Where I'm Traveling in My Mind: Biarritz, France

Biarritz, France

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In June 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the European Union officially closed its borders to U.S. travelers. This was undeniably a good thing—the U.S. has four percent of the world's population, but as of August 2020, it had a staggering 25 percent of its COVID-19 cases, leading the world in cases and deaths. And yet, when I heard this sad news, one of the first things I thought of (selfishly, I admit) was: Will they ever let us back into Europe? (They shouldn't; we clearly don't deserve nice things.) And then, a few beats later: Will I ever be able to go back to Biarritz? Biarritz, a coastal resort town in French Basque Country, is easily one of my favorite places in France (if not the world), which is saying something—I've been entranced with the country since I was a 19-year-old study abroad student in Cannes, and to me, picking a favorite French town feels a little bit like picking a favorite episode of "Succession." I love them all. Still, Biarritz stands out.

This isn't an obvious choice for Favorite French Town, exactly. Biarritz can be crazy-expensive (un café américain will set you back a whopping 5 euros in some places). It's a touch tacky and teeming with designer-clad French women who will stare at you in utter disdain if you dare to wear flip-flops anywhere but the beach (Quelle horreur!) But here's the thing: Once you've sat on the Rocher de la Vierge at sunset—a rock outcropping with views that extend along the wild, glittering coastline, all the way to the mountains of Spanish Basque Country—it's tough to get Biarritz out of your mind.   

A Panorama of Natural Beauty and Architectural Charm

In another life, I worked for a company that operated high school language immersion programs in several cities across Spain, France, Italy, and Costa Rica. Our French program was in Biarritz, which I helped spearhead during the summers. (A fun gig, yes, but not without its inherent stressors—picture chaperoning 60 high schoolers and trying to get them excited about, like, the flying buttresses of Notre Dame when all they’re really thinking about is sneaking into each other’s hotel rooms at night.) 

I remember arriving in Biarritz with the students for the first time and thinking it smelled better than anywhere I’d ever been. This isn’t surprising: A fragrant rainbow of hydrangeas blankets the entire city, and the salt-encrusted ocean air mixed with the scent of buttery, fresh-baked croissants will set your pleasure receptors on fire.

Purely from an aesthetic point of view, it’s easy to fall in love with Biarritz. At first glance, it can feel like the city was designed to be a postcard image: the panorama of elegant belle époque villas, the seaside promenades, and the craggy cliffs that fall straight into the frothy waves below. Like most French towns, Biarritz is infinitely walkable, with enough sloping paths, tucked-away verdant parks, and narrow cobblestone streets to make an American weep. Unlike many French towns, Biarritz is distinguished by its strange melange of architectural styles, from the Art Deco casino to the 12th-century Romanesque church of Église Saint-Martin to the turreted, Basque-style villas that rise high above the sea. La Côte d’Azur, this ain’t.

Discovering French Basque Country

Biarritz is nestled on the Bay of Biscay, about an hour’s drive from the Spanish border. This is French Basque Country (le Pays Basque); Basque Country is technically made up of seven provinces, three of which are in southwestern France, although the Spanish side is undeniably more well-known, thanks to glitzy San Sebastián and the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Pays Basque is unlike any other part of France. The region has its own language, cultural landscape, architecture, and culinary traditions. The land here is breathtakingly distinctive—the turquoise blue waters, wild coastline, and rugged foothills of the Pyrenees will stop your heart. 

Basque people have inhabited this region for thousands of years, and their language, Euskara, bears no relation to any other languages spoken in Europe. As such, regional pride runs deep here—although, in contrast to the Spanish side, the French part isn’t quite as Basque-ified. Even so, you’ll encounter the language everywhere you go, on restaurant menus, shop signs, and on TV; brimming with harsh Ks and Zs and Xs, it’s about as dissimilar from French as it gets.  

Biarritz Through the Years

Once a former whaling city inhabited by just a few hundred people, Biarritz has been through a few manifestations over the years. The city became a major playground for European royalty after Empress Eugenie’s palace was constructed in 1854. (The former palace of the wife of Napoleon III is now the Hotel du Palais, an Old World giant dominating the waterfront from its perch above the Grande Plage.) By the turn of the 20th century, decadent oceanfront casinos were being built, and the big-time gamblers and Hollywood movie stars began to flock to the beaches in droves. But today, Biarritz is known primarily for one thing: surfing. 

View to the beach. Biarritz, France.
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The Surf Capital of Europe

The surf scene in Biarritz is world-class, so much so that the city has been dubbed the "Surf Capital of Europe." World championships and festivals are held here, camper vans congregate around La Côte des Basques (the main surf beach), and there are just as many people wearing wetsuits as people decked out in chic resort wear. For many serious surfers, Biarritz is tops. (And when you catch your first glimpse of those towering waves, you'll understand why.) 

Apart from the city's unmistakable elegance, and the gobs of tanned surfer dudes, there's enough grit (or what passes for grit in a French resort town, anyway) to keep things interesting. If you look closely enough, you'll notice it, too: the untamed natural beauty and structurally elegant buildings, the cosmopolitan vibes and scruffy surf scene, the glamour and the grime. This juxtaposition makes Biarritz such a fascinating place, one I hope to return to someday. 

Tips for First-Time Visitors

  • Timing is everything. In France, vacations are as sacred as la grammaire, bread, and social democracy, and many French people elect to take their vacation time in August (there’s even a word for these types of travelers: les aoûtiens). As such, you should avoid Biarritz at all costs in August—and even in July, if you can help it. Otherwise, you’ll be dealing with hordes of other tourists, sky-high hotel costs, and little to no towel space on the Grande Plage.
  • Early to bed, early to rise. Just across the border, in Spanish Basque Country, you can bet that crowds of people hang out in plazas and pintxo-hopping every night until well past midnight. This isn’t the case in Biarritz—pretty much everything closes by 9 p.m. Plan accordingly. 
  • Spend your euros wisely—on local culinary delights. You can blow your budget reasonably quickly here if you’re not careful. But there are (rather enjoyable) ways around this—rather than eating out for every meal, stock up on picnic food at Les Halles, a charming neighborhood with a lively daily market. Nosh on tapas and pintxos (the Basque word for “small snack,” which comes from the Spanish verb pinchar) while you browse the colorful array of Basque, Spanish, and French delicacies, ranging from freshly caught seafood to foie gras to locally sourced cheeses and pastries. Don’t leave without sampling a gâteau Basque, a traditional small cake filled with eggy custard that the region is known for.
  • Beach hop. La Grande Plage is the most popular beach in Biarritz, and it’s lovely, but there are several other beaches worth exploring in the area—especially if you want to get away from the crowds. Namely, Port Vieux, Côte des Basques, Plage Marbella, Plage de la Milady, and the beaches in nearby Anglet are much less touristy.
  • Rent a car. Be sure to explore the rest of the region—Biarritz is just one of many jewels in Pays Basque. Some nearby well-known towns include Bayonne, St.-Jean-de-Luz, Espelette, and St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port (and that’s just the French side). Your best bet is to rent a car to fully experience everything this culturally-rich, uniquely gorgeous region offers. Basque Country was made for road-tripping.