I looked into the mirror at my jet lagged eyes, while standing in the modest restroom of the restaurant at La Ferme Ostalapia.
A bed and breakfast that Anthony Bourdain frequented, just across the border from Spain in the small town of Ahetze, France. I wondered what Anthony was thinking when he undoubtedly also looked at his reflection in this mirror.
After washing up, I walked slowly through the rustic dining room, patting the owners dog on my way out to the patio where my family was seated.
I took in the view, rolling green forested hills with dark gray puffy clouds surrounding us. Tan cows with bells grazing nearby.
I sat and glanced at the seat Bourdain occupied while he filmed an episode here, a year or so before his death.
I am obviously far from alone in my admiration of Anthony Bourdain’s career and his writing.
I have spent nearly two decades of my life working my way up from rock bottom, to playing key roles in notable bars and restaurants.
After spending considerable time in the trenches, I can attest from personal experience that no one has ever captured the reality of the restaurant industry the way he did.
It’s still unfathomable to me that he’s gone.
A grim reminder that you never know what is really going on in a persons private life, no matter how perfect it appears on the outside.
I distinctly remember my husband waking me that morning to tell me of his suicide. We had gone to sleep the night before binge watching his show, while he was on the other side of the world in a suite in France hanging himself.
I am no stranger to the devastation of a suicide or unexpected death. Rarely has the death of someone I have never met, affected me so much.
He was my idealized hero. Imperfect and unapologetically crass, yet Anthony somehow managed to still come off as undeniably charming.
He inspired me to do whatever it takes to spend more time traveling the world.
I honestly did not set out to go on any sort of pilgrimage of Bourdain’s favorite places in the Basque region of Spain and France.
While I was doing research on this trip, I realized that we had planned to visit cities that he had featured in especially fond light.
Why not visit a few of his favorite haunts?
First stop, San Sebastian.
I arrived exhausted with my husband and two teenage sons after twenty hours of travel. It was absolutely gorgeous, eighty degrees and sunny.
We drove around the iconic horse shoe shaped beach, crowded with sunbathers, on our way to our accommodations.
A historic house located on a hill over looking the city. The twelve-meter tall statue of Jesus Christ, atop the Monte Urgull in the distance.
It was a Friday night. We watched the sun set over the beach from our vantage point on the hill and then departed to find somewhere to dine.
The city was packed with locals and tourists.
We wandered through Old Town. Weaving through the crowds, emerging from narrow alleys to large public squares. Every restaurant and bar was overflowing with people.
The pintxos (tapas) culture in San Sebastian was not what I expected. I have visited Barcelona, which was lovely and the tapas culture comparatively civilized.
In San Sebastian, pintxos are served differently than in other parts of Spain. A magnificent spread of pintxos is displayed on the bar top, for the taking. That is, if you’re ready to fight for it.
Hand to hand combat when you just want to have a drink and a bite, was not fun for me.
The locals are understandably tired of tourists. Unburdened by fear, they will push, gently shove or simply take over your space.
You are packed in shoulder to shoulder at every pintxos bar, swaying with the mass of people, as if out to sea.
Stepping on discarded crumpled napkins, while clutching a small plate to your chest with one hand, shoving a pintxos into your mouth with the other. This is not my idea of a good time.
I stared longingly at the diners comfortably seated at tables enjoying leisurely dinners.
Turns out anywhere truly worth going in San Sebastian, you have no chance of getting a table without securing a reservation months in advance.
I lamented making this trip during peak tourist season, unfortunately, unavoidable with our eldest son leaving for college in August.
Ganbara, one of Anthony’s favorite pinxtos restaurants in San Sebastian was so overcrowded, I wasn’t even able to step inside.
After making multiple attempts to breach the wall of people lining the wide open double doors for several days in a row, I finally wriggled my way inside.
Tony would joke about “ruining” restaurants that he visited. I witnessed the aftermath of his carnage firsthand.
My enthusiasm to experience the pintxos at Ganbara wained with all of the shouting, elbows, spilled wine and food littering the floor.
I lasted for at least several minutes, before I gave up and left.
I could not stand having to duke it out in a mob of hungry people for another second. Is it really that exceptional and worthy of the effort to eat there? Did Bourdain featuring it, make it the hottest pintxos bar in town?
I just didn’t want to have to fight for it anymore.
I will concede I was able to make a reservation to visit Ganbara for lunch. I was shown to their windowless cramped downstairs dining area.
It felt like a storage space and probably still had the same furniture from when they opened in 1984.
I was pleased to see only locals enjoying lunch beside us. I still think about the green salad with tomato, white onion, oil and vinegar.
Completely basic, yet the quality and purity of the simple ingredients made it one of the best salads I have ever eaten.
The heavily marbled bone-in ribeye served with frites, was charred to perfection.
Perhaps it was as delicious as I remember… or maybe I was just happy to be able to sit down while I ate.
I imagined that Anthony enjoyed being tucked away downstairs there, out of the spot light.
San Sebastian just didn’t feel like a beach town to me. There are parts of it that are beautiful. Gorgeous architecture to be enjoyed.
After walking around for a few days, noticing all of the tourist traps, Old Town reminded me more of what I would imagine a Spanish-themed section of Disneyland would be like.
Perhaps Bourdain’s depiction of the city gave me expectations.
We did find solace and a break from the dreaded (other tourists) at Gerald’s Bar, near the Zuriola Hondartza beach. A classically decorated bar reminiscent of “Cheers” owned by Aussie’s that settled in Spain.
The area is populated with more locals, better restaurants and I enjoyed the relaxed vibe on this side of town.
Gerald’s Bar served me one of my best meals in Europe this trip. We consumed simply prepared homemade pastas, among many other delights, such as roasted quail. Sophisticated food without any pretension.
We left San Sebastian a little beat up and somewhat disappointed with our experience, but found resolve to continue on.
After a short drive we crossed the border to France to stop by Ostalapia for lunch, on our way to Biarritz. Following a long winding road with nothing but fields and forest surrounding us.
Just when I thought we must have made a mistake in our navigation, a large white manor with brown trim appeared.
The quaint bed and breakfast, La Ferme Ostalapia, was a welcome respite from the crowds of tourists in San Sebastian.
I could see how Bourdain must have enjoyed the anonymity here.
Our party of four wandered inside to the restaurant. It was a charming space with brown tiled flooring, large wooden tables, each with a long wax candle adorning it.
Heavy oak support beams overhead, country artwork and a wine-rack displaying local vintage bottles on the walls.
Glass framed doors opened up to their large patio, over looking the garden and meadow.
The owner and his large charcoal black hunting dog greeted us. The restaurant was empty other than several employees tending to opening duties.
We opted to sit on the patio despite the weather being borderline brisk and windy. The sun had peaked out just enough, that we couldn’t resist not being cooped up inside.
A good sign that they did not offer a menu in English. In fact, only the owner and one other staff member spoke English.
Fortunately, I am co-dependent on my husbands command of the French language. He interpreted and we ordered.
Our lunch at Ostalapia did not disappoint.
Grilled duck breast with peach compote, poached salmon served with roasted artichokes wrapped in cured pork, a round ravioli stuffed with duck sausage.
House-made tagliatelle served with sauteed sweet breads, mushrooms and red wine reduction.
For dessert chocolate mousse, bread pudding, a cheese plate, dessert wine and espresso.
A meal in honor of our dearly departed.
I sat back looking out at the meadow, sipped my wine and imagined what it would be like to be able to travel like this for a living. I glanced again at Anthony’s empty seat.
To travel the world, meet interesting and influential people, to accept invitations to dine at the most esteemed restaurants, varying from the humble to Michelin starred.
I wondered what it would be like to do all of that and then unequivocally decide that my time was up.
Maybe he felt like he did it all and was ready for the next big adventure. It was probably a combination of personal reasons. We will never know.
I now notice how often Anthony alluded to his loneliness. How frequently he teased of committing suicide, especially in his writing.
We all thought he was joking.
I chatted with the owner before we left. “Are you fans of Anthony Bourdain?” he asked in a thick french accent.
“Yes, we’re on our way to Biarritz and thought we would stop by. We did see the show he featured here.”
“Nice man, quiet…” he replied. “He would stay here occasionally. We had no idea he was famous until he asked if he could film here.”
“Almost every American that comes now, is making a pilgrimage to visit because of his… presence here. It’s a tragedy he’s gone.” He trailed off with a sad smile.
After we arrived in Biarritz, I went for a walk alone to the ocean and found a perch. I stared at the distant sunset, lost in my thoughts.
There are as many opinions about what makes a life worth living, as there are people in the world.
Whether you perish unexpectedly in an accident, are taken by illness, old age … or you decide to hang yourself in a hotel suite in France.
The only thing known for certain, is we all have a one-way ticket out of here. Better make the most of it.
“The journey is part of the experience — an expression of seriousness of one’s intent. One doesn’t take the ‘A’ train to Mecca.” ~ Anthony Bourdain
➡️ Jezebel Feast is the editor of “Jezebel’s Feast,” a personal blog focused on the vast topic of living a sustainable lifestyle. Visit her new home jezebelsfeast.com. Want to keep in touch? Catch Jeze on Instagram 📸 or Pinterest 📌…🔗…🚀