Bygone glory in Biarritz

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Inspecting bikinis on the Grande Plage

Biarritz was once synonymous with glamour. Not just your run-of-the-mill glamour, either, but royal glamour. 

It started in 1855, when Napoleon III’s wife Eugenie built a palace on the beach. 

Empress Eugenie was born in the Spanish city of Granada, and her husband wanted her to have a home close to the border of her old country so she wouldn’t pine away. If you’ve been there, you’ll know it as today’s Hôtel du Palais.

The area had been a haunt of novelist Victor Hugo for the previous ten years, and he feared the effect the new royal residents might have on his favourite hideaway. “My only fear is Biarritz becoming fashionable,” he wrote. “Whether this happens, the wild village, rural and still honest Biarritz, will be money-hungry. Biarritz will put poplars in the hills, railings in the dunes, kiosks in the rocks, seats in the caves, trousers worn on tourists.”

He was right to worry about money-grubbing. A casino was soon to follow in 1901, and then a direct rail connection between Paris and Hendaye. 

The high season population swelled in the heat, going from 5,000 to 18,000 — and by the end of the 19th century, to 50,000.

Before a minor royal could shake a sceptre, this small beach town on the Basque coast was the continent’s most fashionable summer destination.

Biarritz became a who’s who of major and minor royalty: Leopold of Belgium, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Oscar II of Sweden, Russian empress Maria Feodorovna, as well as Natalie of Serbia and later, Britain’s playboy prince Edward VII. 

Wealthy aristocrats flocked there with them, ushering in a heyday that lasted from the Belle Epoque to the time of Charlie Chaplin and Sarah Bernhardt. Even Frank Sinatra graced Biarritz’s fabled shore.

But fashions are temporary simply because they are fashions. 

The ever fickle fawners over fame moved on to the French Riviera in the same way cool neighbourhoods shift around a city. 

Artists start going because a place is cheap and no one notices it. This gives it a certain cachet and attracts a range of non-essential businesses — an earlier version of today’s avocado toast ‘eateries’, yoga studios and self-righteous vegan co-ops. Working class people are pushed out, and eventually so are the poorer, less successful artists, all the while complaining about the ‘gentrification’ they themselves brought. And the cycle repeats somewhere else.

The final fate of this once-glamorous seaside resort was sealed by celluloid.

The film festival that became Cannes was established on the Riviera in the dark days of 1939 instead of Biarritz, the other main contender. The weather was better in the Mediterranean, more stable and predictable than the stormy Bay of Biscay.

The glitterati yacht set moved on to more fashionable ports, too, and Biarritz faded with a slow dissolve. The town has reinvented itself several times since then, but it never really managed to recapture the panache of its glory days.

A calm day for a swim

Today, surfers pepper its windswept beaches and wanna be ‘influencers’ snap photos in seaside restaurants. But I wasn’t interested in them. 

I liked the feeling of faded glory that clings to the town’s turreted mansions and old grand hotels, the sense of a vanished age when life was simpler and the world was full of possibilities.

The Biarritz I was drawn to is the Biarritz of Éric Rohmer’s Le Rayon Vert. It’s a film about in between times, of moments of boredom and quiet desperation, of a troubled woman being defeated by routine.

The critic Roger Ebert had this to say about Rohmer’s approach: “He takes a whole story — a love story, say — and leaves out the beginning and the end because those are always the same. He looks at what’s left, and takes the part that reveals the most character. Then he makes a movie about that.”

In between places are the best settings for such stories because heydays are predictable, and what one does after the glory has faded is often more interesting because seldom told.

I thought about this as I inspected bikinis on the Grande Plage, boats in Le Port des Pêcheurs, and shops along the Rue Mazagran. And then we ordered cold beers and a plate of fried chilis on the Place Sainte-Eugénie and hopped a local bus back to Bayonne. 

Faded glory is interesting to look at, but that riverside city of cafes and industry was more my speed.

About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Columnist at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

2 Comments

  • I thoroughly enjoy reading your travel adventures. They are inspirational and are causing me to get an itchy foot. Are you going to enjoy your pumpkin pie in Brockville?

    • Thank you Chuck. Writing it makes me want to go straight back there. Yes, will be eating as much pie as possible in Prescott and Brockville over Thanksgiving.

Ryan Murdock

Author of Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Columnist at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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