When we were booking the Holiday Of Dreams (official title) we knew we didn’t want to fly straight home from Gran Canaria if there was any chance of more holiday fun, so I was tasked with finding a city with good connections to Las Palmas airport. I struck upon Bilbao (Ander Hererra’s hometown, I was already sold on the idea) and realised we could fly there and then easily travel on to San Sebastian by car if we wanted to have ALL THE FOODIE FUN. And of course we did want to have all the foodie fun, so we actually didn’t stay in Bilbao at all and spent the full four days in the Michelin star capital of the world.
Neither of us had been to this part of Spain before and I struggled to find a hotel that I liked the look of online. Hotels with pools were hard to come by and being an August relax-y holiday, I really didn’t want to compromise on a good pool. Now that I’ve actually been I can see why so many of the hotels don’t have big pools (the beautiful and massive beach on the doorstep being an obvious reason) but it was the pool pics that persuaded me to book the Mecure on Monte Igueldo.
I knew when I booked it that the reviews on TripAdvisor were mixed, to say the least. “Great views, abysmal service” was the general feedback, written in tones which ranged from mild disappointment to I DEMAND A REFUND range.
Still, I shelled out the not exactly cheap booking fee (it was €220 a night when we stayed) and hoped everyone on TripAdvisor would be wrong.
And guess what? They weren’t!
It’s hard to tell what was the worst bit about the hotel. The attitude of the restaurant staff when we dared to ask for a table? The barman who wouldn’t make any of the drinks on the menu because he was “too stressed”? The breakfast buffet with its vomit inducing scrambled eggs or inedible croissants? (I know what you’re thinking, a croissant can never be inedible because even crap ones are still crumbly pastry goodness – well this one had to be spat in a napkin it was so hideously bad). Or maybe it was the hard omelette and crisps we were offered for dinner when we arrived because, ya know, this is the famous food capital of the ENTIRE PLANET? It basically all went very wrong whenever we had to deal with anyone who worked there.
If it hadn’t have been so expensive we wouldn’t have been so irked (although I do think service with a smile is the least you should expect, whether you’re at a Premier Inn on the outskirts of a gloomy industrial estate or The Ritz) but this was an expensive four star hotel. It shouldn’t have been impossible to order a drink. I didn’t mind that the hotel decor was so dated, it had a strange sort of charm (it would make a great setting for a murder mystery) I just couldn’t get past the fact that every member of staff looked annoyed at you for daring to stay there.
BUT! The views from Monte Igueldo were sensational and, as much as it was disappointing to stay somewhere with such poor service and facilities, I’m still sort of glad that we chose it. It was SUCH a joy to look over San Sebastian, to see this from our private balcony…
It’s the only hotel that has this bird’s eye view of the bay and the hotel seems to be coasting on this unique selling point.
You can’t deny it’s beautiful!
And then there’s the weird and ancient ‘amusement park’ underneath the hotel which we went to every day. We bloody loved that. Some parts of the park (it’s tiny, don’t let me oversell this) would make you have to seriously question whether you’d dropped acid, but it was mostly charming. I won some of the arcade games so it has a special place in my heart, but you could have been on every ‘ride’ within fifteen minutes of getting there. Still, you can’t really complain when a ride has views like this eh?
Scenery-wise, I’m not sure I’ve ever been somewhere so beautiful. Even the drive from Bilbao airport almost had me in tears. “HOW IS THE WORLD THIS STUNNINGLY PERFECT? BUT HOW?!” (I may have been drinking on the plane). I don’t know why but I had no idea that there’d be so much greenery. You’re surrounded by enchanted moody forests and rugged sexiness.
And the food? Well obviously that’s the draw of San Sebastian.
As soon as we booked the flights I started making restaurant reservations, before we’d booked the hotel even. I’d heard that the top Michelin starred ones needed to be booked months in advance, so I panicked and tried my luck with four hoping to get a table at one. Typically, all four confirmed the reservations we’d requested (we *did* do this three months in advance though, which they advise!) and we were left with the decision of which ones to cancel. I like food, but I also like living in London and we’d have definitely missed mortgage payments if we’d gone to all four. So we cancelled all bar Mugaritz, as that was the one I was most excited about visiting.
Our night at Mugaritz was possibly the best night of my life. I am going to blog about it separately as I want to do it justice. (And because all I wanted in the research process was to find a blog post about whether Mugaritz could do a 24 course vegetarian menu, so it’s a post that the internet NEEDS!).
Just an edible sugar fork and a petal salad. Casual.
But whilst Mugaritz was the best culinary experience of our lives (you’d hope so, it’s considered the sixth best restaurant in the world and has two Michelin stars), the rest of the food we had didn’t quite live up to expectations. As a vegetarian, I did really badly. It can be tricky in Spain at the best of times, but it was particularly bad for me in San Sebastian. In one restaurant we went to for dinner I was served a boiled potato as my main course. One giant boiled potato. I’m not even joking here.
ST eats fish and he did a lot better of course, but even his experience was mixed. Good food? Yes, sometimes, but not the world class experience we’d really hyped up in our heads.
The infamous pinxtos? Again, not really something we were particularly enamoured by. There was a lot of greasiness, I guess you could say. We went to a few places and none of them made us particularly excited, although I’ll readily admit they were endlessly Instagrammable.
After two days of pretty lacklustre dining experiences I figured we must be doing something wrong (EVERYONE LOVES SAN SEBASTIAN, YOU MUST BE CRAZY IF YOU DON’T, RIGHT?!) so I tried to book a pinxtos tour guide who specialised in fish and veggie stuff so we could fare better, but it was too short notice. Alas.
But this leads me nicely on to my one top tip for anyone going to San Sebastian: do your research! Get a guide or make a note of recommended places before you go. *Everywhere* sells pinxtos and for all I know we just ate in the worst places, as from the doorways it’s pretty hard to figure out what’s good and what isn’t. They were all busy and they all looked much the same. We were probably the equivalent of the tourists who go to Garfunkel’s and Aberdeen Angus and then says London has crap food. I’m sure we didn’t do it justice….and I’m sure the fact we don’t drink red wine or eat red meat was a main factor in us not coming home shouting from the rooftops about how great it all was.
So we spent the trip with mixed emotions really. The whole place was beautiful, the weather was perfect, the views were spectacular and there was a gorgeous charm to the whole place. On the other hand the food we ate (outside of Mugaritz) wasn’t the mind blowing stuff we hoped for, it was expensive, the beach was hideously crowded (it was August, though) and the service was pretty poor wherever we went.
Basically, it wasn’t the life-changing trip people said it would be. Maybe we’d been too spoilt in Gran Canaria at the start of the holiday? I don’t know. I look at these pictures and can’t believe I’m complaining, but I wanted to write our honest experience of the place – and that was a slight feeling of deflation. We had a great time, we didn’t have the best time ever. Maybe our expectations were just too high. I guess that’s what happens, when everyone says San Sebastian is the best city in the world, you get overexcited!
I definitely want to explore this whole region more though, I’ll just do a lot more research next time. It’s a special corner of the world and I reckon if we’d had a car and a few weeks to hop around the wine regions, I’d be sitting here saying it was the best holiday of our lives.
I’m sure we’ll go back one day, if only to have an excuse to head to Arzak and Martín Berasategui.
And if we do, I’ll be sure to report back.