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.

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