4 BIG Travel Mistakes

By Shanda Stefanson/MSN Travel

Whether it’s a two week holiday on a cruise ship or three months backpacking in Europe, every time you travel, there are some things you need to keep in mind. You’re spending your hard earned money for your holiday, so you should do everything you can to maximize your enjoyment and minimize the headaches. There will always be things that pop up that you have no control over, but there are four things you can always avoid to help ensure your trip is a good one.

Read the Rest

UK’s Telegraph Gives A List of 10 Best Travel Books

If you suffer from regular itching in your sole then travel books are surely your best friends. Britain’s No.1 quality newspaper website, “Telegraph” has picked 10 best travel books for you. Here they are:

You must have “American Waters” by Alex Kirkbride (David and Charles, $38.00) in your collection. This recounts one of the strangest American road trips ever by Alex Kirkbride, a diver and photographer. Needless to say that the pictures take a traveller on terrestrial trips as well as myriad marine drives.

Read about ALL TEN BOOKS

Tourist discount cards: Deal or no deal?

Before you fork over the cash, pull out a calculator and do your homework       

By Tim Leffel
Travel columnist

Every city in Europe seems to offer some kind of special discount card for tourists, and the practice is common in other major capitals as well. At first glance, they all seem attractive. You pay one price and gain “free” admission or across-the-board discounts to all the city’s attractions. Look at the offer closely with a calculator and a guidebook, however, and that great deal may be less than it appears. 
If you plan to “do it all” and have the time to make the most of them, then almost any of these cards with a long validity period can be a good deal. The New York CityPass gives you a Circle Line cruise around Manhattan and entrance to five of the most popular attractions: the Empire State Building Observatory, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Guggenheim Museum and the American Museum of Natural History. Good for nine days, it’s a $131 value for $65, and allows plenty of time for taking in each one of the city’s major museums. It’s a bargain if you planned to do all that sightseeing anyway.
The SydneyPass in Australia also gives you ample time; both the three-day and five-day passes are good for any days within eight calendar days. The $325 five-day family pass may sound daunting, but it covers two adults and a gaggle of kids from one immediate family for all public bus, boat and rail transportation (including to the airport) and a sightseeing bus that’s hop on, hop off.

Beware the pressure of a short visit, however. The Paris Museum Pass works out to only 10 euros a day ($15) if you buy the six-day version, but the two-day version at 30 euros ($45) will leave you exhausted trying to get your money’s worth. After all, admission to the Louvre is less than 10 euros and the museum is worth a day of its own. The Go San Diego Card gets you into a lot of attractions and saves you a bundle at some, but are you really going to visit anything else after spending a day at the San Diego Zoo?

The I amsterdam Card includes public transportation, a canal cruise and free admission to 24 museums, including the Van Gogh Museum, but at more than $50 for a 24-hour pass and $64 for a 48-hour one, it requires a lot of sprinting and frantic sightseeing to make the card pay off. The Cape Town Pass, in South Africa, is a downright rip-off, with prices similar to Amsterdam’s but no public transportation and no major must-see museum.

If the card is inexpensive enough, though, it can be worthwhile for a short visit without making you exhausted. The ZürichCARD, in Switzerland, for instance, costs just a shade more than $30 and is good for 72 hours. It includes all public transportation (including airport transfers), a sightseeing cruise on the lake, admission to 40 museums and a welcome drink at 20 restaurants.

To decide if a city card in your planned destination is worthwhile, do this:

1. Decide how much time you really have for sightseeing and taking public transportation. On arrival and departure days, for instance, you probably don’t want to be doing anything structured.

2. Check online and in your guidebook to see how much things really cost and then compute the per-day price of the city card. You are often better off paying as you go.

3. Ignore the touted restaurant and shop discounts when doing the math. These are usually at the most popular tourist restaurants and the most expensive shops. You’re better off avoiding both.

4. Decide if the intangible benefits make a pass worthwhile. With the Paris Museum Pass, for instance, you get to skip the ticket lines. In the busy summer months, that’s worth a lot. Similarly, with a transportation pass you don’t need to carry lots of local change or one-way tickets for buses and trams.

5. Look into a card that covers just transportation. If you’ll spend your day wandering around in parks or sitting in cafés, a subway or bus pass may be enough. London’s Oyster Card, for instance, knocks the current $8 Tube rides down to a price that’s less choke-inducing.

6. Check into coupon books. For U.S. cities, two-for-one coupon collections such as the Entertainment Book can quickly pay for themselves if you’ll be in town for more than a few days. And they still have value if you pass the books off to a local when finished.

Tim Leffel is author of the books “Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune” and “The World’s Cheapest Destinations“. He also edits the award-winning narrative Web ‘zine Perceptive Travel.

Link to Original ARTICLE: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22802977/%22%20target=%22_blank%22%20title=%22Tourist%20Cards%20-%20Are%20They%20Worth%20It?

13 ways to save money on a cruise

1. Buy early. When Jeff Cooper worked for a cruise line, the best deals came just before wave season. “The sailings prior to Christmas and New Year’s were rarely at capacity,” says Cooper, who now works as a hospital administrator. And while the bargains during wave period were good, these were better.

2. Skip the air-inclusive cruise. “Cruise air is usually the worst possible deal,” says Amber Blecker, an agent for CruiseResource.com. “You get bad itineraries, multiple connections and higher prices.” And, she adds, don’t think for a moment the cruise line will wait if your plane is late. “That’s a wives’ tale,” she says.

3. Find a preferred agent. There are travel agents, and then there are travel agents. “Find one that specializes in booking with your desired cruise line,” advises Charles McCool, a consultant who specializes in finding travel deals. “Only a select few have preferred status. These agents and agencies offer better discounts and amenities, and the cruises cost between 10 percent and 20 percent less than cruises bought from other agents.”

4. Think small, think shoulder-season. Crystal Griffith, a nurse from Baker, Florida, scored a deep discount on her Alaska cruise by choosing a September itinerary and picking a windowless inside cabin. “We rarely spent much time in the cabin, and used it mainly for sleeping,” she says. “It saved us lots of money.”

Read ALL 13 Tips

By Christopher Elliott
Tribune Media Services

For the best bargains, Join the Locals

‘When in Rome …’ is great advice for thrifty-minded travelers.

By Tim Leffel
MSNBC Travel News

A funny thing happens after living in a foreign place for a few months: The cost of living starts falling. It feels like magic, but it’s not. What happens is that the new resident figures out who has the entertainment freebies, how to get around for less money, and where to get a great meal for a good price. Spending less becomes almost effortless.
You may not be a savvy local the first day you land in a new destination, but you don’t have to be a clueless tourist with a wide-open wallet, either. If you just take on the attitude of a local, the battle is half won.
Read Full Article: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20392038/

Long-term travel: Starting a 75-day journey

In honour of the Rugby World Cup 2007, we’re doing a blow-out itinerary that will last 75 days, and not sure if we’ll kill each other or enjoy it thoroughly. We will be travelling from September 1 to November 15, 2007 and visiting 13 countries and countless cities along the way. Pray to god we’re not divorced by the end of our travels!

Life’s short – what would it be without adventures?

The plan/itinerary is to visit:
FRANCE: Paris, Marseilles, Lille, Bordeaux
ITALY: Rome, Naples, Amalfi Coast
SICILY: Catania, Mt. Etna
MALTA: Gozo and Comino also
SPAIN: San Sebastian
GREECE & TURKEY Cruise (including Istanbul)
ISRAEL: Tel AViv, Jerusalem, Bethlehem
JORDAN: Amman, Petra, Madaba
EGYPT: Cairo, Aswan, Luxor, and more (including Nile cruise)

Yep! That constitutes a lot of travel over the next 75 days starting in Halifax Nova Scotia, Canada.
This trip started with me ‘mis-placing’ my passport before boarding the Iceland Air flight from Halifax to Paris. Nice start to a 75-day International trip!!

Iceland Air was a great way to quickly get to Paris. The service was efficient and courteous with a quick stop in Iceland for customs formalities and then onwards to Paris.

Iceland Air and the attendants with their neat little hats!
Arrival in Paris:
I`ve heard people comment that New Orleans was fashioned after Paris, and in the furthest stretch of my mind, I could see where they could come up with that similarity.
However – Paris is SO MUCH more, and we only had opportunity to visit the highlights of the city in our short stay. Beautiful old buildings, winding (and sometimes crazy to maneuvre) streets, much wrought iron and on every corner, something historical and/or fantastic to see. We`ll have to come back (there’s still Versailles, Montmartre, and so much more…) our time is short here, and there is wayyyy too much to see in just a few days.

Our hotel, Hotel Eiffel Seine on Rue Grenelle is in an excellent location for walking to the Eiffel Tower (maybe just 10 minutes walk) and also located close to a Paris city Hop-on Hop-off bus stop. Hotel itself is quite nice, and reception was wonderful on arrival (didn`t force me to speak TOO much francaise, Mon Dieu! (Fatigue, International flights and functioning 2nd language don’t always go hand in hand).

At this hotel, they make the absolute most of ‘available space’, and the lift is quite tiny (see above) 🙂 Interior decorating/design to hide or dramatize the hotels good and bad points is critical with smaller spaces, and this property does that with finesse. It is very close walking distance to Eiffel Tower & the Seine (hence the name).

Oh the Eiffel Tower is even more magnificent to see at Night! People drinking wine underneath the Eiffel and all kinds of people & activity around the area. I would HIGHLY recommend viewing at night if you get the opportunity, as well as in daytime, due to the wonderful Eiffel Tower light show.

We were very excited to see Rugby flags and banners and everything Rugby World Cup everywhere you look around in Paris. Here’s to Rugby World Cup 2007!!

Tomorrow we will tour around Paris some, visiting the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral and other places. Vive la Paris!

Ecuador to focus efforts on protecting Galapagos Islands


By Johanna Jainchill

Ecuador will evaluate the implementation of measures aimed at protecting the Galapagos Islands from all activities deemed “non-sustainable”, including limiting tourism arrivals to the archipelago, according to a decision made by a meeting of various government agencies in Quito.

“We are fully committed to continuing to preserve the heritage of the Galapagos Archipelago for future generations to enjoy,” said Maria Isabel Salvador, Ecuador’s Ministry of Tourism. “We will continue to protect the islands from all non-sustainable activities.”

In a statement, the Ministry of Tourism’s office said that “at present, all tourism activity in the Galapagos Islands is being carried out normally and in accordance with the current regulations that prioritize the conservation of the archipelago’s eco-system.”

The meeting was held with UNESCO representatives, conservation groups and Ecuador’s ministries of environment, tourism and foreign affairs, as well as the director of the National Park of the Galapagos.

Salvador said during the meeting that the Ecuadorian government, led by President Rafael Correa, is “well aware of the threats faced by the Galapagos Islands which led him to declare the archipelago ‘of national priority for the conservation and environmental management’ of its unique ecosystem.”

Tourism to the Galapagos is controlled to preserve its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The Ministry of Tourism said that the Galapagos National Park has the highest budget of any Ecuadorian public institution, and was increased by 31% in 2006 to $11.1 million, which is mostly focused on reinforcing conservation projects in the archipelago.

Istiklal Avenue – Istanbul Turkey

It’s 2007. 

This is my 2nd visit to the amazing city of Istanbul. I figure this is the time I’ll get to check out “that street” I wondered about since my first visit in 2005.

I’ve learned “that street” is called İstiklâl Caddesi, or Independence Avenue, and located in the district of Istanbul known as Beyoğlu. (To me, Beyoğlu translates from Turkish to English as…”fun place to be!!”) 

Istiklal by Day

Istiklal by Night
Compared to the Old City Istanbul and Sultanahmet area with its history, fascinating sights, the haunting sounds of Adhan (Call to Prayer) 5 times daily, Istiklal Avenue & Taksim area are very different in atmosphere. Istiklal Avenue is purely alive, vibrant and exciting! There are always people on the move and always something happening wherever you are on this street that boasts 1 million visitors daily (and even more on weekends)

Istiklal Caddesi is known as one of the most famous avenues in Istanbul, and is lined with some of the most lovely Ottoman styled buildings you can view in Istanbul. The people watching here is amazing and incredible.

My personal preference is to have a seat down near the Tunel end (South end) of Istiklal Street and watch the people from one of the small restaurants or bars located there.

Istiklal view from the bar 🙂

Another short walk from this Tunel area of Istiklal Street, is the Pera region of Beyoğlu district. Located in Pera is the famed Pera Palace luxury hotel, built in 1892 as a hotel for disembarking passengers from the Orient Express train which terminated in Sirkeci Station at Sultanahmet Istanbul. The Pera Palace hotel is also claimed to be where Agatha Christie wrote her novel, “Murder on the Orient Express.”

Any visitor to Istanbul should spend at least a day walking just Istiklal Street and its many alleyways.

There is SO much to see and experience on Istiklal Avenue.

A few of my faves are:
Cicek Pasaji (Flower Passage) which now is home to many bars & restaurants, with its entrance located on Istiklal Avenue and runs to Sahne Street

Cicek Pasaji (Istiklal Street)

Historic Tram Ride on Istiklal (I’ve never actually been ON the tram, but it looks nice & romantic/nostalgic. I prefer to walk Istiklal Avenue, and absorb the atmosphere from ground level)

Istiklal Steet Trams

A Friday afternoon on Istiklal Avenue amongst the crowds!

Istiklal Avenue Video
I specialize in Istanbul & Turkey Travel.
Contact me if you need assistance with your Turkey Travel plans

How a Love Affair (with a Country) starts…

Written by World Travel Warehouse on Oct 20, 2005

Cruises.  Ports of Call.

Suliemaniye Mosque and Galata Bridge

You arrive…in town for a quicky…off a cruise ship.

Video arriving on the cruise ship (it was raining)

In Istanbul, you’re given 24 hours to check out this new port, which is one of maybe 10 different ports of call on many Greece cruises, and then you’re gone again! Poof, it’s like you were never there — almost!

So I stepped off the ship in 2005, not realizing my life would drastically change forever. Yes, I knew about the minarets on the skyline and yes, I’ll admit I heard about the call to prayer (a little bit). I’d even heard about this “cool street up over the Hill (later discovered to be Istiklal Avenue)” – I love looking back now at my naivety in thinking this was the extent of Istanbul…

It was actually raining heavily when we arrived, never a nice way to walk around a new city to sightsee, but you do what you have to, when you’re in a new place with 24 hours on your hands.
Upon arrival, we walked, from Karaköy (where the cruise ships dock), across the Galata Bridge with all its wonderful lights, and where everyone is your friend (which seems a little daunting at first – how can everyone be so friendly?!??!) and up to Hagia Sofia museum/church, and lastly, around Sultanahmet Square.

That’s it – I thought, I had seen all I needed to see in Istanbul! Of course I also thought (incorrectly) that Suliemaniye’s Mosque (as seen in the picture) was the Blue Mosque, so I figured I didn’t need to go back and see that either!! Done.

I thought to myself … Maybe, I’d come back one day to visit the “street up over the hill.”

Maybe…but as a world traveller, there are so many places to visit in the World and well… I’d now visited Istanbul, Turkey. On to the next destination!

Maybe, if I found enough time some day, I’d come back to visit this city that intrigued me enough, to warrant a possible SECOND visit…

Sultans of Swing

A lot of maybe’s led to deep love affair with Istanbul. Who could have imagined??

That day I stepped off the cruise ship in 2005, and (now) countless trips to Turkey and Istanbul later, I realize how a “quicky” stop in a port of call can change your life…

I really wish even now, that I’d used the WHOLE 24 hours I had back then. It will take a lifetime to see everything that I want to in Istanbul & Turkey.

Of course we were sucked into wearing the funny garb for a photo op (as above).

I’ll be writing more about my love affair. It’s been passionate and steamy at times…

Need help booking your Istanbul or Turkey trip?
It’s what I do, I do what I love
World Travel Warehouse

Is San Sebastian the best place to eat in Europe?

Published by The Observer.co.uk

John Carlin trawls the little-known Spanish city of San Sebastián, where every local bar is a culinary heaven and Michelin stars grow on trees

Further evidence that, never mind what Tony Blair might have you believe, the British are very different from the Americans was provided in a conversation I had with Gabriella Ranelli de Aguirre during a coffee break at San Sebastián’s sixth international gastronomy congress.

Gabriella, despite the name, is herself American. But she is married to a Basque, lives in San Sebastián and earns her bacon running what she calls ‘culinary and cultural tours’ in northern Spain. Sounds like hell, but she seems to make a decent living out of it.

Most of her customers are either American or British. ‘The Americans are serious, hard-working tourists,’ Gabriella observed. ‘The Brits are more fun-loving.’ Was she by any chance referring to the islanders’ distinctly un-American national pastime of getting sloshed? ‘Of course!’ she said, smiling the complicit smile of the converted fun-lover. ‘But that’s not the whole story. The Brits have less need to go to the big-name restaurants than the Americans do. They enjoy going out for tapas just as much – maybe more.’

Count me in with the fun-loving Brits. It’s not that I distrust haute cuisine. It’s just that in San Sebastián the quality of everyday grub is so remarkably, spectacularly haute already that it seems a waste to spend the night dining solemnly at a Michelin three-star when you can nosh it away in the city’s magnificent tapas bars. The reason I was in San Sebastián in the first place was to see some of the world’s most celebrated chefs performing at the gastronomy congress; the biggest event of its kind anywhere, I was reliably told. There’s a reason why they hold it here. Spain is the ‘in’ place for the culinary elite these days, and San Sebastián is the best place to eat in Spain. The congress did justice to the city. The grand masters – Alain Ducasse, Ferran Adriá – put on a terrific show. Watching the extraordinary Adriá in action, freezefrying eggs in liquid nitrogen, was a mouthopening experience. But if the plan was to close your mouth around an item of food, then to savour and swallow, you were better off abandoning the centre where the congress was being held and diving into the nearest bar. Any bar.

On a previous visit to the city Spaniards consider not only the most elegant in the Basque country, but in the whole of Spain, I had formed the opinion that you could spend your entire life trying – and failing – to find a place where they would serve you a less than delicious piece of food.

Within minutes of arriving in San Sebastián, I put my theory to the test by walking early in the afternoon into the first bar that caught my eye. There was nothing remarkable about it to the eye. It was called Bideluze. It was what passes in San Sebastián for a local pub . And it was outstanding. The bar itself, la barra they call it, was creaking under the weight of plate after plate of delicious morsels, most of them astride a slice of txapata or baguette. They don’t call them tapas here, though they know exactly what you mean if that is what you do call them. They call them pinchos. The Basque custom, observed in every single bar in the region, is to lay out assorted pinchos on the barra. What you do is ask the barman (it is not often a barwoman) for a plate, and simply load onto it the things you wish to eat. It is up to you to keep tabs of how many pinchos you’ve eaten; when the time comes to add up the tally and pay up, the barman will trust you not to have cheated.

Apart from the standard red pimientos stuffed with bacalao paste that Bideluze offered, apart from the plump, green Gernika peppers, the garlic-speckled anchovies in oil and vinegar, the chorizos, the cheeses and chicken croquettes, the bar also had quails’ eggs and bacon, and a little dish known locally as mejillones tigres – tiger mussels. These are served hot on a large, flat seashell and covered with a thin crust of egg-fried breadcrumbs under which nestles a tangy little concoction of finely chopped mussels swimming in a creamy blend of olive oil, chile and bechamel sauce. As I scooped the shell’s contents out and drank the fizzy rosé the locals seemed to consider the tigres’ correct accompaniment (there was also Guinness and Murphy’s Irish Red on tap), I saw a barman glide past. The plate he was bearing was dripping with the most wondrously marbled, acorn-oil-drenched slices of Jabugo ham – more evidence for the eyes of what was abundantly clear, that everything we were eating here was the freshest, finest quality produce. The proud locals would not have it any other way. Basques are exquisitely fussy about their food, especially the natives of San Sebastián. ‘Try setting up an eating establishment that does not serve the freshest food, bought that morning in the market,’ a friend there told me, ‘and you’ll be out of business in a week.’

It is striking, this fineness of sensibility – the almost Japanese delicacy – the Basques have with their food. Because it is so at odds with the national character: they’re a brusque lot, headstrong, easily angered. You can see where the fanatical nationalism comes from, the sheer madness – never mind the ETA terrorists – of that 50 per cent or so of the population whose voting patterns indicate they would like to secede from Spain.

Like many Catalans, only more so, this breed of Basque insist on seeing themselves as victims, on feeling aggrieved at the unfair treatment they receive from what they call ‘the Spanish state’. And yet there is quite possibly no other group of people in Europe that enjoys a better quality of life. Such thoughts passed through my mind on a stroll along the arching promenade that lines San Sebastián’s Concha, the city’s beautiful beach, in the direction of my next pincho stop, Casa Gandarias, in the old heart of the city. I had not found the Gandarias in any tourist guide. Nor had it been recommended by any of the half dozen or so locals I was to consult during my stay in the city. (In fact, the locals seemed distinctly underwhelmed when I told them later that I had eaten there.)

The idea had come from a couple of friends of mine in Teddington, Surrey. Either the Teddington couple and I were pitifully easy to please, or the local experts were the most impossible snobs. I want to believe it is the latter. Because the truth is that during the hour and a half I spent at Gandarias I was in food heaven. It was 2.30 in the afternoon and the clientele were spilling out onto the street, it was so busy. I elbowed my way through to the barra, heaving under the weight of a tapas spread four times more abundantly than the one at Bideluze. The dishes that were not on display, because they needed to be cooked on the spot, were listed on a blackboard.

By astounding good fortune I found myself an empty stool at the barra, summoned the nearest barman – big, bald, as gruff as it gets – and asked him if it was actually true, as another blackboard before me indicated, that Belondrade y Lurton white wine was available, ‘by the glass’. ‘That’s right,’ the barman replied, looking me menacingly in the eye, as if a bell were about to ring in the first round of a prize fight. ‘Belondrade y Lurton, the finest white wine in Spain …by the glass?’ I repeated. ‘That’s correct,’ my antagonist said, betraying, I thought, the faintest germ of pride; and maybe even a suggestion of surprise at this non-Basque barbarian’s appreciation of the quality of beverage on display.

In either case, it was staggering to come across such a find in such a place, and a most eloquent expression of what is so special about eating out in San Sebastián. The most ordinary, everyday, humdrum of establishments serve food and drink of the standard you would expect to find in a restaurant run by the most lubricious maitre d’, the most pompous sommelier. So I ordered a glass of Belondrade – made by a French couple in Rueda, an hour and a half north of Madrid, from the ancient Verdejo grape – and then some crab and octopus and prawns and some sizzling kidneys and a lamb brochette and black pudding (morcilla) with red peppers and the best, moistest potato omelette I’ve ever tasted and a few more slices of that glistening ham. You have to order ham in Spanish tapas joints if you want to be taken seriously.

Ham – of endless quality and variety – is the great national unifier. It is what gives lie to the delusion the Basques – and the Catalans and some Galicians – have that they are culturally different from their Iberian neighbours. (The Portuguese are different, of course, because, among other reasons, for them it is cod, not ham, that is king.) There were also some quite spectacular pieces of dark red meat on show, available either in the form of a fat slab of steak or in choice little cuts delivered on a slice of crusty bread. My friend from Teddington had memorably feasted on a fat one. The best piece of meat he’d ever had, he said. But he was still digesting it three months later so I plumped for just the one little pincho, garnished to simple perfection with thick chunks of rock salt. The piece de resistance, though, was the foie, also in pincho form. Rinsed down with that liquid Belondrade bouquet, it was an Elysean excess.

But Belondrade wasn’t all that was on offer – there were plenty of other terrific wines, too. There was also a range of Scotch whisky that beggared belief. The labels on the bottles were a Who’s Who of single malt’s finest: Ardbeg, Bladnoch, Caol Ila, Laphroaig, Inverleven, and more – further proof, if at this stage it were needed, that I had penetrated a superior civilisation. I stuck to another glass of my favourite Spanish white for my cheesecake dessert, delivered on a raspberry-lined, toothpaste-white oval plate. And that’s another thing. Each dish had its own plate: round, square, triangular or oval, depending, as far as I could surmise , on whether it was fish, meat or fowl.

I rounded the meal off with a cortado coffee, which is an espresso cut with hot milk. I have had thousands of cortados but this one tasted better than any other . The rough enchantment of the place had got to me. During the whole 90 minutes I spent at Gandarias, I never ceased to be amazed and entranced by the fact that I was eating and drinking in a place as regular to San Sebastiánites as the local King’s Arms is to the inhabitants of Stockton-on-Tees. Oh, and it all came to €30, including tip.

‘The secret,’ Gabriella Ranelli reflected, ‘is that they approach their food with so much mimo.’ Mimo is what you do with babies you love. It means a combination of things, both abstract and physical. It means to cherish, but also to pamper, typically while making a tender cooing sound. ‘That’s how the Basques relate to food,’ Gabriella continued. ‘In the restaurants and bars it’s not just about making money. It’s about pleasing – and not just your clients, but yourself.’ That is why even the wine glasses at Gandarias were of the finest quality. It isn’t about money but about doing justice to a culture. There is a phenomenon in the Basque country known as ‘la sociedad gastronómica’ . It’s a kind of club, usually based around a group of male friends who inhabit the same neighbourhood, in which people gather to discuss and cook food. The gastronomic society will have its own fully equipped kitchen and members will take turns to cook for each other.

Where, in other latitudes, people play golf or tennis or bridge, the Basque sport is cooking. An Andalucían friend who recently moved from Madrid to San Sebastián said he was surprised to discover a state-of-the art kitchen on the ground fl oor for the use of residents in the block of fl ats where he was living . ‘In the block where I lived in Madrid we had a pool and a tennis court,’ he said. ‘Here – and it’s the same in these kinds of places all over the Basque country – we have this great big communal kitchen.’

The measure of how fanatical these gastronomic society people must be about their food was provided by a Basque friend José Luis, who does not belong to one. In fact, he told me, he’s not very good at cooking at all. José Luis is in his forties and has a group of a dozen or so mates he has been hanging out with all his life. They have a number of rituals, the most solemn of which is that on your birthday you must cook a great big extravagant meal for everybody else. ‘So you cook one, too?’ I said. ‘Of course,’ he replied. ‘But I thought you said you couldn’t cook.’ ‘Well, I need a couple of days to prepare the meal, and I follow practically every step from a recipe book.’ ‘And you do this for a dozen people and you say that’s not cooking?’ ‘No, of course not. Cooking is when I put three or four fresh ingredients in front of you and in an hour you’ve made a great dish out of them.’ So there you are. As far as Basques who are not too fussed about their food are concerned, using a recipe book is cheating. The gastronomic societies have existed forever.

Perhaps the historical reason why they should have emerged in this part of the world in the first place has to do with the natural abundance of food. There is the sea (the Basques are fi shing folk by ancient tradition) and there is excellent agricultural land. Most of Spain is dry and brown but the Basque country is lush and green, with big valleys and gentle slopes that suggest the Swiss lowlands, but with more heat and sun. ‘There are still lots of small farms and San Sebastián has more Michelin stars per head than any place on earth the quality of the produce really is fabulous,’ said Gabriella, who has lived in the Basque country for 15 years and knows a fresh Gernika pepper when she sees one.

Talking of which, a visit to the main market in San Sebastián is the city’s second obligatory tourist destination after la Concha beach. The fish counters are a pleasure to behold, but what will stay with me is the fragrant smell of the lettuce. Another reason why the food is so good has to do with the emergence 25 years ago of what is known as ‘new Basque cuisine’. Its champion is local legend Juan Mari Arzak, who runs a three-star Michelin restaurant by the same name. Since then the sky’s been the limit. As Gabriella says, ‘In San Sebastián you have it all, the entire range – from the most avant-garde dishes you’ll fi nd anywhere, to the best set-price lunches, to the best tapas; everything!’ Ask the inhabitants of southwest France: they flock to San Sebastián, which they consider their food mecca. Actually, it is, in all likelihood, the best place to eat in the entire Western world. If you doubt it, consider this: San Sebastián, which has the same population as Stockton-on-Tees, has more Michelin stars per inhabitant than any place on earth. Fifteen, to be precise. 180,000 people live in San Sebastián, Spain’s 27th largest city but the one with the highest property prices. That means one star for every 12,000 inhabitants. (London, with a population 200 times larger, has 34 stars.)

‘What the top restaurants do is raise the level of the ordinary eating place,’ Gabriella said. ‘But the great chefs take much of their inspiration in turn from the everyday places. One feeds the other, so to speak, and the public, who get accustomed to better and better food, become more and more demanding.’

One of the reasons why the gastronomy congress was held in San Sebastián is that it is the one place in Spain where the public can be relied upon to turn up in large numbers. These are people who save up all year to eat at Arzak or one of the other mega-star restaurants like Martin Berasategui, Akelare or Zuberoa, in the same way that people elsewhere save up for a holiday in Miami. So offering them a gathering of the cream of the world’s chefs is like the Beatles coming to town.

The congress venue was a big, boxshaped convention centre by the sea known as the Kursaal, the kernel of which is a large amphitheatre used by symphony orchestras. It was standing room only in the amphitheatre when Ferran Adriá (who is to San Sebastián as David Beckham still is to Tokyo) did the first of his star turns. There were about 30 chefs in all – from France, Italy and the United States as well as Spain – who did half-hour presentations on stage of some of their favourite dishes, complete with live video connections to kitchens where their staff did the chopping and mixing. This was decidedly not for the housewife back home to imitate. It was – especially in the case of the show-offy Spaniards – the culinary equivalent of going to a wayout-there haute couture fashion show. In the case of Adriá, it was like his restaurant, el Bulli. It was beyond food, beyond eating. That was what I had been doing at Bideluze and Gandarias. This was pure spectacle. Virtuoso for virtuoso’s sake. There was an elaborate machine that made mint juice, long syringes, odd Styrofoam contraptions, deep pots belching white smoke (this was the liquid nitrogen).

The ingredients were eggs, asparagus, olive juice (green as pea soup), vinegar dust and raw powdered calcium. The point was to cook not by applying heat to the raw materials, but extreme cold. The end result was a sort of poached egg encased in a transparent asparagus gelatine. You cut through it and the yolk ran liquid as a fried egg’s. It was a staggering spectator sport, as was the act of creation by which another playful Catalan, Joan Roca, made a brittle, see-through, balloon-sized orb densely packed with cep smoke. To ‘eat’ it, you crack the balloon and inhale. In between all this there was some delightfully simple stuff , like warm oysters with green apple juice. One of the French chefs (I think he was taking the mick) offered as his contribution a big fat roast chicken. An Italian made snails. An American chef cooked bread. The most notable difference between the Spaniards and the rest was that the Spaniards worked with the cool precision of laboratory scientists, or heart surgeons. In the case of Andoni Aduriz (the most avant of the avant-garde Gabriella was talking about) the analogy is not extreme. Every one at the congress I spoke to mentioned his name in hushed tones.

Thirty years old, Andoni – as everyone calls him, the same way Brazilians call their football superstars by their first names – is the boy wonder of global cuisine. (Well, actually, if you ask Ferran Adriá, the most interesting contemporary genius is Britain’s very own Heston Blumenthal, but that’s another story.) His special gift, I was told, is making foie. So obsessive is Andoni, who looks like Harry Potter, about this particular art that he frequented Spain’s leading liver research hospital in Granada for a period of two years in order fully to grasp the ins and outs, the precise fat-protein ratio, the exact enzyme composition of the said organ.

As a consequence he understands foie and can cook it better than anyone alive, gauging the different temperatures required at every forensically delicate stage of the coction process to a thousandth of a degree. I went to his restaurant, Mugaritz, in San Sebastián’s mountainous southern outskirts, for dinner. I had the dégustation menu, each of a dozen dishes more minimalist than the next, and nothing to do with everything else that’s going on in Spanish cooking. The Adriá school is exuberantly Dalíesque. Andoni is Zen austere. The first off ering, consumed in one gulp at the end of a very long spoon, was a sea anemone, a gooey grey thing whose naturally kidneyish, urine tang was helpfully off set by a hint of lemon.

Next up, raw thistle leaves with milk skin, garlic dressing and an olive infusion. Then herb salad and laminated mushroom followed by hay consomme and a morsel of sea urchin leavened with garlic and walnuts. A tasty little chunk of Iberian pig went down nicely after that, as did the scallop of foie, first roasted, then chargrilled and accompanied by a consomme of date pips . And so it went on. A Spanish food critic sharing the table with me noted that I was consuming rather more bread than one might ordinarily expect to eat at a top-of-the-range Michelin establishment, but the truth was that for most of the meal I was bloody hungry.

‘He takes risks, Andoni,’ my dinner companion observed. ‘He lives on a knife edge.’ But, I asked, did he like Andoni’s food? ‘Look,’ the Spanish gourmand replied, ‘you either go along with this spiritual game of his or, frankly, you find him a pain in the balls.’ A bunch of Catalan chefs at the table next to me who’d come along to San Sebastián to pick up some tricks at the gastronomy congress really got it badly in the balls. There were five of them, all good-quality chefs in their own right who serve straightforward fine food in a town on the foothills of the Pyrenees. After dinner I drove back with them to the city centre. They were indignant. Enraged. I couldn’t print most of what they said but it boiled down to this: ‘What a load of pretentious rubbish!’ I said I tended to agree, while humbly acknowledging that if the cream of Spanish cheffery believed this guy to be the Picasso of his day, well, cubism was derided too when it first appeared on the art scene.

What was true, and where I entirely agreed with my outraged Catalan crew, was that I badly felt a need for one of those fat crimson super-steaks my friend from Teddington had gorged on. The next day my friend José Luis, the Basque who doesn’t care about food, had us walk the streets for an hour before we found just the right place to have lunch. Asador Trapos, which dishes up traditional pre-nouvelle cuisine Basque food, was just what the doctor ordered. José Luis and I shared a plate of thick green beans with garlic and another of artichokes with clams, and then I had my longed-for half-kilo slab of red meat.

Chuletón de buey is what you ask for, the literal translation of which is ‘ox chop’, but what it really means is beef steak. I loved the fact that the waiter did not even ask me how I’d like the meat done. He brought it blood rare, sprinkled with rock salt, and accompanied by a bottle of red honest-to-goodness Rioja. I kept going back to the congress, gawping at the cutting-edgery of it all, but it was Asador Trapos and the tapas bars I went to that will linger much longer in the mind. Take a place called Barandiarán that I popped into one morning for breakfast. Again, I had never heard of this place before walking in, again it was a regular everyday place with soiled napkins on the floor but the spectacle that awaited me at the barra was a feast for the eyes.

This being breakfast, they had held back on the kidneys and foie wasn’t on the menu. Instead, among the self-service goodies on display were succulent pieces of cinnamon-coated French toast, smoked salmon, crabmeat and shrimp on toast and, of course, potato and onion omelette. The only juice available was orange, freshly squeezed, and the cortado coff ee was of a quality, as they say in Spain, to revive the dead. A tapas bar that the locals did recommend was Bar la Cepa, just down the road from Gandarias in the old quarter of San Sebastián, which is where most of the best pinchos in town are to be found. As far as I could tell, it was Casa Gandarias all over again, though (and the local experts will have to forgive me) not quite as fine.

The best recommendation was that four pinchos into my meal, Ferran Adriá walked in with his wife. It is the second time this has happened to me in a year, the first having been at a very hip tapas place indeed in Adriá’s native Barcelona. I was struck by the fact that, on arrival, he ordered, as he had done the first time around, a large plate of ham. It is his antidote, you can’t help feeling, to the elaborate intricacies with which he concerns himself in his day job. So, I asked Adriá, was San Sebastián the best place to eat in the world? My expectation was that he would cry ‘yes’, or make some sly remark along the lines that it was almost the best, after Barcelona. Yet there was not a tinge of patriotic prejudice in his reply. Quick as a flash he said, ‘No. Shanghai is better. Maybe Thailand, too.’ Shanghai? ‘The variety and inventiveness is amazing.’ And Thailand? ‘The freshness of the produce is remarkable .’ So was San Sebastián the best in Spain at least? ‘Of course! What do you mean?’ he replied. ‘It’s the best in Europe. The best in the West. No doubt about that at all. And if you push me, in terms of the average quality of the food, in terms of what you can get at any place you happen to walk into, maybe it is – probably it is, yes – the best in the world.’
· For more information on Gabriella Ranelli’s food tours, visit www.tenedortours.com

Link to Article at the The Guardian/The Observer.co.uk: http://observer.guardian.co.uk/foodmonthly/story/0,,1433609,00.html
Where to eat in San Sebastian
Bideluze, Plaza de Guipuzcoa, 14, (00 34 943 422 880)
Casa Gandarias, Calle 31 de Agosto, 25, (00 34 943 428 106)
Barandiarán, Alameda del Boulevard, 38 (no phone)
Bar La Cepa, Calle 31 de Agosto, 9, (00 34 943 426 394)
Bar Astelena, Inigo, 1, 00 34 943 426 275)
Alona Berri, Calle Birmingham, 24, (00 34 943 290 818)
Ganbara, Calle de San Geronimo, 21, (00 34 943 422 575)
Mugaritz, Aldura Aldea, 20, Errenteria, (00 34 943 522 455)
Asador Trapos, Calle 31 de Agosto, 28, (00 34 943 422 816)
Arzak, Avenida Alcalde Jose Elosegui, 273, (00 34 943 278 593)
Fagollago, Calle Ereñozu, 68, Hernani, (00 34 943 550 031)