Break for the boarder: Biarritz is the perfect place for novice surfers to catch their first waves
Saturday 16 May 2009
Lawrence Dallaglio is on my plane. As I sit waiting for take-off, the former England and Wasps rugby player comes lumbering down the aisle, struggling to fit his massive frame between the seats. I smile at him as he passes; it's unclear whether he reciprocates or grimaces. Nor am I about to ask, because I'm more concerned with the plane's ability to take off with a man-mountain on board. Is there some ballast we could drop as a precaution?
It transpires that Dallaglio – clearly keen to relax in his retirement – is on his way to Biarritz to embark upon a 600-mile charity cycle ride across the Pyrenees. The Basque resort is an appropriate starting point for the erstwhile egg-chaser: the place is soaked in rugby tradition. Biarritz Olympique have won the French championship five times since forming in 1913, though the team are a prominent topic of conversation whatever their fortunes. Indeed, heated debates can take place in establishments owned by former Biarritz players: Serge Betsen – currently plying his trade at London Wasps – owns a plush spa, while legendary prop Pascal Ondarts owns Hotel le Caritz.
The Caritz is the base for my stay in Biarritz, the Atlantic port that will provide a backdrop to my own sporting pursuit: surfing. Well, my attempt at a sporting pursuit at any rate. Having never been within 10 feet of a surfboard, the prospect of carving up a wave is about as daunting as an attempt to emulate Dallaglio's 600-mile cycle ride.
Nonetheless, the Basque coast is a haven for bona fide boarders, regularly hosting official competitions and world tours. In 2007, Biarritz celebrated 50 years of the sport, its potential realised by the American scriptwriter and keen surfer Peter Viertel in 1957, while he was doing research for the screen adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.
As it happens the weather is beautiful for my first lesson; the surf season generally falls between April and October, with the temperature getting as high as 35C in June and July. In the company of fellow first-timers I meet my instructor, Fred Braud, who works out of a camper van chock-full of boards, in partnership with his dog, Gaya.
We are on the Côte des Basques, a beach that Fred assures us is an excellent one for beginners, owing to the relative gentleness of Belza, the wave that washes up against it. Looking out to the ocean, wetsuit donned, sand between my toes, board cradled in my arm, I start to feel the part. Surf star Kelly Slater, you say? Pah.
Pah, pah, pah, pah – five minutes into the lesson and I'm spitting sand. We haven't actually made it into the water yet, with Fred running us through the method for standing up on the board while we are still on dry land. Lying face down on the board you push your arms straight, bring your knees up, jump up on to your feet and then ease yourself into a balanced, crouching position. Easy. Or at least it is when Fred does it, completing the whole thing in one fluid movement; my version, by comparison, is decidedly stagnant. Gaya looks on disdainfully.
Before you can say, "Um, those waves actually look quite big," we're in among them. "Keep your mind clear!" shouts Fred from somewhere near my feet, giving my board a push as a wave approaches. "Be sure of yourself!" he cries, as I push my arms straight, bring my knees up and – fall off.
During the course of the hour-and-a-half lesson I manage to stand up twice, with Fred a constant source of occasionally dubious encouragement: "The board is your girlfriend – and she doesn't get headaches!" Actually managing to get into an upright position – albeit for five seconds at a time – feels like a fantastic achievement.
Back on terra firma, lunch is called for. One thing that Biarritz doesn't lack for – nor indeed the entire Basque coast – is foodie options. Specialities of the region are jambon de Bayonne, a delicious cured ham; fromage de brebis, a moreish cheese from milk of Pyrenean sheep; and piment rouge, a red pepper from the village of Espelette. However, on this occasion a croque-monsieur from Le Café de l'Ocean on Place Sainte-Eugénie – a square lined with terraced restaurants – hits the spot.
In the evening I eat at Le Surfing, a restaurant that overlooks the Côte des Basques and has surfboards hanging from the ceiling. It also serves up particularly tender steak and provides a fine selection of wines. Then, a few drinks. First stop is Miguel Café, where questionable versions of the Mona Lisa hang on the walls. Later, I move on to Bar Basque, where I pass a pleasant few hours of the evening sitting outside and watching the world go by.
The next day, my second lesson takes place at the Plage de Marinella in Anglet, just up the coast from Biarritz. There are 11 beaches to choose from in Anglet and 12 surf schools. I take the opportunity to recline on a huge beanbag at Le Club de la Glisse, a very groovy beachfront surf school replete with yoga mats.
But my faith in the beginner status of Plage de Marinella is brought into question once I see the waves: they are much stronger and more frequent this time around, making the prospect of standing upright when waist-deep in water, let alone actually getting on to the board, an alarming one. Emerging from the sea feeling humbled by Mother Nature's awesome power, I wonder if my board – my surrogate girlfriend, lest we forget – has rejected me already; after all, I have just been slapped around for an hour on our second date.
Having refuelled at beach-side eatery La Petit Resto with another serving of Bayonne ham accompanied by pipérade (a winning mixture of tomato, pepper and egg) I am able to nurse my wounded pride – and aching limbs – with a spot of thalassotherapy at the Atlanthal leisure centre. Wearing a fetching latex cap, I wade into a glorified swimming pool of sea water replete with jets, sprays, cascades and spouts.
Back at the Côte des Basques the next morning and it's time for my third lesson. Will my board and I be on better terms than yesterday? While the prospect of pulling off some backside airs (honestly, it's surfing lingo, however painful it may sound) is a long way off, another successful five-second stint spent in an upright position is enough to send me away happy.
Later, as the sun sets over the Atlantic Ocean, I take the opportunity to reflect on my surfing experience with a drink outside Les 100 Marches. What at first glance is essentially a wooden shack that serves alcohol is also, I am informed, the place where anybody who is anybody hangs out of an evening. However, a glance around reveals that Lawrence Dallaglio is nowhere to be seen. Surely he counts as a someone? Perhaps he has already started his bike ride.
Biarritz can be reached by train from London St Pancras and Ebbsfleet via Paris (08705 186 186; eurostar.com). Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Stansted and Birmingham while easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) flies from Bristol.
Hotel le Caritz, Biarritz (00 33 5 59 24 41 84; lecaritz-biarritz.com). Doubles start at €95, room only.
Eating & drinking there
Restaurant Le Surfing (00 33 5 59 24 78 72; lesurfingbiarritz.fr).
Miguel Café (00 33 5 59 22 36 21).
Bar Basque (00 33 5 59 24 6092).
100 Marches (00 33 5 59 24 75 61).
Hastea Surf School (00 33 6 81 93 98 66; hastea.com). Lessons start at €35 . Intensive five-day courses cost €300.
Pays Basque Tourism: 00 33 5 59 30 01 30; tourisme64.com
Bayonne Tourism: 00 33 8 20 42 64 64; bayonne-tourisme.com
Biarritz Tourism: 00 33 5 59 22 37 00; biarritz.fr
Anglet Tourism: 00 33 5 59 03 77 01; anglet-tourisme.com
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