February 25 2012
The most obvious lure of San Sebastián, other than its galaxy of top chefs and blissful sweep of beach, is the fabulous web of pintxo bars; they usually monopolise my time quite effortlessly. But on a recent visit I wanted something more cosseting. With a week of hanging out in the tapas bars of northern Spain behind me, I decided that I was ready to sit and snack in the glitzier surroundings of the classic Hotel Maria Cristina.
As it happened, it was when the San Sebastián Film Festival kicked off, but I made it just before the celebrity rush. The poster line-up across the road said it all, and a lone paparazzo loitering at the door said even more as he unfurled his schedule: Catherine Deneuve, Glenn Close and Clive Owen were imminently due.
You could not find a greater architectural contrast than the one between the Maria Cristina’s grandiose façade and the serene contemporary cube of the Kursaal (designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo and the venue for the film festival) that stands across the Rio Urumea. While comparing them, I realised there was something incredibly familiar about the elegant grande dame, the Maria Cristina. Was it the casino in Monte Carlo or Nice that it brought to mind? In fact, it turned out that the Maria Cristina’s architect was a Frenchman, Charles Mewes, also responsible for the Ritz hotels of Madrid and Paris. That made sense.
Inside, it’s all belle-époque splendour: a scattering of scarlet rugs, plush brocade or velvet upholstery, glossy parquet floors, acres of marble, soaring stuccoed ceilings lit by voluminous chandeliers, gilded details and faux-marble columns. I couldn’t miss the portrait of the eponymous Queen Regent herself, a rather severe-looking lady in high-necked Edwardian dress presiding over the vast lobby.
I soon settled in at the Gritti Bar and Lounge to indulge in a glass of gently fizzy txakoli, one of my favourite aperitif wines, so much gentler than the ubiquitous prosecco. As txakoli comes from vineyards high on the green hills overlooking the Bay of Biscay, production is limited, so it is hard to find outside the Basque country itself. Somehow that marine quality has seeped into the grapes, giving it a mellow kick and a low buzz. It’s all part of that local religion of food and wine, not to mention cider.
So to eat. Instead of a classic pintxo – a hunk of French bread piled high with delicacies – I chose the Gritti’s porrusalda, a sustaining potato and leek soup scattered with delicate flakes of bacalao (salt cod). To justify my second glass of txakoli, I went for a parrillada de verduras, roasted vegetables that were crisp outside, tender inside, scattered with black olives and an emerald-green virgin oil. All fine by me.