PUT­TIN’ ON THE BIAR­RITZ

Andrew Bain joins the beau­ti­ful peo­ple in France’s his­toric city on the Bay of Bis­cay

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays Afloat -

IN the At­lantic coast city of Biar­ritz, change comes on the stroke of 100 years. A quiet whal­ing port in the 1750s, it mor­phed into a royal re­treat in the 1850s when Napoleon III built his sum­mer palace above the beach. In the 1950s the city was trans­formed again, be­com­ing the birth­place of Euro­pean surf­ing.

Fit­ting for such a his­tory, Biar­ritz — edg­ing France’s south­west­ern border with Spain — re­mains a city of mul­ti­ple per­son­al­i­ties. From the air its orange roofs give it the ap­pear­ance of an Adri­atic city, while on the ground it re­sem­bles an English sea­side re­sort, but with class (and sand, not peb­bles). Glam­our mixes with grunge as bare­foot surfers tramp past el­e­gant vil­las that might have been trans­ported from St Petersburg, and the dra­matic coast­line is soft­ened by the pres­ence of Ho­tel du Palais, one of Europe’s finest ho­tels.

Best waves: A half cen­tury since Hol­ly­wood scriptwriter Peter Vier­tel dis­cov­ered Biar­ritz’s waves dur­ing the film­ing of The Sun Also Rises , surfers in­habit the main beach, Grande Plage, in such num­bers as to re­sem­ble a seal colony. But on a morn­ing when the waves at Grande Plage are as slow to rise as Biar­ritz’s hol­i­day-mak­ers, neigh­bour­ing An­glet re­mains a fury of white wa­ter.

The beach break at An­glet is one of France’s most re­li­able surf­ing spots, reg­u­larly host­ing pro-surf con­tests and, since French board-rid­ers aren’t com­pul­sive about dawn surf­ing, this is of­ten the qui­etest time in the wa­ter. You can surf and be back in Biar­ritz for break­fast and a day about town.

Best break­fast: Hav­ing surfed up an ap­petite, you’ll find Biar­ritz’s cafes of­fer a wealth of break­fast choices, but it’s the cov­ered food mar­ket that pro­vides a glimpse of nor­mal­ity be­hind the city’s belle-epoque fa­cade. Amid the bril­liant fruits and aro­matic cheeses, the break­fast stand L’amuse-gueule is draped in Basque flags and im­agery and the steam of es­pres­sos. Graze through the ham and cheese plate ( $11.50) or grab a freshly baked pain au choco­lat from the patis­serie in the mar­ket’s cen­tre aisle.

Best ham: Biar­ritz all but merges into Bay­onne, a city famed for its ham, said to be the finest in France. Flavoured with salt from the Bassin de l’Adour near Biar­ritz and left to dry in southerly and west­erly winds, it’s the re­gion’s sig­na­ture gourmet item and can be pur­chased in the food mar­ket from ar­ti­san char­cutier Pas­cal Manoux or at re­gional pro­duce spe­cial­ist Chailla for about to

a kilo­gram. www.chailla.com. Best mu­seum: Biar­ritz’s culi­nary rep­u­ta­tion sweet­ens fur­ther with the dis­cov­ery that the re­gion is one of Europe’s pre­mier choco­late pro­duc­ers. Bay­onne is said to have once con­tained more ar­ti­san choco­latiers than all of Switzer­land. The Planete Musee du Choco­lat (ad­mis­sion above Cote des Basques beach, cel­e­brates the 400-year-old lo­cal in­dus­try and, while the dis­plays are in French (ask for the English in­ter­pre­ta­tive sheet at the ticket counter), the smells and tastes are uni­ver­sal.

Af­ter trac­ing co­coa’s jour­ney from plan­ta­tion to shelf, and ad­mir­ing the cor­ri­dor of choco­late sculp­tures, there’s a fan­tas­ti­cally rich cup of hot choco­late to con­clude the visit. www.plan­ete­musee­du­choco­lat.com.

Best choco­late shop­ping: Hav­ing seen the choco­late, there’s lit­tle op­tion but to sat­isfy the in­evitable crav­ing. The mu­seum store can pro­vide a quick fix (about for 100g), but to go straight to the source I wan­der back to the city cen­tre and into Daranatz, the Biar­ritz shopfront for one of Bay­onne’s finest choco­latiers . Here, the choco­lates are laid out like jew­ellery, which is fit­ting in a place where

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j17 choco­late is like dark gold. In­di­vid­ual choco­lates are priced from (100g), ris­ing to a deca­dent for grand boxes.

Best fash­ion shop­ping: Tak­ing its name from the last two dig­its of Biar­ritz’s post­code, 64 has three stores — ca­sual, beach­wear and higher fash­ion — within a 200m ra­dius on fash­ion­able rue Gam­betta. Cre­ated by Basque de­sign­ers to pro­mote the re­gion, items range from key rings and hand­bags (from to swim­suits, board­shorts, shirts (for shoes and jeans ( All are em­bla­zoned with the colour­ful 64 logo, re­sem­bling a speed-limit sign.

Best lunch: Fish comes no fresher than from the trio of restau­rants at Biar­ritz’s small port. Le Cor­saire and Chez Al­bert are the classi­est but Casa Juan Pe­dro (with meals for

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j22) j40-j60), about has the most char­ac­ter, with the wait­ers look­ing as though they’ve stepped straight off the boats, and plas­tic ta­bles spilling across the port car park. Meals can be as sim­ple as the French sea­side clas­sic of mus­sels and chips, but I opt for the lo­cal flavour of steak-thick tuna in piper­ade, a Basque spe­cialty, with a sauce made from toma­toes, onions and red pep­pers.

Best book­store: Head­ing for an af­ter­noon on the beach, I de­tour first through Place Ge­orges Cle­menceau. The nu­cleus of the city, just a few steps in from the coast, this is lined with cafes and fash­ion stores, but the real trea­sure here is the sim­ply ti­tled Book­shop. Dark and musty with spi­ral stair­cases and books scat­tered over the floor, it’s a book­shop from the clas­sics, filled with clas­sics.

j13) There’s a small English-lan­guage sec­tion, while down­stairs I find a few French copies of Ernest Hem­ing­way’s TheSunAl­soRises , the book that put Biar­ritz on to the world’s lit­er­ary map.

Best beach: Im­me­di­ately down­hill from Book­shop, the cob­bled walk­way passes the casino en­trance to emerge on Grande Plage, the finest of Biar­ritz’s four beaches. Wher­ever I look there’s beauty: cliffs, sea stacks, the 73m light­house, the Ho­tel du Palais and sand groomed as smoothly as well­dressed hair.

Best ther­apy: Pop­u­larised by Tour de France win­ner Loui­son Bo­bet in the 1960s and now a favourite with celebri­ties such as Jen­nifer Lopez, tha­las­sother­apy is a uniquely French sea­side treat­ment that has taken root as one of Biar­ritz’s clas­sic ex­pe­ri­ences.

Based on the heal­ing ben­e­fits of the ocean, it uses a variety of salt­wa­ter and sea­weed treat­ments to clear the pores and the mind. South of Biar­ritz, Ther­mes Marins has 350sq m of tha­lasso pools and of­fers a shut­tle ser­vice from se­lect ho­tels. Half-day treat­ments, which in­clude a sea­weed spa, un­der­wa­ter shower and sea­weed ther­apy, be­gin at about with a six-day pro­gram cost­ing up to www.biar­ritz-tha­lasso.com.

Best aquar­ium: At 4.50pm the long­est line in town is out­side the art deco Musee de la Mer, the Mu­seum of the Sea ( where the twice-daily seal feed­ing is about to be­gin. I can see lit­tle more than the backs of heads and a few half-munched fish, but I have the rest of the aquar­ium al­most to my­self and I

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j7.80), wan­der about ob­serv­ing its 150 marine crea­tures from the Bay of Bis­cay, in­clud­ing sharks and a range of sea­horses. As world aquar­i­ums go, the tanks are small and sparse, re­flect­ing, at least, that the bay is no trop­i­cal won­der­land, but there’s an in­ter­est­ing dis­play (in French) on Biar­ritz’s surf­ing his­tory. www.museede­lamer.com.

Best sun­set stroll: The age-old passegiatta is as at home in Biar­ritz as it is in south­ern Italy, and by the time I leave the aquar­ium, the city and its vis­i­tors are on pa­rade. Cross­ing the road, I join the aim­less mi­gra­tion at Rocher de la Vierge, a small is­land topped by a statue of the Vir­gin and con­nected to the main­land by a steel bridge de­signed by Gus­tave Eif­fel. Wan­der­ing back to­wards the city cen­tre, there are al­most con­tin­u­ous views of the port as I de­scend past the weath­ered cram­pottes (fish­er­men’s cot­tages), and join the beau­ti­ful peo­ple on the tiled es­planade along Grande Plage.

Best din­ner: Le Clos Basque, at 12 rue Louis Barthou, in the city cen­tre of­ten gets the nod as Biar­ritz’s best Basque restau­rant, but a lo­cal rec­om­men­da­tion is La Tantina de Bur­gos, be­side the choco­late mu­seum, at 2 place Beau­ri­vage. Owned by a for­mer rugby star, its fur­nish­ings and flavours are re­flec­tive of the Pays Basque. Ex­pect plenty of pep­pers and hearty meat dishes as well as fine seafood and the oc­ca­sional French in­clu­sion, such as foie gras. Meals cost about to A plate of Basque cheeses makes a fine end to a fine din­ner here, and you can stick around at the bar if you want to pro­long your day. www.biar­ritz.fr www.franceguide.com

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Pic­tures: Andrew Bain

Bare­foot glam­our: Main pic­ture, rooftops of Biar­ritz; from left, Planete Musee du Choco­lat, Casa Juan Pe­dro, bridge to Rocher de la Vierge and cof­fee on Grande Plage

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