Biarritz, Beach, Mountains, and Sea
A young girl named Eugenie, daughter of the Countess of Montijo (Spain) used to come on holidays to Biarritz. She enjoyed swimming and playing with the Fishermen’s children on the beach. A few years later. 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 the story of royalty in Biarritz began. Discovering the idyllic village, (as it was then) Napoleon III decided to build 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 kings moved to Biarritz, building villas and palaces. Biarritz was born as ‘THE’ fashionable seaside resort to be seen in.
As the result to the 1870 disaster of Sedan for France, 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 is buried with Emperor Napoleon 111, (the Imperial Prince who fell in the Zulu war fighting on the British side) the fabulous Villa Eugenie became the Hotel du Palais, the apex of social life in Biarritz.
Hotel du Palis, Biarritz.
During the ‘Belle Époque’ Russians 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 visited 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 the British Empire from Biarritz. He was staying at the Hotel du Palais in 1908, when there was a change of prime minister in the UK, Asquith became the new 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.
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, and 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 marcque/brand/label.
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 visit. Sports, culture, leisure, gastronomy, all you need is in Biarritz.
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.
Rocher de la Vierge
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-head sharks, barracudas and rays.
On 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. Those who climb to the top, say that the view is worth the 248 steps!
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 collections 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 towns 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 all visitors.
Biarritz Surf Mecca
Biarritz is also nicknamed the European Surf Mecca. Beginning in the 1950s and 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. http://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.
© justAboutTravel/Frederic de Poligny adapted for BAB Conventions information
Slideshow presenting Biarritz and area is available here