Biarritz: Queen of resorts and resort of the Kings

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Biarritz:Grandplage

Grand plage

If you dream of crossing the Channel for a French seaside holiday but want to avoid the over-crowded Côte d’Azur, think about flying to and staying in Biarritz. In the southwest Atlantic coast of France it’s not far from the Spanish border so it has an appealing climate, being warm in summer and mild during spring and autumn.

After being known as a small whale fishing village for centuries, Biarritz was suddenly thrown into the spotlight in 1854 and subsequently became known as the ‘Queen of resorts and resort of Kings’. This is due to a love story – an imperial French love story and fairy tale.

The birth of Biarritz as ‘THE’ resort
Once upon a time there was a young girl named Eugenie who used to come on holidays to Biarritz. The daughter of the Countess of Montijo, she had fun swimming and playing with the children of fishermen on the beach. A few years later the Eugenie – by now an attractive young lady – met Napoleon III, the French Emperor, who fell in love and married her.

A year after the wedding, Empress Eugenie invited her husband to visit Biarritz for the summer and that is how it all began. Discovering the idyllic village, (as it was then) Napoleon III decided to built a fabulous palace on the seaside as a token of love to his wife. And so, for 15 years the imperial couple came to ‘Villa Eugenie; for summer vacations. And where they went the cream of fashionable society followed. Princes, dukes and even kings moved there, building villas and palaces. Biarritz was born as ‘THE’ fashionable seaside resort to be seen in.

Due to the 1870 disaster of Sedan and the abdication of the Emperor, Biarritz could have easily become one of those places that just experiences 15 minutes of fame. But thanks to the charm of the town, Biarritz remained the place to go to. Sold by Empress Eugenie in exile to buy the Farnborough estate in England where she rests with the Emperor and the Imperial Prince who fell in the Zulu war fighting on the side of the British, the fabulous Villa Eugenie became the Hotel du Palais, the apex of social life in Biarritz.

Edward VII Ave

Avenue Edouard VII

During the ‘Belle Epoque’ Russian and British were the main European visitors. Biarritz owes a lot to its British guests who came, holidayed and imported quintessential British things like polo, fox hunting, golf and lawn tennis. By 1886 more than 1,100 British families plus their servants were staying for the whole winter season in Biarritz from November to April. The town began to adopt English fashions and habits.

Queen Victoria herself went to Biarritz in 1889 but the monarch most associated with Biarritz was Edward VII – the great Francophile – who stayed for one month each year, managing Great Britain and British Empire from there. He was staying here at the Hotel du Palais in 1908, when there was a change of prime minister in the UK. Asquith became prime minister but only after travelling to Biarritz and ‘kissing hands’ with the king. Gladstone and Stanley Baldwin were other prime ministers who stayed… Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson were regular visitors until the middle of the 20th century.

But by then it was Hollywood and international film stars and celebrities that came such as Sarah Bernhardt, Charlie Chaplin, Cocteau, Hemingway and Coco Chanel – all of whom changed Biarritz from being fashionable to chic. Frank Sinatra, Gary Cooper, Jane Mansfield were the ambassadors of a new wave of visitors from America. Nowadays, maintaining the spirit of elegance and luxury the Hotel du Palais is one of the first eight high-ranking hotels that won the title of ‘Palace’ the new official French label.

Biarritz nowadays
Even if the past is present everywhere throughout the town, Biarritz is a lively place that can fit with any type of holidays. The welcoming spirit of Biarritz people is not the only reason why you should come. Sports, culture, leisure, gastronomy, all you need is there.

footpath Rocher de la Vierge

Rocher de la Vierge

Arriving in Biarritz, you soon learn that walking is the easiest way to discover the town centre. Begin at the Casino, a superb art deco building overlooking the Grande Plage and end at the Rocher de la Vierge, a small rock linked to the coast by a footbridge high over the rough seas. On the way you will see some magnificent 19th century villas, but be sure to stop by the very small and hidden harbour. It has a picturesque wharf with surrounding tiny fishermen houses called ‘crampottes’ which, today, have been mostly transformed in fashionable bars and restaurants. Walk a little further to the next small beach where you’ll find a genuine natural swimming pool. It was here that the whales were processed by the whalers but you’d never know it today. From there you can stroll down back to the centre by twisted streets. This will give you an overall view of the town centre.

The Sea Museum (Musée de la Mer), just in front of the Rocher de la Vierge has recently been extended. Now, this art deco building shelters nearly 50 aquariums and a magical spectacle of sea life, including a new vast aquarium with hammer-sharks, barracudas and rays.

In the rue Pellot, you’ll find the Imperial Chapel, a charming quiet monument built for Empress Eugenie’s use. It has been built in an off pairing of Roman-Byzantine and Hispanic-Moorish styles and has been listed as an historical monument for the last thirty years.

The lighthouse, 73m high, offers a beautiful view over the coast and the town. All those who climbed to the top, say that the view is worth the 248 steps!

Lighthouse in Biarritz

The lighthouse at the end of the beach

The Biarritz Historical Museum is situated in the old Anglican Church, St Andrew’s, and is full of souvenirs of the town’s evolution from a fishermen’s village to the favourite of kings. At the entrance stands the memorial to British soldiers from Wellington’s army who died around Biarritz during the Napoleonic wars.

Asiatica, the oriental art museum, is one of Europe’s most important private collection of Asian art with around a thousand masterpieces.

As a haunt of the rich and famous, what could be more luxurious than the best chocolate? The Planete Chocolate Museum presents the history and art of making chocolate. Biarritz and Bayonne, a nearby city, were the first French places where chocolate was made. Ancient machines and a huge collection of chocolate moulds are displayed throughout the old factory building. Try resisting a sample of hot chocolate, which is offered to any visitor.

Sports activities in Biarritz
Biarritz is also nicknamed the European Surf Mecca. Beginning in the 50a as long ago as 1978, the Australian writer, Clive James, was drawing attention to the revival of Biarritz. The beaches, small or big, can delight everyone. Some are geared to families whilst others such as the ‘Côte des Basques’ are paradises for accomplished surfers having strong waves from the Atlantic. The ‘Grande Plage’ in the middle of town is located just under the Casino’s promenade with cafés and restaurants. It’s the beach to swim at, to be seen at and to meet up with friends. It’s also a place for beginners to practise surfing.

With six golf courses around the city, among them the Golf du Phare (the oldest) Biarritz pleases any golf player. And the International Golf Training Centre of Ilbarritz housed in over 65 acres along the coast is a real plus with its new modern techniques for training. A Golf Pass grants access to five courses among a choice of six golfs during a week. www.golfpassbiarritz.com

And of course, easier to watch (for a novice) is the famous ‘pelota basque’ with several choices, hand games, chistera games or cesta punta games. To attend a match is a must. In the fast-moving game of cesta punta the ball can reach 300 kilometres an hour.

Food and delights in Biarritz
For lunch, try visiting one of the crampottes at the harbour or, to get a great view, try l’Opale in avenue Edouad VII, with its quiet terrace overlooking the sea.

Miremont tea room

Miremont

Don’t miss Miremont, the legendary tearoom. Miremont has been best pastry shop in Biarritz for more than a century. In 1905 Alphonse XIII, King of Spain, used to have lunch at Miremont. And when Edward VII was staying at the Hotel du Palais, he ordered the finest pastries there and claimed his bulging waistline was due in part to them!

If you have a sweet tooth, don’t forget to shop at Pariès, in the place Bellevue. Ask for their two main specialities, Mouchous and Kanougas. Mouchou, who means kiss in Basque, is a kind of extremely soft almond macaroon, a real delight. Kanouga, created in 1905, is a mild chocolate caramel with a choice of five flavours. Or you could try their Gateau Basque with almond cream or black cherry jam.

For a drink with friends before dinner, seek out one of the tapas bars such as Café Jean and Bar Jean which are both close to the old market and are very trendy for Biarritz people.

For a real treat dine at Villa Eugenie, the Michelin one star restaurant of Hotel du Palais. The exceptional cuisine created by the chef Jean-Marie Gautier is served in a luxury setting with quite the best view over the coast you will find. The quality of service is amazing, quite justifying the expense.

A place not to be missed is Campagne et Gourmandise which is at the edge of Biarritz. This restaurant was once a farm. Today it’s terrace faces the mountain, La Rhune. As the sun sets over the mountain, the view is magical, as is the cuisine prepared by the chef, André Gaüzère. Using classical and modern styles, the food served is a mix of tasty elegance and delicacy.

Where to stay in Biarritz
Not all the accommodation is geared to the celebrity and the well-heeled in Biarritz. There is a range to suit every budget.

Of course, if you want to walk on the footsteps of all these celebrities, the Hôtel du Palais is waiting for you. Its location is amazing, right in the heart of the city, surrounded by its green lawns, with its art deco outside heated swimming pool overlooking the beach.

Palais Hotel, Biarritz

Hotel du Palais

Going through the doors of the hotel is like entering another time. It still feels like Empress Eugenie’s house. Leave the lobby on your right, and cross the main hall to get to ‘La Rotonde’ the main restaurant with its huge French doors opening on an amazing view over the ocean and the city. In another more intimate room, next to it is ‘La Villa Eugenie’ the Michelin one star restaurant of the hotel, surely the best cuisine in Biarritz.

What else would you expect the rooms to be in furnished in other than the style of Napoleon III? If that sounds as though the hotel and the staff might be stuffy, then forget that idea as it is quite obvious the staff love to work here. But luxury does cost.

Apart from the chain hotels that you would expect to see, the new four star Hotel De Silhouette is ideally situated close to the old market. It’s an old 17th century house with its own glorious private garden, a very quiet and intimate place with only 20 elegant modern rooms, just in the middle of the central local life with many restaurants and tapas bars within reach. Everything is at a walking distance.

For those who prefer to wake up facing green spaces, the Chateau de Brindos, a five star hotel, is just 3km out of Biarritz, in Anglet, and would be a nice alternative to the town. It’s a former 1920’s huge house, built by the side of a 40 acre lake in a private park that provides a nice woody landscape. You’ll need a car if you choose this as a base.

Getting there
Both EasyJet and Ryanair fly from Dublin, Gatwick Manchester and Stansted to the airport which is just about three miles from Biarritz. There is a TGV connection from Paris

For information on Biarritz, click here

Images © Frederic de Poligny

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