Travels & Tapas in Basque Country
We have likely heard of it but if pinpointing this region on a map was a capital offence then it’s probable few of us would be hung; but mention San Sebastián and more people will say that they know about it, and usually with regard to food.
It’s an attractive seaside city and municipality located in the Basque Autonomous Community of Spain. There is no doubt when you are here that this is physically within Spain’s borders but culturally and politically outside. The majority of flags flying here are Basque. It lies on the coast of the Bay of Biscay and just 20 km from the French border, and that’s a country with which it has always had close ties. It has long been one of the most celebrated tourist destinations in Spain, even though San Sebastián is not a big town.
It’s about food. San Sebastián is famed for it but there is so much more here, and to make the best of it you should have a local guide. A very enterprising one is making a career of creating bespoke tours for the discerning traveller. Jose Macicior has deep roots in this region and is well-placed to introduce visitors to everything from hidden gems of local architecture that are not usually open to the general public, to those iconic tapas bars – he has been patronising them all his life and knows the specialities of each one.
I met Jose and his delightful wife Isabel at their apartment which is part of Jose’s ancestral home. “In 2002 we were a group of friends having dinner in London, and decided to arrange a gourmet tour in Navarra, the Basque country, and Rioja. We organised it from arrival to departure: we took care of the restaurants, hotels, land transport, wine tasting, everything. It was a success and everyone had a good time. Some of our friends recommended us to their friends and we have been doing those tours once, sometimes twice, each year.”
Isabel is originally from the Philippines so that was the logical spring-board to launch the company, Travels & Tapas. Jose explains, ”We launched the company in the Philippines last March because we had many contacts there, but we would also like to concentrate in the UK and some other countries, and little by little develop the clientele.”
Travels & Tapas is somewhat high-end, with fewer numbers for their bespoke trips than one would find with group tours with the usual travel operators, “but with outstanding service,” says Jose. “We can be versatile, we can design anything the client wants, we can be guides, we can accompany our visitors, we can be in contact by phone with advice about what to do, where to go. We travel nationwide, although the gastronomic interest is more concentrated in the north of Spain and in south-west France.”
A group of friends can contact Jose and give him an idea of their interests, then Jose arranges everything, from accommodation, restaurant bookings, to entrance to sites and events, and can act as personal guide for the group or provide them with the bespoke itinerary.
Jose and Isabel guided us around San Sebastián and the nearby villages, and there is a lot to see within a small area. The beaches are wide and golden and half-empty at the start of the summer. The Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa fashion museum is a draw for anyone inspired by the classical elegance of this celebrated designer, and the sartorial retail opportunities are endless. But let’s face it: your days here will be punctuated with some of the best food to be found in Europe.
Tapas in San Sebastián are known as pintxos but it’s unlikely you will have to call them anything at all. Pintxos bars are the ideal grazing venues for the linguistically timid as one has no need to consider incomprehensible menus. Simply pile your choice of pintxos on your plate and keep count of how many you have had. The barman will likely have a mental note, so no cheating. Boxes of paper serviettes are provided and one is expected to screw these up and throw them on the floor. That does give one a rather childish thrill.
The food is displayed in tempting ranks of vivid tomato-red, ham-pink, crust-gold on overflowing platters and piled dishes. Jose will take you here for tortilla, there for octopus, the bar around the corner for garlic mushrooms. Yes, one could buy a guide book, but things change, and only a local will be able to tell you what’s popular just now and also be able to plan a pintxos ramble for you that will offer the most-prized small plates, and some that are only available on that very street.
Pintxos bars are not the places where one might readily expect to find haute cuisine but the food here is as haute as it gets. The competition is fierce and that assures a high standard, and the variety of tapas will provide even the pickiest of eaters with enough to satisfy a gargantuan appetite. There will be slices of freshly cut and glossy Iberica ham, sweet and explosive peppers, and hosts of more elaborate savoury confections that will include each bar’s signature tapa.
This isn’t a town that has just recently woken up to the idea of food tourism. The snack-laden counters were not just invented for the epicurean delights of visitors. The locals are passionate about their food and that’s contagious. Jose says there have long been amateur gastronomic sociedads, which have traditionally allowed only men as members. These groups would meet at their own professionally-equipped kitchens and dining rooms, and the members would take turns to cook for the assembled company. It seems that these culinary brotherhoods have spawned a breed of men that have higher culinary aspirations than the weekend BBQers of other nations, although I hear that they remain reluctant home cooks.
Spain is the place for the culinary high-flyers these days, and San Sebastián is considered the most exciting place to eat in the country. There are said to be more Michelin stars per head of population here than anywhere else, and the curious may consider why that might be. There is an abundance of good food from both sea and land and so perhaps these lucky folk have higher gastronomic expectations than most. Travels & Tapas tours can introduce the food lover to not only the pleasures of pintxos but fine dining restaurants as well, and Jose knows many owners of those Michelin stars – one might even get to meet a celebrated chef or two.
What Jose offers is a unique insider’s view of food and culture in a fascinating corner of Europe. “They say the North has stews, the Centre has roasts, and the South rice, and this is true, generally speaking. And of course all over Spain there is a lot of art and a lot of extremely attractive stately homes that can be visited, and one can even have lunch or dinner there.” Jose is a member of an organisation of stately homeowners who don’t normally show their properties, but Jose can open even those usually locked doors.
Jose and Isabel Macicior fill a rather classy niche. They provide tailored packages to visitors who want to experience the best at their own pace. They give support to tourists who want to tread the path less travelled. They unroll a tapestry of culinary, architectural, historic and cultural delights that are difficult or even impossible for the lone visitor or the regular package-tourist to access.
Tapas Bars and Michelin Stars with Travels and Tapas
Jose and Isabel Macicior have fast become the faces of bespoke food and culture trips to Spain and southern France. They have hit the ground running, and seem to have a finger on the pulse of high-end vacationers.
Food tourism is now big business and it’s raised awareness ofdelicious national specialities and regional restaurants; and it has introduced remarkable chefs to a wider audience. Jose and Isabel have created a company, Travels and Tapas, which tailors visits to the particular needs of its clients, and in a region that encompasses some of the best food and cultural pursuits in Europe.
Jose is a local, and has impeccable connections with owners of stately homes. He can elicit invitations across those usually private thresholds, through those usually closed doors. Travels and Tapas has already garnered a reputation for arranging seats at the best tables and places at the best pintxos (tapas) bars (see article here). If you are interested in history then you will be delighted with an itinerary that could encompass iconic architecture, museums and anecdotal adventure in the guise of Jose’s own family history, which is so much entwined with these towns and villages. Such a change from the UK, where many consider themselves nobility if they can trace their family tree all the way back to their father.
Travels and Tapas arranged dinner at a local restaurant with a firmament of glittering awards. Zuberoa is thoroughly deserving of its Michelin star but it exudes a quiet confidence and a smart-casual ambiance that makes it a cosy pleasure to visit. Chef Hilario Arbelaitz explains something of the restaurant’s past. ‘This is the oldest house of the village – 650 years old.’ Hilario is the 4th generation of his family to live here. ‘It was a farmhouse, and there was a little bar, and the terrace is where the chickens were kept.’
When Hilario was 20 and away at a seminary, and his brothers were small, his father passed away and Hilario had to come back to work the farm. The farmhouse was converted to ‘tea rooms’ and it grew from there. The base of the traditional Basque cuisine that he now presents is what he learnt from this mother, and he has researched and developed more dishes.
His brother and right-hand man, Eusebius, is in charge of the customers and front-of-house. Chef Hilario presides over the kitchen which attracts young chefs on stage from all over the world. I asked Hilario about his menu. ‘It has its focus on good seasonal products – hake in green sauce, squid in black ink, bacalau (salted cod). The tradition in this country was that the fishermen used to go to Nova Scotia, and of course the fish had to be salted, so here the usual way of cooking cod is always salted. In the spring there are broad beans – like green caviar, also pigeon, and partridge. 50-60% of the menu is traditional.’ There is a tasting menu, ‘menu degustation’, where Hilario can experiment and devise new recipes. ‘The tasting menu is 7 dishes, and in winter there is crab, langoustine, ravioli, sometimes white mushrooms and green asparagus – a kind of ‘surf and turf’ in a way; scallop, foie gras, with caramelised onion sauce and truffles; oysters in aspic with a lemon cream and caviar.
‘In the Basque country you have to do Basque cooking, I am not aligned with those who do new things for tourists who come and go. I have repeat business which is why I have to concentrate on Basque cooking, and keep traditional dishes on the menu because people ask for them.
Feran Adria has done a lot for the profile of Spanish cooking. I asked Hilario for his thoughts.
‘He has done a lot. Nouvelle Basque cuisine has opened the country to the world. In the past, no French chefs would come to the Basque country; now even 3-Michelin star French chefs will come here. Now the tourism in summer is gastronomic! Perhaps there are just two tables of Spanish people, surrounded by Australian, German, British tourists. I go to England a lot – I see Tom Aikens and a lot of friends of his, and Heston Blumenthal.’
Who are Hilario’s food heroes?
‘Feran Adria is one. El Bulli was a kind of ‘Picasso’ in the gastronomy world, that has elevated Spanish cuisine, and now everyone acknowledges it. Amongst the Basque chefs the best is Martin Berasategui. Martin used to come here to help a little in the kitchen and we are very close friends.’
Zuberoa is a flagship for Basque cuisine, and should be requested by any Travels and Tapas clients. Jose Macicior understands his native dishes and is an accomplished cook himself. He will proudly introduce visitors to restaurants that present the best, including some that are hidden gems known only to the discerning and very lucky locals.
LESS SIESTA, MORE FIESTA
For a large part of the Filipino population, their ancestral roots trace halfway across the globe to Spain. The Iberian country has always ranked top of tourist bucket lists, but the strong ties between Spain and the Philippines make it even more pertinent for the Filipino Traveller.
Art, wine, tapas, flamenco, cathedrals, palaces, monasteries – these are just some of the attractions of Spain that makes vacationing here one big fiesta. But while planning a long-distance trip over the internet can seem daunting, and the decision of which activities will make the final cut overwhelming, there’s a new kid on the tour operator block that can resolve this: Travels and Tapas.
The company, which launched this year, offers bespoke tours of Spain and neighbouring France, depending on the Traveller’s needs such as duration, budget and activities. All the nitty-gritty, in-depth planning is taken care of, and tours feature the unmissable main sights, but also dig deeper to find places that only a local or true insider would know of.
Whether you’re a foodie, a culture vulture, an outdoor enthusiast or looking to experience a religious rite of passage, Spain and France will deliver.
A Foodie Revolution
“One must eat to live, not live to eat,” French playwright Molière once wrote in his comedy, L’Avare. I have to disagree, and I think most vacationers in Spain would do so too, especially when you head to the northern region where the coastal city of San Sebastián has become a foodie hot spot.
“The best tapas in Spain, or pintxos as they’re called in the north, are probably served in San Sebastián, particularly in the city’s old quarter. It’s a fact that during the last years we’ve seen a foodie revolution, so all Spanish cities have extremely good bars serving exciting new tapas,” recalls Jose Macicior, co-founder of Travels and Tapas.
Classics such as tortilla (omelette) and jamón serrano (cured ham) are a good way of easing into Spanish gastronomy, but the city has built up a reputation for experimenting with more exotic dishes, like tender beef cheeks in red wine, canapé of cod with garlic confit or anchovy filets with king crab purée, all topped off with a glass of txakoli, fresh white Basque wine. The city is also famed for its Michelin-starred restaurants where places like Arzak and Martin Berasategui serve dishes that are true culinary pieces of art.
Crossing the border to southern France, Travellers can feast on famous French recipes in the Biarritz region which has more than a dozen Michelin-starred restaurants. Travels and Tapas organises gourmet and luxury tours in these regions, in cities such as Bordeaux, La Rochelle, and more in Spain. Depending on your preferences, you can learn new recipes through cooking classes, enjoy meals in top-class restaurants, make visits to vineyards or experience wine tastings in the famed wine region of La Rioja in Spain. The company also has a talent for locating privately-owned stately homes, and gaining exclusive entry for their customers to enjoy private tours of the housing, with viewings of private art collections, or romantic dinners to feast on.
“We had the full spectrum of dining experiences, from casual tapas bars, to meals in privately-owned estates, country restaurants inside small villages, luxury farms, in vineyards, castles, hard-to-find molecular gastronomy destinations with theatrical style, and simple seaside meals,” says Angelique, a Traveller from France.
Cultural Melting Pot
On the surface Spain looks like a Christian country, but judging by the art, history and architecture, it’s clear some cities have retained their Moorish or Jewish influences. Places to note in particular are Toledo, Salamanca, Córdoba, Granada, Seville. Travels and Tapas takes you further from the main attractions of Madrid and explores these cities, arranging private music recitals or flamenco shows, or trips to the many museums.
As the second country in the world with the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Spain is ideal for any culture vulture. Once the capital city and now a World Heritage Site, Toledo is just a short train ride from Madrid and has kept its centuries-old charm. Its narrow, winding streets that run along the River Tajo are protected by the city walls that used to function as a fortress to keep enemies out. Nowadays, you can still see remains of the churches, mosques and synagogues that sprung up with each conquest. But the city is most famed as the hometown of Greek painter, El Greco. His masterpieces are displayed in museums and churches, namely the Church of Santo Domingo El Antiguo where he lies entombed, and the El Greco museum.
On the other end of the visual spectrum, art lovers can venture to the northern city of Bilbao to appreciate the modern Guggenheim Museum. Made of titanium, glass and limestone, the museum is an imposing landmark of Bilbao and showcases art from post-war to present day. Prior to the opening of the museum, the city underwent major redevelopment that involved projects by architects like Norman Foster, and Bilbao has become the epitome of modern. But the picturesque old quarter is still intact, where tourists can feast on pintxos and fresh seafood, as the city lies off the Bay of Biscay.
Down in the south of Spain, three cities that live up to their reputation of being Christian, Muslim and Jewish melting pots are Seville, Córdoba and Granada. These cities are architectural treasures, and best explored on foot. The Moorish influence is particularly seen in the Alhambra Palace in Granada, a collection of Islamic palaces and towers that sit at the top of a hill and overlook the city. On a smaller scale, the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba is a real fusion of Muslim and Catholic history. Once a mosque and now converted into a church, this house of worship still retains its Moorish white and red arches which are juxtaposed with tell-tale signs of the Christian interior.
In Seville, a similar story is found where the city’s Cathedral was built on the site of a mosque. As the largest Gothic building in Europe, with an awing facade and impressive altarpiece, the Cathedral earned its reputation as another of Spain’s World Heritage sites. One tourist from Travels and Tapas revels in Seville’s beauty and recalls, “We saw the entire old town yesterday via horse drawn carriage and even saw the old walls of the city. We toured another church, San Salvador, before making our way to the Cathedral. We love looking at the houses, many have cool patios with fountains and gardens. And everywhere we walk, we can smell the orange blossoms! So fragrant!”
World Famous Pilgrimage
Many Travellers choose to visit Spain for the food or cultural aspects, but others visit as part of a religious calling. Since Medieval times, pilgrims have walked the famous Camino de Santiago, the route that leads to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, a city in northwestern Spain, where St James is believed to be buried. Nowadays pilgrims come from various routes starting in France and Spain, but the most common is the French Way which starts in St Jean Pied de Port and spans around 780 kilometres. The trail passes through major Spanish cities such as Pamplona, Burgos and Leon, but much green space, fresh air and lush countryside are passed to aid your time of reflection and peace. The pilgrimage not only calls Catholics but people from all walks of life, so meeting new people and exchanging stories makes the passage more enjoyable.
If you aren’t a good walker and can’t manage the 20-plus kilometres to trek each day, Travels and Tapas offers private van support which picks you and your luggage up whenever the soreness kicks in. The tours include English-speaking guides and accommodation in old paradores, or buildings with historical importance. Once you reach Santiago de Compostela, you attend a pilgrims‘ mass and most deservedly, receive a stamp in your pilgrim credentials stating you’ve completed the pilgrimage. The company also offers religious tours to Lourdes, Torreciudad, Pamplona and Palacio de Reparacea.
NOT YOUR USUAL TRAVELS & TAPAS
THE PEPPER MILL By Pepper Teehankee (The Philippine Star) | Updated July 16, 2013 – 12:00am
It’s time for European travel again especially now that Philippine Airlines will be allowed to fly to Europe once more!
Spain and France remain to be top European destinations of choice among travellers. Personally speaking, they are also two of my favorite countries to visit.
When my good friend Angelique Villaraza learned about my love affair with these two European countries, she right away hooked me up with Jose Macicior, a Spanish man who owns Travels & Tapas that specializes in custom-made tours for Spain and France. Jose was in the country recently to promote his tours.
Jose and his Filipino wife Isabel Aspillera, being the founders of Travels & Tapas, have lived in the Philippines, Spain, Belgium, the US and England. They started organizing gourmet travels for friends and family in 2002, which proved to be an enormous success. Eventually, they decided to bring their experiences and know-hows to the Asian market and in 2013 established Travels & Tapas.
Travels & Tapas aims to plan the logistics of a successful trip to Spain and France for tourists who want to have a not-the- usual experience of those two countries. It provides the most personalized and best organized tours in the market. You can tell Jose and Isabel your budget and they can create a tour for you replete with an itinerary for each place you choose. Most of their tours are guided by a trained tour manager or Jose himself if one requests him. They provide access to places not generally opened to tourists, so their clients can discover hidden places and works of art that are out of public view. At the top of their list is client comfort with their hotels and restaurants chosen after an exacting selection process, with emphasis on quality and good service, charm and style.
The diversity of Spain and France when it comes to their gastronomy, wines, climates, geography and regions makes them must-see and must-go destinations. Oh, did I mention that they are two of the top countries in the world with the largest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites? Want a reservation in Arzak or El Celler de Can Roca and you can’t get one? Get a Travels & Tapas tour and its team can get you a reservation! One can discover the splendor and decadence of Roman, Phoenician, Jewish, Christian or Muslim civilizations.
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With Travels & Tapas, one can enjoy a journey into the past and present replete with exclusive access to private residences and art collections. If architecture and art are one’s main interests, the couple can organize a tour to the magnificent UNESCO sites of Salamanca, Toledo, Santiago and Granada. They put strong emphasis on the architectural treasures along the route of the Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela or Bordeaux, the Chateaux de Dordogne and Loire Valleys in France. They also can offer exclusive access to private stately homes in cities and the countryside to discover the way some people were privileged to live and perhaps still live. Hunting parties at private estates can also be organized.
If one prioritizes cultural or religious tours, Travels & Tapas recommends the Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, this being the most important pilgrim route in medieval Europe. The company provides support vehicles and luggage transfer, information and route maps for this pilgrimage with optional visits to Lourdes and other religious centers.
Dreaming of San Sebastian
I’ve been trying to figure where to go this year for my grand vacation and one of the places that I’m looking at is San Sebastian in Spain.
San Sebastian is a seaside city in Spain’s Basque Country. Although most visitors of Spain would probably pick Barcelona and Madrid in the past, the recent popularity of this northern Spanish province’s alternative art scene(in Bilbao) and gastronomic jewels(in San Sebastian) have made it THE rising star in this region’s tourist spots.
I am personally interested in San Sebastian’s vast array of gourmet treats. This city has beat out Tokyo, New York and Paris as THE “foodie”(I know, i hate the word foodie, too) paradise of the last few years with its Michelin-starred restaurants, celebrated Pintxos/tapas and abundance of fresh produce.
Can’t wait to do more of my own research! But for those who might be too busy to organize their own vacation, why not try Travels and Tapas?
London-based Jose Macicior and Isabel Aspillera are behind Travels and Tapas, a bespoke agency organizing gastronomic, cultural and historic tours focusing on specific regions in Spain and France.
I was invited to their launch last March 11th at the Peninsula and learned that through Jose and Isabel, you can visit some of the most important properties in Spain and France without having to sacrifice comfort and privacy. Staying in great homes, having private dinners with the region’s best chefs, taking private flamenco lessons – only the best experiences as organized by the two experts. As they say, enjoying these experiences is the ultimate expression of exclusivity and luxury which relies on having a privileged access to it.
For inquiries, contact Jose Macicior via skype: travelsandtapaos or email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by divasoria
March 18th, 2013 at 5:59 am
Who would have thought?
A PALACE IN NORTHERN SPAIN, A FILIPINA CHATELAINE AND A FILIPINA DAME
Palacio de Cabo de Armería de Reparacea
(1st July, Navarre, Spain) What mysteries lie in the heart of Spain’s Basque country?
For pious pilgrims, Navarre may evoke the challenge of the Camino Frances leading to St James’ shrine in Santiago de Compostela; passionate gourmands might recall the taste of tapas and vino rosado on the flagstones of San Sebastian.
But for the majority of Filipinos, Spain still means Madrid and La Mancha, trendy Barcelona or — at a stretch – Andalucia, for the Moors of Alhambra or the fairways of Sotogrande.
Not for much longer, if Manila-born Isabel ‘Beng’ Aspillera and her Basque husband, Jose Macicior, have their way.
The owners of the 18th-century Palacio de Reparacea deep in the Basque valleys recently invited two London-based members of the newly formed UK chapter of Les Dames d’ Escoffier to sample elegant Basque hospitality laced with a distinctly Philippine sense of warmth and fun.
Dames d’Escoffier Chrissie Walker, an author and food writer, and editor and consultant Gina Consing McAdam were on a fact-finding mission for the benefit of the 50-year old invitation-only culinary society, whose members include some of the foremost women engaged in the global culinary and hospitality industry. As it happens, Gina — who like Beng is originally from Manila — is currently the only Philippine-born dame in the society’s newly launched UK outpost.
Beng poses with Gina and Chrissie in Lesaca (Navarre)
Keen to show off the region’s rich history and culture, Beng and Jose took their guests on a ‘discerning eye-and palate’ tour of Navarre, Spain’s oldest kingdom dating back to the ninth century. Once a fortress, the region that shared a thin border with Castilla has evolved into a culinary citadel, and now hosts an annual gathering of some of the world’s best chefs.
‘Spain’s Basque country is famous for offering the very best food in Spain,’ says Jose, who traces his lineage to the one of Navarre’s oldest families. ‘Not only can you taste the most innovative tapas (called pintxos in Basque) in San Sebastian, but here you have the highest concentration of Michelin restaurants in the world. The chefs here are legendary. Juan Mari Arzak and Hilario Arbelaitz are just two home grown chefs who are keeping authentic Basque cuisine alive. From stews to tortilla to the freshest vegetables and seafood, Basque cooking has it all.’
Les Dames d’Escoffier, the Maciciors and chef Hilario Arbelaitz at Zuberoa (Oiartzun, Guipuzcoa)
Beng, who also creates her own jewellery, adds, ‘Our proximity to France should make the region really attractive to tourists. And everywhere you can go, from Pamplona to Irun to Biarritz, is within a 60 kilometre radius. Can you imagine how much time you can spend eating, shopping and sightseeing instead of on the road travelling from place to place?’
Apart from a gastronomic tour and a visit to a wet market, the couple treated Chrissie and Gina to a privilege reserved for only the chosen few: in-depth, owner-led tours through the interiors of some of the region’s surviving noble houses, many of which retain their original characteristics as fortified towers. And a couple of hours in the Museo de Balenciaga – a homage to the life and work of Cristobal Balenciaga, the local boy who conquered Paris fashion – injected additional sophistication to an already exceptional experience.
Chrissie said, ‘It was such a fascinating and rewarding time. Had it not been for Beng and Jose, Gina and I would never have had access to what are in fact monuments and such lovely cuisine. I can only hope other dames and lovers of food and history take advantage of what this region has to offer.’
Typically Filipino, Beng and Gina also found time to shop in the fine boutiques along the Avenida de la Libertad (including hunting for leather alpargatas from Uterque, part of the Zara group).
Clearly, given what Spain’s Basque country has to offer, discerning Filipino travellers will waste no time unlocking its secrets. Go now.