Thursday, July 03, 2008

Visit Biarritz

The page Times On Line published an article for those who wish to visit Biarritz (Miarritze), a magnificent tourist destination in the Basque Country.

Here you have extracts of it:

From Times Online
July 2, 2008

Biarritz: the complete guide

France’s once-regal resort is now a shabby-chic surf spot – but it still oozes glamour

Sean Thomas

It’s come a long way, Biarritz. In the 15th century it was a grubby little whaling port in the heart of the Basque country, where local fishermen gutted whales on the beach.

By the 1600s it was already known for its sea-bathing – although locals remained suspicious: in 1609 a councillor complained that local women were swimming ‘naked under their bathing costumes’.

By the 1830s, Victor Hugo could still describe this French-Spanish-Basque-Gascon backwater as a rural place ‘with red roofs and green shutters’ –although he reckoned the town’s glorious setting, with its silvery beaches and backdrop of green mountains, would also be its ruin, as the place became fashionable.

He was right about the ‘fashionable’ bit. In the Victorian era, Biarritz took off, attracting potentates from across the Continent.

Emperor Napoleon III and his wife Eugenie were the most famous, building a villa in salmon-pink Second Empire style – an architectural genre still echoed through the town. Various kings, premiers and White Russian princelings quickly followed.

But the 20th century was not so kind to Biarritz. The jet set decamped to the Côte d’Azur; the Russians spent their roubles and died. Concrete buildings sprang up along the foreshore, giving it an air of East Berlin-on-sea (an air that still lingers in places).

So why go to Biarritz now? Because it’s great fun. With that gorgeous seafront and intriguing hinterland – as well as some of the finest surfing and seafood in Europe, Biarritz is rightly regaining its confidence, without reassuming its more pretentious airs. Whether you want sport or siestas, if you’re after French seaside chic without St Tropez silliness, this is the place to be.


Surfing began in Biarritz in 1957, when Hollywood starlet Deborah Kerr was filming here with her husband – a dude from sunny California who brought his surfboard along. Mister Deborah Kerr took one look at those Biscay waves, and an industry was born. Try the Grande Plage for great rip curls; boards can be hired and lessons booked at the Quiksilver Boardriders Club.

If you like to spoil a good walk, you have 10 superb golf courses to choose from. The city also has Europe’s only golf training centre, which would explain why Biarritz is twinned with Augusta, Georgia, the world-famous host of the US Masters. The best course is the sandy and undulating Le Phare.

It’s not the cutest building in France – in fact, it’s an unhappy mixture of Art Deco and Soviet Constructivism. But the Municipal Casino Barrière de Biarritz has an illustrious history: Kings Farouk, Michael and Peter (of Egypt, Romania and Yugoslavia respectively) have all sat at the baccarat tables. Today the casino is more populist, but well worth a punt, nonetheless. Open all hours.

You can’t stroll very far in Biarritz without realising that rugby, the game of barbarians played by gentlemen, is a grande passion among Gascons and Basques. As well as players, there are shops and pubs honouring the game everywhere. Olympique Biarritz are regular national champions – quite a feat for a town of 30,000 inhabitants – and they play at the Parc des Sports Aguilera.


In the middle of the Biarrois seafront is the tiny-but-dramatic cove known as Port des Pêcheurs, where whales were once clubbed. Now a smart marina, it’s less gory these days but still pretty busy, packed with posh pleasure craft, harbourside bars and colourful crampottes (fishermen’s huts).

The architecture of Biarritz comprises a strange mix of Victorian townhouses, concrete monstrosities and giddy pink stucco palaces. But amidst this striking ensemble, a hundred or so ‘villas’ still stand out. These bizarre brick edifices were built around 1900. Said to be haunted, the Villa Belza (‘Villa of Darkness’) above the old port is especially compelling for the way it broods, gloomily, above the waterfront. Ask for a map at the Tourist Office.

Biarritz has two centres: the first is the 10km seafront; the second is Les Halles (Rue des Halles; open 7am – 1.30pm daily), a small but winsome market at the heart of ‘old Biarritz’, roughly a kilometre inland. It has stalls selling seafood, sheep’s cheese, cut flowers, bewildering arrays of olive oils and gleaming fruit and veg. Look out for flamboyantly calorific Basque specialities such as kanougas, an unctuous chocolate toffee.

Take a breezy stroll to Biarritz’s Rock of the Virgin, jutting out between two of the best surfing beaches at the end of the Pointe Atalaye, then look south to the receding blue coastline of northern Spain. You can see just how small Biarritz is from here, how hemmed in it is by hills and mountains, the snow-capped Pyrenees shimmering in the distance. Those uplands are the real Basque country: alluring, rugged, enigmatic and full of bars selling local cider. Get in a car, or maybe a bus, and go.

Thalassotherapy, or seawater therapy, was invented by a French physician from just up the coast in Arcachon. So it’s fitting that Biarritz has a fair sprinkling of excellent spas, where you can be rubbed with mud, have tonifying showers and get seaweed in your bellybutton. Try the luxurious Miramar Spa.

Sharks and stingrays, mantas and mako sharks – you’ll find them in shoals at the Musée de la Mer. They feed the seals at 10.30am and 5pm; the excellent cafe feeds tourists all day. Check the surreal collection of stuffed birds on the top floor.

YOU CAN’T SAY YOU’VE BEEN TO BIARRITZ UNTIL: You’ve seen the locals play the fastest game in the world, pelota. Watch those goatskin balls fly. Don’t say: What’s wrong with your ears? (Basques may not appreciate you pointing out the fact they have unusually large earlobes.) £10 BUYS YOU: An authentic Makila – a traditional Basque shepherd’s stick – decorated with copper and engraved with your motto (if you have one). BIARRITZ’S FAVOURITE RECORD: Anything by Imanol, the famous Basque singer-storyteller. LOCAL JOKE: The Basques say that their unique and impenetrable language is ‘God’s joke against the Spanish’. (If you do want to learn a word, make it ‘topa!’ – ‘cheers!’)


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