On a stormy day in 1835, too rough to put to sea, the young fishermen in the sleepy, unknown village of Biarritz played hide-and-seek between their boats with a 9-year-old Spanish girl, watched by her indulgent American mother, Mary Kirkpatrick. They had no idea that the girl was the Condesa Eugenia María de Montijo de Guzmán, the daughter of a Spanish noble who had fought on the French side during Napoléon I’s Peninsular War. Eugenia fell in love, first with Biarritz, and then with Napoléon’s nephew Louis-Napoléon, who in 1852 became Emperor of France. The Empress Eugénie, as she had become, convinced Napoléon III to visit Biarritz in 1854. Although notoriously bad-tempered, even he was captivated by its charms and built a summer palace overlooking the shore, the Villa Eugénie, for his wife, in a record time of 10 months. Eugénie invited the nobility of Europe to spend their summers in Biarritz and many built their own splendid residences. Queen Victoria was a regular visitor for 30 years of her reign and the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, enjoyed five seasons there, staying in the former imperial palace, transformed in 1893 into the Hôtel du Palais.
This transformation of Biarritz came not a moment too soon, as hitherto the village had been in what seemed terminal decline. The sea had been its main source of income since the Middle-Ages, its fishermen renowned for their skill in harpooning passing whales, and hauling the huge carcasses up the sheltered beach of the cove of what is now known as the Old Port. Whale oil was highly prized for lamp fuel, whale tongue was a much sought after delicacy, the skin could be turned into chair seats, and even the bones and ribs were used to make fences. But the whales grew scarce, and the fishermen of Biarritz had to sail as far as Newfoundland to find them. The work was dangerous and unrewarding and by the middle of the 18th century had been virtually abandoned.
But after the arrival of royalty with their entourages and courtiers, the rugged beaches and wild seas that were such a hazard for fishermen proved an intrinsic part of Biarritz’s appeal. The village became a town, the fashionable resort of the Second Empire and later of the Belle Epoque. While the Riviera was still a backwater plagued by mosquitoes, Biarritz created a heady world of make-believe, leading the way in fashion. It boasted the first engineered golf course, the Golf du Phare, built by the British. It claimed to have danced the Charleston in the 1920s before the Charleston got its name. The first French surfing club was founded at Biarritz in 1959, the year that the makers of the Cadillac named their 25ft convertible after the town, perhaps its ultimate accolade. Called the queen of beaches and beach of kings, Biarritz was sometimes the refuge of those monarchs unwanted at home, such as Farouk of Egypt, Michael of Rumania, Peter of Yugoslavia. And just as dynasties declined and times changed, Biarritz changed with the times, welcoming the new royalty from Hollywood, Rita Hayworth, Frank Sinatra, Gary Cooper and Bing Crosby.
Biarritz is probably the best-known French centre for thalassotherapy, where toxins are removed from the body by sitting in a bath of salt water, seaweed, algae and mud. Surfers come from around the world to ride its waves and even inveterate gamblers pause for a moment to take in the munificence of its art-deco municipal casino. But while Biarritz is proud of its past, the town does not dwell on it. This stylish and sophisticated resort, with an agreeable year round climate, seems skilled at choosing the best of everything, be that museums (especially of oriental art), golf courses, boutiques or restaurants; all are numbered among the finest in France. Thanks to chef Jean-Marie Gautier, the Hôtel du Palais has an unsurpassed reputation for superb cuisine, matched on occasion by the Miramar’s André Gauzère, who owns his own restaurant, Campagne et Gourmandise, just outside Biarritz. This renovated old farmhouse has an exquisite terrace looking south across rolling countryside towards the Pyrénées. Reservations are essential, if only to unravel the eccentric opening days and hours.
Southwest of Biarritz, not far from the Spanish border, lies the delightful resort of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, still an active fishing port. Some of the best seafood restaurants on the Côte Basque can be found around its central square, which hosts many splendid musical occasions, including a jazz festival, and a Basque choir every Sunday in summer. Weekends, though, are best avoided in high season, unless you enjoy a real scrum. The architecture, a blend of Moorish and Andulasian, adds to the charm of Saint Jean’s narrow streets, lined with little shops, shabby but good value in half-hidden corners, chic and expensive near the casino.
Rocher de la Vierge
View from the lighthouse
© Le Doaré