16- Surfing and Sipping
Surviving the South of France is a breeze. From the rosés of Provence to the shores of Biarritz, the entire place is enchanted. Biarritz is a medium sized town situated on the boarder of France and Spain on the Basque Coast. It is also one of the only good surf spots in all of Europe. And by good I mean if you don’t mind a crowded, rocky reef break with skill sets from new swimmers to pro surfers. But as the “when in Rome” attitude continued, CiCi and I thought we’d join the hoards of surfers and give the famous break a shot.
We ended up in Biarritz as a result of my continuous poor train planning. While we were supposed to be on our way to Bordeaux from Provence, I didn’t think a little sun and surf would hurt us, so I booked the train that led us to the coast. Biarritz reminded me of a French version of San Diego—surfer dudes with their wet suits half on and boards tucked beneath their arms trotting to the waves. We lucked out with accommodations in a little cottage which over looked the beach. The little middle-aged French woman that ran it, made incredible raspberry crepes and espresso.
After catching up on some much needed sleep, we got up early, scarfed down some crepes and headed to the sand in search of a sexy surf instructor. Ding! Ding! Ding! We had hit the jackpot. Like most surf spots, surfers are much better at cutting up the waves than they are at reporting to a job in the morning. That was good news for us, because it meant we got to custom order our young, French, surf instructor—not a bad deal. We ended up going with André, a shorter, but funny surf dude with light brown, curly hair and a six pack of a male stripper.
CiCi and I both fumbled our way to the waters edge with our egg-shaped boards that were two feet bigger than us. The surf was relatively small, due to the inconsistent summer surfing conditions. As we got over the initial break, André, CiCi, and I bobbed in the water, waiting for the next “set” to come. As we felt the waves swell beneath us, André began explaining how the surf, earth, sun, and us were all harmonious. How when we connected with the wave it was an energy force in and of itself that lifted our spirits to become one with the universe. I thought André was a little high, but he spoke with passion, so I listened contently, pretending like I was at a Yoga class.
As I was contemplating the universal pull of energy, I didn’t realize I had floated a little too far into shore. All of a sudden, I was parallel with a huge wave that had snuck up on me. As I furiously paddled to get over the top of the wave’s lip before it crushed me, I saw my life flash before my eyes. The next thing I knew, it was like someone had put me in a washing machine that was full of salt water and boulders. I felt a sharp smack, and my head clunked against the rocks on the ocean floor. Although my eyes were closed, I saw stars and continued to kick my legs furiously hoping I would make it to oxygen soon.
Just when I was about to reach my head through the water’s ceiling, I felt a tug on my ankle, as my surf leash pulled me back down. I opened my eyes, only to see another huge wave getting ready to crash on top of me again. It was back to the washing machine. Tumble, rocks, and terror – I was a bit disappointed that I was going to dye on Biarritz’s shitty break, when I could have easily died at the North Shore of Hawaii or even Tahiti for that matter. Oh well, that was it for me. As soon as I had resigned to the fact that the last taste I’d ever have wouldn’t be a fine wine, but rather salt water, I felt an arm around my chest.
I was barely conscious and someone was dragging me out of the water and onto the rocky sand. Then I felt hot lips on my mouth, as this person was blowing air into my lungs. My chest rose and collapsed, as I started to cough up salt water and seaweed. Damn, what a bad taste. What’s worse, I nearly threw up in my rescuer’s mouth. Thankful to be breathing again, I rubbed the water from my eyes only to find a lifeguard twice my age, three times tanner, and in much better shape than me.
Apparently, as I went under, André signaled for help, grabbed my board (so it wouldn’t hit me in the head), and got CiCi to shore. In the meantime, (while I was in the washing machine) Gorgio, a Spanish immigrant and lifeguard headed into the blue monster to save me. Incredibly grateful for both oxygen and my life, I insisted that both André and Gorgio join us for dinner later that night.
I took it easy for the rest of the day, a little shaken by the surfing adventure. By the time night rolled around, I was of the mindset that it was time to celebrate and be thankful for my good fortune. I chose a restaurant called L’Instant, thinking it was an ironic name for the day, in that all it takes is one instant for your entire life to change.
L’Instant was a charming, tiny restaurant run by a married couple who obviously loved what they did. It worked out that the Biarritz surfing community was relatively small. As it turned out, André and Gorgio had known each other for years, and had even been roomies for a spell when André first moved to the beach area. When the waiter approached the table, I knew better than to go for the wine list, especially on these guys’ home turf. I asked Gorgio if he would pick his favorite wine to share with us.
A good choice to do so. Gorgio, a Spanish native, stuck with his national pride in his wine choice. As he grabbed the list, he said, “Well, May-gun, since the Basque Coast almost killed you, why don’t you get ready to kill some Basque wine?” The logic made sense to me. That night, we started with a white wine which is a specialty of the Basque region. It is made from the Txacolí (cha-col-LEE) grape, and is a slightly sparkling, super dry white wine. I must admit, it was a very refreshing choice after a day of saltwater and seaweed breath. Paired with oysters, this refresher was a perfect mate to the creamy shellfish.
As we continued through dinner, we paired the stewed trout with another Spanish wine, called Rioja. While “Rioja” is just a place in Spain, the grapes traditionally used in the wine are tempranillo (temp-pran-ee-yo) and granache (gran-nash). Tempranillo is a grape that makes beautiful red, fruity wine. As I later learned, Rioja wines have three levels: crianza, reserve, and gran reserve. The longer the wine has aged in barrels and the bottle, the higher level it is given. For this reason, Rioja is synonymous with aging wine for a very long time. Rioja is also one of the most historical wine growing regions in the world – with archaeological discoveries proving that ancient Romans made wine in this area thousands of years ago in clay vessels.
I was happy we’d chosen Gorgio to pick the wine, because he turned out to have wine as part of his family’s background. His great grandfather had planted a medium sized vineyard outside of the old town of Haro, Spain. He purchased the land from a land baron who had been involved in a land dispute in the 10th century related to a small mountain range. The area was crawling with winemakers (vintners) at the time, and each vintner took a side in the dispute. During this time period, every winemaker made at least two types of wine- the good stuff, and the cheap stuff. When the dispute began to explode into a somewhat good-hearted war, every winemaker took all of their bad wine, and poured it on the other side.
This left both villages covered in cheap red wine. Because the wine raised everyone’s spirits, and lowered their inhibitions, the dispute was settled, but the tradition continues. According to Gorgio, every June, the towns reenact the grape carnage, and everyone has an absolute ball getting drenched in red wine. Its known as the Batella del Vino, or great wine battle. As I realized that CiCi and I had missed the festival that year, I promised Gorgio that we would return in the near future to participate. God I love the wine world.