In the heart of the French Basque Country, in close proximity to the Spanish-French border, Biarritz is a distinctive town with its own historical heritage, culture and cuisine.
At the end of the 18th century, sea bathing became very fashionable in France. In 1808 Napoleon Bonaparte himself came to Biarritz to swim. In 1854, Empress Eugenia was on vacation here, after which Emperor Napoleon III ordered the construction of Villa Eugene, now Hotel du Palais. With such marketing, Biarritz began to attract European royalties, celebrities and politicians and the resort became famous as the "queen of resorts and resort of kings".
While its many splendid beaches and refined 19th-century establishments attract upmarket travellers during the summer, I find Biarritz simply magical during colder months. Imagine yourself on the Atlantic coast during a crisp winter day when the sun is setting, and you are catching the last glimpses of the beach with a bottle of Bordeaux. Without the summer crowds, and with the festive mood during Christmas time, it feels very jolly and French, but always with a reminder that it is, in fact, absolutely Basque.
You can spend your mornings browsing through the antique shops and art galleries and your afternoons taking long walks along the coastline. The city is small, but at the same time, it has some stunning sights that visitors should not miss. Read on and get inspired!
Things to do in Biarritz
Biarritz has a number of popular sights, but still, the main attraction here is the ocean. Le Grand Plage is the main beach of the area, where the hero of Nabokov's Lolita saw his muse for the first time. It is surrounded by a red limestone cliff that is gorgeous at sunset.
Rocher de la Vierge is a symbol of Biarritz. The hole in the rock is not of natural origin. It was made on the orders of Napoleon III. They decided to decorate such a picturesque place with the figure of the Virgin Mary, the protector of sailors. It has been standing here since 1865. The metal bridge was made in the legendary workshop of Gustave Eiffel.
Rising above the village of Biarritz on the Atlantic coast of France is a lighthouse (Phare de Biarritz) at Cape Saint-Martin. It was built in 1834, and it raises more than 73 meters above sea level. Be patient to climb its 248 steps. You will not regret it, because it offers the best panorama of town! At this cape, the French Silver Coast ends and the Basque land begins. In good weather, you can see the Spanish coast.
Although Villa Belza was built in 1880-1895, its architecture reminds of medieval aesthetics. In the times of La Belle Epoque, French and Russian aristocrats had fun here in the style of the "Great Gatsby". And now you can rent a room with a superb view of the bay.
Biarritz is recognized for its surfing culture and is known as the historic capital of this sport in Europe. It became a popular surfing destination after the movie The Sun Also Rises (based on Hemmingway novel) was filmed. If you haven’t surfed before and fancy giving it a go, there are plenty of good schools with equipment and qualified instructors.
In the 70s, Louison Bobet created a new concept in medicine and called it thalassotherapy (from the ancient Greek "healing by the sea") - a method that uses seawater, as well as wraps containing sea products: algae, mud, and sea salt. The procedures have a beneficial effect on the body as a whole and boost the immune system. Since then, Biarritz has become a renowned international thalassotherapy center. The thalassotherapy institute at the Sofitel hotel is considered one of the best in the area. There is a team of ninety therapists that can take care of 300 guests.
Sofitel Hotel and Resort
Whether you spend your days surfing in the waves or your evenings enjoying a sumptuous dinner, there's no better place to do it than Sofitel Hotel and Resort. Tucked away in a sheltered cove, this luxury French hotel overlooks the famous Miramar beach.
We stayed in a junior suite, with a majestic terrace with a view of the ocean. The dream has begun here - the ocean as far as the eye can see, falling asleep with the sound of the waves, the views of the lighthouse in front of us, waking up with the song of the seagulls.
The local cuisine is noticeably different from the classic French, and all because of Spanish and Basque influences. The food is notable for its simplicity, there will not be many ingredients in one dish. But it will definitely be served with a fragrant sauce.
We enjoyed lunch with sea views at Le B restaurant. We chose local oysters, creamy foie gras prepared in South West style and Gravlax de Saumon as starters. For the main course, we went for grilled octopus and Ttoro Basque. This fish soup was a highlight of our meal; garnished with langoustines, mussels, garlic and onion, originally prepared by the fishermen's wives of Saint-Jean-de-Luz. To end our basque feast, we ordered scrumptious Souffle Grand Marnier and a very light pear dessert served with an orange sorbet.
Le B restaurant also serves a grand breakfast with different eggs selection, smoked salmon and other delicasies. But what really made my day is the Basque specialities like chorizo, bread with seaweed, local cheeses made of goat milk and mind-blowing Basque duo (Black cherry from Ixassou & pastry cream).
On the second day, we chose to have a breakfast on the terrace in our room and watch biarrots jogging on the beach and families walking their dogs.
I can't recommend enough to visit French Basque country during colder months. With the onset of the autumn season, everything changes - the city is peaceful, a gentle ocean breeze blows, and amazing sunsets are to die for.
All images by Marta Romashina.