A Strange and Beautiful Region With Its Own Customs, Language and a Wonderful Cuisine. Princess Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III loved it and so did other famous people such as Edward VII, Sarah Bernhardt, Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, Jean Cocteau, Ernest Hemingway, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Gary Cooper!
At the beginning of the 19th century, Biarritz was merely a small Basque fishing harbour standing on the doorstep to Spain, just 5km from the more famous Bayonne. It was popular as seaside getaway and was mainly frequented by the Bayonnais who could only reach it by donkey or mule.
But in 1838 Biarritz was suddenly discovered by the Spanish nobility and when Princess Eugénie, the future Empress of France, commenced her annual visits and even persuaded Napoleon III to accompany her; it soon became a famous resort. The Emperor, captivated by its charms - not to mention hers - was persuaded and they made their first trip there together in 1854; they both loved it so much so that he had a palace built for her – the Villa Eugénie, which still stands today and is now the Hotel du Palais. The little fishing village suddenly became sought after by the rich, famous and aristocratic from all over Europe and the procession of these illustrious visitors has continued ever since. You ought to be one of them!
The Atlantic Coast generally is one of the sunniest regions in France and Biarritz enjoys excellent weather most of the year.
In fact, in winter the geography of the Basque mountains combining with the warm breezes from the Atlantic create a micro-climate with a distinctly exotic, almost tropical feeling. For those fond of bathing, Biarritz is blessed with a beautiful, sweeping sandy beach with the best rollers for surfing in France and a water temperature reaching an average of 20 degrees from May – September. Those keen on Winter sports can visit the stunning ski slopes of the nearby Pyrenees between December and April.
Sports and Leisure Activities
Swimming, cycling, skiing, surfing, fishing, horse riding, golf, walking and visiting local wineries and restaurants are just some of the many leisure activities available. Even white water rafting is available, if you dare
Two quite different styles of architecture are to be found side-by-side throughout the region: the traditional Basque farmhouse, similar to the chalets of the Alpine regions in Europe, with its red painted wood and white walls contrasts starkly with the grandiose palaces and mansions built in the 19th century Eclectic ‘style’ and the early 20th century Art Deco manner.
The Basquais are extremely proud of their homes and even some quite humble ones often display the date of construction or even the original owner’s name over the entrance doorway.
Landscape and Scenery
The picturesque Pyrenees appeal strongly to romantics: steep-sided valleys with rushing torrents leading in their higher reaches to vast upland pastures populated with picture-book cows and set off by snowy peaks mirrored in the tranquil lakes. This is an image that inspires artists and nature lovers alike. It is hard to believe such a contrasting landscape can be found less than two hours’ drive from coastal Biarritz, but even more surprising to learn that you will also find hot springs there!
The mysterious origin of the Basque language, Euskara, which bears no resemblance to any other Indo-European language, is reflected in an equally unique culture. The musical tradition is still strong and the most famous example of this is the Fandango, which is in fact a dance often described as both passionate and chaste. If you can catch a performance of this strangely formal yet energetic dance, don’t miss it!
Savouring the Basque cuisine: restaurants
Fresh sardines grilled over an open fire accompanied by the best olives you’ll ever taste and a glass or two of txakoli (a Basque sparkling wine) is a culinary experience that you don’t find anywhere else.
Spain is only 45 minutes away (San Sebastian) and there you can also indulge in tapas, shaved ham and other Spanish delicacies. But you needn’t go that far: just 20 mins away is Bayonne; try a slice of Bayonne's finest cured ham, Brebis (sheep’s) cheese, the confit of Bearn (sauce Bearnaise!) or indulge and order a garbure soup, poule au pot, the salmon de Gaves, ttoro, piperade…you’ll find out what the word hot really means when you savour the red peppers of Espelette!
Shopping and Markets in Biarritz
Biarritz is a vibrant town and you will find a full range of shops, markets and even several casinos! Don’t forget this is where the élite meet and you will soon discover why it boasts the highest real-estate values in all of France – even higher than Nice.
Places to visit nearby and further afield
The unique position of Biarritz on the Spanish ‘doorstep’ enables you to visit the capital of the Basque region, San Sebastian, in less than 45 mins.
Other celebrated destinations in easy reach of Biarritz are: St-Jean-de-Luz (where Louis XIV was married), St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, resting place for pilgrims trekking the camino walk towards Santiago de Compostella in Spain and recognizable by their talismanic Scallop shells, Bayonne (they made bayonets there!), Pau, Lourdes, Bilbao, and many fascinating lesser known places.