It was all going well until we crossed the border and hit the bars in San Sebastian.
Leaving the hostel I emerge onto a dreary Paris backstreet, loaded up with gear, and knowing that I have a full day of travelling ahead. A train across town, a train down to Bayonne, then a bus to Hossegor. I’m always a little nervous prior to journeys like this. Transporting a large bag full of surfboards has its challenges, there’s always a few headaches along the way.
Montparnasse train station is busy in the morning rush hour. It’s a long walk from the metro line stop to the area where the regional trains leave. My ticket has been pre-purchased online, but I still have to collect it before boarding. I walk into the information office, and I’m directed to a nearby ticket counter by a pretty French girl. It’s right next door, and I figure it will be a fairly quick process, so I decide to leave my board bag leaning against a wall in the information office.
Collecting my ticket takes a few minutes longer than I expected. When I return to the information office, there is a small group of security officers standing around and staring at my board bag. They have locked the main entrance and are hurriedly shepherding other travellers out of a side door. I quickly duck inside and try to explain that the bag contains only surfboards, but I’m greeted with angry French voices and much hand waving. I attempt to explain myself again, but this just makes matters worse. So I grab my bag and make a quick exit. The raised voices follow me out of the office. I can’t understand a word, but I’m certain they aren’t wishing me a safe journey.
Aside from upsetting the station security staff, the journey goes fairly smoothly. I arrive at my hostel in the late afternoon; tired but relieved to be on the coast.
I settle in at the hostel over the next few days. There have been waves, but the winds have been consistently onshore making for messy conditions. There was a brief window yesterday morning when the wind dropped. The sun came out, and the potential of the local coastline became clear.
Surfing around Hossegor when it’s big is like doing a few hours of interval training with a professional sports team. It’s hard work, and getting caught in the shore break is not fun at all, but the rewards are there if you put in the effort. Lurching A-Frame peaks race in from the deep water before turning inside out on the shallow sandbanks close to shore. The waves are surprisingly hollow and powerful. You need to be quick to your feet to make the most of them.
I’ve organised a catch up with a travelling friend who is based in town. At this stage, I have only really made a few attempts at finding the cuisine France is famous for. The food has been good but not outstanding. I’m hoping some local knowledge will help with this situation.
We meet at a tapas bar that sits on the local Marina. The evening begins with an excellent full-bodied Bordeaux red. My companion orders some of his favourite dishes. Heavily marinated duck hearts come first. The strong gamey flavour is nicely offset by the delicate texture. A beef tartar comes next. The sizable lump of raw mince looks intimidating, but it has lovely mustard-based spicy sauce and is soft and tender. We finish with some calamari that is also tasty but doesn’t have the same punchy flavour as the previous dishes.
There’s a lot of catching up to do, so we do a relaxed tour of the bars around town. I return to the hostel after midnight and have a night of restless sleep, but I still bounce out of bed the next morning feeling ready to take on the day. The French are onto something with these powerful gamey foods. They make for a decent hangover cure.
The winds finally drop, and the sun comes out. Unfortunately the surf all but disappears. I spend my days wandering along the coast and through nearby towns, making regular stops at bake houses to sample rich and creamy pastries. The local people go about their daily activities at a relaxed pace, often stopping to chat with friends and acquaintances. The preferred mode of transport seems to be older model bicycles. They have large baskets on the front which are usually filled with bottles of vino and baguettes. The beach becomes more crowded as the sun warms the afternoon. Beautiful women sunbathe topless while visiting gents cast sideways glances.
The surf continues to test my patience over the next few weeks. There are moments of absolute perfection, but overall conditions have been frustrating. Even when the wind and swell align, the three-metre tidal range and shifting sandbanks mean conditions change constantly. The forecast for the next 10 days looks average, so I’m thinking it might be time to move on. I have also developed a genuine love for the local cheese and wine, and I fear if I don’t leave these culinary treats behind soon, I’ll need to start looking for a larger wetsuit.
I’ve become good friends with the Irish guys running the hostel. We’ve been surfing together most days and have enjoyed many BBQ cook ups and late-night card games. I’ll be sad to say goodbye. We’ve decided to do a short trip to San Sebastian before I move on; it’s about an hour’s drive west over the Spanish border. The town is known for the quality of its food and restaurants, and specifically Pintxos, which are a tapas-like bar snack.
We arrive in San Sebastian in the late afternoon. The lads like 90s heavy metal even more than I do and this makes the journey pass quickly. By early evening we are sipping fresh-tasting beer and sampling a wide range of Pintxos. Every trip to the bar is a culinary adventure, with new beer to try, and a multitude of colourful Pintxos to taste.
A few hours later, we’re sitting back in the dorm room. Having stuffed ourselves with Pintxos, we have moved on from beer and are doing shots of Tequila. My Irish friends have slipped effortlessly into storytelling mode. The tales are certainly entertaining enough, but a number of them end with someone getting bashed. I reflect that if we get through the night without major incident, it will be a good result.
We spend several hours wandering between pokey bars down cobbled side streets. We try a few local cocktails, and the conversation remains light and entertaining. We even return to our favourite Pintxos spot for a late evening snack. Eventually, we find ourselves in a large nightclub. I try chatting to a few of the local girls, but it continues to be hard work. One lass tells me in a slightly aloof fashion that she has had enough of tourists for this season. I make it clear that I’m a travelling surfer and that there is a big difference. She shrugs, having none of it.
The night has progressed into the early hours, and I’m just thinking to myself that it has been quite a pleasant evening. Suddenly I hear smashing glass and look over to see a well-built local man standing over one of the Irish guys. I missed what originally caused the disagreement, but no one appears to be backing down. The local has a clear size advantage but doesn’t seem to notice the confident and calculating look in the eye of my Irish friend.
The macho local gives him a light shove in an obvious attempt to intimidate. The response is brutally efficient. A firm well-timed head butt followed by a short looping right that finds its mark nicely. A split second later the local guy is clutching at his face on the floor. Myself, and a number of other bystanders look on in stunned silence, everyone looks shocked apart from the Irish lads. They survey the scene with a kind of menacing detachment then casually make for the exit. I trail along behind, trying not to look panicked, expecting security to descend at any moment. As we approach the exit, I’m certain that we will be stopped. I wonder how well foreigners are treated inside French prisons, then worry I have tasted my last Pintxos as a free man. Somehow, we make it outside and melt into the night.
Spiteful vacuuming by cleaning staff jolts us all awake, and we soon discover that we have slept way past checkout. We stumble around dealing with the fog of a significant hangover while trying to pack our gear. Luckily, the nearest Pintxos bar is only a short stroll away. The events of the previous evening are discussed in between mouthfuls of tasty tapas. My friend pins the blame for the disagreement firmly on the other guy but shows some remorse for the beating. I murmur along sympathetically and make a mental note to stay in his good books.
The writing above is an excerpt from a recently published book…
Eyes To The Horizon
One man’s psychedelic journey into dating apps and perfect waves on foreign shores
Written by Ben Simon Smith
Available on Amazon, Apple Books, Google Play and with other good eBook retailers