Where summer's waves roll into autumn

Don't put away your surfboard yet, says Jonathan Bennett, the water is still warm off the Basque country's coast

"Welcome to the world of surfing," our instructor said on the fourth day of the course, as we finally nosed our way through the breakers and out towards the unbroken swell beyond.

Welcome to the world of surfing," our instructor said on the fourth day of the course, as we finally nosed our way through the breakers and out towards the unbroken swell beyond. "Suffering, suffering, suffering." Not the most encouraging welcome, though often not far from the truth. At times, learning to surf can feel like being trapped in a particularly malevolent washing machine. At others, though, it can be utterly exhilarating, even for a beginner precariously catching that all-important first wave.

But if the thought of immersing yourself in the chilly waters of Cornwall sends shivers down your spine, consider heading a little further south. Cheap flights to Bilbao and Biarritz have made the French and Spanish Basque country almost as accessible as Newquay, and far more appealing: it offers reliable waves, higher temperatures in and out of the water, better weather and great cuisine – which is just what you need when you haul yourself from the breakers with fingers like prunes and lips that feel as if they've been sucking on a salt lick.

From Hossegor in Les Landes above Biarritz to La Arena west of Bilbao, the Basque country on both sides of the border is studded with great surfing beaches. North of the Pyrenees, long, white beaches stretch as far as the eye can see, edged by dunes that keep the endless regiments of pine trees at bay. To the west, the landscape grows more mountainous and stunningly green, like Switzerland-on-Sea. Golden strips of sand sit between swooping headlands, dramatic cliffs and severe, craggy promontories linked to the mainland by fragile fingers of rock that shrug off the ravages of wind and tide – as do the Basque fishing communities that shelter on this shore-line, serving up their catch at harbour-side restaurants that would make Rick Stein in Padstow weep. And if you aim to combine surfing with sightseeing, both Biarritz and San Sebastian are built around surfing beaches, while from Bilbao, the beaches at Sopelana and Gorliz are just a metro ride away, bringing a new meaning to the term "surfing the tube". While most holiday-makers in Europe are packing up their beach bags and heading home, hard-core surfers are waxing their boards and strapping on their wetsuits with glee, as the peak surfing season approaches. Even for beginners, September and October are ideal: the waves are good, the water is still warm and the shallows are not full of death-wish kids intent on testing your steering skills to the limit.

Learning to surf is much like learning to ski, a series of minor triumphs, crushing set-backs and tear-inducing humiliations. The difference here (apart from the water, of course) is that there are no easy green runs with which to console your aching body at the end of a tiring day. Instead, black, red, blue and green come rolling in together. The secret is knowing which is which. Minor injuries are unavoidable, particularly stubbed toes and raw knees from trying to stand up, as well as assorted bumps and bruises from being thrown around the maelstrom with a length of glass-fibre tied to your ankle. It is also physically exhausting, so although you do not have to be especially sporty, the fitter you are before you go, the better. Swimming and press-ups are particularly useful, but so is anything else that improves your strength, stamina, flexibility and balance. When you start, it is tempting to stay out there, trying to repeat a single moment of chance success. But don't overdo it, particularly for the first few days – by the end of the week, you risk being so physically exhausted you cannot even pick up your board, let alone capitalise on your new skills. If things are not going your way, or the waves are too big, take a break.

Most surf schools run five-day courses, with an hour or two per day in groups of four to six. Prices include board and wetsuit hire and insurance for the duration of the class, though you might like to bring your own "rash vest", a Lycra T-shirt to reduce rubbing. Beginners start on long boards, between eight and nine feet long, which are more stable and easier to catch waves on, but less manoeuvrable than the six-foot boards favoured by more experienced surfers.

"You've got to be very stubborn," warned our instructor. "Surfing is hard psychologically and physically. You paddle for 15 minutes against the waves, for three minutes of excitement." Actually, as a beginner, three minutes is somewhat optimistic. Even so, surfing is a lot of fun, and very addictive. By the end of your first week, you should be able to struggle to your feet for a few seconds, or maybe more. You might even be able to catch the odd wave all the way in to the shore. Before you know it, you will be spending every waking moment planning your next trip. After that, it's next stop Hawaii.

The Facts

Getting there

Go ( www.go-fly.com) offers two flights a day to Bilbao from £80 return. Ryanair ( www. ryanair.com) offers two flights a day to Biarritz, from £28 return.

Being there

The following beaches all have surf schools and are suitable for beginners of all ages. Most run from Easter to mid or late October, though some operate all year round. A five-day course costs €60-€85 (£40-£57) for five hours, up to €150 (£100) for 10 hours, including board hire, wetsuit and insurance. Most allow use of equipment outside class times, or failing that offer board hire for about €20 (£13) per day. All run classes in English, though degrees of fluency vary. Insurance only covers actual class time, so it might be worth taking out your own, or becoming a member of one of the national federations.

France:

Hossegor: Ecole Sébastien Saint-Jean (00 33 6 07 19 82 59).
Anglet: Anglet Cap Glisse (00 33 5 59 23 60 48).
Biarritz: Lagoondy Surf Camp (00 33 5 59 24 62 86); Surftraining (00 33 5 59 23 15 31).
St Jean de Luz: Ecole de Surf Français h2o (00 33 6 08 95 03 65).

Spain:

San Sebastian: Pukas (00 34 943 58 01 63).
Zarautz: Zarautz Surf Eskola (00 34 656 78 52 25) Pukas Surf Eskola (00 34 943 83 58 21).
Gorliz: Future Surf (00 34 660 91 25 82).
Sopelana: Reef Billabong Surf Escuela (00 34 667 55 78 39);
Pe&ntilde: a-Txuri Surf Taldea (00 34 606 55 78 39).
La Arena: Erauntsi Surf Taldea (00 34 658 75 54 72).

Further information

For France, visit www.touradour.com/surf/index.htm for detailed information in English, with phone numbers and links to surf schools and web-cams.

For Spain, visit the Basque Surfing Federation website www.euskalsurf.com for information on schools and beaches, and addresses. Visit www.alaplaya.com for links to various web-cams.

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