Travel News

Our man in San Sebastián

It was love at first sight for Gerald Diffey, of acclaimed Melbourne bar Gerald’s, when he first visited the Basque Country’s famed resort town. Here he opens the door to his adopted second home.

San Sebastián's harbour, La Concha

Alicia Taylor


From select Australian cities, Qantas, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways fly one stop to both Madrid and to Barcelona; Singapore Airlines flies one stop to Barcelona. Vueling Airlines and Iberia operate short flights from both cities to San Sebastián; there are also regular trains from Madrid (about six hours), Barcelona (six hours) and buses from Bilbao (an hour).

I first came to San Sebastián by accident. It was six years ago, and my flight was delayed leaving Europe because of the volcanic eruption in Iceland. We ended up with a few days spare at the end of the trip, and just headed up from Barcelona for a lark. As soon as I arrived, though, I thought, “I have to spend more time here.” I was struck by the fact that it’s a small town but it has everything – the beaches, the architecture, culture, art, music, great bars and extraordinary food.

The Basques are both inward-looking and very international at the same time. You’ve got wild architecture and art like the Kursaal and the Chillida sculptures next to very traditional buildings and work. It’s the same with the food – there’s these proud, unbroken traditions of fishing, foraging, farming, wine and cheese and very traditional old restaurants and bars coexisting with a concentration of some of the most modern cooking in the world. They sit next to each other very comfortably here.

You can get intimate with San Sebastián quite quickly. With Madrid or even Barcelona, you don’t really get under the skin of the city that readily, but here you can immerse yourself in the culture. The Basques have an identity that is so strong and powerful and so seductive – they keep their traditions alive in a way that, in England, say, would’ve died out 150 years ago. They hold culture in the palm of their hands. It’s their most important treasure. The spoken word, sculpture and film are very important here. Defining identity is an ongoing, important project for the people of San Sebastián, young or old. And food is very much part of that.

Our neighbourhood, Gros, which is just over the river from the Old Town, fronting the surf beach, is having a moment. There’s a lot of new operators; we’re here, there’s The Loaf, which is very good, and this northern summer some guys from Mugaritz are opening up just a block or two away. Gros is the Brooklyn of San Sebastián. Or possibly the Carlton. It’s got a funky liveliness to it; it’s where the mojo is happening.

I think 2016 is a particularly good year to visit, too – in addition to the film festival, the jazz festival and the surf film festival, the city’s been named a European Capital of Culture for 2016, which means there are events on in the arts every day of the year, and the New York Times just put it on its list of the most essential places for travellers in 2016.

I like that the place could be full of surf dudes, but then you look across the room and you’ve got elderly aristocratic French people coming down to take the air for the week, and they mix in the same bars and the same space, and that’s a wonderful melting pot. Everyone’s here because it’s cool, and I want to be a part of that.

My decision to open a bar here last year, along with my partner from Gerald’s in Melbourne, Mario Di Ienno, and our partner in San Sebastián, Carlos Belío, was largely based on the idea that I just want to be in this city every year for the rest of my life. I want to cook and source wine and have a place in their world, and they’ve welcomed us, just as you’ll be welcomed at the places here.

Now, explore Gerald Diffey’s guide on where to eat, drink, shop and stay in San Sebastián and tune in to our playlist featuring the best of the Gerald’s Bar record collection. 

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