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Enjoying Traditional San Sebastián

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Photo: Javier Salas

We’ve rented a small apartment in the former French consulate, one of the prettiest 19th-century buildings on the river. Friends from Zürich have come to visit, and we all wander along the tree-lined streets of the Centro, an area of town reminiscent of Haussmann’s Paris, with its Belle Époque architecture and many cafés and a grand neo-Gothic cathedral. In the medieval Parte Vieja, by contrast—only a 10-minute walk away—the streets are mazelike, with thick-walled buildings pressing up against stoic Romanesque churches and small bars and pintxos places all over.

We make our way to the beach on one of those summer mornings you look forward to all year long, crisp and glowing, promising a hot day but no humidity, freshness in the air. It takes a while to get there—we stop to buy beach towels and peruse the many shop windows, and to study an astounding variety of women’s shoes in great detail (not that I’m complaining). The shoe and clothing stores are large, modern places (mostly Spanish and Italian brands) set in grand old buildings, but every so often we pass a shop with nothing modern about it at all, like the one called Almacenes Arenzana, where we buy a few beautiful pale wooden cooking spoons and spatulas. It’s a high-ceilinged, old-world place that specializes in utensils, rope, and string—the single room is filled with spools of all sizes and smells faintly and pleasantly of twine. It feels as if it hasn’t changed in a century, immensely charming but not at all quaint.

Around the corner is a place that has changed, my wife points out, and lost a bit of its character—the Mercado de San Martín. Once the site of a vast and sprawling food bazaar with dozens of vendors set up in stalls, the building was renovated in 2005 and is now a supermarket with an attached shopping mall, and a few specialty food shops with gleaming display cases. We decide to stop on the way back for provisions.

Mid-morning, we arrive at the Playa de la Concha. It’s crowded: the beach in San Sebastián is fully integrated into the life of the city—everyone is here, all ages, locals and vacationers, families and couples, and buff middle-aged men strolling through the surf reading newspapers, oblivious to the streaking kids and beach balls all around them. The water is warm, perfect for swimming and for twirling three-year-olds by their hands in circles and splashing them into the waves. Around one o’clock the beach begins to empty out as people go home or retreat to restaurants up on the boardwalk for their long midday meals.

And this is how the days will go by: making cloudy, rich coffee in an unreliable stove-top espresso pot, eating fruit and bread and ham and cheese for breakfast. Reading the newspaper and attaching kids’ sandals to their feet, readying them for the beach. One evening we wander through the Parte Vieja, stopping at pintxos places like A Fuego Negro and La Cepa, popping morsels of fresh shrimp and marinated anchovy and crunchy fried salt cod in our mouths, our exhausted kids lolling about underfoot while we order more wine.

At Arzak, after our spectacular lunch, Elena Arzak—right hand to her chef father, Juan Mari Arzak, who trained in France with Paul Bocuse, among others—agreed to show me the restaurant’s test kitchen, where the menu’s pyrotechnics are invented and developed. She leads me up a narrow staircase to an apartment in the rear of the building. It’s calm and quiet, sunlight streaming in through an open window. This is where all the kitchen-as-chem-lab equipment can be found: a freeze-drier, a thermal immersion circulator for sous-vide cooking, a food dehydrator, an industrial-strength steamer, an aromatizer, a precision cutter, and other imposing devices. The lone, casually dressed chef in the kitchen is poking around at an orange-colored sauce, trying to come up with a new oyster preparation. He shakes his head ruefully—it’s not happening.

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