Surfing then and now in southwest France: 40 years of Biarritz breaks and beers
In the 1970s renegade surfers were greeted with bemusement on the beaches of France’s Atlantic coast; now it’s the cars without surfboards on that stand out at this stop on the World Surf League tour
It was 1979 and we’d hit the road in an old, beat-up Peugeot Estate, heading to the wave-washed coast of southwest France on a surf trip – my first ever.
Eventually we arrived at our destination, Biarritz, the surf capital of Europe at a time when the sport was still a niche activity enjoyed only by a renegade few. From the early 1960s to the early ’80s the area around Biarritz, known as the Côte des Basques, and the Landes region to the north, was the focus of all the action.
Today, the French surf scene extends along the length of the country’s Atlantic coast. But it’s the 260km strip of coastline between the French/Spanish border in the south and the Gironde estuary to the north that is a global hub for surfing – and it relies on surfers for its economic well-being.
Every town and village along this stretch of coast has surf schools, surfboard hire, surf boutiques, surf cafes and bars, surf camps and hotels. Quality spots, like those found by the score along the Landes coastline, can generate in excess of US$20 million a year for the local economy, according to research by the University of Oxford.
Of course, none of this would be possible without the perfect combination of waves, climate and culture that the region offers, which is what lured us there in the first place back in 1979.
Throughout September and October, storms – even hurricanes – in the North Atlantic send swells crashing onto the French coast, where the golden beaches offer sandbanks onto which the waves fling themselves with power and grace.
Meanwhile the sun shines warm and the sea temperature will still be around 20 to 25 degrees Celsius (68 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit), providing perfect surf conditions – and when the sun sinks below the horizon there is French cuisine, local wines and a banging nightlife to enjoy.
This is why, nearly 40 years later, I still regularly make the 3,200-kilometre (2,000-mile) round trip from my home in the UK to the Landes – a destination on the World Surf League World Championship Tour, which every year sees the world’s best professionals fighting it out for honours in the region’s waves.
Is the overall experience as good now as it was then? Well, when the waves are “firing” there is often mayhem as hundreds of surfers try desperately to grab a piece of the action.
A sunny day combined with a small to medium swell at popular spots such as Biarritz, Hossegor, Seignosse, Moliets-et-Maa and Lacanau will have the ocean dotted with boards as far as the eye can see.
Trying to get a wave to yourself is hard enough with all the competition (and bear in mind the golden rule of surfing – one wave, one surfer), but even if you do manage to snag one you then must negotiate the flotsam of humanity in the water as you ride towards shore.
One of the region’s pioneer surfers was Jacky Rott, now in his eighties, who would travel to the beach with friends who include Jo Moraiz – who opened the first surf shop and school in Biarritz in the ’60s – boards on the roof of the car, and find people looking at them with bemusement. The Jo Moraiz Surf Shop is still there, run by Moraiz’s son, Christophe.
“Today, when we travel between Biarritz and Hossegor, we tend to notice the few cars that do not have surfboards on the roof,” Rott says. “Surfing has become an industry; it’s probably good for the local economy, but when I see up to 200 people surfing in the summer on the Côte des Basques, I tell myself that these people will never find the magic spirit of the early days, when there were just a handful of us in the water.”
There used to be so few surfers around that you would often bump into the same people as you travelled up and down the coast looking for waves – and again in the evening when you retired to the Cafe de Paris in Hossegor for one of many cold beers.
British surf forecaster and photographer Paul Gill has been travelling to the Landes annually since the ’70s and has no doubt that it was better then. “During the ’70s and ’80s we were pretty much surfing hippies and there were not that many of us living a travelling, surf-oriented lifestyle,” he says. “Today’s city slicker, wannabe weekend warrior hipster dudes tend to bring attitudes and numbers into the waves, and often can’t even surf properly.”
A more sanguine view comes from Andy Middleton, chief exploration officer at the TYF Group in West Wales, who was one of the group I travelled with on that first trip.
“That old-school surfing wasn’t necessarily better, it was just different,” he says.
“Memories of surfing the famous breaks that we’d heard of, and the delights of French culture, food and beer will stay with me for life, for when we travel as surfers, we are shaped by people, places and nature, as well as waves.”
It may have been less crowded and commercial then, but there were downsides to that too. We were all self-taught, learning on high-performance, twitchy surfboards rather than stable, purpose-made beginner boards, and it could take a week of practice before you were at the level most people will reach in a weekend these days.
With no dedicated guides or forecasts, catching the waves at their best was largely guesswork, which could be as dangerous as it was frustrating. On one occasion, a friend and I almost drowned in a rip at a beach just north of Biarritz due to our ignorance of the conditions.
“We were guided then by conversations with locals and optimistic interpretations of synoptic weather charts to guess where the waves would be best, with no guidebooks, internet sites or surf cams to steer us,” Middleton says.
Today, there is no longer any requirement for surfers to learn about weather patterns, oceanography, coastal geography and tides to score the best waves.
That said, there are few things more satisfying than predicting where the best waves will be and walking over the dunes with your board under your arm to discover that not only are you correct, but only a handful of others have got it right too.
When I finally arrive at the beach in Biarritz, and walk down towards the shore – freshly waxed board tucked under my arm and sun warming my back – I still experience that same frisson of excitement I got the first time I came here.
One thing that has not changed is the quality of the surf in this corner of France, and while old and young may argue into the night over who has (or had) it best, perfect waves will continue to break on these golden sands much longer than any of us are going to be around for.
What to expect
Every autumn the World Surf League stops off in southwest France. This year the men’s Quiksilver Pro and Women’s Roxy Pro events take place October 3-14. The combination of virtually guaranteed surf, good weather and enthusiastic crowds ensures this is one of professional surfing’s best-established events. The venue can shift depending on where the best waves are breaking, so check online at worldsurfleague.com before the event. Take binoculars for close-up views of the action, especially if the surf is big.
Generally speaking, the waves become smaller as you head north, so for bigger waves stay in the south of the Landes. It tends to be less crowded the further north you go; spots like Hossegor and Seignosse in the south, and Biarritz on the Côtes des Basques, are always busy on a good swell, as are beaches near Bordeaux. Even at the more popular spots, if you walk a few hundred metres up or down the beach from the main access points, the crowds will thin.
Getting there: KLM, via Amsterdam, and Air France, via Paris, fly between Hong Kong and Bordeaux or Biarritz.