Tag Archives: BCN

Surfing the Basque Country

While protesters rallied in the rain for the release of Basque prisoners (see post), hundreds of surfers gathered down the coast for the annual ZarautzPro. The six-star ASP professional surfing event drew surfers from around the world for the competition, momentarily infusing an international mix of visitors into the sleepy beach town.

My friend Griffin and I drove to Zarautz to check it out. After writing my last post about the Basque/Spain conflict, I was looking for fresh air and something positive to write about. We drove through the deep valleys between San Sebastian and Zarautz, I thought about how this inaccessible geography helped preserve Basque traditions through isolation from Spain and France. And as we came through a tunnel and approached the sea, I remembered how generations of Basques pushed off shore in the ships that would discover the new world and bring it home through trade. Throughout history, Basques have played this balance between isolation and engagement, preservation of tradition and assimilation of foreign ideas, concepts, and – in the case of surfing – cultures.

It was just up the coast in the French Basque town of Biarritz where surfing made it’s European debut in the 60s. But before then, Basque life centered around the sea. They were some of Europe’s early fishermen and evolved into the best sailors and shipbuilders in the Spanish empire. Their water sports include rowing, a sport that developed as early whalers in small row boats would race to port to get the best price for their catch at the market. As our car pulled into Zarautz, I noticed that the town’s coat of arms bears a castle, a lion, and a whale – remnants of this earlier identity.

Today, the image of whales is gone and the beachfront is covered in the logos of surf brands from California, Australia and Europe. The old whaling port sits idly on the east side of the mile-long beach, and now serves as a convenient spot to jump directly into lineup of the best break in town. Many of the local kids, who I imagine once would have been fisherman plying the Cantabrian Coast and the northern waters beyond, now move horizontally along the coast from break to break, traveling from Portugal to France to find the best waves on the lowest budget.

As we got out of the car and walked to the beach, I marveled at the juxtaposition of Basque culture and surfing culture. The former is rooted in geography, shared history and an identity inherited from the traditions of one’s forefathers. The latter culture knows no boundaries, is based on shared interest, and focuses not on your family history, but on what you are doing in the present moment. Admittedly,false surfing identity can be purchased through clothing and stickers (i.e. a “poser”), but the truest surfers earn their identity through talent and achievement. They are two tribes, but of a totally different nature.

Perhaps traditionalists could view surfing as a cultural invasion from abroad, but the two cultures are not entirely exclusive. Despite the Basque reverence for tradition, they have accepted the new sport readily. Their historic love for the sea has swapped the whaling spear for the surfboard and integrated the sport into the local culture. The municipal government sponsored the surfing event, and much of the town’s economy depends on foreigners coming here for their waves. The popularity of surfing has spurred a number of local surf brands who sell shirts saying “Surfing the Basque Country.” Surfing provides another common identity that further unites Basques from Spanish Bilbao to French Biarritz.

I watched people from all over the world coming together to enjoy the sport. The M.C. announced surfer’s scores in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese. But no commentary was necessary to appreciate the surfing. The shared sport was the common language.

Then I thought back to the activists from the other day. For them, redefining borders and defending territory is paramount. So much of who they are comes from where they are from, and I appreciate that as an essential part of identity in a world that is becoming more homogenized every year.  But for surfers, national borders are more of a hassle that stand between you and the waves up the coast.

It’s not to say that surfing is going to bring the world peace and love and harmony. It has its shortcomings. I grew up in La Jolla, California, whose surfing culture criticized for it’s localism by Tom Wolfe in The Pumphouse Gang. I remember seeing local surfers picking fights with kids from another part of the same city, simply because they came from 10 miles inland. Close mindedness exists within every identity on the planet.

But more often, surfing transcends all that. Sure, some surfers fight over waves and terrorize tourists. But on the whole it’s a new, international culture that any of us can take part in. In a world of division, it’s one more common culture we can share. And for all the talk of unity between Basques in Spain and France, I’d bet that those who spend the most time across the border aren’t the activists.  They’re the surfers.

Donostia Dive Bars – Night Life in San Sebastián, Spain

Originally Published on MatadorNights

San Sebastian, Spain is an elegant city. These places are not. This guide will show you a grittier side of Spain’s most elegant seaside city that most tourists don’t see.

San Sebastian (called Donostia in Basque) is at once very touristy and extremely local. Foreigners and donostiarras tend to run in different circles and most visitors never escape the warren of touristic bars in the parte vieja (old town). It took me six months of asking around before I moved beyond the anglophone bubble into tabernas where locals go to get down.

I’ve posted the fruits of that half-year search here. Most nights begin with eating pintxos and move quickly into bar-hopping bacchanalia. So I’ve put the pintxo spots first, most of which close around eleven. The other seven bars close around 3AM.

Between heavy metal, live music, and pintxos, you’ll find the trouble you’re looking for here.
La Mejillonera

When partying, I always start at the Mejillonera around 9PM. Each night, this busy seafood joint buzzes with locals slurpin’ down €3 plates of mussels and patatas bravas (potatoes with secret sauce) – hence the floor covered in beer and discarded shells.

Cheap food, free bread, and 1-liter catchis of beer for €3.60 makes this the ideal place to fill your stomach and kick-start your buzz.

Calle Puerto 15, Parte Vieja

Bar Gorriti

Most of San Sebastian’s pintxo bars are quite fancy. Bar Gorriti is not. Vagrants and working men alike come here for pintxos and drinks well within their price range. Local tip: maximize your bar-hopping budget by ordering a half-beer, called a zurrito.

San Juan, 3, Parte Vieja

Juantxo Taberna

Shifting from food to party, we have Juantxo Taberna. Famous for their €3 bocadillos (submarine sandwiches), Juantxo’s is always brimming with donostiarras drinking cañas (pints) of beer at any time of day. As dining shifts to drinking, the boisterous crowd flows into the street.

Calle 6, Parte Vieja

The Port

In fact, boozing in the street is essential to a night out in San Sebastian. Though technically illegal, outdoor pre-parties are an institution warranting their own name, the botellón.

Thrifty locals converge at the port between 11PM and 1AM before hitting up pricier bars. Follow their lead and make yourself a kalimotxo – equal parts of €1 boxed wine and Coca-Cola, served with ice in a plastic cup. Yum.

Parte Vieja


If it’s after midnight and you’re properly buzzed, you can head to the Parte Vieja for more trouble, starting with Hamabost. This place is perfect for knocking back chupitos (shots) while overlooking the Plaza de la Constitución as the DJ jams the deep cuts of classic rock. And there’s plenty of space in case you’re rolling deep after the botellón.

Plaza de la Constitución, 15, Parte Vieja


Next, you can grab the baddest-ass dudes from your crew and go to Zunbeltz, San Sebastian’s most nefarious metal bar. The above-average amount of hair, leather, and facial piercings of its patrons makes it easy to spot.

Stepping inside is like entering a time capsule from 1982 where guitar solos and stiff whiskeys drown out the shitty euro-pop of nearby discos.

Pescadería, 12, Parte Vieja

Calle San Juan de Bilbao

Calle San Juan de Bilbao is not everyone’s cup of tea. The street’s overt Basque nationalism might put some people off, but the half-dozen bars here are as local as it gets.

Either way it’s wise to read up on the Basque Country’s political situation before visiting. Crowds tend to migrate between Herria Taberna, Suhazi Taberna and their smaller neighbors. All are safe bets.


Akerbeltz is a gay-friendly bar that’s a good time for anyone. This local favorite is a stone-hewn grotto centered around a marble horseshoe bar, replete with Neolithic cave art and drinks strong enough to knock you into the stone age.

In summer the party spills out into the nearby staircase. Feel free to do the same.

Calle de Mari, 19, Parte Vieja

Le Bukowski

Up for a hike? Leave the parte vieja behind and cross the river to the offbeat barrio of Egia, home to Le Bukowski. This popular dive is famous for live music, good tunes and great times – and the highest concentration of skinny jeans and plaid shirts in town.

The young, welcoming crowd puts down €2 beers ’til 5AM — two hours later than any other bar on this list. Weekend ambiance rotates between non-techno dance parties and live music (usually with €5 cover). Check out the events calendar here.

Calle de Egia, 18, 20012, Egia

Leize Gorria

If everyone drank at bars like Leize Gorria, perhaps the world would know peace. The bar’s Uruguayan owners are fighting the good fight from their subterranean casa cultural, a “free and open forum for self-expression and intercultural exchange.”

There’s live music all weekend, but Monday and Thursday nights’ Jam Sessions best embody their faith in the universality of music. Anyone can pick up a guitar and chant down Babylon with the crowd — including you. Don’t be fooled by the empty ground-level bar. The real party is underground.

Calle Zubieta 9, La Concha

Koh Tao

When you eventually rise to the sunlight, wash away your hangover with a cafe con leche and a slice of tortilla at San Sebastian’s hippest cafe-cum-bar, Koh Tao. Jump in the ocean, take a siesta, and start all over again. Repeat enough times, and you may never leave San Sebastian.

Calle Bengoetxea 2, Centro Romantico