Tubes and Tapas: Surfing in Northern Spain

Zach Plopping surfing an island wave that only breaks during massive winter swells.

The tapa or pintxo, with the gelatinous and vegetable covering, looked delicious. Since the bartender in this historic district Santander bar was typically rude if not downright hostile, I didn’t bother asking what the ingredients were.

But my first taste caused me to gag and push away my plate as our guide Robert Amasuno, a longtime local surfer said, “You know that gelatin is made from pig’s feet.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The last time I was in Santander, on Spain’s stunning northern coast in Cantabria, was the fall of 1983, when I spent a few days surfing on a trip with my little brother Nick and my mother. We had taken the ferry from Plymouth to Santander on our way to Meknes, Morocco, where my dad was working on a United Nations project. I had spent my senior year of high school in Madrid and after our trip to Morocco, I spent a semester at Madrid’s Complutense University.

Back then, the coast around Santander provided endless empty beachbreak waves, warm water and just a few local surfers. The food was excellent. I’ll never forget a dinner of braised rabbit at a rustic country restaurant.

Today northern Spain is a different world. Endless rows of abandoned vacation condos litter the coast (seeing the numerous abandoned construction cranes and vacation villages in Spain is a great way to understand the European and Spanish financial crisis). Surfing is now a big deal with skilled and experienced surfers populating beach cities.

But northern Spain still has a rustic charm that is hard to ignore. The massive Cantabrian range provides a rugged backdrop to the green coast. Hikers enjoy the wildlife and scenery of the rocky shoreline. Picturesque cafes and restaurants serve up mouthwatering seafood.

On this trip I was with Ben McCue and Zach Plopper of WiLDCOAST who had spent a year studying in Santander while undergrads at UCSD. We had  attended the inaugural Global Wave Conference in Biarritz and San Sebastian, and were anxious to sample the world-class Spanish surf.

The second day of the conference took place in San Sebastian at the ultra modernist Kursaal Conference Center designed by Rafael Moneo at the east end of La Zurriola beach. I had previously visited San Sebastian in July during a trip with my two sons and French cousins.

When we arrived the surf was firing. A small crowd rode double overhead offshore waves at the west end of the beach. Bigger bombs to the east went unridden.The minute the conference ended later that day, participants, grabbed boards, stuffed themselves into wetsuits, and paddled out for the evening surf. The surf was well overhead and still offshore.Soon the lineup was populated with surfer-conservationists from South Africa, Spain, France, England, Japan, Portugal, Australia, and the U.S. who shared the plentiful peaks and hooted the best rides.

After our surf, we assembled at the seaside People Café and Lounge on the malecon overlooking La Zurriola to sample pinxtos, jamon serrano, San Miguel beer, and Rioja wine.

It was a great ending to an inspiring conference.

The following day we headed out to Mundaka. Unfortunately the swell had dropped and everyone from northern Spain seemed to have descended on this gorgeous Basque village.

The harbor at Mundaka

We paddled out through the ancient port, caught a couple of waves and then paddled back in.

At a bar overlooking the epic lefthander, considered to be one of the best waves in the world, we ate bocatas de tortilla de patata, and admired the framed photo of the world’s best surfers who had surfed here when Mundaka was an important stop on the ASP Dream Tour.

With south winds still howling and providing offshore conditions (when storms move in from the north from the Atlantic the wind on the north coast of Spain turns offshore for days), we decided to drive west toward Santander.

“We’ll hit up this cool beach we love to surf,” said Ben. “It should be firing.”

About an hour later, we found ourselves winding through a river valley and driving alongside an empty wild beach. In the distance we spotted offshore peaks.

Soon after we were surfing 3-4’ uncrowded A-frames. After our surf we found a nearby café and dug into bowls of pulpo and and calamar.

That evening we found Robert in Santander. Over pinchos and cañas de cerveza he promised a great session at another beach the following morning. “It will be pumping,” he promised.

The following morning I found myself overlooking aqua colored offshore peaks from the cliffs of Dunas de Liencres Natural Park. Pine covered dunes and sandstone cliffs protect the sandy shoreline and a large estuary.

The lineup was empty and there were sandbar peaks up and down the beach.

Out in the water, we all rode hollow overhead waves. A couple of Spanish surfers paddled out, but there were plenty of waves for everyone.

“Most of the time in the winter I surf here by myself,” said Robert.

Back in the carpark after our session, the wind was still offshore and the tide had dropped, shifting the swell down the beach to an insane right peeling off an inside sandbar.

A week later after I was safely home, I received an email from Zach, “Yesterday we scored Rodiles [a left point] – Mundaka’s little, yet hotter, sister. We have been blessed with two weeks of offshore south wind and swell.”

Note: Zach and Ben flew to Bilbao via Paris on Air France. Your best bet is to rent a car and explore the coast, and lodge at small hotels or pensiones in the coastal villages. While Spanish surfers aren’t that friendly, the same advice applies as it does anywhere; never fail to say hello and smile. While nothing is cheap in Europe including Spain, it doesn’t cost anything to be friendly and learn to say, “Hola, buenos dias.”

Global Wave Conference Part III

The GWC speakers during Day 1

The Global Wave Conference ended last night in San Sebastian with a great discussion on working with UNESCO to at least recognize surfing as an official sport and attempting to create UNESCO Heritage Site designations for some surf spots.

Ben McCue, Katie Westfall of Save the Waves (formerly of Wildcoast) and French surf sociologist and author Taha Al Azzawi (the guru on French surf culture)

Stand out presentations during the conference included those by Save Our Surf (from Portugal), Surfers Against Sewage, Brad Farmer and the National Surfing Reserve Organization, Save the Wave’s discussion of World Surfing Reserves, the discussion by Surfrider Japan’s director on the Fukushima/Tsunami disaster and Michael’s (forget last name) passionate discussion on marine education in South Africa.

Ben McCue and English big wave charger and oceanographer Dr. Tony Butt (who now lives in Spain)

GWC 2011 was overall a small and inspiring meeting of passionate activists who are trying their best to preserve the world’s most iconic surf spots and and coastal areas.

Dean LaTourrette and Katie Westfall of Save the Waves and the Surfers Against Sewage team from the UK. The SAS crew is like The Clash of the save surf movement. These guys are seriously organized, edgy and BOOM--kick ass!!

My thanks to the Surfrider Foundation-Europe and the Surfrider Foundation (thanks Jim and Chad) for putting together and organizing the conference.

Andy from Surfers Against Sewage. These guys impressed everyone with their passion, organization, passion, leadership and energy.

I presented during the last panel of the conference. And since the surf was about somewhere in the 6′+ range, offshore and looking pretty fun directly in front of the conference center, I was itching to get and get a surf (Chad and Rick from Surfrider were smart and paddled out at lunch) and had no patience for extended discussions. Luckily Dean from Save the Waves kept restraining me and imploring me not to behave like a petulant child-like surfer. So I stayed rather than flee and luckily had plenty of time to get my butt kicked and catch a few big-faced waves.

Ben McCue, Spanish surfer Anna Gutierrez, Serge Dedina and Zach Plopper after our end of conference surf session in San Sebastian.

The ending surf session was awesome. Most of the conference participants paddled out. Everyone was stoked to catch a few waves with each other and we all noticed that even though it was offshore, overhead in the middle of one of the biggest surf towns in Europe, that we were pretty much the only surfers out in the water (and the malecon was packed!).

During the final dinner at the People Restaurant on the malecon in San Sebastian there was a lot of wine, a four-course meal that ended with duck, included fish there were many speeches made, the signing of a MOU on a napkin and lots of laughs. A perfect surfer ending to a serious conference!

The final dinner at People Restaurant in San Sebastian.

On a final note, I couldn’t think of better locations for surf conferences or conferences than Biarritz or San Sebastian. Both are beautiful with conference facilities overlooking great surf breaks, with great food, and nice people. What more could you ask for?

Global Wave Conference 2011 Spain

The Global Wave Conference is now in the second day and it is taking place on the beach at an amazing modernist concert hall on the beach in San Sebastian.Today there are talks about impacts to Mundaka, campaigning in the UK, nature and waves in South Africa. I am talking about the WiLDCOAST coastal conservation experience in Baja.

Day II in San Sebastian for the GWC.

The view from the conference location in San Sebastian. The surf is double overhead and offshore. Everyone is going surfing at lunch.

 

 

For the first time in my life I was granted access to the "VIP Lounge" and joined the rock stars of the Save Surf movement including (left to right) Angel Lobo Rodrigo from the Canary Islands, SAS campaigner, a Dutch Surfrider activist and Hugo Tagholm, Exec. Director of Surfers Against Sewage from the UK.

Will Henry, Save the Waves; Jim Moriarty Surfrider; Dean LaTourrette, Save the Waves and the Dutch Surfrider activist relishing the VIP Lounge.

I am here with Hiromi Matsubara, Executive Director of Surfrider Japan. She has been dealing with the aftermath of the tsunami and the Fukushima disaster.

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 967 other followers

%d bloggers like this: