We take a trip through the eclectic and eccentric Basque Country with the director of the world's leading surf film festival.
There are few coastlines as majestic and eccentric as that which wraps around the city of San Sebastián in the Basque Country. Beachfronts lined with classical European architecture. A world class museum tucked inside one headland. And the ramshackle former residence of an artist and surfer squatting movement inside another. It is a rare place where the sophistication of a famous city intersects with surf culture, and the results are fascinating.
It is also home to the worlds premiere surf film festival, the Surfilmfestibal - a kind of Cannes of the surf film festival circuit, featuring a suitably eclectic mix of surf films ranging from the best of the big budget international productions to arthouse, indie and environmental films, as well as a sampling of local surf culture. All of it screened in the city's legendary Teatro Principal cinema located in the old part of town.
The festival's founder and director, Sancho Rodriguez meets me in the cobble-stoned courtyard of the old square. He is a diminutive Basque man, classically handsome, and an unashamed frother. A veteran of early Mentawaian surf exploration in the nineties, he counts among his close friends the great Basque surf adventurer, Kepa Acero, who turns out most years to festival if he's not away on an adventure. Sancho explains to me that in fact characters like Kepa are quite common among the Basques. There is a long tradition of nomadic adventurers here dating back to their early seafaring fisherman.
Sancho has news for me. Apparently I'd gotten lucky. My short trip to San Sebastián was to coincide with a Mundaka swell later in the week - a rare occurrence at any time of the year, let alone this early in November. But first we head for a surf on a fun wedge out front, then spice up a rollie with some Morroccan hashish before heading for a tour of this remarkable city. We start with some cheap pintxos - a minute Basque version of Tapas, which they'll tell you is far superior to the Spanish rival - and a couple of shots of cider (poured into a glass from a height of two feet to provide a natural fizz).
I was immediately struck by the similarities between San Sebastián and my hometown Bondi. Both were home to a very distinct urban kind of surf culture in their glory days, a type of surf culture that tends to be louder, prouder and more defined because of its proximity to other sub-cultures. Like Bondi, the beachfront at San Sebastián was also once occupied by cheap living artists, surfers and drug addicts living in rundown properties. But, like Bondi, it had been badly gentrified and the surfers and cheapskates had been given the punt. There's always been a big drug scene here, Sancho explains to me, because of the large shipping ports nearby, which, while delivering the region its wealth, also means it's awash with drugs.
Over the coming days, as Sancho and I visited the museums, art galleries and surfing landmarks, he explained the history of the Basque people to me and their civilian-led resistance against the fascist dictator, General Franco. I started to understand why the region had developed such a fearful reputation. The Basque Country became famous for its violent separatist movement, known as ETA, and their brand of guerrilla warfare during the late 1960s through to the early 2000s. Franco had tried to make the Basque Country part of Spain, a move which the Basques saw as an attempt to gloss over their remarkable culture - one that lays claim to the Guggenheim museum, one of Europe's strongest traditions in the arts, and which was also the birthplace of surfing in Europe. When it came to surfing the Basques had a similarly fierce and aggressive reputation. But this is where it gets a bit embellished. "We don't fight over surfing," says Julien Larranga, a giant of a man and one of the big dogs out Mundaka, "We have bigger things to fight about, political things," he says.
The morning of the Mundaka swell we are greeted by the incessant rain and bone-chilling cold that plagues this coast at this time of year. My Australian winter wear has been found badly wanting and I shiver beneath a sleeping bag in the passenger seat of Sancho's van. We take the coast road, winding around craggy cliffs in the shadow by tremendous green pine-covered hills. The surf is big, maybe too big for Mundaka, at eight feet plus. As we wind down through the valley we catch our first glimpse of the famous rivermouth. Ruler-edge brown lines travel forever, being whipped all the way by a stiff offshore. We pull up in the carpark next to the famous harbour where winners of the Billabong Pro Mundaka used to be thrown back when they had the WCT here. There's a tiny tavern and a couple of houses but that's about it. It's remarkably quaint considering its fame in the surfing world. I'm told there's not even a local surfing community here. Mundaka breaks too few times a year for that.
The sight of slabbing brown barrels sends a ripple through my gut and I rush to empty it in a toilet with ETA graffiti scribbled on the walls. There's fuck all people here - 20 tops. Everyone must have thought it was too big and while there's a few giant wash-throughs, there are plenty of dredgers too. The jump off is a cinch: straight off the rocks into the harbour, out the entrance, and you're on the peak. If you do cop a set on the head you just let it wash you to the inside, jump on the conveyor belt rip running next to the rocks and you're on the peak again. The locals ride the narrowest pin tails I've ever seen, purpose built for going dead straight and splitting the tremendous volume of water this rivermouth mobilises. The window to surf Munadaka is brief. You've got two to three hours tops before the tide fills in and turns it into a burger. This partially explains the crowd factor here. There's typically around one to two hundred people on a pumping day. No one can believe their luck in the water. It's a party and there's plenty to go round. Post-surf, we rub elbows with fisherman in the local tavern and throw down bite-sized pintxos flavour explosions. I'm still freezing but a few hits of cider later and we're in Sancho's van on our way home with the heater cranked to 11.
Find out what's playing at the 13th annual Surfilmfestibal.
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