The Enchanting Allure of Biarritz

From 2019: For years Biarritz has attracted hipsters, surfers, ex-Parisians and stars of the screen, fashion and sports to the Basque region. What’s the secret of its magnetic pull?

Victor Hugo had only one fear: that Biarritz would become more fashionable than Dieppe. He recorded his disquiet in 1843, after visiting the village, “so rustic, and so honest,” in France’s southwest. What would Hugo have said if he could see the latest summer influx, with a horde of tourists moving back and forth between the crowds and the sea? And what about the 2019 G7 Summit, which gave the heads of state of the world’s greatest powers a chance to discover this legendary city, with its wave-lashed cliffs and imperial villas? In their wake, nearly 3,000 reporters explored what looks more like a theater set than a seaside resort, with its limestone cliffs, boulders and ageless towers facing the mountains and the sea. What did they get out of this glimpse of the city? It only takes 20 seconds to be dazzled by Biarritz, but to really love and adopt it requires more time and subtlety.

Biarritz is a stormy city, actually the rainiest in France, far ahead of Brest. Is that a defect? No. The climate filters out all but those who do not fear staying indoors for a day or 10. In bad weather, yachts cannot moor because of the waves. It’s a great place for the famous to hide out: one goes to Saint-Tropez to be seen and to Biarritz to be invisible.

This city, the haunt of romantic spirits and the most fashionable, inspires like few others in France. One hundred years ago, the greatest couturiers – including Coco Chanel, Jeanne Lanvin, Cristóbal Balenciaga and Jean Patou – had their clothing workshops and boutiques there. A century of fashion was on show in a major retrospective in the Crypt Sainte-Eugénie in the spring of 2019, featuring local creations from Roaring Twenties’ hats to the latest trendy brands: Jolies Mômes lingerie, Albertine swimsuits, Jamáal clothing and eco-friendly cosmetics from Les Laboratoires de Biarritz and EQ. From one decade to the next, we see the same concern for preserving the city’s nature and elegance. This is a town that loves to surf on its magnificent history: from a small whaling port to the “queen of beaches and the beach of kings” in the 19th century.

This is where Empress Eugénie settled with her emperor and husband, Napoleon III, in a majestic villa overlooking the waves. In 1893, it became the Hôtel du Palais. Gabrielle Chanel – better known as Coco – welcomed Charlie Chaplin, Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso to the city. And this is where France’s first swimsuit contest was held in 1920, with a jury composed mainly of counts and marquis.

“There is a kind of black magic in this city,” says Olivier Mony, writer and literary critic for the newspaper Sud-Ouest. “A poetry that, throughout history, has attracted worried eccentrics and exiles at the end of their rope. It’s a city of uncrowned princes and magnificent thugs.” It was also the last harbor for the monarchs of Europe and for Russian aristocrats fleeing the Revolution of 1917.

Newcomers have always helped to build Biarritz, and foreigners have enriched the city and spread its fame – the Spanish Eugénie; Elisabeth “Sissi” of Austria, who came to soothe her dissatisfaction with life; the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII (the first golf course, near the lighthouse, was built by the English); and the White Russians, with their Orthodox church. The city has managed to absorb all this without sacrificing any of its Basque identity.

Following the crowned heads, it was Hollywood stars who paraded in front of the Casino on the Grande Plage: Rita Hayworth, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and others. It was another American who imported what would guarantee the region’s success for the next half-century: surfing. In 1956, bored on the set of The Sun Also Rises, the California screenwriter Peter Viertel, husband of the actress Deborah Kerr, sent for his boards and inspired the local youth.

Since then, the wave of tourists has never waned, with plenty of beach boys coming in search of the good life and great thrills. The population has tripled in a century, and the city now has 25,000 inhabitants in winter and more than 100,000 in the summer. Rue Mazagran and the area around Les Halles and Rue Gambetta rival each other in trendy concept stores – along with barbers and tattoo artists – and tapas bars full of holidaymakers in espadrilles. Popular watering holes include Le Bar Jean, Le Bar du Marché, Le Comptoir du Fois Gras and Etxola Bibi. At the cocktail hour – that is, at any time – you might run into the owner of Ed Banger Records, Pedro Winter; musician and actress Cécile Cassel; humorist Bérengère Krief; journalist Anne-Sophie Lapix; star chef Hélène Darroze; soccer player Bixente Lizarazu; Acne Studios founder Jonny Johansson; or actors Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander.

No offense to Victor Hugo, but Biarritz is fashionable, and not just in the summer. “The old kebab neighborhoods are now colonized by hipsters,” says JD Beauvallet, former editor of the magazine Les Inrocks, who has made his home in London and Biarritz for several years. “The hipsters energize the Basques, who never let themselves overdo it.” The city’s identity is strong enough to allow different populations to cohabit: 30-something surfers, retired golfers, neo-hippies, young bobos and Basques by birth or adoption. “While the nearby village of Guéthary is in the process of becoming Paris-by-the-Sea,” Beauvallet continues, “Biarritz still resists. It will never be an outdoor museum or shopping mall for billionaires. It still has its neighborhood life and artisans.”

“We don’t come here to show off,” says Guillaume Farré, who recently opened La Maison Rouge, a beautiful cultural co-working space on Avenue de la Reine Victoria, complete with in-house yoga teacher and photographs by Claude Nori in every office. “People who choose Biarritz are above all looking for a good, glitter-free lifestyle. They recreate a village they have never before known, those lost roots that stay in the collective unconscious.”

Parisians have been arriving in clusters since the inauguration of the Paris-Bordeaux high-speed train line, the increase in low-cost flights and the rise of telecommuting. These drained, oxygen-deprived senior executives, graphic designers and freelance video artists are attracted by the Basque-Californian lifestyle. The cofounder of the Melty media group, Alexandre Malsch, moved to Biarritz in 2017 and is now global brand manager for the Quiksilver sports brand. “Here you can surf from 7 AM to 8 AM,” he says, “be at the office at 9AM, hop on a plane and be in Paris an hour and a half later, return to surf in the evening or have a drink with your friends while watching the sunset. In Biarritz, even if you work hard, you feel like you’re on vacation half the year.”

These ex-urbanites walk the streets barefoot carrying their surfboards, ride scooters through the arcades in jumpsuits and offer their opinions on the swells in front of the Belle Époque or Art Deco facades of houses that once hosted dukes and viscounts from all over the continent. “Neo-Basques don’t come here just for the leisure activities,” says Farré. “They are seeking a deeper, more fundamental return to their roots. Even surfing, which requires enough self-abnegation and courage to face the cold and the waves, reflects the glorification of physical values that has always existed here through rugby and the Basque strength championships.”

More than 30,000 newcomers are expected to settle on the Basque Coast in the coming five years. Biarritz itself is small, with an area of 2,965 acres, of which more than half is not buildable. The price of apartments with a sea view in certain neighborhoods is as high as $929 to $1,115 per square foot – Paris prices. Luxury showcases abound near the Palais: luggage-maker Goyard, Éric Bompard clothing, Figaret, Hermès and more.

A few yards away, art galleries flourish, including L’Œil du Prince, opened in 2018 by Yann Deshoulières, after he sold his gallery on Rue de l’Odéon in Paris. “It’s more successful than I expected,” he says.

“I see the city being rejuvenated from year to year,” enthuses Isabelle Darrigrand, a photo collector. At La Maison Rouge, for example, customers have been offered “cultural immersion” since the summer, including writing workshops with Marie Darrieussecq and Philippe Djian, and photography sessions with Claude Nori. “There is a special kind of curiosity here,” says Beauvallet.

The city’s cosmopolitan character has a lot to do with it, along with its booming neighbors, San Sebastián and Bilbao, just across the Spanish border. The place is rocking, even though “this tale of effervescence should be relativized,” according to Jean Le Gall, director of the publishers Séguier and Atlantica, located year-round in Biarritz. “The municipality has missed many opportunities to transform Biarritz into a true cultural capital. There is no famous festival like the one in Cannes and few really ambitious exhibitions. Many American tourists do not come here, preferring to visit only San Sebastián or Bordeaux.”

Outsiders often sum up the city as a resort for rich, espadrilles-wearing party animals, which amuses and irritates the Biarrots, especially since “no one has ever worn espadrilles in Basque Country,” says Le Gall.

Olivier Mony says: “The real Biarritz must be seen at night, less for the nightlife than for the experience of a mysterious, mesmerizing walk in this incredibly theatrical setting, where you can hear the sea even when you can’t see it.” Many prefer the more discreet, autumnal and ominous Biarritz of André Téchiné’s Hôtel des Amériques, shot in the city, to the overcrowded and sometimes superficial Biarritz of August. Then there is the wild and tragic world depicted by writer and publisher Jean-Marie Laclavetine, who describes in his latest book, Une Amie de la Famille (A Friend of the Family), how he lost his sister, carried away by a wave. Or the apocalyptic Biarritz of author Dominique Noguez, in Les Derniers Jours du Monde (The Last Days of the World).

Biarritz is a phantasmagoric city, a backdrop on which we can project our most intense emotions, a magnificent setting that is always being threatened and eaten away by the elements. The cliffs crumble by 27.5 inches every year, while some villas have fallen into the void – the beach where Empress Eugénie bathed, for example, is now closed due to landslides. People also come for that feeling of vertigo – as well as for a plate of the Basque tapas called pintxos and a glass of Irouléguy, of course. The image of this glorious world inspires a desire to live and create on the edge of the precipice, taking advantage of each second as if it were the last.

This feature was originally published in Mastermind 06 – buy all issues here.

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