Surfing Spain: Basque Barrels Part II

The view from Playa La Concha in San Sebastian.

Our first glimpse of the Spanish coast was frustrating. The brick buildings of the beautiful coastal city of San Sebastian, that will be the co-cultural capital of Europe in 2016, blocked our view.

But there was swell. It was just a matter of finding a sheltered corner of San Sebastian’s Bahia de la Concha that would provide a respite from the stormy conditions.

“Dad, there are waves breaking in the river,” said Israel excitedly as we drove past the Rio Urumea on our way to the beach. “It looks just like the entrance to Mission Beach when it gets big.”

I was with my two sons, Israel and Daniel, and my French cousins, Vincent and Margaux. With a base camp at a campground just south of Biarritz, we had decided to cross the nearby Spanish border and spend the afternoon surfing and sampling the cuisine of San Sebastian, population 430,000, considered one of Europe’s premier culinary capitals.

The boys get ready to surf in San Sebastian. Urban surfing at its finest.

“You almost can’t find bad food in San Sebastian,” said Esteban of the Pro Surf Shop in the French surfing village of Guethary.

As I headed south along the seaside route along the Playa de la Concha, in our blue Renault mini-van, we could see waves breaking at a little headland that divides Concha from Playa de Ondarretta.

As we passed the point, we could see 2-4’ lefts were breaking. Just a few people were out. “Let’s get out there,” said Israel.

For the next hour or so, the boys and Vincent and Margaux enjoyed the semi-closed out beachbreak waves in the company of local groms. I took photos from the malecon above, where a parade of well-dressed tourists and local residents, or donostiarras, as they call themselves in Basque, strolled by. The Basque name for San Sebastian is Donostia.

Daniel at San Sebastian.

On the other side of the point, was a shorebreak, where local bodyboarders rode waves that bounced off the rock and high tide and mutated into an ugly giant ogre of a barrel. The boys and Vincent rode a few waves with a couple of visiting Australian bodyboarders.

Israel

They got pummeled.

Later that evening we ate a bevy of delicious mostly seafood tapas at a bar in the Parte Vieja. Scores of bars and restaurants play host to the tourists who flock to the tiny cobblestone streets of San Sebastian’s old quarter each summer.

Freaky shorebreak in San Sebastian.

The next day after our epic session at Guethary (see last week’s article), we headed to the fabled seaside village of Mundaka, located east of San Sebastian.

Recently ranked the 11th best wave in the world by Surfer Magazine, Mundaka is a perfect left point that used to be a stop on the ASP World Tour. Former World Surfing Champion Tom Curren told Surfer that he actually considers Mundaka to be the best wave in the world, “Because it’s the best I’ve seen yet.”

Daniel at Mundaka

I had surfed Mundaka back in early October 1983 at the age of 19 when I was a UCSD undergraduate spending a semester at the Complutense University of Madrid. I had taken the overnight train from Madrid to Bilbao and caught bus from there to Mundaka.

As the bus rounded a curve along the route that follows the Ria Guernica, I caught a full view of the point. Perfect 6-8’ offshore waves were peeling down the point.

Israel at Mundaka, almost getting dropped in on. Something that happens a lot there. It is not Europe's friendlies surf spot.

A few minutes later I literally almost jumped off the bus, left my gear with an Aussie camped out in the town plaza, and paddled out for a session of beautiful warm-water point waves.

I didn’t expect it to be as good this time. But with a swell running, I figured we would catch something. As we passed the same point where I had first caught a glimpse of Mudaka surf 28 years earlier, the boys spotted the lineup and the surf. “It is going off,” said Israel.

While it was far from perfect, with 3-5’ semi-glassy surf, the boys spent about three hours surfing sand-bottom hollow lefts with a small crowd of locals. I surfed for a while and then retreated to a local café with a great view of the lineup to drink strong Spanish coffee.

The puerto at Mundaka with the Basque flag flying. You see very few if any Spanish flags in the region.

The boys later joined me for lunch. As they devoured their giant bocadillos and surveyed the beautiful harbor and peeling waves, Daniel said, “It was crowded, fast and perfect. I can’t wait to come back.”

I can’t either.

The quay at Mundaka. You paddle out here. Even when it is huge the paddle out is easy, although there is lots of current.

Basque Barrels Part I: Surfing in France

The left at Alcyon

There is a photo from a 1970s era Surfer Magazine of a man leisurely sitting on a bench in the Basque Country of France. He is overlooking a perfect right—a blue-green bomb–peeling into an empty channel.

For me the photo encapsulated all the reasons to travel—finding empty beautiful waves in picturesque and exotic settings.

So two weeks ago, I was elated to find myself in exactly the same spot as the photo. I was above the legendary Parlementia reef in the picturesque seaside village Guerthary, France.

Just like in that historic photo, the waves were pumping.

Daniel at Alcyon

I had come to France to introduce my children to the country of my father, whose family still lives in and around Paris. The boys flew over with my dad first.

After they had spent a couple of wonderful couple of weeks in Paris and the French countryside, I flew over to take them south to the Basque Country—ground zero for the European Surfing scene.

After a couple of days of sampling the sights and bubbly delights of the Champagne country southeast of Paris, where my uncle has a house, the boys and I loaded up a 2002 Renault mini-wagon, with our surfboards and camping gear.

Israel, Vincent, Margaux and Daniel.

My cousins Vincent and Margaux accompanied us. Both had enjoyed spending summers in Imperial Beach (Vincent was even an IB Junior Lifeguard) and love the ocean.

Vincent has spent last year’s summer vacation in the village of Seignosse, home to what Surfer Magazine recently called the world’s best beachbreak and one of the world’s best waves.

Guethary and the beach of Bidart.

After an uneventful eight-hour drive, we arrived in Guethary that is located just south of the French surfing capital of Biarritz. The village is precariously perched above the Palmentaria reef.

While the waves were small, we could see waves capping and rolling on the reef.

At the Basque Surf Company Pro Surf Shop in Guethary, where I rented a 6’8” epoxy fun board and Vincent rented a soft-top, we met shop proprietors Romo and Esteban, both longtime locals.

Alcyon

“The surf is going to get big tomorrow, 8-10’. Palmentaria is the Sunset Beach of France,” said Esteban, who had grown up speaking Basque in Guethary and was of mixed Spanish and American ancestry.

The boys and Vincent paddled out at a nearby beachbreak. The waves were small, but the water was a balmy 68 degrees.

That evening we sat around our tents in a nearby campground eating pizza and imagining the waves we would surf the next day.

The following morning, the boys and I were up early. While a bit of south wind was making things a bit sloppy, the sets at Palmentaria were in the six-foot range and there were just a handful of surfers to sample them. We all caught a few rights and then paddled in as the wind came up.

Later that morning, we realized that there was another wave to the south of Palmentaria, a left called Alcyon, that is the “Big Rock” of France.

Alcyon is a grinding left that is best at low tide.

Israel at Alcyon

Israel paddled out and caught a few gnarly 4-6’ lefts. “It was super shallow and the takeoff was super tight,” he said. “Some guy started yelling at me in French, and I had no idea why he was angry.”

The next day the wind was offshore and the waves were pumping. The sets at Alcyon were in the 6-8’ range. Only a handful of guys were out.

Across the bay I could  see triple overhead peaks breaking over the Palmentaria reef. The scene reminded me of a winter-day at the Sloughs.

I snapped a few photos of the boys surfing Alcyon. Then I put on my rashguard, grabbed my board and paddled out at Palmentaria.

The waves were breaking close to a half a mile from shore. Big peaks came out of deep water and heaved across the reef.

An eclectic crew of hardcore longtime local surfers were out on 9-10’ big-wave guns. There were a couple of visiting Japanese surfers and one other American.

Everyone is friendly and stoked to be surfing an overhead swell in the summer.

I am completely undergunned on my 6’8”. But I manage to catch a few of the smaller set waves (I can’t even paddle into the larger ones), get caught inside and hammered. I appreciate why Palmentaria is compared to Sunset.

While I wish I had been able to surf on of my own big-wave boards, I was still glad to experience a wave I had dreamed about since I was a teenager.

On our last surf day, we headed to the fabled beachbreaks of Hossegor north of Biarritz. Miles and miles of sandbanks provide deep and often empty tubes for visiting and local surfers.

The world’s best surfers assemble here each fall to compete in the Quiksilver Pro France.

Daniel at Le Penon

The boys and I popped over the sand dunes of Le Penon in the village of Seignosse. The waves were 3-5’ and offshore.

“It is going off,” said Daniel.

For the rest of the day, we catch dozens of waves. Israel broke his board on a stand-up barrel.

At low tide I found a sand bar spitting out A-frames. One other surfer joined me, a local, who like me was mystified that on a Saturday afternoon during the height of summer, we were the only ones out.

I can’t wait to go back.

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