A woman in a bathing suit stretches languorously with her back to the ocean and a lighthouse in the distance....another basks in the sun, while the third woman plaits her long tresses... It was in Biarritz, at the southern sweep of the Bay of Biscay, and the foothills of the Pyrenees in southern France, that Picasso discovered the forthrightness of women who bathed in the sea- something unknown in Spanish beaches at that time and he painted his masterpiece Les Baigneuses in 1918.
Biarritz used to be a small whaling port in the middle ages, where the local Basques used to harpoon whales with white flecked bellies that passed through the Bay of Biscay, on their migratory routes. The flesh of the whales, their blubber, bones, almost everything used to be used and their tongues used to be offered to important guests. As the whale population dwindled and moved north to Newfoundland and Greenland, the fishermen became Corsaires for the French king. It was Empress Eugenie and Napoleon III who put Biarritz on the map again, when they built their summer residence here in 1855. The city rapidly became the holiday resort and the aristocratic playground for the elite and the ‘beach of kings and the king of beaches’. Members of the Russian nobility used to winter here over champagne and caviar and the onion domes of the Russian Orthodox Church stand today in mute testimony to this connection. From the Shah of Persia and Charlie Chaplin to Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, celebrities spent indulgent days in opulent villas hobnobbing with other members of the jet set brigade... Today though the pirates and whalers are gone, and the glamour has faded, replaced by tourists seeking a quick change of fortunes at the local casino or a spot of golf at Golf du Phare (the second oldest golf course in continental Europe), the city still retains that strong connection with the ocean. Wherever you are, you can hear or smell the ocean. Its biggest museum Musee De la mer revolves around the ocean, with exhibits from its whaling past. There are also two Thalassotherapy spas which use salt water to cure health problems, or relieve stress, where you can pamper yourself and get rejuvenated.
Our Hotel de Silhouette, with a warm contemporary feel, is housed in one of the oldest buildings in town, the former home of Etienne de Silhouette, the minister to Louis XV. The long stretch of golden beach called the Grand Plage had to be reached in the early 19th century on a cacolet- a wicker chair for two strapped on the back of a mule. Today it’s an endless sprawl of beach umbrellas, oiled, slick bodies and colourful surf boards with high lifeguard chairs towering above. We walk past the glistening golden sands, passing small islands with foot bridges and reach the famous Rocher de la Vierge or the Virgin Rock. This gargantuan rock eroded with nooks and crannies is made up of fossilised shells of marine creatures and topped with a statue of the Virgin, which has protected sailors and fishermen from the dangers of the sea. Further ahead, a vertical promenade lined with tamarisk trees and bright patches of hydrangeas leads to various look- out points.
The city offers an architectural feast- a heady cocktail of different 18th and 19th century Belle Époque cliff top mansions of the wealthy. Turrets, gables and gazebos form a picture- book skyline against the fiery pink of a perfect sunset. There is the Villa Paz in a neo- Basque style, the Villa Roche Ronde, a replica of a medieval castle and the Villa Casablanca in Moroccan style. Particularly eye-catching is the mysterious Villa Belza on a rocky promontory, a setting for films, even a Russian cabaret, the survivor of two fires and now restored and divided into apartments. For a great bird’s eye view of the city, we head to the lighthouse at St Martin’s Point, dating back to 1831, and towering 73 metres above the sea. We are wowed by the sight of the sandy beaches of Anglet, the dark silhouette of the Pyrenees on the other side, the step like structure of the Thalassoptherapy Institute and the rocky beaches of the Basque country.
It was in the year 1955 that American film maker Peter Viertel married to actress Deborah Kerr, visited Biarritz to film Hemingway’s ‘The Sun also rises.’ He was awestruck by the sight of the waves and asked for his surfing board from California to be sent to him. The locals were fascinated by the sight of this foreigner riding the waves and the rest is history. Today Biarritz is surfing heaven. The ocean seethes with bright coloured boards manned by both novices and experts riding the Atlantic rollers. Gorgeous women in miniscule bikinis and bronzed Greek Gods walk down the promenade with surf boards in hand and shops like Quicksilver and overflow with surfing gear. Biarritz is now the venue of an annual Surfing Festival when more than 150,000 fans congregate here.
History whispers from every corner of the city. The Art Nouveau style Gare du Midi, a former railway station, is today a modern theatre with a seating capacity of more than 1400 people. The lavish Hotel du Palais, was Villa Eugenie, built by Napoleon III in 1855, for his sweetheart Eugenie in the shape of an E, and is today an iconic landmark. Marble pillars, chandeliers, Burmese teak, Italian mosaics, a majestic Belle Époque staircase and breathtaking views of the sea from the windows, this is a whiff of royalty and a journey back to a more genteel era. The hotel was destroyed by a fire in 1903 and re-built and during the First World War it even functioned as a hospital. Over the years various celebrities ranging from Omar Sharif and the Maharaja of Indore to Ernest Hemingway and Sarah Bernhardt have graced the hotel with their presence (the walls have black and white pictures signed by them). The kidney shaped swimming pool overlooking the Grand Plage was built after the Second World War, and inaugurated by none other than Gary Cooper and Frank Sinatra! I enjoy the old Anglican Church of St Andrews built by the British which has been converted into an atmospheric Musee Historique the Biarritz. It’s today an exhibition space with over 4000 eclectic pieces and works of art telling the story of the town and tracing its history over the years. There are maps, costumes, furniture and pictures that help us get a real feel of the town.
The horseshoe shaped Port Vieux beach was the place where the whales used to be dragged ashore. Today it’s like a protected swimming pool for the locals. A place to relax on the beach with a book or frolic with the kids. My personal favourite is the picturesque Port des Pecheurs or the old fishing port from where the whaling ships used to set sail. It is today a sprawl of open- air sea food restaurants like Chez Albert where huge platters of seafood with mussels, oysters and crabs are the local favourites. The crampottes or the old houses belonging to the fishermen and used to store supplies like ropes, lobster traps and driftwood are today converted to swish cafes or house diving schools. We hear about the popular ‘crampotte parties’ which the locals talk about-hip events held in the grungy rooms by the sea.
Being so close to the Spanish border, the Spanish influence is visible everywhere- from the tiled tapas bars to the food with a Spanish twist. It’s the gateway to the Basque region with the Basque cross like a four leaf clover, an omnipresent motif. The local Basque cuisine is based on local ingredients in season than elaborate sauces. Tangy Piperade with onions and sweet pepper ratatouille seasoned with Espelette chillies and Ardi Gasna cheese with black cherry jam as well as smoked salmon, hake and grilled sea bass features on local menus. The town seems to have a massive sweet tooth with bonbon- making being a local tradition and Gâteau Basque, a sort of sponge cake flavoured with custard and almonds. The town is not just time warp. There is young blood experimenting and introducing new ideas. Young Antoine Vignac runs a swish wine bar- cum art space called l’artnoa on Rue Gambetta where private degustations are held. There is young Emmanuel Poirmeur that we meet briefly at a soiree on the terrace of the buzzing Radisson Blu. This young man trained at Moet and Chandon and in Argentina and his vineyard planted with Chardonnay grapes, flourishes on hills near the coastline in the district of Urrugne. And where does he mature his wine? At a depth of 12 metres below the waters of the ocean, producing an exceptional white wine full of promise. Victor Hugo said long ago,” I know of no other place more charming and magnificent than Biarritz.” I am sure that he would say that even today.....
Published in The Week, 2012