48 Hours In: Barcelona

Whether you seek beaches, shops, cuisine or culture, follow in the footsteps of Columbus and explore Spain’s glorious second city, writes Simon Calder

 

Travel essentials
Why go now?
Culture, cuisine and conviviality: the Catalan capital is superlative in every dimension. Fares are falling in line with the temperature, though the warm autumn has lingered in Barcelona this week. And the latest addition to the city’s spectacular skyline, the W Hotel, opened 10 days ago.

Touch down
Barcelona airport is on the coast 12km south-west of the city. Most “full-service” airlines, including BA and Iberia from Heathrow, use the brand-new Terminal 1. The easiest way in to the city is on the A1 Aerobus, which leaves about every 10 minutes and costs €5 for the half-hour journey to Plaça Catalunya (1).

Budget airlines, including easyJet from Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, Bristol and Liverpool, Jet2 from Leeds/Bradford, and Monarch and Bmibaby, use the older Terminal 2. The Aerobus A2 from here costs only €4.25. Alternatively, walk to the airport railway station for the half-hourly service to Passeig de Gràcia station (2); while the one-way fare is €2.80, if you invest €7.70 on a 10-trip pass, you can get into town for just 77c, and connect there for any other train, tram, bus or Metro service within 75 minutes. You can also have nine more journeys on public transport when you get there. Ryanair serves Barcelona via both Girona and Reus airports, with connections by bus to the terminal at Estació Nord (3).

The most civilised way to arrive in Barcelona is by the overnight train from Paris (with connections from London St Pancras), terminating at the Estació de França (4).

Get your bearings
Plaça Catalunya (1) is at the heart of Barcelona, a vast square where the Barri Gòtic (Old Town) meets the Eixample (Extension) and Metro, bus and suburban train services converge. The main tourist office is underground on the Corte Inglés side of the square (open 9am-8pm daily, 00 34 93 285 3834; barcelonaturisme.com); other kiosks are dotted around the city.
South from here, the Ramblas weaves towards the Mediterranean, punctuated by the statue of Columbus (5) – where the explorer reputedly landed after his first voyage to the New World.
Other key locations in the centre include the ornate, palm-filled Plaça Reial (6), and the bulky and disjointed Cathedral (7), which squats on the northern edge of the old Roman city of Barcino.

Check in
I paid €30 without breakfast at the cheap and central Hostal Galerías Maldà (8), a rambling old mansion tucked inside a shopping arcade at Carrer del Pi. The most stylish property in the centre is the Grand Hotel Central (9) at Vía Laietana 30 (00 34 93 295 7900; grandhotelcentral. com), created in a 1926 building and offering facilities from bike rental to an amazing infinity pool on the roof. Double rooms start at €140, excluding breakfast. The boutique and luxury hotel specialist Mr & Mrs Smith is offering Independent readers 25 per cent off suites; see independent.co.uk/ mrandmrssmith.
The latest addition to the accommodation register is the spectacular W Barcelona (10), (Plaça de la Rosa dels Vents 1; 00 34 93 295 2800; starwoodhotels.com/whotels), perched at the end of one arm of the port, jutting into the Mediterranean. A double room costs €270 excluding breakfast.

Day one
Take a view
You need not even climb the Monument to Columbus (5) to be bowled over by the dramatic architecture of Barcelona. The column at the southern end of the Ramblas is flanked with elaborate statuary and surrounded by handsome buildings. If you wish to take the lift to the top, it opens 10am-6pm daily and costs €3.

Take a hike
Start at the Columbus Monument (5) and strike inland along the Ramblas, the main tourist avenue, which has a mesmerising range of human statues, flower stalls and pavement cafés. Halfway up, divert through the Galería Bacardi to the palm-filled Plaça Reial (6), about as architecturally uniform as the older parts of Barcelona get. Dive back on to the Ramblas, and call in at Mercat de Sant Josep (11), also known as La Boquería (8am-8.30pm daily except Sunday). It resembles a Victorian railway terminus filled with a colourful feast of fruit, vegetables and cheeses.
Watch out for some spectacular façades, and just before the Plaça Catalunya, refresh yourself from the Font de Canaletes – a ritual supposed to guarantee a return to the city.
Catch your breath at the Plaça, then head east to plunge into the Roman city. Head south on Avinguda Portal de l’Angel, which quickly narrows to funnel you into the ancient heart of the city along its continuation, Carrer dels Arcs. Just before you pass the cathedral (7) to your left, you can see fragments of the Roman walls and a reconstructed section of aqueduct. The cloisters of the cathedral are worth visiting: a haven filled with orange trees and palms, the pool in the centre has its own flock of geese. The cathedral’s magnificent nave is also worth seeing (open 10am-2pm on Sundays; 9am-1pm and 5pm-8pm on other days).

Continue south to the Plaça Sant Jaume (12), where the palaces of the municipal and regional authorities stare at each other, and turn left into the Born quarter – best sampled on Vía Argentería, which stretches down to the beautiful 14th-century church of Santa María del Mar (13). If it is open (hours are erratic) you can walk the length of it, and emerge at the far end on the broad Passeig del Born. Turn right down Carrer Rec, whose colonnades provide shade for a range of arty shops and a flavour of Cuba. The hike concludes at the breathtaking Estació de França (4).

Lunch on the run
If you have picked up a picnic, head a few metres along to the Parc Ciutadella (14). If not, wander a few blocks south to Carrer de Ginebra (15) in Barceloneta, and choose between the adjacent temptations of El Lobito at no 9 and Bar Jai-ca Tapas at no 13.

Window shopping
El Corte Inglés dominates the retail offering, with a huge department store on Plaça Catalunya (1) and another a block south of it on Avinguda Portal de l’Angel – where you will also find plenty of familiar upmarket brands. But for fascinating individual stores offering trinkets, chocolate and art, wander the length of Carrer de Petritxol (16), whose southern entrance is dominated by the retro ironmongers, Josep Roca.

An aperitif
At Taller de Tapas (17) at Argentería 51, a sharp, modern façade conceals old vaults that are ideal for conspiratorial sipping (cava is €11.85 a bottle), and nibbling of tapas: these snacks start at less than €3 a dish. If you are not inclined to fit in with the local habit of dining from around 10pm, you can easily feast here. And on fine evenings, you can sit out on the small square opposite, though you will pay a 10 per cent premium for the privilege.

Dining with the locals
At La Fonda (18) at Passatge Escudellers 1 (00 34 93 301 7515), you can dine splendidly on Catalan dishes (seafood an inevitable speciality) in faux-tropical surroundings for reasonable prices: a filling main course is typically under €20, with cheap but good house wine.

Day two
Sunday morning: go to church
Today is partly devoted to the great Catalan Modernist architect Antoni Gaudí. Start at the Sagrada Família (19) (00 34 93 207 3031; sagradafamilia.cat), an “expiatory temple” that has been under construction for over a century. Even as a work in progress, Gaudí’s startling nest of soaring steeples is Barcelona’s most recognisable symbol. Open 9am-6pm daily; admission €11.

Out to brunch
Close to the city’s cathedral, the Basque dishes at the Orio “Euskal Taberna” (20) at the corner of Carrer de Ferran and Passatge del Credit are on offer from 10am to midnight daily; you can choose from cockles, clams and cheeses, or simply €5 pastries (00 34 90 252 0522). If you prefer to lock in to a fixed-price repast, then the White Bar (21) on the corner of Carrer Princesa and Carrer Comerç (00 34 93 295 4652) offers a good solution 7.30-11am daily: an €8.50 buffet breakfast.

Take a ride
The dominant feature of the Barceloneta district is the gaunt skeleton of the Sant Sebastià tower (22), at the eastern end of the Teleférico – an astonishing early 20th-century piece of transport infrastructure that swoops across the harbour, providing the 18 or 19 passengers with superb views as it sweeps via the presently inactive Torre Jaume I (23) to the hillside at Montjuïc (24). The €9 one-way trip (€12.50 return) is very popular, and waiting times can be long.

A walk in the park
Montjuïc (24), the lungs of Barcelona, is worth exploring. Then take the funicular from the upper station down to Paral.lel on Line 3 of the Metro, and hop on the train to Lesseps, about 10 minutes’ walk from Parc Güell (25). Entering the park feels like walking into a fairy tale. The park also contains a house once inhabited by Gaudí, which is now a museum that can be visited for €5 (Casa Museu Gaudi, 00 34 93 219 3811), open 10am-8pm daily.

Cultural afternoon
When Gaudí wasn’t designing temples and gardens, he was busy creating wonderful apartment blocks on Passeig de Gràcia. Most spectacular is Casa Milà, better known as La Pedrera (26), “the stone quarry”, on the corner of Provença (00 34 93 484 5995, 10am-8pm daily, €10). Just south, another melting Gaudí masterpiece that mocks the area’s geometric neatness is Casa Batlló (26), at number 43 (00 93 216 0306; casabatllo.com; 9am-8pm daily, €16.50).

The icing on the cake
Alternatively, look down at Casa Batlló while you sip a cocktail at the 10th-floor open-air bar of the Hotel Majestic (28) at Passeig de Gràcia 68 (00 34 93 487 3939; majestichotelgroup. com). The skyline is serrated by the spectacular structures of a city where the pace of life is matched by the pace of change.

Link to “The Independent” article: http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/48-hours-in/48-hours-in-barcelona-1800398.html

Granada, Spain: Going underground beneath the Alhambra – Telegraph

Annie Bennett explores a secret world of tunnels and dungeons beneath the Spanish city’s Alhambra palace.

Grenada, Spain: Going underground beneath the Alhambra

The Alhambra at dusk Photo: CORBIS
Grenada, Spain: Going underground beneath the Alhambra

Image 1 of 2
There is a long tunnel under the Alhambra, which comes out at the bottom of the hill, and a secret door in the Ambassador’s Hall
 

By Annie Bennett
10:52AM BST 29 Mar 2010
Granada at dusk, when the Alhambra is bathed in hues of pink and gold, is one of the most breathtaking sights in the world. With a small group of other visitors, I walked up the steep hill towards the great Moorish palace. We were on a walking tour, but not one that points out the usual sights. Leading our group was Lia Guerrero, who was no ordinary guide either. An artist and writer, she is part of Pura Vida, an association of creative types who teach and take classes at the Casa de Porras cultural centre in Granada’s Albaicín, the old Moorish quarter on the hill opposite the Alhambra.
Pura Vida was founded by the journalist and writer, César Requesens, who is passionate about the hidden history of his city. “Granada is a city of secrets,” he says. “The Granadiños like to keep things close to their chests, but everyone knows that there are secret passages linking some of the most famous buildings.”
Lia suddenly stopped and pointed at the trees covering the hillside below the Alhambra. “There is a big private house in there. It is a carmen, the typical Granada style, with an inner garden, which belongs to an elderly aristocratic lady from Seville. And there’s a long tunnel under the Alhambra, which comes out at the bottom of the hill. There’s a secret door in the Ambassador’s Hall. Remember that the Alhambra was a fortress as well as a palace. The tunnels meant they could get food in when it was under siege, and people could get in and out without being seen by their enemies.”
We asked Lia if she had ever been down there. “No, very few people have, though there are rumours that it might be opened up to the public soon.”

I remembered a story I had read in a magazine years ago, about how Walter Chrysler had wanted to build a secret replica of the Chrysler Building, back in the Twenties, before embarking on the real thing. The article said he had a lover from Granada, who was very well connected and had arranged for the structure to be built in a huge cave under the Alhambra. Sounds preposterous? Maybe, but Granada casts a hypnotic spell, and sometimes even the most outlandish ideas seem perfectly reasonable as you wander around the city.

We veered away from the Alhambra and onto the neighbouring hill, the Colina del Mauror, where the cellars of some of the highest houses apparently conceal a few surprises. Lia showed us a large house, mostly hidden behind a high wall. Although now dilapidated, it was clearly once very grand. “That is the Carmen de los Catalanes, which is now part of the Alhambra estate and is being restored. There are tunnels underneath it, and pits in the gardens that were used to store grain, and may also have been used to keep prisoners in,” Lia says.

“There are tunnels and dungeons everywhere underfoot here,” César says. “They were dug out by the Moors or by Christian prisoners, no one is really sure. After the Moors left in 1492, they were used by the new Christian residents, and that went on for centuries, maybe until relatively recently, as the passages linked the various residences and enabled the great and the good to lead secret lives.”

We were heading for the Fundación Rodríguez-Acosta, a stylish white carmen built into the side of the hill by the artist José Maria Rodríguez-Acosta at the beginning of the 20th century. Now it is a cultural centre and exhibition venue, but we were not there to admire the paintings; the building contains a remarkable secret, and we were about to discover it.
We walked through an inner patio with a tinkling marble fountain, then out into the gardens, arranged on different levels on the hillside. The city sprawled below us in the fading light, while swallows flew in undulating formations. We went down to an elegant courtyard with a rectangular pool presided over by a figure of Venus. A smiling man appeared with a large key, opened an iron gate, and beckoned us into the shadowy space beyond. We entered a passage framed by columns and horseshoe arches. By torchlight, we gingerly made our way down a rough flight of steps into an eerie underground world.

We must have descended 60 or 70 feet before coming to a circular, grotto-like room, incongruously decorated with urns and sculptures. “The artist found the tunnels when the house was being built and set about restoring them to make them more accessible,” Lia says. “He built the steps, and arches and columns to support the walls and ceilings, and put in friezes and all these other decorative bits and pieces.”

Narrow passageways led off the tunnel, some blocked up, some with a narrow slit at the end, giving a tantalising glimpse of the gardens or the Granada sky. The temperature was perfect, neither hot nor cold.

“It is likely that originally there were ramps, as given the height of the tunnels, people probably went down on horses, mules or donkeys. If they had been walking, the ceilings would be lower,” Lia says. “The tunnels link with the houses nearby and lead down into the Realejo neighbourhood on the hill below. This was the Jewish area, and we think they used the tunnels for rituals and meetings,” César added. It all sounded very mysterious. “The thing is, there is hardly any documentation about all these underground passages; they don’t even figure on most official records, and aren’t mentioned in most history books,” he says.
Some time later, we climbed back up the uneven steps and emerged in the garden, where the cypresses had turned from dark green to velvety black and the magical city of Granada glittered below us in the light of a full moon.

Essentials
Staying there
Room Mate Leo (0034 958 535579; www.room-matehotels.com), a restored town house in the centre of Granada with contemporary design; doubles from £63 (€70).

Further information
The Granada Underground Passages and Dungeons route is one of several tours run by the Pura Vida Association (201939;www.granadaunderground2.blogspot.com) and costs £27 (€30). Information also available at the Pura Vida booth in Plaza Trinidad in Granada, or from the Granada Tourist Board (536973; granadatur.com)

Is San Sebastian the best place to eat in Europe?

Published by The Observer.co.uk

John Carlin trawls the little-known Spanish city of San Sebastián, where every local bar is a culinary heaven and Michelin stars grow on trees

Further evidence that, never mind what Tony Blair might have you believe, the British are very different from the Americans was provided in a conversation I had with Gabriella Ranelli de Aguirre during a coffee break at San Sebastián’s sixth international gastronomy congress.

Gabriella, despite the name, is herself American. But she is married to a Basque, lives in San Sebastián and earns her bacon running what she calls ‘culinary and cultural tours’ in northern Spain. Sounds like hell, but she seems to make a decent living out of it.

Most of her customers are either American or British. ‘The Americans are serious, hard-working tourists,’ Gabriella observed. ‘The Brits are more fun-loving.’ Was she by any chance referring to the islanders’ distinctly un-American national pastime of getting sloshed? ‘Of course!’ she said, smiling the complicit smile of the converted fun-lover. ‘But that’s not the whole story. The Brits have less need to go to the big-name restaurants than the Americans do. They enjoy going out for tapas just as much – maybe more.’

Count me in with the fun-loving Brits. It’s not that I distrust haute cuisine. It’s just that in San Sebastián the quality of everyday grub is so remarkably, spectacularly haute already that it seems a waste to spend the night dining solemnly at a Michelin three-star when you can nosh it away in the city’s magnificent tapas bars. The reason I was in San Sebastián in the first place was to see some of the world’s most celebrated chefs performing at the gastronomy congress; the biggest event of its kind anywhere, I was reliably told. There’s a reason why they hold it here. Spain is the ‘in’ place for the culinary elite these days, and San Sebastián is the best place to eat in Spain. The congress did justice to the city. The grand masters – Alain Ducasse, Ferran Adriá – put on a terrific show. Watching the extraordinary Adriá in action, freezefrying eggs in liquid nitrogen, was a mouthopening experience. But if the plan was to close your mouth around an item of food, then to savour and swallow, you were better off abandoning the centre where the congress was being held and diving into the nearest bar. Any bar.

On a previous visit to the city Spaniards consider not only the most elegant in the Basque country, but in the whole of Spain, I had formed the opinion that you could spend your entire life trying – and failing – to find a place where they would serve you a less than delicious piece of food.

Within minutes of arriving in San Sebastián, I put my theory to the test by walking early in the afternoon into the first bar that caught my eye. There was nothing remarkable about it to the eye. It was called Bideluze. It was what passes in San Sebastián for a local pub . And it was outstanding. The bar itself, la barra they call it, was creaking under the weight of plate after plate of delicious morsels, most of them astride a slice of txapata or baguette. They don’t call them tapas here, though they know exactly what you mean if that is what you do call them. They call them pinchos. The Basque custom, observed in every single bar in the region, is to lay out assorted pinchos on the barra. What you do is ask the barman (it is not often a barwoman) for a plate, and simply load onto it the things you wish to eat. It is up to you to keep tabs of how many pinchos you’ve eaten; when the time comes to add up the tally and pay up, the barman will trust you not to have cheated.

Apart from the standard red pimientos stuffed with bacalao paste that Bideluze offered, apart from the plump, green Gernika peppers, the garlic-speckled anchovies in oil and vinegar, the chorizos, the cheeses and chicken croquettes, the bar also had quails’ eggs and bacon, and a little dish known locally as mejillones tigres – tiger mussels. These are served hot on a large, flat seashell and covered with a thin crust of egg-fried breadcrumbs under which nestles a tangy little concoction of finely chopped mussels swimming in a creamy blend of olive oil, chile and bechamel sauce. As I scooped the shell’s contents out and drank the fizzy rosé the locals seemed to consider the tigres’ correct accompaniment (there was also Guinness and Murphy’s Irish Red on tap), I saw a barman glide past. The plate he was bearing was dripping with the most wondrously marbled, acorn-oil-drenched slices of Jabugo ham – more evidence for the eyes of what was abundantly clear, that everything we were eating here was the freshest, finest quality produce. The proud locals would not have it any other way. Basques are exquisitely fussy about their food, especially the natives of San Sebastián. ‘Try setting up an eating establishment that does not serve the freshest food, bought that morning in the market,’ a friend there told me, ‘and you’ll be out of business in a week.’

It is striking, this fineness of sensibility – the almost Japanese delicacy – the Basques have with their food. Because it is so at odds with the national character: they’re a brusque lot, headstrong, easily angered. You can see where the fanatical nationalism comes from, the sheer madness – never mind the ETA terrorists – of that 50 per cent or so of the population whose voting patterns indicate they would like to secede from Spain.

Like many Catalans, only more so, this breed of Basque insist on seeing themselves as victims, on feeling aggrieved at the unfair treatment they receive from what they call ‘the Spanish state’. And yet there is quite possibly no other group of people in Europe that enjoys a better quality of life. Such thoughts passed through my mind on a stroll along the arching promenade that lines San Sebastián’s Concha, the city’s beautiful beach, in the direction of my next pincho stop, Casa Gandarias, in the old heart of the city. I had not found the Gandarias in any tourist guide. Nor had it been recommended by any of the half dozen or so locals I was to consult during my stay in the city. (In fact, the locals seemed distinctly underwhelmed when I told them later that I had eaten there.)

The idea had come from a couple of friends of mine in Teddington, Surrey. Either the Teddington couple and I were pitifully easy to please, or the local experts were the most impossible snobs. I want to believe it is the latter. Because the truth is that during the hour and a half I spent at Gandarias I was in food heaven. It was 2.30 in the afternoon and the clientele were spilling out onto the street, it was so busy. I elbowed my way through to the barra, heaving under the weight of a tapas spread four times more abundantly than the one at Bideluze. The dishes that were not on display, because they needed to be cooked on the spot, were listed on a blackboard.

By astounding good fortune I found myself an empty stool at the barra, summoned the nearest barman – big, bald, as gruff as it gets – and asked him if it was actually true, as another blackboard before me indicated, that Belondrade y Lurton white wine was available, ‘by the glass’. ‘That’s right,’ the barman replied, looking me menacingly in the eye, as if a bell were about to ring in the first round of a prize fight. ‘Belondrade y Lurton, the finest white wine in Spain …by the glass?’ I repeated. ‘That’s correct,’ my antagonist said, betraying, I thought, the faintest germ of pride; and maybe even a suggestion of surprise at this non-Basque barbarian’s appreciation of the quality of beverage on display.

In either case, it was staggering to come across such a find in such a place, and a most eloquent expression of what is so special about eating out in San Sebastián. The most ordinary, everyday, humdrum of establishments serve food and drink of the standard you would expect to find in a restaurant run by the most lubricious maitre d’, the most pompous sommelier. So I ordered a glass of Belondrade – made by a French couple in Rueda, an hour and a half north of Madrid, from the ancient Verdejo grape – and then some crab and octopus and prawns and some sizzling kidneys and a lamb brochette and black pudding (morcilla) with red peppers and the best, moistest potato omelette I’ve ever tasted and a few more slices of that glistening ham. You have to order ham in Spanish tapas joints if you want to be taken seriously.

Ham – of endless quality and variety – is the great national unifier. It is what gives lie to the delusion the Basques – and the Catalans and some Galicians – have that they are culturally different from their Iberian neighbours. (The Portuguese are different, of course, because, among other reasons, for them it is cod, not ham, that is king.) There were also some quite spectacular pieces of dark red meat on show, available either in the form of a fat slab of steak or in choice little cuts delivered on a slice of crusty bread. My friend from Teddington had memorably feasted on a fat one. The best piece of meat he’d ever had, he said. But he was still digesting it three months later so I plumped for just the one little pincho, garnished to simple perfection with thick chunks of rock salt. The piece de resistance, though, was the foie, also in pincho form. Rinsed down with that liquid Belondrade bouquet, it was an Elysean excess.

But Belondrade wasn’t all that was on offer – there were plenty of other terrific wines, too. There was also a range of Scotch whisky that beggared belief. The labels on the bottles were a Who’s Who of single malt’s finest: Ardbeg, Bladnoch, Caol Ila, Laphroaig, Inverleven, and more – further proof, if at this stage it were needed, that I had penetrated a superior civilisation. I stuck to another glass of my favourite Spanish white for my cheesecake dessert, delivered on a raspberry-lined, toothpaste-white oval plate. And that’s another thing. Each dish had its own plate: round, square, triangular or oval, depending, as far as I could surmise , on whether it was fish, meat or fowl.

I rounded the meal off with a cortado coffee, which is an espresso cut with hot milk. I have had thousands of cortados but this one tasted better than any other . The rough enchantment of the place had got to me. During the whole 90 minutes I spent at Gandarias, I never ceased to be amazed and entranced by the fact that I was eating and drinking in a place as regular to San Sebastiánites as the local King’s Arms is to the inhabitants of Stockton-on-Tees. Oh, and it all came to €30, including tip.

‘The secret,’ Gabriella Ranelli reflected, ‘is that they approach their food with so much mimo.’ Mimo is what you do with babies you love. It means a combination of things, both abstract and physical. It means to cherish, but also to pamper, typically while making a tender cooing sound. ‘That’s how the Basques relate to food,’ Gabriella continued. ‘In the restaurants and bars it’s not just about making money. It’s about pleasing – and not just your clients, but yourself.’ That is why even the wine glasses at Gandarias were of the finest quality. It isn’t about money but about doing justice to a culture. There is a phenomenon in the Basque country known as ‘la sociedad gastronómica’ . It’s a kind of club, usually based around a group of male friends who inhabit the same neighbourhood, in which people gather to discuss and cook food. The gastronomic society will have its own fully equipped kitchen and members will take turns to cook for each other.

Where, in other latitudes, people play golf or tennis or bridge, the Basque sport is cooking. An Andalucían friend who recently moved from Madrid to San Sebastián said he was surprised to discover a state-of-the art kitchen on the ground fl oor for the use of residents in the block of fl ats where he was living . ‘In the block where I lived in Madrid we had a pool and a tennis court,’ he said. ‘Here – and it’s the same in these kinds of places all over the Basque country – we have this great big communal kitchen.’

The measure of how fanatical these gastronomic society people must be about their food was provided by a Basque friend José Luis, who does not belong to one. In fact, he told me, he’s not very good at cooking at all. José Luis is in his forties and has a group of a dozen or so mates he has been hanging out with all his life. They have a number of rituals, the most solemn of which is that on your birthday you must cook a great big extravagant meal for everybody else. ‘So you cook one, too?’ I said. ‘Of course,’ he replied. ‘But I thought you said you couldn’t cook.’ ‘Well, I need a couple of days to prepare the meal, and I follow practically every step from a recipe book.’ ‘And you do this for a dozen people and you say that’s not cooking?’ ‘No, of course not. Cooking is when I put three or four fresh ingredients in front of you and in an hour you’ve made a great dish out of them.’ So there you are. As far as Basques who are not too fussed about their food are concerned, using a recipe book is cheating. The gastronomic societies have existed forever.

Perhaps the historical reason why they should have emerged in this part of the world in the first place has to do with the natural abundance of food. There is the sea (the Basques are fi shing folk by ancient tradition) and there is excellent agricultural land. Most of Spain is dry and brown but the Basque country is lush and green, with big valleys and gentle slopes that suggest the Swiss lowlands, but with more heat and sun. ‘There are still lots of small farms and San Sebastián has more Michelin stars per head than any place on earth the quality of the produce really is fabulous,’ said Gabriella, who has lived in the Basque country for 15 years and knows a fresh Gernika pepper when she sees one.

Talking of which, a visit to the main market in San Sebastián is the city’s second obligatory tourist destination after la Concha beach. The fish counters are a pleasure to behold, but what will stay with me is the fragrant smell of the lettuce. Another reason why the food is so good has to do with the emergence 25 years ago of what is known as ‘new Basque cuisine’. Its champion is local legend Juan Mari Arzak, who runs a three-star Michelin restaurant by the same name. Since then the sky’s been the limit. As Gabriella says, ‘In San Sebastián you have it all, the entire range – from the most avant-garde dishes you’ll fi nd anywhere, to the best set-price lunches, to the best tapas; everything!’ Ask the inhabitants of southwest France: they flock to San Sebastián, which they consider their food mecca. Actually, it is, in all likelihood, the best place to eat in the entire Western world. If you doubt it, consider this: San Sebastián, which has the same population as Stockton-on-Tees, has more Michelin stars per inhabitant than any place on earth. Fifteen, to be precise. 180,000 people live in San Sebastián, Spain’s 27th largest city but the one with the highest property prices. That means one star for every 12,000 inhabitants. (London, with a population 200 times larger, has 34 stars.)

‘What the top restaurants do is raise the level of the ordinary eating place,’ Gabriella said. ‘But the great chefs take much of their inspiration in turn from the everyday places. One feeds the other, so to speak, and the public, who get accustomed to better and better food, become more and more demanding.’

One of the reasons why the gastronomy congress was held in San Sebastián is that it is the one place in Spain where the public can be relied upon to turn up in large numbers. These are people who save up all year to eat at Arzak or one of the other mega-star restaurants like Martin Berasategui, Akelare or Zuberoa, in the same way that people elsewhere save up for a holiday in Miami. So offering them a gathering of the cream of the world’s chefs is like the Beatles coming to town.

The congress venue was a big, boxshaped convention centre by the sea known as the Kursaal, the kernel of which is a large amphitheatre used by symphony orchestras. It was standing room only in the amphitheatre when Ferran Adriá (who is to San Sebastián as David Beckham still is to Tokyo) did the first of his star turns. There were about 30 chefs in all – from France, Italy and the United States as well as Spain – who did half-hour presentations on stage of some of their favourite dishes, complete with live video connections to kitchens where their staff did the chopping and mixing. This was decidedly not for the housewife back home to imitate. It was – especially in the case of the show-offy Spaniards – the culinary equivalent of going to a wayout-there haute couture fashion show. In the case of Adriá, it was like his restaurant, el Bulli. It was beyond food, beyond eating. That was what I had been doing at Bideluze and Gandarias. This was pure spectacle. Virtuoso for virtuoso’s sake. There was an elaborate machine that made mint juice, long syringes, odd Styrofoam contraptions, deep pots belching white smoke (this was the liquid nitrogen).

The ingredients were eggs, asparagus, olive juice (green as pea soup), vinegar dust and raw powdered calcium. The point was to cook not by applying heat to the raw materials, but extreme cold. The end result was a sort of poached egg encased in a transparent asparagus gelatine. You cut through it and the yolk ran liquid as a fried egg’s. It was a staggering spectator sport, as was the act of creation by which another playful Catalan, Joan Roca, made a brittle, see-through, balloon-sized orb densely packed with cep smoke. To ‘eat’ it, you crack the balloon and inhale. In between all this there was some delightfully simple stuff , like warm oysters with green apple juice. One of the French chefs (I think he was taking the mick) offered as his contribution a big fat roast chicken. An Italian made snails. An American chef cooked bread. The most notable difference between the Spaniards and the rest was that the Spaniards worked with the cool precision of laboratory scientists, or heart surgeons. In the case of Andoni Aduriz (the most avant of the avant-garde Gabriella was talking about) the analogy is not extreme. Every one at the congress I spoke to mentioned his name in hushed tones.

Thirty years old, Andoni – as everyone calls him, the same way Brazilians call their football superstars by their first names – is the boy wonder of global cuisine. (Well, actually, if you ask Ferran Adriá, the most interesting contemporary genius is Britain’s very own Heston Blumenthal, but that’s another story.) His special gift, I was told, is making foie. So obsessive is Andoni, who looks like Harry Potter, about this particular art that he frequented Spain’s leading liver research hospital in Granada for a period of two years in order fully to grasp the ins and outs, the precise fat-protein ratio, the exact enzyme composition of the said organ.

As a consequence he understands foie and can cook it better than anyone alive, gauging the different temperatures required at every forensically delicate stage of the coction process to a thousandth of a degree. I went to his restaurant, Mugaritz, in San Sebastián’s mountainous southern outskirts, for dinner. I had the dégustation menu, each of a dozen dishes more minimalist than the next, and nothing to do with everything else that’s going on in Spanish cooking. The Adriá school is exuberantly Dalíesque. Andoni is Zen austere. The first off ering, consumed in one gulp at the end of a very long spoon, was a sea anemone, a gooey grey thing whose naturally kidneyish, urine tang was helpfully off set by a hint of lemon.

Next up, raw thistle leaves with milk skin, garlic dressing and an olive infusion. Then herb salad and laminated mushroom followed by hay consomme and a morsel of sea urchin leavened with garlic and walnuts. A tasty little chunk of Iberian pig went down nicely after that, as did the scallop of foie, first roasted, then chargrilled and accompanied by a consomme of date pips . And so it went on. A Spanish food critic sharing the table with me noted that I was consuming rather more bread than one might ordinarily expect to eat at a top-of-the-range Michelin establishment, but the truth was that for most of the meal I was bloody hungry.

‘He takes risks, Andoni,’ my dinner companion observed. ‘He lives on a knife edge.’ But, I asked, did he like Andoni’s food? ‘Look,’ the Spanish gourmand replied, ‘you either go along with this spiritual game of his or, frankly, you find him a pain in the balls.’ A bunch of Catalan chefs at the table next to me who’d come along to San Sebastián to pick up some tricks at the gastronomy congress really got it badly in the balls. There were five of them, all good-quality chefs in their own right who serve straightforward fine food in a town on the foothills of the Pyrenees. After dinner I drove back with them to the city centre. They were indignant. Enraged. I couldn’t print most of what they said but it boiled down to this: ‘What a load of pretentious rubbish!’ I said I tended to agree, while humbly acknowledging that if the cream of Spanish cheffery believed this guy to be the Picasso of his day, well, cubism was derided too when it first appeared on the art scene.

What was true, and where I entirely agreed with my outraged Catalan crew, was that I badly felt a need for one of those fat crimson super-steaks my friend from Teddington had gorged on. The next day my friend José Luis, the Basque who doesn’t care about food, had us walk the streets for an hour before we found just the right place to have lunch. Asador Trapos, which dishes up traditional pre-nouvelle cuisine Basque food, was just what the doctor ordered. José Luis and I shared a plate of thick green beans with garlic and another of artichokes with clams, and then I had my longed-for half-kilo slab of red meat.

Chuletón de buey is what you ask for, the literal translation of which is ‘ox chop’, but what it really means is beef steak. I loved the fact that the waiter did not even ask me how I’d like the meat done. He brought it blood rare, sprinkled with rock salt, and accompanied by a bottle of red honest-to-goodness Rioja. I kept going back to the congress, gawping at the cutting-edgery of it all, but it was Asador Trapos and the tapas bars I went to that will linger much longer in the mind. Take a place called Barandiarán that I popped into one morning for breakfast. Again, I had never heard of this place before walking in, again it was a regular everyday place with soiled napkins on the floor but the spectacle that awaited me at the barra was a feast for the eyes.

This being breakfast, they had held back on the kidneys and foie wasn’t on the menu. Instead, among the self-service goodies on display were succulent pieces of cinnamon-coated French toast, smoked salmon, crabmeat and shrimp on toast and, of course, potato and onion omelette. The only juice available was orange, freshly squeezed, and the cortado coff ee was of a quality, as they say in Spain, to revive the dead. A tapas bar that the locals did recommend was Bar la Cepa, just down the road from Gandarias in the old quarter of San Sebastián, which is where most of the best pinchos in town are to be found. As far as I could tell, it was Casa Gandarias all over again, though (and the local experts will have to forgive me) not quite as fine.

The best recommendation was that four pinchos into my meal, Ferran Adriá walked in with his wife. It is the second time this has happened to me in a year, the first having been at a very hip tapas place indeed in Adriá’s native Barcelona. I was struck by the fact that, on arrival, he ordered, as he had done the first time around, a large plate of ham. It is his antidote, you can’t help feeling, to the elaborate intricacies with which he concerns himself in his day job. So, I asked Adriá, was San Sebastián the best place to eat in the world? My expectation was that he would cry ‘yes’, or make some sly remark along the lines that it was almost the best, after Barcelona. Yet there was not a tinge of patriotic prejudice in his reply. Quick as a flash he said, ‘No. Shanghai is better. Maybe Thailand, too.’ Shanghai? ‘The variety and inventiveness is amazing.’ And Thailand? ‘The freshness of the produce is remarkable .’ So was San Sebastián the best in Spain at least? ‘Of course! What do you mean?’ he replied. ‘It’s the best in Europe. The best in the West. No doubt about that at all. And if you push me, in terms of the average quality of the food, in terms of what you can get at any place you happen to walk into, maybe it is – probably it is, yes – the best in the world.’
· For more information on Gabriella Ranelli’s food tours, visit www.tenedortours.com

Link to Article at the The Guardian/The Observer.co.uk: http://observer.guardian.co.uk/foodmonthly/story/0,,1433609,00.html
Where to eat in San Sebastian
Bars
Bideluze, Plaza de Guipuzcoa, 14, (00 34 943 422 880)
Casa Gandarias, Calle 31 de Agosto, 25, (00 34 943 428 106)
Barandiarán, Alameda del Boulevard, 38 (no phone)
Bar La Cepa, Calle 31 de Agosto, 9, (00 34 943 426 394)
Bar Astelena, Inigo, 1, 00 34 943 426 275)
Alona Berri, Calle Birmingham, 24, (00 34 943 290 818)
Ganbara, Calle de San Geronimo, 21, (00 34 943 422 575)
Restaurants
Mugaritz, Aldura Aldea, 20, Errenteria, (00 34 943 522 455)
Asador Trapos, Calle 31 de Agosto, 28, (00 34 943 422 816)
Arzak, Avenida Alcalde Jose Elosegui, 273, (00 34 943 278 593)
Fagollago, Calle Ereñozu, 68, Hernani, (00 34 943 550 031)