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Puttin’ on the Ritz

The what, where and why of Biarritz

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Biarritz first became a favourite retreat for the well-heeled in 1854, when Empress Eugénie built a palace on the beach for her beloved husband, Napoleon III. For the next hundred years, it attracted a plethora of monarchs, stars and aristocrats, from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and King Edward VII to Frank Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway.

The 1960s, however, saw the rise of the Côte d’Azur and Monte Carlo became the sweetheart of the rich and famous, leaving Biarritz to fade slowly into decline. Only the surfing elite, led by the enthusiasm of American novelist Peter Viertel, stopped to indulge in its towering waves and warm sunshine. Then, in the early 90s, the city saw something of a revival when the young and wealthy of Paris, alongside families seeking summer rays, rejoined the faithful surfers and put it firmly back on the map.

Railway poster (1871)

Surf’s Up

Today, Biarritz is still a haven for watersports lovers, with three of the six beaches drawing in surfers throughout the summer months. The annual surf festival takes place each July and is a chance to watch the pros battle for boarding glory by day then enjoy music, dance and films by night. First timers needn’t look far for a lesson or equipment – there’s a number of surf shops and board rental outlets and no fewer than ten surfing schools that coach beginners and experienced surfers alike. And because a souvenir is always necessary on such an action packed holiday, Quicksilver or Billabong T-shirts are never far from the eager tourist’s grasp.

Watersports are very popular during the summer months

For those embracing the ocean culture with no desire to hop on a longboard, there’s the CitО de l’OcОan. Opened in 2011, it’s the perfect opportunity to dive into the sea without getting wet. Learn about the birth of the oceans, their evolution and their ever changing moods through a series of interactive sessions that are geared towards the whole family. Further along the coast is the Sea Museum, where curious tourists can encounter the various inhabitants of our oceans both in the huge aquaria and the touch tank. From seals and turtles to sharks and octopi, the museum features an array of sealife and aims to educate visitors on the importance of protecting the marine environment.

On the boundary between the sands of the Landes region and the rocky Basque coastline is another unmistakeable reminder of Biarritz’s close relationship with the sea. The lighthouse, built in 1834, stands an impressive 73 metres tall, and the 248 step climb rewards those fit enough to attempt it with panoramic views out towards the Bay of Biscay and back at the Basque hinterland. Following the headland back towards the city via the Grande Plage makes for a lovely walk, and a visit to the Port des PРcheurs, a quaint fishing village with bright boats bobbing in the harbour, is a pleasant change from the hustle and bustle of the main city.

Glitz and Gaming

While the overall atmosphere of Biarritz is more relaxed than in the past, the city certainly hasn’t left its glamour in the 1950s. Behind the legendary Grande Plage is the Casino Municipal, constructed in 1928 and now restored to its former splendour. It’s housed in an Art Deco building and is a hotspot for anyone with a penchant for fruit machines and gaming tables. There are also several bars and restaurants where visitors can enjoy the sea view while sipping a cocktail or tucking into the local seafood. 

Biarritz harbour at dusk

Napoleon III’s sumptuous summer residence is now the stately Hotel du Palais and, true to its original purpose, is the last word in luxury. The rooms are impressively decorated with soft beds and tasteful furnishings, and the Villa Eugénie restaurant is fine dining at its best, illuminated by chandeliers and serving Michelin starred cuisine. Perhaps most remarkable of all is the Imperial Spa, which covers five floors and features an indoor pool, a fitness centre with personal training and Guerlain beauty treatments.

A short walk from the Grand Plage is the rather splendid Russian Orthodox church, constructed in Byzantine style in 1892 for the growing Russian community. The striking dome and icons, transported from St Petersburg, present a sober yet no less grand contrast to the glitzy hedonism of Biarritz’s casinos, hotels and bars. The church is open on weekend afternoons and provides some moments of quiet respite on a busy day.

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