Exposed to the sea breeze, nestling in the Bay of Biscay, Biarritz is an ocean town…
The ocean has always demonstrated its force with its omnipresent western swell.
With its huge beaches, powerful waves and mild climate all year round, Biarritz was the natural choice in 1957 to welcome the first surfers on the European continent and to become Europe's historical surfing capital.
It is also thanks to the legendary mildness of the local climate that thalassotherapy and year-round golf have developed so well.
In days long since gone, the coast that was to become the Basque and Biarritz coast was a comfortless, sparse stretch of land. Biarritz was a poor village which barely lived off its fishing products; there were dunes covered with dry, charred grass, set alongside an ocean that was often savage, beating against an inaccessible, fearsome coastline.
Upon these clay cliffs lived a few hundred men and women of a particular race and religion, who spoke in a mysterious language. In this village lived a beautiful young girl, Miarritze, who one night had a strange dream: the god Yahvé appeared before her and promised her he would send the soul of Martin, his servant, to this abandoned territory. This soul would appear in the form of a bird with coloured feathers, which would carry in its beak a fish with golden scales, a symbol of the wealth and happiness that would one day come to this coast.
The young girl managed to convince the inhabitants, who, a few days later, spotted a beautiful passerine, in fact a kingfisher. This event, along with encouragement from Miarritze, led the inhabitants to build boats to take on the sea. They launched into the great fishing adventure, particularly the many whales that frolicked in the sea.
One day when there was a great storm, Miarritze, standing on the shore, observed the efforts of a boatload of fishermen who were trying to regain the beach, before going aground. She came to their help and welcomed them to her home. They were sailors from Gascony, peaceable yet hardened men and skilled fishermen and sailors. She married their chief. The name of the town came from their marriage and their two names.
Etymology has ignored this legend, preferring the words Bearrids and Beiarrids as the origins of the name, from " beder " or " see", meaning " the place from which one sees".
Biarrots "did not await the Emperor Napoleon III and Impératrice Eugenie to taste the sea bathings on their long sand beaches. Since 1609, an observer, the Adviser of Lancre, notices this practice which it judges extremely bad: "this mixture of big girls and young fishermen whom one sees at the coast in “mandille”, and very naked below, mixing in the waves"... Biarrots do not certainly have cure of it, and continue to be plunged in the sea, although in 1774 the city refused to them to set up “guérites” to change.
It was not until the middle of the 18th century that bathing was recognized as an efficient therapy for all sorts of ills.
One of the very first famous converts to the Biarritz cause was Victor Hugo, who came here in 1843. Charmed by this "white village with red roofs and green shutters, set on crops of grass", he immediately anticipated that "Biarritz would become fashionable". "The day will come soon!", he remarked with prescience.
Indeed, eleven years later, the countess of Montijo, who had stayed there when she was a child, set up a home there in great luxury after her marriage to Napoleon III, for a two-month stay. Welcomed by a cheering crowd, the imperial couple chose Château de Gramont, which belonged to the Mayor of Bayonne, as their residence.
Napoleon very soon had a summer residence built for his wife, called La Villa Eugénie, and the couple came every year until 1868, to enjoy the benefits of the sea and the climate. In their wake came many royal heads to discover this town. Kings of Würtenberg, Belgium and Portugal, Russian, Polish and Rumanian princes, Grands of Spain and Lords of England all gave an elevated status to Biarritz, which by then counted 10,000 holidaymakers each season.
Ideas for trips and walks
Rocher de la Vierge
This is the imposing rock that Napoleon III decided to use as an anchorage point for the Port du Refuge sea-wall he wanted to have built. This rock was thus joined to the land by a wooden bridge (now a metal footbridge) and with a tunnel like Atalaye, to enable the blocks of stone for the construction of the sea-wall to be transported. Due to lack of maintenance, this wall has almost entirely vanished. The rock owes its present name to the statue of the Virgin Mary, erected in its peak in 1865.
The Fishing Port
Created after the work on the Port du Refuge was abandoned in 1870, thanks to the remainder of the imperial donation, it received fishermen and pleasure-boaters. A picturesque, colourful place, it is also home to a few seafood restaurants and fashionable "tapas" bars.
St Martin Church
Built in the mid 12th century, Saint-Martin was the first church in Biarritz. Restored in 1541, it has a flamboyant gothic choir and a nave with low archways. The recently-made organ is one of the most beautiful instruments in the region.
The Basque Coast :
to visit : the Vauban ramparts, the pedestrian centre and the quaysides of the Nive, the Gothic Cathedral, the cloisters and the Bonnat museum.
The Barre (mouth of the Adour river), the skating rink, the pine forest, Chiberta lake, the beaches, the Chambre d'Amour Cave.
The Lighthouse (superb panorama over the Bay of Biarritz), walks on the Grande Plage (don't miss the Hôtel du Palais and the Imperial Chapel), the fishing port, the Rocher de la Vierge, the Côte des Basques, Marion Lake, Mouriscot Lake.
Bidart : Madeleine Chapel (perspective), the church, the marketplace and pelota court, the beaches and the Parlementia chapel.
Guéthary : the port, the beach, the pelota court, the Saraleguinéa museum.
Saint Jean de Luz : the fishing port, the Maison de l'Infante (visits),
the house of Louis XIV (visits), the beach and bay, Ste Barbe point, the church and the pedestrian precinct.
Ciboure : Ravel quay, the church and its parvis, the tower and Socoa fort.
Take the corniche road to Hendaye-beach
Hendaye : the Domaine d'Abadia (visits), the beach, Chingoudy bay, the church with its cross.
Biriatou : Place de la Mairie, Urtubie castle (visits), Socorri chapel (view of the Rhune).
Ascain : the church, the square, the quarter, the Roman bridge.
Carry on along the D4 road and the St Ignace pass (rack train to the peak of the Rhune, 900 m).
Sare : the church and square, the Ihalar quarter, the caves (visits), the ventas.
Dancharia : border post, ventas
Ainhoa : walled village, Romanesque church and main street.
Take the D20 road to get to :
Espelette : the castle, the pelota court, the church
Back along the D918 via Souraïde
St Pée Sur Nivelle : the castel, the church, the lake (water sports) and back to Biarritz via
Arcangues : the village (pedestrian), the court, the church, the cemetary (grave of Luis Mariano).
A Gastronomic Tradition
Although it is similar to the traditional cuisine of south-west France, Basque gastronomy has nonetheless conserved some original features inspired by the nearby sea and the particularities of the region.
A special mention must go to the world famous "Bayonne Ham" which, before being eaten, must first be dried for at least six months in accordance with the ancestral rules. Naturally, it should be tasted along with a good Irouléguy wine, which was a great favourite among the pilgrims on their way to Compostella in the 11th century. The vineyards are set on the steep, sunny mountainsides surrounding the Baïgorry valley. Original Basque vine-varieties are used to make this characterful wine.
Also worth discovering are the "pibales" or young eels, cod, hake, "chipirones" or squid, "axoa" (pronounced achoa), and veal stew with peppers and chili - these are the finest dishes in Basque cuisine, which is flavoursome but also spicy, thanks to the Espelette chilis which liven up all the dishes.
.....And also: duck magret, foie gras, Ardi Gasna ewe's cheese served with a delicious black cherry jam, and - one of the more surprising delicacies - "cojones", the stuffed testicles of the bull from the bullfighting arena.
We must not forget some of the delights for those with a sweet tooth: chocolates, the traditional gâteau basque, "tourons", "muxus" (pronounced mouchous) - a sort of macaroon with marzipan, the name of which means "kiss" in Basque.
All these delicious dishes and many others can be savoured in the traditional "bodegas", cider-houses or typical restaurants of the region. But Biarritz and the surrounding area also offer a great many prestigious sites for more conventional dinners, such as the Hôtel du Palais or the Casino.
www : tourisme.fr/biarritz/