A quick 15-minute drive up the autoroute from Saint-Jean-de-Luz is the elegant, stately, and formerly very staid, international resort, the crown jewel of the Côte Basque, Biarritz, a Four-Flower Village (Ville Fleurie) with a climate similar to Carmel, California. The more time we spend in Biarritz, the more we fall under its spell. While it can’t boast the exciting nightlife of its Spanish cousin San Sebastián-Donostia, just an hour away, it is a small city of great style, with a gorgeous coastline and stunning Belle Époque architecture.
A former playground of British and European aristocracy, it’s now inhabited in the summer by a mix of old money, of the Belle Époque style, and a large contingent of young surfers of the bohemian persuasion, making it less snobby, more friendly, hip and even affordable, if you know where to look. While it doesn’t have as much a true Basque flavor other than its neo-Basque architecture, a "modern" version of a traditional Basque farmhouse, it remains very posh, sophisticated, and beautiful summer resort favored by many Parisians.
Biarritz was first made famous in the 19th-century by Napoleon III and his Spanish wife, Empress Eugénie, and has adopted to its new claim-to-fame as the surfing capital of France, along with being a popular golfing destination. In July it hosts an annual Biarritz Surf Festival, drawing around 150,000 spectators, and in May 2017 hosted the ISA World Surfing Games. The annual International Summer Bridge Festival will be held from Friday, June 29 to Tuesday, July 10, in 2018. Think Cannes without the show biz glitz, or Monte Carlo without the Grimaldis, mega yachts, and high-rise condos and heavy police presence.
At the Casino on the Grande Plage you can stop for an ice cream, brunch, tea or a drink and survey the surfing scene at Dodin, facing the beach since 1923, or walk over to Le Bleu Café and have a coffee, cocktail on the terrace and watch the sunset. Both have fairly reasonable prices considering the prime real estate.
The Basque coast is one of cliffs and jagged rocks, but sheltered within that rugged coast are Biarritz’s six beaches; Miramar, La Grande Plage, Port-Vieux, Cote des Basques, Marbella and Milady. The long, immaculate beach of Grande Plage, close to the town center, is one of Europe’s best surfing beaches, but for a swim, one must be very aware of the tides. The former fishing port area, Port Vieuxhas a small, secluded beach, sheltered from the winds and is popular with the locals year around. There is a free shuttle from the town center. But for families, the beach of Saint-Jean-de-Luz is safer. Marbella beach is currently undergoing restoration of the cliffs due to major storm damage during the winter of 2016-2017. The walkway should reopen by May 2019.
I always begin my Biarritz day with a 9:00 am visit to the animated covered market on rue des Halles, in the center of the city, and enjoy it far more than its rival in Bayonne, particularly during the busy summer months when it buzzes with life. The market is open daily from 7:30 am to 2:00 pm and from July 12 through August 23 it’s open in the evenings 6:00 to 9:00 pm. Here you’ll find the finest in fruits, vegetables, fish, meats, including the famous Bayonne or Ibaïona ham at Maison Montauzer (since 1946), or Boucherie Ferreira, and delicious cheeses from 1001 Fromages, Chailla or Olga. And there are no less than three Bolangers to choose from; Les Délices de Biarritz, Chez Flo, and Maquirriain, who also offers traditional gâteau basque. For artisan pastries, there is Gusto and La Croustade d’Odette. Have a delicious coffee, or glass of wine at Chante l’Oiseau at the western end, in the right corner-a tiny spot with only 6 bar stools, or a coffee and tortilla at L’amuse gueule at the opposite end of the market.
Across the street from the market, at 8, rue des Halles, is Carlier Traiteur, a recipient of the Meilleur Ouvrier de France, Best of France 2007. This award-winning delicatessen, offering jambon de Bayonne, Axoa d’Espelette, foie gras, chaperones and mussels, is open Tuesday-Saturday from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm and in the afternoon from 3:30 to 7:00 pm.
Be sure to include in your own tour a stroll over to the Rock of the Virgin, an outcropping topped by a statue of the Virgin Mary and reached via a long iron footbridge made by Eiffel workshop. If it’s a clear day, you’ll enjoy views of the entire Basque coast.
The former Musée de la Mer reopened in 2011 after a major renovation that doubled its size, children will enjoy the art deco Biarritz aquarium on the Esplanade, on your walk to the Rocher. Open daily in high season, July 7 through August 31, from 9:30 am to midnight, until 8:00 pm, April through July 6 and September 1 through October 31. Closes at 7:00 pm in the winter. They feed the seals daily at 10:30 am and 5:00 pm. You can watch the sharks being fed every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 2:30 pm, but only during school holidays (France). Admission is 14,90€ for adults, 11,90€ for teenagers and 10,50€ for children. Purchase your tickets ahead of time so you don’t have to wait in line.
If you have the time, don’t forget to see the Cité de l’Océan (city of the ocean) at 1, avenue de la Plage, in the la Milady section of the city. Designed by Steven Holl Architects, construction of the new facility was completed in 2011, in conjunction with the reopening of the aquarium, and celebrates the city’s link to the sea. In July and August it’s open daily from 10:00 to 10:00. Tickets are 12,50€ for adults, 9,90€ for students (13-17) and 8,50€ for children (6-12). There is a discount if buying combined tickets for both the aquarium and city of the ocean.
On your way to the Rocher you can visit the charming and beautifully maintained neo-Roman-Byzantine church sitting on top of the hill, facing the old port and beach. Dating from 1856, it was dedicated to Sainte Eugenie, patron saint of Eugenie de Montijo, wife of Napoléon III and Empress of France. The stained glass windows by Luc-Olivier Merso, painter and illustrator who's work can be found in the Musée d'Orsay, help make it one of Biarritz’s major landmarks. The church offers weekly concerts during the summer; jazz, gospel and chamber music. Check the performance schedules. Tickets are sold at the door. Open all year. Entrance is free.
Then stroll down to the former fisherman’s quarter at the Port Vieux, the old port. You can have an exemplary outdoor seafood lunch looking up at the Eglise at the highly regarded Chez Albert. Open for lunch at 12:15 and for dinner at 7:30 pm. menus here start at 40€ (Closed Wednesday except in July and August). Tel: (+33) 559 244 384
After lunch, take the longer walk up to the northern end of the city to the lighthouse, Le Phare, for even more expansive views of the entire coast, and climb the 249 steps to the top for even more amazing vistas. If you tire of walking there’s also the Petit Train de Biarritz to take you around the compact downtown area (but only goes up to the lighthouse with groups). It departs from the Casino on the Grande Plage every 30 min.
On your walk to the lighthouse, you’ll want to stop to visit the Russian Orthodox Church, at 8, Avenue de l’Impératrice, overlooking the opulent Hôtel du Palais. Built in 1892, it was designed by local architect, M. Tisnés, and decorated with icons from St. Petersburg. In Biarritz’s heyday as the aristocrats’ playground, so many Russians came down by train from St. Petersburg that they found the need for their own blue-domed Byzantine church, which they built across the street from the Empress’s villa, the present-day Hôtel Impérial. Open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays from 3:30 pm to 6:00 pm and on Wednesdays during school holidays. Entry is free.
In the same neighborhood peek in at the Imperial Chapel on rue Pellot, an 1865 creation of Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie. Designed by French architect Émile Boeswillwald in a combination Roman-Byzantine art with Hispano-Moorish style, and dedicated to the Black Madonna, Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexico), it was declared a historic monument in 1981. Open Thursday and Saturday afternoons from 2:30 to 6:00 pm, July-September, and on Saturdays only during the rest of the year. Currently under renovation.
Museum lovers should include the city’s Museum of Oriental Art, which displays 1,000+ works from Nepal, India, China and Tibet, and is considered one of the best oriental art collections in all of Europe. It’s located at 1, rue Guy Petit, directly opposite the Hôtel Louisiane. One can rent an audio guide in English. Open Monday-Friday from 2:00 pm to 6:30 pm and until 7:00 pm on Saturday and Sunday. Admission is 10€ for adults, 8€ for students 13-25 and 2€ for those 8-12. A few minutes away, at 5, Avenue de la Gare, is the tapas bar Restaurant Txango, (Trip in Basque) should you need to take a break for lunch with their 17€ menu. Open Tuesday-Saturday at 12:30.
You’ll find world class shopping radiating from the Place Clemenceau on Rue Mazagran- rue Gambetta-rue Espagne and Av. Edouard VII. Park in the underground Halles Clémenceau parking garage at 16, Avenue Foch, at the corner of Ave. Jaulerry.
There’s a branch of Hermès at 19, Avenue Edouard VII, and a Mephisto shoe store at 4, Avenue du Maréchal Foch, offering styles not seen in the U.S., and a branch of Galeries Lafayette at 17-19, Place Georges Clemenceau. For a unique Basque Gift, stylish linens are your best bet here – you have a vast assortment from which to choose: There’s Jean-Vier’s new collection, Biarritz 1930, available at 25, rue Mazagran and Helena, with two shops in Biarrtiz; 27 Av. Edouard VII and 33 rue Mazagran. For more rustic linens, see Euskal Linge at 14, rue Mazagran. For very chic, contemporary linens of the Artiga brand, there is a store at 23, Rue Gambetta.
The super star Parisian chef, Alain Ducasse chose Jean Vier table linens to adorn the tables for the Auberge Iparla restaurant in Bidarray, now under the direction of chef Stéphane Carricaburu, and Jean Vier bathrobes for the 5-star guest house Auberge Ostapé. I purchase cream and white bath towels (collection blanc), robes, slippers and baby bibs from Helena, table linens from Jean-Vier and kitchen towels, panieres, trays and other accessories from Maison Charles Larre (now closed). Check their web sites to compare styles and colors, see what most appeals and works best with your color schemes and convert the measurements of your dining table to the metric system.
Although Jean-Vier does have a shop in Paris at 43, rue Boissy d'Anglas, in the 8th arrondissement, the selection is better here and at the stores in St-Jean-de-Luz (3), Bayonne and St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. You can also purchase the very chic Artiga linens in their boutiques in Espelette, Bordeaux, Pau, St-Jean-de-Luz and Magescq.
Head to Boutique 64 Biarritz, 16, rue Gambetta, below the covered market, for very “in vogue” t-shirts and other casual sportswear items for men, women, children and babies. They represent perfectly the casual-chic Côte Basque life style, and the co. is named for the department 64 of the Pyrénées Atlantiques.
A father and son team at Cazaux Biarritz, 15, rue Larréguy, produces beautiful hand made ceramic vases, bowls and tiles in their trademark blue and lavender, continuing a tradition dating back 6 generations. Their gallery is located at 10, rue Broquedis.
Typical Basque food products, wines and brandies can be found at the fine gourmet shop Maíson Arostéguy at 5, Avenue Victor Hugo, and Les Mille et Un Fromages, across the street at No. 8. For outstanding Jambons, saucissons, pâtés, plats and fromages du Pays basque, stop by the Pierre Oteiza shop in Biarritz at 22, Avenue Foch. No need to go out to the farm in Les Aldudes unless you want to see where the fabulous Kintoa ham comes from. For chocoholics, you’ll find great chocolates at Daranatz at 12 Ave. du Maréchal Foch, below the Clemenceau parking garage, on the left side, walking towards Place Clemenceau. There is also Chocolaterie Henriet, Place Georges Clemenceau. For caramels (kanougas) mouchous, a type of macaroon, and gourmet Basque chocolats, there’s Pariès, at 1, Passage Bellevue.
The Celliers des Docks, which started as Celliers des Halles in 1991 in a small store across from the market, eventually outgrew the original space and opened a new store at 5, Bis Rue Luis Mariano, out near Gare de Biarritz, the train station. They have a great selection of Irouléguy wines plus Gaillacs and Cahors and supply many of the restaurants in the Pyrénées Atlantiques with their wines. But for your convienience, there’s a handy Nicolas wine boutique (a nationwide chain) at 6, Place Clémenceau (unbeatable prices).
Biarritz also has an interesting Planète Musée du Chocolat, 14, Ave. Beaurivage, which offers 45-minute visits ending with sampling for 6,50€ for adults. Also offers a course on Basque chocolates. Open daily from 10:00 am to 12:30 pm and from 2:00 to 7:00 during July and August, until 6:30 pm during French school vacations. Closes annually from January 7 through February 4.
For an afternoon spot of tea or cup of hot chocolate with separate bowl of whipped cream, head straight to Miremont Biarritz, at 1bis, Place Clémenceau. Very much a “ladies who lunch” type of spot, this elegant tearoom has large picture windows with lovely views of the beach scene below. For nice lunch break, have the 30€ gourmet menu on the lovely terrace facing the ocean at Le Galion at 17, Boulevard du Général de Gaulle. For a simple salad as a main course head to the place Sainte-Eugénie next to the church and bandstand, to one of the outdoor terraces of the brasseries on the square; Le Luna, Le Napoléon or Café de la Mer, or dine indoors at La Cantine d’Eugénie in the Hotel Florida.