Long sandy beaches, elegantly accommodating Atlantic rollers. This is where surfers await the big one, The Wave, their stage for a virtuoso performance lasting just a few, important, seconds. Hang Ten, guys. Or maybe you might just want to visit the Casino?
In Biarritz, traces of pre-war elegance can still be glimpsed among the surfer bars, the cafes and restaurants created for the no-frills, low cost traveller. It’s not the Cote d’Azur, it’s a bright and breezy alternative on the Spanish border, a Basque town with a vibrancy of its own. This is a different party, favoured by smart Parisians who regard Mediterranean resorts as a little gauche, once a principal winter destination for English sophisticates, and dudes.
It’s small, but when the local rugby team wins, it makes a noise. Dressed as Red Indians, the fanatical support dance and sing, whistle and sound their horns late into the night, while down on the beach, where the surfers sleep, European teenagers dance to a different rhythm, drinking and rollicking around in the warm night air (in summer anyway), illuminated by the moon and occasional fire-eaters.
And in the bars and bodegas which sell carafes of sangria, pichets of rose, and Spanish beers, and stay open too, relaxed visitors wander to and fro, grazing on tapas as they go.
Biarritz is a happy place.
How to get here
Biarritz is near the French border with Spain, a central city in the ‘Basque region’ which straddles the two countries. From the UK and Ireland, Ryanair and Easyjet operate summer schedules. They also fly from other European cities, as do Air France.
The green alternative, all year round, is the train. Biarritz is 5 hours direct from Paris Montparnasse by superfast TGV, details from Rail Europe.
Total driving time from Calais is 10 hours by car, probably twice that in a VW campervan loaded with full-size surfboards. But if you get the long ferry to Santander in Spain from Plymouth or Portsmouth, it’s just a couple of hours east from there.
Arriving in Biarritz
There’s a romantic aura about Biarritz, almost raffish in places, which stretches back to the days when European aristocracy used to visit regularly. There are grand villas on the surrounding headlands – now mostly converted into apartments – and the large hotels in town are outnumbered by smaller, nattier places for weekends rather than full fortnights.
Bayonne is adjacent, so you can expect a lot of delicious, salty ham spread throughout the predominately fish diet. It’s sunny in summer and bracing in winter, the surf forever breaking on the sandy beach.
Just 18 kilometres from the border with Spain, this is a cosmopolitan resort, where French restaurant and cafe staff speak Spanish, then English, and serve Sangria as readily as wine. It’s in the Basque Region, but in that part of France which is ‘unofficially’ Basque. Separatists want unification with the official, Spanish Basque area, and of the many forms this movement takes the flag, the Ikurrina, will be strangely familiar to Brits, being a red and green version of the Union Flag.
It’s a carefree resort revolving around the beaches that in summer are populated by families happily coexisting with surfing dudes. In winter, those rubber-clad surfers have la Grande Plage to themselves, but are watched closely from the promenade by graceful retirees walking their tiny yapping dogs. On Sundays, local families engage in a little promenading, what the Italians would call passeggiata, a slow stroll in the early evening to meet and chat with the neighbours in the warm glow of the setting sun.
What to Do
World class big board surfing has been here for fifty years and it ain’t going away. Year round rollers and low cost accommodations attract surfers outside the main summer season’s crowded hedonism of July. Surf schools, surf shops, surf everything. If you didn’t know that surfing in Europe was synonymous with Biarritz you do now.
Aquarium de Biarritz – Best surfing is generally regarded by the cognoscenti to be at Anglet. Surfers on days off should visit the Aquarium de Biarritz, where aquariums display 150 different species of fish and other animals which live offshore. Including sharks.
A perfect place to explore Basque culture from a region that doesn’t officially exist but whose history permeates all aspects of life here. Men in berets, rugby and feast days are just the start.
A whole host of museums and sites await your inspection in the Pays Basque. Two central bookshops will explain history and politics, and there is no shortage of local specialities in restaurants and bars. Best conversation is to be had surrounding the rugby, or try to catch a game of Basque Pelota. Or try the Museum of Basque Culture in Bayonne.
STAY WHERE? Meet Hôtel du Palais
Being a long time holiday resort, Biarritz is well served by all manner of hotels which can be found via the Tourist office, but there’s one hotel which has always dominated the landscape, literally.
The Hotel du Palais, sits imposingly at the northern end of the beach. This grand, deluxe, property is the very source of Biarritz elegance, a veritable museum of what happened where, with whom, and when.
Built as the summer residence of Empress Eugenie, the Spanish wife of Napoleon the Third in 1855, it brought the Imperial Court to the seaside, transforming forever the fate of what had been a small Basque fishing village.
It served French royalty for 20 years, then became a hotel, burnt down, but was rebuilt and expanded to accommodate the growing army of celebrities, visiting royalty and VIP’s who felt it necessary to spend even part of The Season in glamorous Biarritz.
The property has seen through the ‘Belle Époque’ of the late nineteenth century, transformation into a hospital during World War One and billeting for German troops in World War Two. In the post-war era an endless train of stars from Frank Sinatra to Gary Cooper found their way here. It’s now been completely renovated from top to bottom.
The decor remains sumptuously grand, the renovations were not allowed to discard the past, so the furniture and fittings span several eras. The main lobby is now even more glittering and over the top as it was a century ago (there’s a lobby photograph to prove that) and the plaques and posters which adorn the walls record everything from The Fire of 1903 to Henry Asquith first being mentioned here as British Prime Minister by Edward VII in 1908.
Off the lobby is La Rotonde, an enormous dining room dominated by a fabulous view over the ocean, and where breakfast is spent staring at the waves and rock islets offshore. Dinner is expensive, (see below) but La Rotonde has a rare prospect, one of very few in France. Unlike the grand dining rooms of the Cote d’Azur’s elegant hotels, there’s no traffic jam spoiling the view – it’s just you and the sea – so dining here isn’t just about the food, it’s an event, and there remains a dress code at night.
The Hotel du Palais is a resort, kept separate from Biarritz by large gates, where attendants with clipboards keep out the riffraff. There’s an enormous heated outdoor pool which overlooks the beach and a new three storey spa with pool and treatment rooms run in conjunction with Guerlain that has its own intimate bar and deck overlooking the ocean. There are 154 rooms which include 30 suites, four of which are truly spectacular. The Edward VII, named in honour of Britain’s King in the early 1900’s, who was a regular visitor here while awaiting the call to the throne.
Prices, as you might expect, are suitably royal, with large ocean-view suites hovering above a grand a night, but more modest rooms, at the edge or out of season, are offered at reasonable prices, making a special break with a low cost flight well within reach.
LET’S DO LUNCH
The Biarritz covered market can be found at Rue des Halles in the most interesting area of town. If you’re self-catering, head here as the produce for sale is top quality. There are two buildings, one for meat and vegetables/fruit, and one for fish. Inside the first you’ll find two small bars where a glass of Sangria will cost you €2 and a variety of tapas at around €2 as well. Try the Bayonne Ham for starters. In the other hall you can have half a dozen oysters, shucked in front of you, with a glass of wine for €5. Both delightful.
Not so cheap but brilliant
A walk across the road from the market is Bar Jean, a fabulous little bar/cafe which has tapas inside for 1 or 2 Euros or lunches outside that are reasonable and delicious. Salads (mixte or Espagnole) are €8 and substantial. Anchovies in oil and deep fried calamari are recommended. The shellfish couldn’t be fresher, oysters, mussels and razor clams are walked across from the marketplace in front of you. World class dining for a pittance with young and fruity French and Spanish house wines. The staff are pretty damn classy too.
Down by the tiny harbour (Port des Pecheurs) are three jaunty seaside cafes (beside the tiny Club Nautique, a haven for gnarled old sea dogs). The cheapest of the three is Casa Juan Pedro, with its plastic tables and chairs, paper plates and blackboard menu. Start with Bayonne ham (€6) or sardines (€7) to be eaten whole. Freshly grilled in front of you, Lotte, Dorade and other Bay of Biscay fishes hauled out that day are a delight. Served with chips and washed down with pichets of rose Espagnole (€6). Very cool.
Early evening in Place Sainte Eugenie, beside the church, is as pleasant as it gets in Biarritz, with the cafes and bars coming to life as the sun goes down. A front row seat at Le Napoleon with a 50cl pichet of the house rose and a carafe of water will cost you a princely six Euros, and for that you get a plate of olives thrown in too. Plenty of bars in the area serve tapas but the open aspect of the square gives Le Napoleon the edge.
DINNER IS SERVED
The grandest dinner in town is to be had at La Rotonde, in the Hotel du Palais. A la carte and a around €60 set menu, it offers gourmet dining with a spectacular view over the ocean. It is a wonderful setting, created in an era now long gone, the very essence of grand luxe. More serious foodies turn left for Villa Eugenie, the small room off, which was awarded a Michelin star and where the a la carte is supplemented by a more serious menu at around €120.
At the other end of the spectrum, and the other end of town, the Palmarium at 6 Rue du Port Vieux will serve you a menu formula, Bayonne ham followed by a large plate of steaming fresh paella, house wine or sangria, for less than €20. It’s loud, buzzy and brash and when the Biarritz Rugby team have just beaten their local rivals Bayonne, there is no finer (or noisier!) place to be.
For a complete break from Basque cuisine, a quieter, more unusual alternative is Le Petit Chalet, off 5 Rue Garderes, where Alpine fare includes pizzas blanches (tomato free cheese based pizza) fondue and raclette plus other specialities from the Savoyard.