It was a rainy day, after a long drive.
I must admit we weren’t prepared for what awaited us in the Pays Basque of southwest France. We really had not done our travel homework as thoroughly as usual. And, in retrospect, we decided that had been a good thing because the sheer pleasure of what we found in Biarritz, on the Bay of Biscay, and beyond was something we will never forget.
Come along with me and see! At the heart of the Basque Country, a few kilometres from the Pyrenees and from the Spanish border, Biarritz is one of the most prestigious seaside resorts on the Atlantic coast.
The main beach of the Côte Basque, La Grande Plage, in the heart of Biarritz …
Stretching from this end …
Past the Casino with its wide promenade filled with surf shops, lively cafés and upbeat bars serving delicious tapas and a post-sunset party atmosphere …
To the palace, Villa Eugénie, Napoleon III commissioned as a summer home for his wife, Empress Eugénie de Montijo …
Biarritz was transformed from a sleepy fishing port into a glamorous destination by the completion of this palace. The Basque Coast became Eugénie’s favored destination, close to her Spanish family. The imperial couple and their entourage resided in Biarritz each summer until 1869.
Biarritz became “the place to be” for the world’s rich and famous during the last decades of the 19th century, a trend that lasted well into the first half of the 20th century. The Villa Eugénie became the Hotel du Palais and has rooms named after celebrities that stayed there including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Charlie Chaplin, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso … to name a few.
In 1915, Coco Chanel opened a shop in Biarritz in proximity to wealthy Spanish clients. The area had neutral status during World War I, allowing it to become the playground for the moneyed and those exiled from their native countries by the hostilities. Her shop was installed not as a storefront, but in a villa opposite the casino. After one year of operation, the business proved to be so lucrative that in 1916 Chanel was able to reimburse her investors and her remarkable career began.
This town is a fascinating combination of a a luxurious seaside resort and a quaint, rural area that proudly keeps alive the cultural Basque roots. Every year, Biarritz celebrates the sea during Les Océanes, a great festival which takes place in the fishing port and throughout the town.
The Port des Pêcheurs accommodates fishermen and boaters. A picturesque and colourful site, it also houses, in its “crampottes”, some seafood restaurants and trendy tapas bars.
A traditional spot, the Port des Pêcheurs is perfect for pleasant strolls in a scenic and vibrant setting.
From the 11th century to the 1700’s, Biarritz was a village dedicated to whale hunting. The Basques (or Biscaynes), especially proper Biscayans, Gipuzkoans and Lapurdians, thrived on whale hunting, shipbuilding, and iron exportation to England. Trade with northern Europe and America developed during the 16th century. The Basques became the masters not only of whaling, but of the Atlantic Ocean. Some of these renowned seamen sailed with Christoper Columbus to the New World.
The Rocher de la Vierge (The Rock of the Virgin Mary) named for the statue of the Holy Virgin placed on its summit in 1865, was used by Napoleon III as an anchoring point for the Port du Refuge (The Port of Refuge) dike that he planned to create.
Hence, the rock was made accessible to land via a wooden bridge and a tunnel was drilled that enabled the delivery of stone blocks used for the construction of the dam. The wooden bridge didn’t withstand the test of time and Gustav Eiffel replaced it in 1887 with an iron bridge that is still in place.
The statue of the Virgin Mary was installed as a token of gratitude by whalers, saved from being shipwrecked by following a dazzling and mysterious light perceptible from the rock’s summit.
Considered one of the European Meccas for surfing. The Côte Basque attracts amateurs & professionals alike from four corners of the world who appreciate the exceptional quality of the waves found there.
Barefoot aficionados of all ages, wearing wet suits and carrying their boards to or from the sea, are a common sight throughout the town. The surf season generally falls between April and October, with the temperature getting as high as 35C in June and July.
Surfing classes on the beach provide entertainment for spectators on the promenade.
Hossegar, just north of Biarritz, is a popular surf spot where The World Surf League holds an event each year. According to the Michelin Guide the deep underwater chasm (le Gouf) “makes Hossegor the uncontested capital of surf in France” & according to the Stormrider Guide “Hossegor has stunned visitors and locals with the punishing power of it’s legendary peaks, in the process gaining a reputation as one of the most hollow, consistent beach breaks on the globe”.
Discovering the birthplace and history of the scrumpdiddlyumptious Basque macaron was a highlight for me! The town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz is just twenty minutes south of Biarritz and even closer to the Spanish border.
Famous for its crescent-shaped bay on the Atlantic and its history of fishing, pirates and royalty, today many of the attractions are the beautiful beaches and golf courses more recently developed.
The heart of Saint-Jean-de-Luz history revolves around the royal wedding in 1660 of Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’, and Maria Theresa, the Infanta of Spain. The chapel where the ceremony was held and the buildings in which the newlyweds and their entourages held court exist, along with much of the old town, as they did all those centuries ago.
The local pâtisserie, Maison Adam, baked their popular macarons, even then, and in the same location continues the tradition today. Apparently the king’s bride-to-be and his mother loved the cookies, so they were served at the wedding.
The closely guarded recipe remains the same to this day and, through all these centuries, the family business has been handed down through father and son. Baked into rustic rounds that are sold as single biscuits, until recently, these Basque macarons were seldom found outside the Pays Basque.
Trust me when I assure you that these macarons are the real deal and melt-in-your-mouth delicious!
I cannot emphasize too strongly the wisdom of a visit to the nearby medieval city of Bayonne. We found it fascinating! It’s a sharp contrast to Biarritz with ancient buildings along narrow streets, stone bridges, and the scenic location at the confluence of the Adour and the Nive Rivers. You could easily spend a day or two there, visiting shops, monuments, gardens, and the Cathédrale Sainte-Marie de Bayonne.
Fabulous San Sebastian, Spain is only a half-hour away.
And the city of Bilbao, with it’s iconic Guggenheim museum, not much farther.
Away from the sea, the Basque countryside is pastoral and gently leads up into the Pyrenees. Dotted with farms and rustic villages, the quintessential white-washed homes and outbuildings are finished with wood timbers. Doors and shutters are stained blood red or deep green, the colours of the Basque flag. Garlands of local hot peppers hang everywhere.
The Basque people are proud of their ancient roots and language (Euskara), the latter spoken extensively and found on signage throughout the region. Lively traditions and delicious cuisine (particularly charcuterie, cheese, ham, seafood) are mainstays of the area, celebrated with frequent festivals. Specialities of the region are jambon de Bayonne, a delicious cured ham; fromage de brebis, a moreish cheese from milk of Pyrenean sheep; and piment rouge, a red pepper from the village of Espelette.
And now a word about the iconic Basque beret! It has come a long way since the recorded humble beginnings as the headgear of choice for pelota players in the Basque country. Truly, it has become an emblem for all of France.
In Oloron-Sainte-Marie, France’s “Basque Beret Capital”, one company, the House of Laulhere, lays claim to being the oldest producer of the flat cap, turning them out for nearly 200 years.
The firm was on the edge of bankruptcy in 2012 when it was bought by the Cargo holding company grouping around 15 small businesses in southwestern France.
Tradition is adhered to and almost the entire process from weave to finish is carried out by hand using pure virgin merino wool.
“One of the secrets is the felting, in which the berets are washed for between five and seven hours with water from the river Gave,” Saunders said. “The minerals in the Gave water give the Laulhere berets their feel, which you cannot achieve with tap water.”
From November to May, the social scene in Biarritz is calmer. Life is simple and people know each other.
And last but not least … when you visit Biarritz count on spectacular sunsets, night after night.
For a fine and informative article about the Pays Basque, click here.
For an in-depth history of the Basques, click here.
For excellent guided tours of this region, contact ZeChauffeur.com
Find out more at Patricia’s Facebook Author Page, Amazon Author Page or her website where there are links to her books, social media, and monthly newsletter that has special giveaways and sneak peeks at her next book. She would love to hear from you!
Join us! For the third time, Patricia will lead a 12-day women’s tour of the south of France, in June 2017, based on her best-selling Love In Provence trilogy. Contact Patricia or the Womens Travel Network. At this time there are only 5 out of 16 spots open! Prices are quoted in Canadian currency.
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