smoky, pleasant lingering flavor on your palate for minutes. After more dishes of oysters, bacalao (salt cod), white fish, and rare beef, the meal finished with strawberry and crème anglaise in a tart shell, with smoked ice cream on the side. It was a little disconcerting when we first tasted it, because it looked just like a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The meal was an amazing experience, definitely worth the tough time finding it.

It's now late afternoon, and we have an appointment for a tour in Tolosa at 5PM. The GPS tells us we're not going to be there until 5:30. We get on a fast road, and Eric makes good use of the one-touch turn signal; depress or raise it ever-so-slightly, and you get three blinks. It's perfect for European driving, where you don't hang out in the passing lane, but instead only go into that lane when you're really going to pass someone. We arrive in Tolosa around 5:15, find the first available parking spot, and walk to Gorrotxategi. We had visited this confectionary during our trip in 2005 and loved it, but hadn't had a chance to see their museum of pastry and chocolate, which Carolin at The Harvest Vine recommended we must do. This time, we made an appointment, and hoped we weren't too late for our tour. After a bit of translation difficulty, we found out that the person who was supposed to give us the tour wasn't there, but no matter, they found someone from the local tourist office who spoke English to show us the museum. It was very interesting to see all of the tools used for making desserts over the last four hundred years, and to learn that some of the bakers kept bees for honey for their desserts, and made candles out of the extra beeswax. After the tour, we went back to the store, sipped little cups of European drinking chocolate, courtesy of Carolin and Joseba's friend Inaki, ate some tiny pain au chocolate, and enjoyed espresso. Before leaving, we loaded up on boxes of chocolates filled with txakolí, sidre, and cava. We haven't found anyone who imports these in the U.S., and they are our favorite chocolates, so we knew before coming here that we'd have to leave extra room in our bags just for these boxes (we packed an additional empty bag just for this purpose). Inaki threw in some extra hazelnut chocolate for us, and told us to send kisses to Carolin and Joseba.
Now, on to San Sebastián. Wait, what's that on our car? A parking ticket? Oops, in our hurry to get to our appointment, we'd parked without looking around for a parking meter. It turns out that there was a meter at the far end of a row of cars, where you can purchase a slip to put on your dashboard. Well, now we had two pieces of paper – a ticket, and a little slip of paper that apparently explained how to pay the ticket. We say apparently, because it was mostly in Euskeran, with some of it translated into Castillian. Eric wanted to take the good-citizen approach and pay the ticket, especially since he had had such good karma retrieving his wallet the day before.  The only problem was figuring out how to pay it. He spent a few minutes looking at the instructions, and a few more minutes trying to convince the machine to take his money. Every time it got to eight Euros, it would spit it all out and make him start over. Finally, he had a new piece of paper saying he had paid ten Euros, but what to do with that? Unsure, he stopped a friendly-looking local, showed the man the ticket, and tried to ask what he was supposed to do next. The older man took one look at the ticket and asked in Spanish, "Are you going to be here tomorrow?" "No." Shaking his head and smiling, he did an "I'm tearing up paper" mime act, brushed his hands together, patted Eric on the shoulder, and walked off. Apparently it's harder to be a good citizen than you'd expect! Perseverance paid off, though, when Eric found the magic parking-ticket slot on the back side of the machine, and stuffed the paper in. It's hard to say if anyone had used this slot before, however.

This time we really left for San Sebastián. Our hotel was easy to find, parking was in the basement, and our room had a great view of La Concha, the beautiful shell-shaped beach. We had a nice, relaxed dinner at Kokotxa, and when we arrived back in our room at midnight, we weren't even tired. Apparently, we were ready to fit right in with the late-night Spanish schedule.


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