El Viajero

Biarritz: Basque tapas washed down with Bordeaux wine

Just 40km from San Sebastian, this stately seaside resort is ideal for a gastronomic getaway

Seafront promenade in Biarritz (France).
Seafront promenade in Biarritz (France).Gonzalo Azumendi/AGE

Ever since the 1990s, Biarritz had been a city with two faces, like so many other tourist destinations. Located just 40 kilometers from the thriving San Sebastián, it suffered from that bipolar condition consisting of euphoric summers and melancholy winters.

It was partly because of the rainy weather, but mostly because of a spiritless offer for visitors seeking accommodation and cultural activities. Fortunately – and it wouldn’t be outrageous to talk about the influence of Spanish hospitality and gastronomy trends in this renewal – this French-Basque town of 27,000 souls is a reborn place that taps into the pulse of life in summer, winter and spring.

9am: Imperial breakfast

Start the day by soaking in the grandeur that Biarritz once had. The city was a favorite with kings and emperors such as Napoleon III, who ordered the construction of the Hôtel du Palais (1) for his wife, the Granada-born Eugenia de Montijo. For breakfast, stop at the Pâtisserie Miremont (2) (Georges Clemenceau Square, 1 bis), which has all the old charm of Biarritz and breathtaking views of the sea. King Alfonso XIII figured among its customers, as did Eduardo VII, who would come down on foot from the Du Palais. The prices are, accordingly, fit for a king, with breakfasts costing around €14.

11am: A stroll along the iron walkway

Le Rocher de la Vierge (3), with its iron walkway built by Eiffel, is a great pretext for a stroll along this intricate area of gently sloping paths. During the difficult winter of 2014, unusually strong waves crashed into the eroded rocks and the beaches were piled high with sandbags in an effort to stem the tide; but usually, the winters and springs are mild, if wet. Leaving Santa Eugenia Church (4) to one side, we arrive at the beach, which is dominated by the Casino (5) This construction was built during the splendor years captured in the novel Cabaret Biarritz, which earned Spanish author José C. Vales the Nadal literary award in 2015. The best option here is a glass of Jurançon in one of the sidewalk cafés on the waterfront. The nearby Le Bistro de l’Huître (6) (Géneral de Gaulle, 29) offers oysters as an appetizer. Later, it is time to head toward the aquarium, on the Plateau Atalaye (www.aquariumbiarritz.com), and afterwards to the Cité de l’Océan et du Surf (www.citedelocean.com), a museum designed by the architect Steven Holl whose spatial configuration, which plays with lights, ramps and curves, serves its purpose of informing and raising awareness about ocean-related issues.

1pm: A flair for food and flowers

There are many eating options in Biarritz, but a good bet is Les Arceaux (7) (Edouard VII Avenue, 20), a simple, cozy and well-priced restaurant. The wood-fire oven pizzas from this pizzeria-trattoria  are light and crunchy, but they also offer other dishes such a no-frills but very respectable steak tartar. The establishment has several rooms and the mood is always lively.  For a completely different concept, drive five minutes out of town until you reach Gaztelur (8) (gaztelur.com). Open since Dec 14, 2015 after the Atelier team – with a Michelin star to their name – moved there, the restaurant occupies a mansion surrounded by three hectares of land and dating back to 1401. Besides the restaurant, the building houses a space dedicated to antiques, art, pop-up stores, and gardening and flower workshops.

5pm: Shopping, outdoor cafés and more

You can then spend the afternoon shopping, starting at the Maison Adam  (9), founded in 1660 and famous for its macarons at Place Clemenceau, 27. Right next door we can find a bookstore ironically named the Bookstore. The neighboring bookstore, Darrigade (10), belongs to former cyclist André Darrigade and stocks new releases, the latest editions from Gallimard and the local press. Walking down the elegant Georges Clemenceau plaza, with its retro outdoor cafés, we can aim for the inner part of the city and visit shops such as the Maison Arostéguy (11) (Victor Hugo Avenue, 5). Founded in 1875, they sell traditional French-Basque products, local wines and gourmet food, including La Force Basque spiced salt.

7pm: Boisterous yet sophisticated

A few meters from here is Les Halles (12) food market, inaugurated in 1885. Walk up to the Rue des Halles to enjoy the bars and renovated dining scene. The area offers the best of the boisterous yet sophisticated Biarritz spirit. Inside Bar Jean (13), visitors will discover the Iberian essence but with a French touch of je-ne-sais-quoi that makes the legs of ham hanging from the ceiling no longer seem vulgar. Tortilla, anchovies, grilled squid and arrays of Iberian cold cuts, along with rows of pintxos (Basque tapas), are paired with wines from Bordeaux, Rioja or Ribera del Duero, illustrating the fusion of Spanish and French cuisine now available in this region of France. Other noteworthy establishments in this same area include Le Comptoir du Foie Gras (14), Les Contrebandiers (15), and the Café du Commerce (16). Enjoy a good homemade burger for €10 at places such as Bonheur (17) (Victor Hugo, 30) after having a few tapas - something that was impossible to do in France not so long ago.

8pm: To the lighthouse

Although a narrow and rarely used path, it is one worth the stroll. It starts right beside the Hôtel du Palais (www.hotel-du-palais.com), and gives passersby a chance to gaze at the Cantabrian sea in all its evening tranquility. That combination of the dark, melancholy sea and the sheltering presence of the city offers a special contrast that is unique to the whole of southwest France. The nearby Hotel Miramar (18) (www.sofitel.com), with its modern but slightly passé luxury, reminds us about the different faces of Biarritz, and underscores how, after languishing for decades, the city is showing is liveliest side again.

English version by Anne-Gaelle Sy.

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