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San Sebastian.

San Seb is the perfect summer vacay-spot for those seeking to escape the scorching summer heat that especially dominates the south of Spain. We were in San Seb for 3 nights in mid-August, perfectly timed (accidentally) for the San Sebastian festival – Semana Grande. Semana Grande takes San Seb by storm, complete with:-

  • PACKED streets (I’m talking can’t walk type of packed).

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  • T H E most incredible fireworks display that I’ve ever seen for the international fireworks competition (I’m not normally such a fireworks fan, but this was just SO EPIC).
  • Spanish music playing on the streets with even the elderly (I’m talking 80+ sort of elderly) singing and dancing till 1/2 am.

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  • bars spilling people out onto the streets with noise all through the night.
  • people dressed up as pirates running around (I still don’t know what the significance of this was).
  • traditional Spanish circle/line dancing in the streets, with hundreds of participants.

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  • finally, the highlight – the “running of the fire bulls” , which involved people carrying papier-mache bulls on their shoulders which were (wait for it) shooting out fireworks. Not only do these bulls run through the over-crowded streets of San Sebastian, but they actually charge AT people. This was the strangest, most terribly frightening yet hilarious situation, which my friend, C, and I seemed to be the only ones concerned by.

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This festival completely takes over this little town. I was amazed at this place. I am sure that if I visited San Sebastian tomorrow, it would be an entirely different place to the one I visited during the festival. Festival or no festival, San Seb is a beautiful place and definitely one I’d recommend visiting.

I suppose I should talk about food and allergies now…

San Sebastian was quite an interesting place in this regard. The majority of the restaurants were pintxos bars. I have briefly touched on the pintxos topic before, but let’s get into the nitty gritty’s.

Pintxos are the Basque equivalent of tapas. However there are a few important differences.

When you go to a tapas bar, you are generally seated and order your tapas off a menu, some of which (the dishes served cold) are on display in a window cabinet at the counter. The waiter will then bring you your selection of cold and hot tapas for the table.

Pintxos can be very different. Pintxos bars are basically like giant buffets. There is usually an impressive display of pintxos varieties. You have a look at the buffet, select and take what you want. You then give them to the staff behind the counter, who will bring it to you after heating if necessary.

The important difference is that pintxos are much more difficult for Allergians to eat because of the cross-contamination issue. Since I am allergic to seafood, which was very prevalent amongst the pintxos, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable eating a dish that was sitting right next to it, especially when customers were serving themselves. If it hadn’t been a buffet, then the dish would have been prepared with the knowledge of my allergy.

My advice to Allergians is to choose pintxos bars that have additional hot dish options which are made in the kitchen to order and are therefore not on the buffet.

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The second issue with pintxos for me was obviously the over-representation of seafood, as mentioned in my ‘Under the Sea’ post here. I can’t comment on how heavily nuts featured in the pintxos, as (because of the seafood issue) I didn’t ask. Also, as the pintxos bars during Semana Grande tend to be incredibly overcrowded (a queue-out-the-door and can’t-get-a-table sort of an overcrowded), it would have been extremely difficult to find out exactly which dishes contained nuts and therefore I felt much more comfortable avoiding the food altogether.

Now, the reason I found it far more difficult to find traditional Spanish food to eat in San Seb was that the restaurants were basically either pintxos bars OR Western cuisines. I didn’t see much by way of paella or tapas. I am willing to be corrected though.

The problem was that unlike our trip up to this point, in which it was just me and the BF travelling together, in San Seb we met up with two friends who had also been travelling around Europe. Luckily for me, my long-suffering BF has placed me ahead of his culinary experiences. Whilst I do feel bad, I felt much worse making my friends also miss out. The result? Dinner 1: Pintxos bar. This Allergian stood around admiring the amazing display of food and culinary delights. A feast for the eyes. At least the plus side for the BF was that, thanks to our friends being there, he got to enjoy pintxos with them. Dinner 2: boring Western food so that this Allergian could eat. But really, who doesn’t love a good burger. Even when in Spain… right?

Allergies aside, pintxos generally look really interesting and exquisite, far more appealing to me than tapas.

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Basically, if you are ever in Spain in August, make sure you get to San Sebastian for Semana Grande. What an experience! But if you are allergic to seafood or other foods frequently served as pintxos, don’t expect food to be a highlight (other than for the eyes).

My recent Melbourne spotting: Naked for Satan on Brunswick Street, Melbourne is a quirky pintxos bar with a great rooftop bar, populated by the likes of hipsters, after-work drinkers and even Pierce Brosnan (yep, that happened). I did, however, note a high presence of nuts on their menu.

Until next time…

The Allergian Abroad