Basque in Biarritz glamour

 

BERNICE HARRISONgets a taste of how the well-to-do holidayed a century ago on a visit to Euskadi, straddling the border of France and Spain

IT’S DEEPLY UNSETTLING to feel even for moment that you may have landed in the wrong country. The invitation was to the Basque Country, so Spain, right? Wrong. As any Leaving Cert geography student probably could have told me, there’s a part of southwest France that’s Basque, and Biarritz is its glamorous centre.

The Basque heritage is very clear at Biarritz airport – one of those small, hassle-free airports where you don’t have to walk 500m through the terminal to get anywhere and where you collect your baggage a few steps from the main entrance.

The road signs on the short trip from the airport to the centre of Biarritz are bilingual, in French and Batua, the most widely used dialect in the Basque language, Euskara. While most of us with even passing knowledge of French might chance our arms with a few words of Italian or Spanish, even the most basic words in Euskara will confound you. Kaixo, for example, is hello.

Over dinner at the swanky Hôtel du Palais I confessed my ignorance to a local; she was graciously reassuring. “A lot of people think of Spain when they think Basque. It’s just that the Basques in Spain are” – and here she shrugged her perfectly tanned shoulders – “a lot more noisy about it.”

Like all her friends and family, she said, she was proud to be Basque, can speak the language, though usually doesn’t in the normal course of her day, and is also very proud to be French. “For me there is no conflict in being both,” she said.

The Basque Country – Euskadi in Basque – is made up of seven provinces: Alava, Biscay, Gipuzkoa and Navarre, in Spain, and Lower Navarre, Labourd and Soule, in France.

As Biarritz airport – less than a two-hour flight from Dublin – is the gateway to the region, a three-day break will give you a good idea what this part of the Basque Country is all about.

To get a glimpse of a typical village we headed 20km out of Biarritz, taking a scenic route through lush green countryside – this part of France gets more than its share of rain – that is dotted with large half-timbered farmhouses with red wooden shutters and balconies.

The winding road took us up to the hilltop village of Sare – also known as the Basque Republic of Sare. (The main road from Biarritz to Sare is faster, but you’d miss out on the country side and the chance to drive into the mountains.) It’s known for its food and its fetes – the Basques have a tradition of public festivals, and there’s at least one in this small town every month. The Basque culture is a physical one – as rugby teams that play against Biarritz know – and festivals often include strong-man contests, weight- lifting competitions and tugs of war.

Sare is lined with 17th-century houses, their timber shutters painted in the red and green of the Basque flag. The centre of the pretty town is Place du Fronton, so called because one side is the fronton, or court where the traditional Basque ball game pelota is played. Basques think of it as the fastest ball game in the world – though a Kilkenny man with a hurley might dispute that.

To get an idea of what pelota is all about, drop into the town hall, on the main square, where a tiny museum displays a range of rackets, including a selection of the intriguing curved basket rackets.

On a trip longer than my three days, Sare looks like a great place to base yourself for a couple of days of hillwalking up Rhune mountain – trails for every level of walker are marked out – or horseriding in one of the many tourist-friendly stables that have sprung up in the region.

Down on the coast is Saint-Jean-de-Luz, the last major town before Spain and neighbouring St Sebastián. It’s well worth the visit – it’s a short bus trip from Biarritz – and while it was virtually empty in May, locals say it’s thronged with tourists from July 14th.

Even when it’s not busy it has the feel of a sophisticated holiday town, with a sandy beach only a short walk from its main drag, which is lined with small shops, terrace cafes and tiny restaurants offering lunch deals from €13.

Apart from the working port, the pride of the town is the church, built in the medieval Basque style, with tiered wooden balconies running high along each side.

It’s in the towns and villages that you’ll spot typical Basque architecture. Many of Biarritz’s buildings are fine 19th-century residences constructed by Parisians as holiday homes; the grand scale and fanciful architectural flourishes, from turrets to elaborate Gothic windows, give a hint of the resort’s past as a playground for the rich.

You’ll see much fine architecture on the pleasant (though uphill) walk from the centre of Biarritz to the resort’s iconic lighthouse, which dates from the 1830s.

Walk in the other direction, past the surfers’ paradise of the Grand Plage – surfing is taught in school here – and stroll over the footbridge at the end of Pointe Atalaye to Rocher de la Vierge, named after a statue of the Virgin and Child. Along the way you’ll spot two 1930s casinos, one on the seafront, which now incorporates a public swimming pool, the other newly renovated as a conference centre.

From the statue of the Virgin there are views northwards of the Landes coastline and, far to the south, the Pyrenees.

It’s in Biarritz itself that most visitors on short stays are going to base themselves, wandering up the coast and soaking up the atmosphere of faded grandeur that clings to the place, especially around the magnificent main beach, which is bookended by the new conference centre and the equally imposing Hôtel du Palais.

The grand hotel is very much part of the town’s history, the reason Biarritz became such a fashionable place to winter for well-heeled Parisians and idle royals. Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie built a holiday home on the headland in the 1850s, making it the resort of its day; the house was rebuilt in the 1880s on an even grander scale as the hotel.

For an idea of what it looked like at the start of the 20th century, and how the well-to-do holidayed, watch Stephen Frears’s latest film, Chéri, starring Michelle Pfeiffer and filmed on the beach and in and around Hôtel du Palais.

The hotel is still the place to stay for its gilded grandeur and location. Most rooms have sea views; La Rotonde restaurant has an Atlantic panorama. If you don’t fancy making it outside the hotel grounds, you could take a dip in its heated outdoor seawater swimming pool or spend the day in its fivestorey Guerlain spa.

Bernice Harrison was a guest of the French tourist board. See www.biarritz.fr and www.bearn-basquecountry.com

“ Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie built a holiday home here in the 1850s, making Biarritz the resort of its day. For an idea of how the well-to-do holidayed, watch Stephen Frears’s latest film, with Michelle Pfeiffer

Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) flies to Biarritz from Dublin .

Where to stay and where to eat on a visit to the resort

Where to stay

Hôtel du Palais. 1 Avenue

de l’Impératrice. 00-33-5- 59416400, www.hotel-du- palais.com. The grandest hotel in Biarritz, this offers old-style glamour and service, with amenities that include an outdoor saltwater pool, a full-service Guerlain spa and

La Rotunde gourmet restaurant, with spectacular views of the Atlantic and the Grand Plage. Rooms start at about €400, although it’s worth looking out for offers and packages. Even if you’re not staying, it’s worth going in for a drink, just to experience the opulence of the place.

Grand Tonic Hotel. 58 Avenue Edouard VII, 00-33-5- 59245858, www.biarritz- hotels.com. Beautiful art-deco hotel a block back from the Grand Plage. Only 63 rooms, and with the feel of a boutique hotel. Attractive, stylish bedrooms. Rates from €295, though check for offers.

Hotel de la Marine. 1 Rue des Goélands, 00-33-5- 59243409, www.hotel- lamarine-biarritz.com. There are several two- and three-star hotels around the lively old-port area, and this one is simple and well located. Prices from €43 per room; breakfast served in your room is €6.

Where to eat

Chez Albert. Allée Port des Pêcheurs, 00-33-5-59244384, www.chezalbert.fr. Great, atmospheric location in the old port, with tables outside. Famous for its seafood –

St Pierre au sel de Guérande (salted John Dory) is a signature dish. The menu ranges from simply grilled sardines to giant seafood platters. Expect to pay about €40 per person. As with most French restaurants, don’t be caught out by the opening times. Lunch 12.15-2pm; dinner 7.30-10pm (11pm at weekends).

Le Bar Basque. 1 Rue Port Vieux, 00-33-5-59246092. The old port is the liveliest part of town, with many small restaurants and bars, and it’s the place to hang out, especially at the weekend. This bar comes highly recommended by locals, who go for its relaxed atmosphere, excellent tapas and jugs of sangria.

L’Atelier. 18 Rue de la Bergerie,00-33-5-59220937, www.latelierbiarritz.com. Well worth the 10-minute walk from the centre of town to Quartier St Charles, a quiet residential neighbourhood. Run by Isabelle and Alexandre Bousquet, a young couple who serve a sophisticated menu that shows great inventiveness with local ingredients, such as the pink trout tartare. Everything is home-made, from the delicious bread to the ice cream. The small, beautifully decorated restaurant is perfect for a romantic meal. Expect to pay about €45 per person.

Miremont. Place Georges Clemenceau, 00-33-5- 59240138, www.miremont- biarritz.com. A visit to a traditional patisserie is a must: you’ll be drawn in by the exquisite window displays of jewel-like cakes and biscuits. This one is a classic; it opened in 1872 and doesn’t appear to have changed much since then. Have a hot chocolate and a macaroon upstairs in the beautiful pink salon.