How To: France, Spain, And Portugal By Van
By someone who actually likes to surf.
I’ve always loved a good road trip.
I can’t resist the urge to see what the waves are like just around the corner. As a byproduct, it has become a hobby to inebriate myself in foreign towns, falling in love with their cheap bars, falling in love with their local cuisine, falling in love with the night’s perspective of the stars or the ocean, falling in love with anything or anyone, falling asleep in a dysfunctional bed at a cheap hotel.
Van life never called to me, though. It was something I associated with dreadlocks and bad financial decisions motivated by emotional crises more so than new waves and new favorite towns (I have many favorite towns).
Then COVID happened and it struck me as a poor idea to travel the way I normally do — which is to come in close contact with as many people, places and things as possible. But I still wanted to surf new waves, and so a van trip with my wife suddenly came into the cards.
The trip would last ten days, starting in Biarritz, France and ending in Lisbon, Portugal. Some context: I’ve been living in Biarritz for four years. In this time, I’ve covered the majority of the Atlantic coastlines of France, Spain and Portugal. When I decided to do this trip, I made it a priority to fill in some gaps and focus on places I hadn’t yet seen or surfed. So, the region wasn’t new to me, but the experience was.
To put it bluntly, it was fucking incredible.
One of the best surf trips of my life.
A moment came in which I was alone in the water as chest-high peaks crisscrossed up and down the beach. I could not see another person in the ocean. I could not see another person on the beach. I could not see another person at all — but I did see the van, up on top of a cliff, appearing more like a cliche than a reality.
I guess that’s why you do it.
I walked away from the experience with an urge to get a van. Not sure if I’ll follow through on that, but I am certain that I would recommend this trip to anyone. Including you.
It may be impossible for many right now, given the current travel situation. No need to rush. Europe will still be here. Just chuck it on your bucket list.
And, someday, check it off like this.
Renting a van
You’ll have no shortage of options. From minimalist to, umm, excessive. Be as realistic as possible about the amount of time you’ll be spending in the van. Plan on parking near towns and going out most nights? You probably don’t need something big. But if you’re more drawn to the idea of solitude, you should consider something spacier so that you’ll be comfortable hanging out, cooking meals, etc, when you’re far from the nearest restaurant.
You’d be missing a lot if you chose to spend every night of a European vacation in parking lots at the end of dirt roads. My recommendation would be to pursue a mix of cities and seclusion. Conveniently, a van gives you the flexibility to do both.
Given the current situation, and my previous forays in the region, I hardly spent any time in towns. I rented something between a van and an RV and it felt like a home. It was exactly what I needed on this trip.
Easy. You can’t wrong in September. Earlier in the summer will have more people and less swell. Later in the fall will have fewer people and more swell — but with more wind, more rain, more cold and more of pretty much everything that makes you want to avoid surfing.
Picking a route
Let’s be honest. When I said Europe, you knew what I meant: France, Spain, Portugal. Sure, the continent has plenty of other places to surf, but you can’t beat these three.
Your best bet is the zone between Bordeaux, France and Lisbon, Portugal. Both cities have airports, with Lisbon’s being major. You can get waves north of Bordeaux and south of Lisbon — and you should, if you see something you like. But, I recommend this golden stretch. It’s home to three current or recent CT stops: Hossegor, Mundaka and Supertubos. Yes. This area is holding.
A straight-ish shot on the route I’ve highlighted would take about 15 hours. You can expect to spend much more time than that in order to get to specific nooks, crannies, beaches, bars, whatever. Most rental agencies will let you pick up and drop off at different locations, but that decision will come down to your general plans and options flight-wise.
Pacing a route
It’s nice to set up somewhere for a few days, surf the same wave through a full tide cycle, maybe wait for a new swell to show up. It’s also nice to cram in as many places as you possibly can. I’m more drawn to the latter of the two, but it’s a matter of preference. Just be smart with your time and, more importantly, let the surf forecast make some calls for you.
Finding places to sleep
ThePark4Night app was amazing. It helped us find great free places to park every single night without any problems. Use it.
Sorry. No simple app here. And that’s a good thing — it’s part of the mystique.
Other than the world-class waves mentioned above, you can find relatively well-known waves anywhere on this route. Most of these places are popular for a reason: Consistency. Use that to your advantage.
But let’s talk about that mystique again. There are plenty of fun waves you can surf alone here. And it doesn’t require all that much effort to do so.
The key — especially if you’re somewhere like Galicia, where options are aplenty — is to stay on top of swell and wind directions. There are many apps for both of those things, but I recommend MagicSeaweed and VentuSky. When you identify an area you like, use Google Maps to find the beach’s name and try to dig up some photos. Searching Instagram geotags is also good for that, once you’ve established the name.
Get creative and thank me later.
This was unlike any other surf trip I’ve been on. How else can you surf alone at a wave you’ve never heard of, come in, grab a beer from the fridge, watch the sunset, eat some food, go to sleep and wake up overlooking that same empty wave? The fact that still exists in this day and age is outstanding. And you should really take advantage of it.
Shoutout to Indie Campers. Great van and great service. They’re your go-to.