Off-season surfing in the Basque Country
The Basque Country isn't your typical Spanish beach destination. It's like comparing Key West to Seattle; here, there is no Mediterranean, no paella, no sangria and the few tourists that do come are more likely to be carrying an umbrella than sunscreen. With its distinctive language, culture and food, the Basque Country is far off the map for tourists going to Spain or the south of France. And behind the area's lush green countrysides and stark coastal cliffs hides one of the best off-season surf spots in Europe.
Nestled on the north coast of Spain along the French border, the Basque Country is well known to the pros—Mundaka, outside Bilbao, the area's largest city, used to be a yearly competition stop. Its hollow waves and quarter mile-long left attracted pro surfers from all over the world until the town broke the wave in 2003, by opening the river mouth up for bigger shipping. After that, Mundaka fell off the map, and the pros left the Basque Country's waves to the rest of us.
The Basque Country is still a Mecca for European surfers. Its (usually) clean shore breaks and consistent year-round swells cater to surfers of all levels. The best times to go are late fall and early spring when you're most likely to get the consistent and clean waist-to-head-high waves the area is known for.
The winter swell here is serious. Every year in March construction crews work feverishly to repair the coastal roads, bridges and wave breaks that were destroyed by the past winter's waves, which can top 30 feet. But when the swell is smaller, the Basque Country is home to some of the best shore breaks in Europe, all easily accessible from neighboring towns and cities.
Here are a few of my favorite beaches in the area:
Asier Sarasua Aranberri
Easily accessible by metro, La Salvaje (the savage one in English, Barinatxe in Basque) is just a half hour from Bilbao. The beach lives up to its name, with access via a staircase that winds down a cliff to a wide cove, empty aside from the storage shack for one lone surf school. The neighboring beach, Sopelana, is where you'll find most of the bars, surf shops, rental spots and tourists.
Still, La Salvaje can also get very crowded, especially if the sun is out. Unless you want to spend your day dodging other surfers, avoid going on weekend afternoons.
La Salvaje caters to all levels: On small swell days, the cleanest waves will be on the East side of the beach, which is also where all the rocks are. This side works between mid and high tide, and the the center and West side of the beach work at most tides except for dead high tide. On big swell days, results can vary.
Just up the street from the beach, you'll find La Triangu, a local hangout with an outdoor patio and space to leave your board. They've got live music on weekends and a decent selection of bar food.
And yes, you can take your longboard on the metro back to Bilbao.
Donostia (Spanish: San Sebastián) is the Basque Country's second city and has three surf beaches in the city center, that work for all levels, depending on the swell. La Concha and Ondarreta are protected by the city's famous cove, while Zurriola is much more exposed to the incoming Atlantic swell. You can even surf Donostia's river if you catch the swell right.
You can walk to the three beaches from anywhere in town, but expect a crowd. You'll find surfers out there at all times of day and throughout the year.
When you're done surfing, be sure to head to Donostia's old city (Basque: alde zaharra) to try the local fare: pintxos, the bite-sized concoctions perched on a piece of bread that line bars in the Basque Country by the hundreds, and txakoli, a traditional, slightly-bubbly Basque white wine.
Just keep in mind that if the floor is littered with napkins, it's a good sign—Basques will always throw their napkin on the floor after eating bar food, so if the floor is covered you know the food is good.
Zarautz is a quaint Basque town on the coast between Bilbao and Donostia, with a wide open beach that works for swells big and small. The beach is large enough that it doesn't get as crowded as its neighbors. Stay in town and try some of the region's distinctive food, or there is a nearby campground that overlooks the beach.
When the swell at Zarautz is big, it's best for intermediate and advanced surfers. The beach is wide open and the Atlantic swell comes in strong.
Zarautz has lots of cheap places along the beach's boardwalk for a menu del día: a fixed-price three course lunch that usually costs around €10. It's a great way to try hearty local dishes before or after a long day of surfing.
The Basque Country is divided by the French/Spanish border. Cross into the French part from Donostia and you'll get to Biarritz, a posh tourist town with another of the area's big surf beaches. Here you'll find consistent waves year round in the center of town, walking distance from cafes, restaurants and hostels.
The French side of the border is littered with small surf beaches: from Biarritz you can hop up and down the coast to small towns, each with a different wave. Try Biarritz, Anglet, St. Jean de Luz or Hendaye.
Afterwards, head to nearby Bayonne's old city (Basque: Txiki Bayonne) for the large open-air market and its own version of Basque food: this time French-influenced, instead of Spanish. The old city is full of narrow cafe-lined streets to explore, and if you're in town in late July/early August, Bayonne's notoriously rowdy yearly festival is one of the biggest in France.
Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.
Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.