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Vive la France & the roots of surfing in Biarritz

Vive la France & the roots of surfing in Biarritz

by Sam Bleakley

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Southwest France is the hub of European surfing, attracting visitors from all over the globe to sample hollow beach breaks, classy culture, mussels and fries, and great beers and wines. France offers everything for the adventurer: the lofty Alpine peaks have some of the best ski resorts in the world and both the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts have good surf. The 800-mile rugged coastline of Brittany has climate and surf conditions similar to Cornwall. In contrast, the French Riviera on the southeastern coast enjoys short-lived Mediterranean swells when northwest or east winds send waves to beach breaks around Marseille and Toulon. It is one of the most glamorous resort areas in the World, with Monaco, Nice and Cannes attracting the superstars.

Brittany – like Cornwall across The Channel – is rugged, hilly and windswept. Along its jagged coastline, granite headlands are interspersed with sandy beaches and wide bays. On a perfect day (lined-up swell plus easterly winds) you’ll find quality beach break waves at La Palue on the Crozon Peninsula, La Torche near Quimper, and Port Rhu towards Quiberon. Further south, past Nantes, the landscape flattens out and the roads become tree-lined and straight. On a mid-size swell, make a detour to Les Sables d’Olonne and weave your way through the forest to sample the right point at Sauveterre. On a big swell, head for La Tranche sur Mer where you’ll find a sand-bottom right point next to the new pier, L’Embarcadère.
France is most famous for ‘The Silver Coast’ extending from Royan (at the mouth of the Garonne estuary) in the north to Biarritz in the south. The 160-mile long stretch is backed by pine forest and lakes, while the deep of Bay of Biscay unloads swell right onto the steeply shelving sand with full force. Inevitably there is a powerful and sometimes dangerous north to south current flow and good sand bars come and go with tide and swell. But generally you will find some of the finest beach breaks in Europe and witness many of the continent's top surfers.
Peppered along the coast are dozens of seaside resorts: Soulac sur Mer, Carcans-Plage, Lacanau-Ocean, Biscarrosse- Plage, Mimizan-Plage, Moliets, Vieux Boucou, Hossegor and Capbreton, to name just a few. The unique underwater baththymetry around Hossegor produce some of the best beachbreaks on the planet.
There’s something magical about The Silver Coast. The endless peaks, the pine forests and the relaxed continental vibe together make this a classic place to visit, especially in the late summer and early autumn. If the waves are two- to five-feet and clean, the surfing possibilities here are endless. Hike along a sandy track through the forest, climb the dunes and see what you find. But don’t mess with French lifeguards! The blue and red uniformed beach patrollers are highly qualified and have the right to confiscate your surfboard if you ride a wave into the blue flagged swimming area. Respect the signs or you might get arrested and fined. The best solution is to always surf peaks a good distance from the swimming area.

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Biarritz is the arguably the most stylish surf city in Europe. Originally a summer escape for French aristocrats, the city may have faded a little from the days when Empress Eugenie (wife of Napoleon III) built her palace on the beach, but it still attracts the rich and famous. Ferraris and Porsches roam the streets of the city centre which are dotted with haute couture fashion shops. Côte des Basques is the most sheltered and mellowest of the town’s breaks. It’s a popular longboard spot and the best place for a surf lesson.

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When the early ambassadors of French surfing Joel and Arnaud de Rosnay explained to Surfer magazine in 1964 that Swiss writer Peter Viertel, working in Hollywood, had brought the first balsa board to Biarritz in 1957, they were unaware of the whole story. According to research by Paul Holmes revealed in his book Dale Velzy is Hawk, the story of French surfing involves Richard Zanuck. He was a scion of the Hollywood movie industry and son of legendary producer and studio mogul Darryl Zanuck, founder of Twentieth Century Fox. Young Zanuck had been a hardcore Malibu surfer since the early 1950s. His surfing adventures had taken him north to Santa Cruz, west to Hawaii and east to France.

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“Zanuck can take credit for introducing surfing to the now-renowned European surf-centre of southwest France,” writes Holmes. “The occasion was the location filming in Northern Spain of the 1956 movie The Sun Also Rises, the screenplay adapted from the Hemingway novel by Peter Viertel and being produced by Darryl Zanuck. Richard was tagging along, an apprentice, fresh out of school. Screenwriter Viertel lived in Switzerland and Spain but on one of his many visits to Hollywood during the pre-production phase of the picture, he remarked to Zanuck that he had seen waves just like those at Santa Monica and Malibu along the beaches of the Basque country near the film location. Zanuck needed no further prompting. When the studio loaded a charter plane with camera equipment, props and costumes, Zanuck added his surfboard. ‘Peter Viertel and I drove down from Paris headed for Pamplona and on the way down we stopped at Biarritz. They’d never seen a board before. It was a weekend and I went out and surfed. There were a lot of people there and I was the centre of attention,’ Zanuck reported.”

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Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity, the classic 1953 movie set in Hawaii


Surfing took root in Biarritz immediately. “After Viertel saw me surfing…he became obsessed…and surfed every day for years,” says Zanuck.” When filming was over, Viertel remained in Europe, living in Northern Spain with his wife, actress Deborah Kerr. Zanuck left his board with Viertel, who became a regular in the emergent Biarritz surfing scene. Joel and Arnaud de Rosnay, Viertel and two other Frenchmen, Jacques Rott and George Hennebutte, comprised the original core group in Biarritz back in 1957, which within a year had expanded to include Michel Barland, Andre Plumcoq, Robert Bergeruc and the Moraiz brothers, all sharing a total pool of seven boards. By 1960, Barland and Rott were collaborating to build foam and fibreglass surfboards. In the same year the first national French surfing contest was held, while the Waikiki Club became the central social base of the Biarritz surfing scene. It would be another four years before La Federation Francaise de Surf was formed, with Roger Petit as its President, based at the Office of Tourism in Biarritz.

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French actress Catherine Deneuve gets a surf lesson from Joel de Rosnay

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La Barre near Bayonne was the jewel in the French surfing crown in the 1960s. Joel de Rosnay glides a glassy section. La Barre was destroyed by a river dredging project in the early 1970s

For punchier waves head to Anglet, just north of the city, where a series of rock groins divide up the beaches from Chambre D’Amour to Les Cavaliers. Just south of Biarritz, Guethary is a superb Basque Country reef break, offering rights and lefts that peel for 60 yards in front of a small fishing village. Guethary breaks all year round, preferring a northwest swell and southeasterly winds. It works from three feet right up to 15 feet, and it’s usually best at lower stages of the tide. Drive another couple of clicks south and you’ll reach Lafiténia, a steady-peeling right point which can be really good on a clean four- to six-foot swell. It’s best at lower stages of the tide. Hit it early to avoid the crowds.

France also has many overseas territories and possessions spanning the globe, from islands in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans to a portion of South America and a major claim to the Antarctic continent. Many of these areas have fantastic waves, such as the Indian Ocean island of Réunion; French Polynesia, including Tahiti, Moorea, and the Tuamotu islands; New Caledonia and the French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique and St Bartholomew. Surfers from all these areas carrying French passports have made France one of the strongest and best-represented surfing countries in the world today.

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French longboard stylist Victoria Vergara


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