Mark Eveleigh goes searching for surf along Spain’s Basque coast, but finds plenty more to sink his teeth into than just waves.
A gentle offshore breeze ripples the face of the Atlantic breakers. Fresh off the still snowy mountains it carries with it a wintery hint of the txirimiri. This is the poetic – almost endearing – name by which the people of San Sebastián know their drizzle. For whole seasons the txirimiri seems to be the default weather system here. Pulling on my wetsuit, I begin to question the wisdom of my decision to come to San Sebastián so early in the Spanish summer on the trail of what is said to be a surfing revolution.
Carrying my board across the rain-pocked sand of La Zurriola beach I count about 30 surfers lined up along the clean, eight-foot faces. The Basques are a hardy race, tempered by a land of mist-shrouded mountains and rugged coastlines. Apparently it takes more than the nip of the txirimiri to keep the local surfers from their waves.
Tucked into the corner where Spain and France meet, San Sebastián seems to benefit as the focus point for any swell that is generated by the spiralling currents of the Bay of Biscay. To the east lies French Basque Country and to the west a rugged coastline of wave-smashed cliffs and wild, windswept beaches stretches unbroken to Fisterra – literally the End of the Land – in far off Galicia. San Sebastián’s Gipuzkoa province is particularly famed for spots like the legendary surf beach at Zarautz (10 minutes from the city) and the infamous Playa Gris, which seems almost to have acted as a magnet for some of the biggest waves in the history of surfing.
The city itself has two beaches with two very different characters. The immense sweeping arc of soft sand that is La Concha is a tranquil natural harbour and the ideal town beach. The great curving promenade here is fringed with Art Deco hotels and palaces, built way back when this was the prime summer getaway for Spanish royalty who came to take in the waters and breathe the cool air of green Spain. La Concha has been called the pearl of the Cantabrian Sea, but its Spanish name simply means ‘the shell’.
Beyond the plazas, palaces and tangled alleyways of the old town, across the river in Gros quarter, you find wild La Zurriola – a beach with an altogether different mood. The humble little quarter of Gros has now launched a bid to claim the title of European Capital of Surf. This seems unlikely, until you remember Gros is just an hour from legendary Mundaka, the river-mouth wave that is rated as one of the 10 best waves on the planet.
Riding on the swell of La Zurriola, San Sebastián is leading a World Surf Cities Network, a group of nine destinations striving to have more of an impact on one of the world’s fastest growing sports. Durban in South Africa and France’s Hossegor are already fixtures on any travelling surfer’s wishlist, along with Australia’s Gold Coast and Newcastle. The others – Ericeira (Portugal), Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (Spain), Arica (Chile) and Santos (Brazil) – are less well known, but are respected for truly world-class surf.
After a winter spent surfing balmier waves in Brazil, the chill seeping through my wetsuit is somewhat numbing. But there is more than one side to the surf revolution taking place on the Spanish north coast at the moment and I’m anxious to check it out. The board I’m now paddling out into the lineout is already getting some appraising looks – along with a few doubtfully raised eyebrows. It’s what is known as a parabolic shape: its curves go inwards where those on conventional boards go out. It’s a surfboard with a waist and hips. Engineers at Pamplona-based Trinity Board Sport perfected the design using aerodynamics software normally reserved for the production of wind turbines.
My first slide down the face and swooping bottom turn convinces me the hype about these boards is not overstated. It’s shorter than any board I would normally ride, but is very stable and extremely fast. So fast, in fact, that I arrive back at the top of the wave far quicker than expected. As I go flying up over the lip and the board goes spinning up into the spattering txirimiri, I have a moment to reflect that this isn’t the most impressive start to the session. By the time another set comes through, however, I’m prepared for the phenomenal acceleration. If it’s true that these are indeed the surfboards of the future then all I can say is ¡Viva la Revolución!
A few hours later I’m in a backstreet taberna, lifting a glass of Basque cider and drinking a toast to surfboards with hips and San Sebastián’s place as the capital of European surfing.
There can be nowhere in the world that is better for curing après-surf munchies than San Seb. There are more Michelin stars here per square metre than anywhere else in the world, but it is the celebrated pintxos that are the most alluring option when you have just returned, muscles buzzing, from the surf.
Pintxos are the local version of tapas. In San Sebastián these normally simple snacks have been refined to the point where, in even the humblest bars, they are haute cuisine. I head for the first bar I see and, as I step in onto the sawdust floor, find myself faced with an entire feast. More than 20 plates are lined up along the bar. Each is heaped with perfectly prepared snack-size morsels. The place is still empty but the old bartender is busy laying out more delicacies. I ask him if they normally offer such incredible variety.
“Sometimes more, never less,” he answers with a shrug. “It takes most of the afternoon for the chef to prepare everything, but here a bar isn’t worthy of the name if it doesn’t offer good pintxos.”
He offers me a plate and starts to talk me through the list: “Mountain ham with goat cheese on oiled bread, prawns in garlic mayonnaise, baby octopus with chillies...” It goes on.
Some of the offerings are from the mountains and fertile valleys of the surrounding region. There’s cured ham, black pudding, spicy del Padrón peppers and asparagus that the king himself once famously described as cojonudo (balls-out spectacular).
Mostly, however, the bar’s specialities reflect San Sebastián’s fishing background: tuna, salted bacalao cod, delicious grilled sardines, tangy pickled anchovies and the little percebes that are delicious until somebody points out that these giant barnacles are almost entirely just huge (relatively speaking) penises.
It’s no coincidence that some of the best pintxo places are in the network of cobblestone alleyways between the market and the port. The towering statue of the Madonna on her hilltop perch looms over the grand old Santa Maria church and the pretty little fishing port. The Basques are not generally religious people and many of the fishermen here believe that a freshly painted livery of the green, red and white of the Basque flag offers all the protection their boats will ever need against the terrible Bay of Biscay storms.
The little port is a particularly evocative place to wander if you want to grasp the character of old San Sebastián. A few tourists mosey to and from the naval museum or the wonderful aquarium, with its walk-through shark tunnel, and at weekends the cluster of little seafood restaurants rumbles with Basque banter. The Euskera language is spoken more in San Sebastián and the surrounding Gipuzkoa area than anywhere else in the Eu (Basque) region. The streets of Donostia, as the city is called locally, are signposted with strange-looking words that are liberally spiked with Zs, Xs and Ks.
Despite its dual languages San Sebastián is one of the easiest Spanish cities to come to terms with. Where the cities of Spain’s far south are sultry and temperamental and the ancient fortress-towns of the central plateau are conservatively aloof, San Sebastián strikes you at first sight as chic and sexy. Outwardly it seems to encapsulate the stylish side of the Spanish character, but there’s an easygoing backstreet ambience that lures you onward into long, lazy rambles through the old-town alleys. Whatever your temperament, there can be few cities in all of Europe where it is so easy to feel at home.
By the time I’ve sated my hunger and finished my bottle of cider the streetlights are starting to come on. Despite the drizzle all is well with the world. I pull my collar up and wander the cobbled streets to the wave-break wall – a battlement to hold back the interminable onslaught of the Biscay breakers – to check out La Zurriola again.
The rain seems to be coming down heavier and a few dark storm clouds are now blotting out the setting sun. I watch several teenaged schoolboy surfers sprinting down the beach to catch a last few waves before a damp darkness falls on surf city. With this level of dedication it will take more than the txirimiri to keep San Sebastián from taking her place as the queen of European surfing.
Most people fly into the area from Europe through Bilbao’s international airport. From Bilbao there is a bus that takes you directly from the airport to San Sebastián city centre (one hour). No airline flies direct from Australia to Bilbao, but Qantas serves both Madrid and Barcelona. qantas.com.au
Hotel Niza is in a prime waterfront position on San Sebastián’s main beach and within easy reach of the main surf spots and the sights of the old town. hotelniza.com