Beyond The Pines
There isn’t anything quite like the French road trip. Everyone needs a yearly sojourn to Les Landes to score some fun as hell waves and soak up a little Gallic joie de vivre. Doing it when the world tour circus in town is one enticing option…
Whether you take the slow road in your own motor and hop on a ferry or take the sting off the trip and do a budget flight into Biarritz, Bordeaux or Bilbao and get a rental whip the end result is the same: you end up in the south-west of France. A region renowned for its cheeky reds to most but its sublime sandbars to us.
From the Spanish border right up to Bordeaux is, with a few river based exceptions, one long ass beach. A hundred-mile stretch of shifting sand, gravel and grit that given a cooperative Atlantic can conspire to produce arguably the world’s finest beach break peaks. Waves of every imaginable aspect: from long, whackable, almost point break like walls, through mad, gravel-blasting A-frame shore breaks that’ll shove grit in orifices you didn’t know you had and the pinnacle, of course, the roping barrels that made the area famous.
France has been on the wave rider’s radar a while, Hollywood screenwriter Peter Viertel kicked off surfing in France all the way back in 1956, when he spotted the area’s potential while filming Hemingway’s /The Sun also Rises/ around Biarritz. He got a board shipped over from Cali and, taking local groms like Joel de Rosnay under his wing, started the French love affair with the /glisse/ (the French word meaning ’slide’ that all sliding sports like surfing, skating and snowboarding are described by).
The ’60s single-fin era saw the now defunct gem of La Barre in Anglet as the hot spot and a steady flow of switched on Californians and Aussies sharing the latest board designs and culture. As boards shortened and fins multiplied the focus shifted up the coast to the sleepy beach towns of Hossegor and Capbreton. The European surf industry blossomed just inland out amongst the pines and the world tour soon followed. Forty years later the tour still makes its annual pilgrimage in a season extending windfall for the town. How much longer this happens remains to be seen with rumblings from the World Surf League that from 2019 the tour will start in January at Pipeline and end in September at a special event in the Ments. Portugal has been mooted to be scheduled in for spring, there’s been no mention of France, which understandably has every local biz owner’s financial sphincter tweaking.
Time was the hectic summer tourist season ended first week of September. Then tumbleweeds apart from the travelling surfers in their vans, who didn’t really put much in to the local economy. As the summer tour event window wisely pushed back in to the more promising autumn window for waves it’s extended the season by six weeks. The second the comp finishes the town breathes a sigh of relief, closes the shutters and counts the cash. Then plans a nice long holiday to avoid the frankly dull as hell winters. Sure it can pump but it can be massive and onshore for weeks on end and the water quality can get pretty suss.
Now time for a quick history lesson. The reason Hossegor’s La Graviere has such punch is due to the offshore canyon, much like at Nazaré. One scoured over millennia by a river of force. Which isn’t what dribbles out through Capbreton’s harbour these days. The oft repeated myth is diminutive megalomanic Napoleon had the river diverted to drain the marshes. Nope. King Charles ordered it in 1571. Bayonne was a thriving port doing strong trade with England but the river didn’t hit the sea at Anglet like it does now, it came up behind the dunes all the way Capbreton and even sometimes as far as Messanges. Its constantly silting up and moving channels made navigation tricky. The project was controversial and the Landais from the north repeatedly sabotaged efforts to divert the river as they fancied some of the lucrative port biz themselves. It was only a helpful flood that finished off the new channel and sealed the deal for the Adour to go out at Anglet instead. So there you go, pub facts for you, and the engineer who oversaw the deal, who by all accounts was a bit up himself, was a chap called Louis de Foix.
Historic digression aside lets loop back to the now. Sure Hossegor is waaaaaay busier than it used to be. No more you and yours sleeping in the VVF car park and getting the morning funnel sesh to yourself. But it just takes a car, some binos and a bit of leg work. Hossegor and Capbreton are the hub, it’s up to you to explore either side for the constantly shifting sandbars where you can still score all time, world-class waves to yourself. Especially if you hang around post-contest as the van brigade move on to Spain and Portugal and the locals sod off to the Canaries and Indo. Sand walking does awesome things for your leg muscles anyway so every time you go on the search you’re technically training. You’ll have ass cheeks so taut you can crack walnuts betwixt them by the time you come home.
The town is still as fun as it ever was. It’s a good place for the wheels to come off party wise. The great and good, the beautiful, the feral, the famous, all are welcome to have a good time. It’s one thing you never quite get over is going for a meal and having the world’s top pros at the next table or the same in the Cafe de Paris post contest when the beers are flowing. What other sport could you actually chat to the top pros without security beefing you? It’s that kind of place, cultured, cool, relaxed and in typical French fashion no one really cares who you are.
You owe it to yourself to experience it, whether it’s in comp time or not. Take the time to inhale the pine scented air, drink tiny weapon strength coffees, explore for your own sandbar, eat burger and chips in a baguette (the legendary steak hache américaine), try and speak French, gorge yourself utterly stupid on seafood at Chez Minus, sample the many delights of the night life, try and eat a whole ten pack of pain au chocolate and, of course, get barrelled off your nut … who knows you might even get a hoot from John John.