Food and wine are probably our two favorite things, and the easy, perfect choice for our honeymoon adventure. The location was far more difficult to choose though, due to Katie’s extensive travels in Eastern Europe and up to Mount Kilimanjaro’s summit and this being Anthony’s first international exploration.
We knew it had to be exciting and an inspiration for future travel, yet still easy and stress free, so we decided that Europe in October would be perfect -- beautiful weather, fewer travelers, and lower prices. Spain came highly recommended from multiple friends, and after scouring the internet, Katie stumbled upon San Sebastian Food, a niche operator in a foodie paradise, up in a beautiful wine region near the French border, with plenty of old world charm. Together they designed an itinerary of Pintxos tours (which is a Basque name for tapas), wine and cheese tastings, a cooking class, and a once-in-a-lifetime celebration at the end.
We’d both lived in our own extensively furnished apartments, so we knew that Traveler’s Joy made the most sense for our wedding guests to be able to give something needed and wanted, while also taking part in the planning experience. Katie customized the Traveler’s Joy website and everyone loved it. Gifts started rolling in for Christmas, birthdays, and showers. With our adventure rapidly approaching, our continual monitoring of flights paid off and we scored tickets at almost half of what we’d been seeing!
In a flash the wedding was over and we were being whisked away to the gorgeous XV Beacon in downtown Boston. With a full breakfast at MOO (the duck confit and hash with dried cherries was outstanding), we flew American Airlines from Boston through New York to Madrid, arriving the next morning. The airport was bright and modern, with easy access to the subway, which took us right downtown (and saved money versus a taxi or bus). We left our bags at the apartment of a son of a friend and then walked throughout the city until our late afternoon, six-hour train ride to San Sebastian. In hindsight, perhaps this much travel at once wasn’t the best idea, but then again, we slept the entire flight and almost the whole train ride, so maybe it was the better choice after all.
Either way, we arrived into San Sebastian and walked the short distance to our hotel which was booked by San Sebastian Food. Astoria 7 is a modern, clean, and updated property near the river, with a crisp white lobby and all rooms themed after the famous people who’ve stayed in them. We enjoyed speedy room service and a very fast sleep before our first included local breakfast: Fresh melon, regional Jamon, egg and potato tortilla, and more.
A five-minute taxi ride took us to the San Sebastian office in Old Town, where we met our group mates before making our way by van to an artisan cheese maker in the hills. This surfer-turned-creator gets sheep and goat milk throughout the green and lush Basque Region, resulting in small batch gourmet cheeses, of which we tried eight different types from soft to hard, each one better than the last. We washed all this delicious cheese down at a Txakoli vineyard. This young, fresh white wine is effervescent and crisp, which made it the perfect complement to the cheese and abundant Jamon and seafood that we enjoyed out on the open veranda, savoring breathtaking views of the valley. This region is the only place it is grown and consumed -- they drink all they produce!
All of this wine made for a nice sleepy ride back to town, and after napping, we rallied for the famed San Sebastian Food Pintxos Tour, led by a hilarious bilingual culinary guide (ask for Eli!) and with couples from London, Boston, Washington DC, and Australia. We learned how to order the bite-sized appetizers at traditional and modern bars, inhaling everything from sautÃ©ed shrimp skewers and salted fried green peppers, to savory mushroom risotto and a mind-blowing cheese cake. Even better than all of this though, was that San Sebastian Food was able to accommodate Katie’s gluten allergy, ordering special Pintxos for her and even taking the group specifically to a bar with a gluten free menu (which is barely possible in the US!).
That night of eating and drinking left us tired and happy, but sleep was short and we got up bright and early to join San Sebastian’s owner (Jon) and four other couples on a Rioja Wine Day Tour. Visiting three very different vineyards, our first stop was the well-known Muga, where we saw thousands and thousands of barrels of wine they actually make on site. Wine at 10 in the morning was hard after the night before, but a few sips left us ready to head out into the sunshine where we made our way through a quaint village, stopping for an impromptu coffee break as the church bells rang on the hour.
With grapes as far as the eye could see, we drove through the valley and arrived at the extremely modern Bai Gorri, which uses gravity to process its wine. Our tour concluded with a five-course, wine-paired gourmet lunch, with delicious and unique dishes like smoked salmon with dill oil and fish roe, salmorejo of green peppers with Idiazabal cheese sauce, and yoghurt with Tempranillo grapes. This was also the spot for one of the most interestingly complex white wines I’ve ever experienced (definitely not just a taste, but a full mouth/mind/soul sensation: Blanco Fermentado Barrica).
Onward we went to the old 12th century hilltop village of Laguardia, visiting Bodegas Carlos San Pedro PÃ©rez de ViÃ±aspre, deep in the depths of an ancient 600+ year-old cave, where the family has been traditionally making wine for over 500 years! We got to try wine straight out of the concrete vats and see the many bottles set in the dark corners of the cave’s winding tunnels. As we emerged from the cave, it started to rain, which had us scurrying through the town’s winding streets to our waiting van, where we promptly fell asleep on the ride back before continuing with the merriment at the Pintxos bars we’d visited the night before. More of those shrimp! More risotto! More Txakoli (it didn’t hurt that we ran into Shia Labeouf either)!
The next morning we moved VERY slowly but made our way back to Sebastian Food’s office for an olive oil tasting before a Basque cooking class with an accomplished chef. We sliced, diced, chopped, stirred, and then drank more Txakoli, completing the meal and sitting down together to enjoy seafood stew, gluten free crusty bread with boiled sausage (boiling it takes out the fat but keeps it moist), and traditional desserts. Our stroll along the river back to the hotel was the perfect opportunity to walk off some of the food and take in the gorgeous stone architecture and tree-lined streets.
FINALLY the next day arrived. Yes, shopping all morning and afternoon was a highlight for Katie, but the true celebration was in the evening â€“ the tasting menu at Arzak, ranked No. 8 in the world and owner of three Michelin stars. They seat just 60 people each night at 8:45, giving the choice between two dishes for each course, so naturally we each ordered the opposite ones so that we could try 16 different things. We could write paragraphs and paragraphs for each dish and its paired wine, but the highlights were: Bright melon tidbits atop a crushed Schweppes can, but legit tasted like chorizo (!); The absolute best bite of food we’ve ever eaten - smoked seared tuna with a fresh vegetable salad; Even more gluten free bread, that was better than the regular (for anyone who hasn’t had real bread in years, you know how amazing this is); Refreshing basil ice cream; and liquor drops (basically ‘adult gushers’).
When it was time to leave at 12:15 in the morning, we knew that we’d enjoyed the best meal of our lives and also the most expensive, but the experience was absolutely worth it and we SO recommend others taking the plunge (but pay ahead of time like we did through San Sebastian Food and then it’s not nearly as painful). San Sebastian really is a perfect mixture of old world charm, delicious food and wine, superb culinary guiding, easy logistics, lower cost (besides Arzak), and beautiful weather. The train ride back to Madrid in the morning had outstanding views of green vineyards, craggy rock walls on all sides, and then the tan and copper ancient villages that each surrounded a towering cathedral. This was in sharp contrast to the last two minutes of the ride when we pulled into the grey modernity of Madrid, where we transferred to the subway and took it to the Opera stop, where our hotel was within sight, aptly named Hotel Opera (best location and price we could find).
For the next two days we explored the Plaza Mayor, Plaza del Sol, la Gran Via, Parque del Retiro, and more, stopping at cathedrals and cafes throughout the city. By taking advantage of El Menu Del Dia, we enjoyed appetizers, entrees, and desserts along with wine, for about 12 euro per person â€“ a serious deal and the best way to eat and save. With most people speaking limited English, Katie’s high school Spanish made menus and getting around easy, and at night we met up with a friend’s son and his girlfriend who are studying abroad. They gave us the insider’s perspective on rustic hole-in-the-wall restaurants and even a home-cooked dinner.
When we hopped on the plane directly back to Boston on the 18th, we deeply felt that our honeymoon couldn’t have been better. The entire experience was wonderful, leaving us absolutely full and glowing. While the trip was full of delicious food and wine, it was also full of happiness. We are incredibly thankful for the adventure that our friends and family made possible by helping with our flights, Pintxos tour, Rioja Wine Day, and more. In the end it came out to about $6,000 for the two of us ($1,300 on flights, $3,000 in San Sebastian, $700 on trains, taxis, subway rides, and the hotel in Madrid, and then other meals and spending money), and we wholeheartedly agree with everyone that this once-in-a-lifetime bonding experience is so much better than the typical set of dishes or crystal vase.
You truly cannot put a price on your honeymoon, especially when your loved ones can make it possible for you. The absolute best thing was inspiring a passion for travel together, and we are already dreaming of our next adventure!