‘That is an absolute shed load of meat.’ Disappointingly for all concerned, this pithy little observation is not part of Mrs Smith’s armoury of pillow talk but an analysis of the quite preposterously generous pile of rare beef on the plate in front of me.
We’re in the restaurant of San Sebastián's Astoria7 Hotel, but this remark would have been no less apposite had it been describing the mound of Serrano ham we are soon to be served in Bilbao or the devastating portion of duck dished up to us in Biarritz.
Both Biarritz and Bilbao are on our radar because although seemingly San Sebastián wants for nothing, it could do with an international airport – anyone going a long weekend is obliged to fly into one or other of the Basque Country’s other great cities. Opting to arrive on the Atlantic coast of France and leave from a little further along the coast of northern Spain, we started our sojourn with 48 hours on Biarritz’s lovely surfing beaches and we’ll conclude with a wonderful day exploring the splendour of Bilbao’s art galleries.
Pleasant bookends indeed, neither destination comes close to matching San Sebastián, with its almost comically perfect bay, its tasty gastronomy and its charming network of old town streets. Advised in Biarritz to take the coach to San Sebastián over the rather ponderous train, our transit here worked perfectly, depositing us opposite the gleaming façade of our contemporary bolt hole, Astoria 7.
Inspired by the half-century-old San Sebastián International Film Festival, the minds behind the Astoria7 have designed each of the boutique hotel's 102 rooms as a tribute to moviemakers from across the globe. Unhesitatingly escorted up to our suite on the ninth floor, I can’t deny a patriotic smirk that accompanies my discovery that the honour of the best room in the house has gone to Britain’s own Alfred Hitchcock.
Befitting a man that sneaked a cameo into all his films, the suite is packed with all things Hitchcockian. Statuettes and books beg to be enjoyed on an Eames lounger in the television room, with a DVD boxset complemented by a movie poster – albeit a tad naff – above the bed. Poster apart, it’s a slickly appointed pad with a spa-style bath, a big bed and a spacious balcony.
Hungry from our journey we decide against the Astoria’s all-day bar with its tabletop snacks and instead gobble up the menu del dia in the hotel restaurant. Given the rarefied standards of San Sebastián’s celebrated cuisine there’s no shame in saying it’s unlikely to upstage the city’s most renowned fare but Astoria7's own restaurant is light and airy and perfectly serviceable.
Eager to make the most of the sun, we grab some towels and take the charming 10-minute walk up to San Sebastian’s beach, a golden crescent of sand lapped by waters calmed by the bay. I’ve always liked urban beaches – partly because of the sexy sparky atmosphere created by flirting teenage smokers and pumped-up poseurs, but mostly because you know you’re never more than five minutes from a cold glass of wine – and here we are at one of Europe’s best takes on this seaside type.
After hours of idling in the warm shallows, we nip back to the hotel where Mrs Smith washes the salt from her hair with the Omnisens toiletries before indulging in a bubbly little Jacuzzi. Scrubbed, sun-salved and Mrs Smith's evening frock donned, we are ready to venture out into the old town, and into the delightful warren of pedestrianised streets that comprise San Sebastián’s culinary centre.
Now, eating at one of the many Michelin-starred restaurants requires a little planning ahead, and greater foresight than has been applied by this reviewer. Just as you can’t bowl up to the Fat Duck on a Friday night and expect the chef’s table, tables need to be reserved well in advance if you want to eat at any of San Sebastián’s three-star super-restaurants – Arzak, Akelarre and Martín Berasategui – all of which have tasting menus at around €150. The city’s other top restaurants are easier to get into but still need pre-planning. Our attempts for a table at the highly regarded Restaurante Kokotxa, a one-starrer in the old town, fall flat.
Luckily for us we are a text message away from Mrs Smith’s old mucker José Pizarro who just happens to be a world-renowned Spanish chef. He admonishes us for even thinking about a sit-down dinner, enthusing that San Sebastián is all about its tapas-y pintxos and that we have to get ourselves inmediatamente to the kings of the small plate at La Cuchara de San Telmo.
Tucked away down a sidestreet off the larger Calle 31 de Agosto, La Cuchara de San Telmo serves us small bowls of ink-black risotto, tender veal’s cheeks on mash and lots of other things about which you know very little other than that they taste as good as anything at considerably fancier restaurants where the wine is very definitely not €2 a glass. The tone of the trip is set. Here on in we sun and walk and stop and talk and eat and eat and eat. Every street in the old town has a pinxtos bar or two and the atmosphere everywhere is incredible, with locals of all generations drinking and eating little plates from simple slices of ham to ornate Michelin-style titbits. Highlights include Txepetxa and Bar Nestor, where people come from miles around just to eat the tomatoes.
48 hours later – our skin slightly tight from the sun, our belts slightly tight from the food and our heads slightly tight from the booze – we amble arm in arm back to our hip hotel to take advantage of our room’s star feature: a pull-down screen and projector that transform our boudoir into a home cinema. What can we do but watch a Sir Alfred flick? We opt for ‘Marnie’. Maybe this old-time classic that’s dated since its first showing in 1964 is not the most apt choice for San Sebastián, which is an old-time classic that feels entirely up-to-date. But where a lack of suspense does work is in the surroundings and delivery of Astoria7's hospitality – particularly in a city where the eat-drink-and-be-merry escapes are crushingly, and wonderfully, predictable.