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Biarritz

Text by DOLORES BARCIELA

Once a small fishing village on southwestern France’s Basque coast, Biarritz was made fashionable after 1854 by the summer stays of Napoleon III and his Spanish-born empress, Eugénie. Also visited by European royalty like Queen Victoria, Edward VII of Great Britain, and Alfonso XIII of Spain, Biarritz began to call itself “the queen of resorts and the resort of kings.”

Beautiful Biarritz has lost none of its charm over the years, and still remains a prestigious and chic seaside resort. Elegant villas and heritage-listed residences, which glitter with belle époque and art deco details, have retained their glamour.

I spent a delightful week this summer here, lodged just one block away from pretty Grande Plage. My apartment overlooked the Biarritz Casino, an elegant and imposing art deco building that has been the center of the town's social life since it opened in 1901. The other gorgeous building on the beach is Hôtel du Palais, the attractive palace built for Empress Eugénie around 1855 as a summer villa. In 1880, the villa was sold and converted into a splendid hotel that attracted the international elite, including members of the European royalty. Eventually, the property fell into disrepair and closed for a period of time in the 1950s, but it has since been refurbished and is again a luxury hotel.

The region’s mild climate, the variety of beaches and scenery, and the town’s luxurious tourist accommodations continue to draw an international clientele, but the exclusive image of Biarritz has changed. Tourism is now more diversified, and surf has played a part in this. In the 1950s, California surf culture was introduced to Europe on its sandy beaches, and since then Biarritz has always been a major surfing destination.

The old town is lovingly restored and it's a pleasure to stroll around while window shopping. Stylish clothing and home décor boutiques stocked with local brands abound, and there's a nice ambiance in all cafés and restaurants. One delight of this town is the number of small, independent shops. There are specialist cheese shops, as well as chocolate, confectionery and cake shops. Bonbon-making is a tradition and I can personally vouch that they're absolutely delicious!

Biarritz looks beautiful from all angles. A wild coastline, dotted with rocks and cliffs shaped by the force of the waves, border long, sandy beaches. Seaside promenades along the coastal paths overlooking the ocean offer amazing views and allowed me to savor the charm of this pristine town.

Biarritz offers one of the most attractive seaside strolls in France, on a route lined with tamarisks and hydrangeas. It starts at the lighthouse, built in 1834. I climbed its 258 twisting steps inside the 73m-high Phare de Biarritz, and was rewarded with sweeping views of the Basque coast.

The promenade then passes the Grande Plage and the Casino Barrière, the peaceful old square Place Sainte Eugénie and the Museum of the Sea. On to Fishermen's Port, built by Emperor Napoleon, and the Rock of the Virgin Mary. The statue of the Madonna, set up to keep local fishermen safe, is across a bridge designed by famous engineer Gustave Eiffel. I walked till I reached the magnificent beach La Côte des Basques, where I saw several surfers. Along the road, I saw some signs with images of people surfing that dated back to the 50's and 60's. They included detailed information about the origin of this sport in the region.

I didn't want to leave town without enjoying the feeling of being in the sea with a surfboard. So, on my last day here, I rented a board and a light wetsuit and spent a couple of hours in the water with Grande Plage in the background. Both the feeling and the view were superb, and certainly added a magical dimension to this special week. I hope to return to Biarritz very soon.