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Surfing in Basque Country – San Sebastian and Biarritz

Roam Chronicles

Sometimes the biggest accomplishment you make all day is obtaining coffee.  Especially when it’s not just coffee for you, but coffee for the girl you are traveling with who is waiting back at the apartment, sleeping in after a typically late night out in San Sebastian.  I never expected getting coffee to be difficult, but this is what happens when you speak a little French, can get by with a bit of Spanish, but of course, everyone speaks Basque.  Now, when you are in a coffee shop in the morning the universe of things that you might be ordering is somewhat narrowed, but communication has to happen nonetheless.  After all, coffee comes in many iterations and some people are more particular about how they drink it than others, and the person I’m with is quite particular.  Coffee with lots of creme and sugar, and not milk ideally.  At the end of the day, a coffee drinker just needs coffee, but it’s worth it to try to get it right, this morning ritual that sets things off in the right direction.  

I was figuring out the routine, and once I found a place where I could get the coffee sorted out, I just kept going back to the same spot, saying hello to the same girl working behind the counter, becoming a regular with a regular order.  She was still tanned from the summer season and her sun friendly genetics with sun bleached shoulder length hair.  Her wide eyes and wider smile greeted me warmly even the first time I walked in happy to be serving just one customer at a time after the frenzy of the weeks prior.  I wondered if she fell into the typically american waitress persona – hair pulled up, pencil stuck in her bun – as boisterous Londoners shouted out orders for coffee and sandwiches, or if she was able to carry her natural calm through the storm.  

You can become a regular pretty quickly in some places at some times.  In the summer, just a few weeks earlier, San Sebastian was completely overrun with vacationers.  Those traditional europeans who take off the whole month of August to head to the beaches in Southern Europe.  But we weren’t there at the peak time.  Traveling for surf has a way of doing that.  Peak beach time is when it is warm and the waters are calm and safe for swimmers and parents on blankets fit one right next to the other can drink wine and nap without worrying about their young children disappearing under the waves.  Surfers aren’t looking for calm, but if they can get warm and waves they’ll take it.

September in San Sebastian is the calm after the storm, empty streets, empty beach, vendors taking the much needed breath from the frenzy that was happening just weeks before – the frenzy they need to pay bills and put money in the bank that will last all year.  

But now I stood out against the non-crowd.  No one here but locals.  Being in a wetsuit may have helped as well.  

Each morning I would wake at dawn to skip the block or so down to Zurriola beach, just on the North side of the Urumea river that bisects the town.  I threw on my wetsuit, grabbed my board, and stuck a few Euro in the key pocket that was useful for keys before they all became yet another electronic device in our lives that is disinclined to interact with water.  I didn’t bother with the change of clothes and the surf check because there was no question that I was going in the water.  There was no opportunity to talk myself out of it, or put it off for later when surely the waves would be better or the wind would improve or the sun would be out.  After years of taking surf trips solo where you could just go out whenever and as many times as you liked for however long you were inclined to float around, I was taking this first surf trip with someone else, an amazing companion who wasn’t a surfer herself but was absolutely content to lounge on the beach for hours.  But I wouldn’t learn that until later, so for now I was feeling the need, the obligation, and the desire to not be completely absent all day.  

Getting out for a surf first thing in the morning would have been my natural approach regardless of who I was traveling with or whether I was traveling alone.  There are plenty of reasons from wind to crowds on why dawn patrol is so deeply embedded in the surfing lexicon, but there is also the part where you do that thing in a day that you most want to do before the day gets away from you.  Before other people’s needs and wants, and the distractions and unpredictables, and your own weeknesses for wine and sex all conspire to derail your plans.  If you get that one thing done that you want to do, then you have earned the peace of mind to go with the flow the rest of the day.  You get to take naps and drink wine and have sex and let one glass turn into two and one bottle turn into two with a free mind without a care.

We shared the innate desire for days spent without an agenda.  Our days would devolve into long lunches, walks getting lost in the labyrinth of alleyways around the ancient town, and taking cues from people around us on what was traditional to eat and drink at this time of day in this certain place.  Is 11:00 time for coffee, or wine?  Well, if you are the two eighty year old ladies who I imagined were sisters or friends who had known eachother since childhood and where getting together to enjoy an outdoor table in this spot of sun now that the tourists had left the town quiet, it was time for martinis.

We weren’t ready for martinis.

One of the great things about a surf trip to San Sebastian is that you can make a day trip up to Biarittz, the quintessential European surf town just a short drive across the border into France.  After the usual morning surf and coffee obtaining adventure, we jumped in the car and headed into France.  The drive is less than an hour and the only remnants of a pre-Eurozone era border crossing were some unused gates and empty guard houses.  Hemmingway sometimes spoke of border crossings between France and Spain, but these days you would hardly notice that you crossed into another country.

We found a place to park and walked over to the Grande Plage, the main beach right in town, and put our feet in the sand.  The surf was absolutely pumping, a massive stormy mess that made me wonder what angle of the beach, or direction of the swell, or protection of the bay had made this so different from the surf in Zurriola just an hour down the road.  I decided it was best to just settle into a bottle of wine.  

I had studied French in school so was looking forward to stretching my foreign language skills in a more comfortable way after the epicly fruitless struggles with Basque.  Plus it never hurts to impress the ladies with your command of romance languages and Bond-like ability to hop borders and blend right in.  We grabbed a table outside in front of a cafe that would have been impossible to get just a couple weeks before with the pasty white throngs of Englanders and Irish and Parisians hoarding the coast.  But today, despite the perfection of the temperature dialed just a bit down from too hot and the sun out, we were able to just grab a table where we wanted with a view of the rolling, angry ocean and waited for the waitress, soaking in the absolute perfection of these old European seaside towns.  The Jersey shore it is not.

‘Bonjour.  Que desirez vous?’

‘Dos vinos blancos, por favor.’

‘Two white wines?’  She responds in her accented English.  

Nailed it.  

I don’t know why the Spanish just poured out at that moment.  Maybe it was the days of stumbling through my Spanish to try to find common ground with Basque, for which there is none.  Maybe it was all the trips to Central America that had consumed my travels over the last few years.  All I know was that in that moment, at that time, I opened my mouth and that was what came out.

The smirk on my companions face let me know all I needed to know.  She was clearly deeply impressed.  My Bond-like cover, blown.

‘What was that?’

‘Just drink your wine.’

Staring out at the ocean, trying to recover my pride, I noticed that way off shore, floating amongst the mountains of sloppy, disorganized waves was a lone surfer.

‘Holy shit, look at that guy.’  

It was the kind of thing where you want to keep an eye on him just in case you need to call the coast guard.  Honestly, I think that you would have to be a surfer to even notice him.  There is just no way that your casual beach goer would even consider the possibility that a person would be out there in this type of sea on purpose, and even if they were, there was no way they would have the situation under control.  In fact, I was a bit unsure that he had the situation under control.  So I watched in complete rapture and a degree of fear to see how he handled it.

It became clear that this wasn’t a catch a bunch of waves type of session, but more of the battle to get out then catch one bomb back in.  Perhaps he had caught waves before I got there, but in all the time we sat he didn’t catch any, didn’t paddle much from side to side, he was just waiting for the one, his wave that was going to take him back in.

And after all that.  I missed it.

The waitress came, more drinks were ordered, a little chat and a glance around the scene and he was walking up the beach.  And what type of person goes out in the ocean when it’s like that?  A Laird Hamilton doppelganger with a square jaw, cement arms and the confidence of someone who can handle themselves in those waves, on purpose.

I fucking missed it.

Back to the wine for the rest of us mere mortals.

‘Dos mas.’  Bitch, I mutter under my breath.

Just like there was no reason to stop drinking wine, or may because there was no reason to stop, there was also no reason to go back to San Sebastian, despite the fact that we didn’t pack to stay overnight.  We strolled through the town to the South of Grande Plage less on instruction than instinct, looking for a place to stay or another place to drink wine.  The wine showed up first in the form of another perfect Southern France cafe, this one more local and younger, than the touristy beach front ones that used to be too crowed.  

Away from the beach and the bustle and the tourists, we sat at a small table under a huge shade tree that covered the entirety of the outdoor patio space and ordered more wine this time in French with some English mixed in since my confidence was completely shattered at this point.  We sat under this tree and drank wine without a care for where we were going to stay that night or whether I should go for a surf.  The heaven of off-season travel and the morning surf from what seemed like so long before mixing in a cocktail of freedom and irresponsibility that allowed for just winging it.  Even as rain began to come down, no one in this old-world European perfection made a move, the tree having provided protection from these light fall showers for decades.

Eventually, it became time to deal with the actual logistics of our wandering.  We needed a place to stay and a few basic supplies.  Leaving the cafe, we continued towards the ocean through the twisty south end of Biarritz and spotted a place with the potential for a view looking out over Le Port de Pecheurs, or fisherman’s port.  Built in the late 1700’s and a key part of the old Biarritz, this little port is a stone fortification built to give fisherman refuge against the raw Atlantic swells since Biarritz doesn’t have a natural bay or rivermouth like other Ste Jean de Luz to the south or Bayonne to the north.  The port consists of two small pools holding maybe 30 boats protected by stone walls, and despite Biarritz’ place on the map of rich and famous, you won’t find any of the pretenses of Monaco here, it is just for fishing boats.

The only problem with the place was that we couldn’t find the front door or the office to check and see if rooms were available.  How typically European to not advertise or give any pretense of actually needing your money.  We stood there with the warmth of our slight wine buzz staring at the Hotel sign but reveling in the enigma that was a doorless hotel and wondering what exactly we were missing.  That’s when I noticed that the bartender in the cafe below the hotel was smiling and waving us in, as if he could read our minds that more wine was clearly the solution to the problem we were facing.  In our confusion and American instinct to repel this kind of overt attempt at reaching out, we almost just turned and kept walking, but the man was smiling and giving us the international signal for ‘come on’ so we did.  As it turns out, although it is impossible to tell just by walking by, they run the front desk of the hotel from behind the bar with the guy wearing all the barista, bartender, clerk, and concierge hats easily at one time.  What a cluster this must have been in the madness of the peak busy season just weeks before, but the system worked fine for the three or four other people lounging in the cafe as the rain misted down and the waves crashed on the port walls and the empty streets slipped back into the fall sleepiness that consumes holiday towns in winter.

Our room was small and typically old school European and had amazing tall windows that opened with views of the ocean and the fishermans port to the west.  It just felt right to leave the windows open despite the rain and allow the outside to come in.  Without a plan, without research, without reservations, we had stumbled upon one of the most remarkable places to stay that I had ever encountered.  The combination of just winging it with having the experience and insight to head in the right direction and feel that you were getting close to the right spot and going at the right time of year and not walking away from the bartender who is waving you in all led to this moment, to this place.  It was magical and would be the basis for years to come as our relationship would mature and our travels would take us around the world that this was a place that we could return to, of course in the off season, at any time and be content.  All of this based on not even one full day but felt with absolute certainty.

It’s so easy to check out of a hotel and continue exploring a town when you have no bags, not even a purse or a backpack, just the clothes on your back and the knowledge of where you left the car and the toothbrush that you bought at a pharmacie but left in the hotel because there will be another pharmacie if you need it.  And you think of the people who require bags and trunks and porters to carry the items that they can’t live without even for a day or a night and all of the weight, not just physical but emotional and psychological, that these things burden you with.  You can leave them on the sidewalk for fear of the precious items getting stolen and you can’t just squeeze into a small two-top table at a cafe because there’s no room and clearly you’ll need an army of help to get the bags up the stairs or on the train or checked in at an airport. So your whole trip is just an exercise in the logistics of moving these things that you most likely won’t even use around through the towns and countries that you are visiting but not enjoying because these places aren’t made for people who travel with more stuff than the fisherman Le Port des Pecheurs even have on their boats.  

We wandered a bit the next day and headed back to San Sebastian, making the eventless crossing from one country to another but linguistic journey from one world back to another.  Compared to France, being back in Basque Spain was a step back into the unknown.  Back into a world where there was zero familiarity with sounds and words and you couldn’t even fake it.  We would stay there for a couple more days, surfing Zurriola in the morning and getting coffees and wandering the streets before heading back to Bilbao and then to London where I would return to work and Maria would return the the US.  Back to our own worlds and our own places where she spoke a language that I couldn’t understand filled with the huge multisyllabic words of medicine and physiology that might have well been basque and I returned to the world where people spoke english but I still often was as lost as I was when the waitress spoke french but I replied in spanish.  

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