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