Stab Magazine | Flowers In The Mountains
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Flowers In The Mountains

They stood their ground against a military dictator and a boozed up Sunny Garcia on the night he learned about his first divorce. But, the Basque surfing community are far from militant heavies, they say. It’s all just a big misunderstanding. Story by Jed Smith Basque surfer and 2009 world tour competitor, Aritz Aranbaru, remembers […]

news // Mar 8, 2016
Words by stab
Reading Time: 5 minutes

They stood their ground against a military dictator and a boozed up Sunny Garcia on the night he learned about his first divorce. But, the Basque surfing community are far from militant heavies, they say. It’s all just a big misunderstanding. Story by Jed Smith

Basque surfer and 2009 world tour competitor, Aritz Aranbaru, remembers the last time his tyres were slashed across the border in France. It was the latest of three attacks on his car (Aritz had his front windscreen smashed and tyres slashed in the previous two) and he’d been surfing a bombing swell alone at Labenne during the Quik Pro France in September 2010. He remembers watching the locals up on the cliffs from the lineup.

“I’m not calling them chickens but the guy who broke my car should respect me a little bit more because I was out there surfing his own spot when he wasn’t,” he says.

The news resonated hard in his native Basque country (an area in southern France and northern Spain on the Altantic). Cowardice is not a revered quality by his people nor have they been known for tolerating attacks on their compatriots. With the jewel of European surfing, Mundaka, deep in Basque territory it was only a matter of time before the French would pour back across the border and an opportunity for retribution would be presented.

Julen Larrañaga is a 20-year veteran of the Mundaka line-up and one of the few surfers to earn a spot on its peak. Asked how the French were received following the Aritz incident, he replies: “No violence. Never. I have never heard of violence in the Basque. Not at all.”

He sits opposite me in a smoky San Sebastian pub, a black jumper packaging his lumberjack’s build, face unshaven and a hood pulled over his sagging afro. He looks every bit the kinda guy who’d do the skull pinching in the Mundaka car park after an indiscretion. “We are not aggressive. We have been fighting for our things for so many years but political fights. We fight for our rights, our roots, our language and our ways. Not physical fighting. We fight a bigger battle. We don’t have problems with surfing,” he says.

The Basque country (population three million) is internationally renowned for two things: culture, including the world’s premiere gastronomic culture; two of its most revered wine regions; writers such as Bernardo Atxaga (whose work has been translated into over a dozen languages); a place that gave Europe the chance to watch censored films during the Fascist era; one that continues to bring the richest of traditions in folk music; one that owns several respected scientists, artists, photographers (the image used for the Modern Collective’s Parallel Universe t-shirt, for instance, came from Basque photographer, Yosigo); as well as a tradition of architecture and design as steeped in prestige as anywhere (legend of European Haute-couture, Cristobal Balenciaga is Basque, as are the 20th century sculptors, Jorge Oteiza and Eduardo Chillida. While the beret, or Txapel as it is known here, is also a Basque invention). Oh, and it was the birthplace of surfing in Europe, Biarritz witnessing the first displays of Europeans riding malibus in the 50s.

The second is its defence of that culture. From 1958 to 1975, the Basque people fought a guerrilla war against the might of the Spanish army and its dictator, General Franco, who had tried to annex the Basque and outlaw their culture and language. According to the BBC, the Basque separatist campaign was responsible for 820 deaths, most of whom were part of Spain’s Civil Guardia. It’s military arm, ETA, became real good at the assassination of political leaders as well as bomb attacks even after the death of Franceo in 1975, howevs. In 2010, ETA announced a permanent end to violence.

Julen insists the Basque’s militant past has not bled through to its surfing community, especially in Mundaka.

“In general, the Basque people are very quiet. But we have been fighting for our things for so many years. Political fights. It’s incredible because we know a lot of people who are in prison now because they are able to put a bomb under something,” says Julen.

When it comes to Mundaka, Julen says localism is simply not viable. “In Mundaka there are no real locals. The people from Mundaka don’t really surf because it doesn’t always have waves so the young people play football. I have surfed it for 20 years and surf the peak and can snake a little bit but with so many people, sometimes it’s impossible to control. We practice passive localism… we are just like anywhere,” he says.

It should also be noted that Julen suffers from a similar image problem to his homeland. Far from a militant brute, he is tertiary educated (having finished a communications degree), well travelled and trilingual with no history of violence.

So, what then do make So, what then do make of the nationalist sentiments scrawled in the Mundaka toilets, the tales of heated exchanges between world tour surfers and locals during the Billabong Pro Mundaka waiting period and the time one of Hawaii’s most feared surfers got done in a scrap here?

According to Julen, there are Basque surfers who identify with the more hardline sentiments espoused by ETA. But they are few.

It is also true that Andy Irons and a local pro had a run in at Mundaka during the Billabong Pro waiting period. But it was nothing more than a mid-session discussion regarding the lack of respect being shown by the top 45 to local surfers. Given the surf-etiquette abominations ritually committed by travelling pros during the European leg (“On the epic day in 2006 at Mundaka all the CT guys were here and they drop in a lot on all people. I saw Parko paddle, drop in on someone, straight into the barrel and not look back. He did it to five guys in 20 minutes. So crazy! Locals don’t even do that,” a young Basque pro, Mario Azurza, will tell me later), it was a small price to pay.

And Sunny Garcia remembers the beating he supposedly copped from a Basque man during festivities for the Pukas Pro, Zarautz (WQS event) back in 1997 a little differently to what was reported at the time.

“It was the night my first wife asked me for a divorce so there was no fucking way in hell anybody was kicking my ass. I had a guy bust a bottle over my head while I was beating the shit out of his buddy. It didn’t stop me but if you count bleeding as getting my ass kicked then I guess so. Hahaha,” he wrote via email, adding that the incident wasn’t enough to sour his experience of the place. “The people there are my favorite in the world. They can be the nicest caring people that will give you the shirts off their back. I’ve been going there since I was 17 and I’ve been treated better than I get treated at home but shit happens everywhere,” he says.

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