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Biarritz Unveiled: 5 Captivating and Quirky Historical Gems

Dive into the unforgettable stories that shaped Biarritz’s unique identity

By Gabriela Trofin-TatárPublished about a month ago 5 min read
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Biarritz — Photo by the Author Gabriela Trofin-Tatár

As I was writing a travelogue about our recent stopover in Biarritz, I started searching for facts and stories about the town’s history. I got so entangled in all the exciting pieces I found, that I decided to write this extra article on Biarritz.

“Biarritz Basque: Basque also Miarritze Occitan: Biàrritz is a city on the Bay of Biscay, on the Atlantic coast in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department in the French Basque Country in southwestern France. It is located 35 kilometres (22 mi) from the border with Spain. It is a luxurious seaside tourist destination known for the Hôtel du Palais (originally built for the Empress Eugénie circa 1855), its casinos in front of the sea and its surfing culture.” Artwarefineart.com

Situated on France’s southwestern coast, Biarritz is a chic coastal town. We visited it on our way to Portugal and were impressed by the atmosphere and style. Once cherished by nobles seeking leisure, it is now a famous European surfing hub.

While it may not boast the extravagant glamour of the Riviera, Biarritz paints a vivid scene: the rich in expensive attire mingle with easygoing surfers sporting casual flip-flops. To us, Biarritz seemed more pleasant than the French Riviera, not as crowded, at least in June.

Here, you can hear French, Spanish, and the Basque tongue. The heart of the action is at the Grande Plage, a vibrant hub. A little further, you can explore the meticulously revitalized Art Deco casino or walk through charming streets that lead to the ancient harbor to the west.

Biarritz: Surfing’s European Cradle

By Léa Dubedout on Unsplash

Biarritz gained fame as the birthplace of European surfing.

In August 1956, the filmmakers Peter Viertel and Dick Zanuck, together with the writer Ernest Hemingway, were shooting a film in Biarritz. It was the adaptation of Hemingway’s novel: The Sun Also Rises.

Californian Dick Zanuck wanted to try surfing the Basque waves on the board he had brought with him. This is how they first introduced surfing to France.

Later in 1964, Joel de Rosnay created the Surf Club of France, which still exists today. Below is a short film from 1957 featuring the first French surfers including Joel de Rosnay.

Biarritz Grande Plage, with its long peeling waves, is renowned as one of the best longboard waves in Europe. And Biarritz is the best place for beginner surfers.

If you would like to read more about the history of surfing in France check the link below.

For the 10 best places to surfing spots in Europe for advanced surfers check this link. There are no affiliate links in thi article.

Napoleon’s Seaside Hideaway

By Free Nomad on Unsplash

Emperor Napoleon III and his wife, Empress Eugénie, were in love with Biarritz’s stunning coastline.

In 1855 Spanish-born Empress Eugénie and Napoleon III built their summer villa overlooking Plage Miramar. Their presence transformed the simple whaling village of Biarritz into a fashionable seaside resort.

In 1880, Villa Eugénie was sold and converted into Hôtel du Palais. It endured a fire in 1903 and a restoration. Finally, by the early sixties, the famous hotel attracted movie stars, politicians, royalty, and financiers, from across the globe.

Biarritz: Whaling Roots

History of Basque whaling. (2023, August 24). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Basque_whaling

Before becoming a chic resort town, Biarritz was a hub for whaling activities.

Fun fact: The town’s coat of arms features the image of a whale below a rowing boat manned by five sailors wearing berets, one of whom is preparing to throw a harpoon. The inscription written on it says:

Aura, sidus, mare, adjuvant me = The air, the stars, and the seas are helping me.

Biarritz Coat of Arms, Biarritz. (2023, July 2). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biarritz

In the 12th century, Basque whalers established the first organized whaling industry in Europe. The town’s economic foundation was built on the whaling trade, which eventually transitioned to tourism.

Interesting fact:

According to the Laws of Oléron, the whalemen of Biarritz, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, and the rest of the French Basque country were exempt from taxation, although they voluntarily gave the whales’ tongues to the church as a gift. It wasn’t until the kings of England, acting as the Dukes of Guyenne, that taxes began to be levied upon them. Wikipedia

Rock ’n’ Roll Royalty at Biarritz

I found a Police poster for Biarritz allegedly from 1979. (Pinterest free download)

The Police 1979 Biarritz, Pinterest free download

Biarritz’s Seaweed Spa Legacy

Ever wonder why most surfers and locals living by the sea have flawless skins? This is because they are exposed to the healing properties of seawater on a regular basis.

The concept of thalassotherapy (fr: Thalassothérapie), or the therapeutic use of seawater and seaweed, was popularized in Biarritz. Visitors flocked to the town’s seawater baths and spas in the 19th century to experience the rejuvenating effects of these natural elements. This determined Biarritz’s reputation as a health and wellness destination.

Louison Bobet created this concept in the seventies. He was convinced of the benefits that a maritime climate and sea water brought to the human body. The center he created still exists in Biarritz, where a long tradition of marine therapy contributes to the success of the two thalassothérapie centers. Thalmar and Thalassa Biarritz are famous establishments that continue to meet an ever-growing demand.

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These funky historical facts present Biarritz's complex past and how it developed from a whaling hub to a vibrant surf town with a touch of eccentricity.

  • Have you been to Biarritz?
  • Have you tried surfing on the coast of France?

Let me know in the comments which of the facts was most interesting to you.

Check our trip to Biarritz if you would like to see photos we took and read about our experience with this vibrant coastal city.

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Stay human, be loved,

Gabby

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***I originally published this article on Medium.***

Thank you for reading! Your support means a lot and fuels our passion for travel and my motivation to write about our experiences. It takes me a few hours to craft an article about various travels, and we do travel quite a lot! So expect more in the future :)

I write about our travels with kids and our parenting journey. We hope to raise money for our next trip this coming summer. We plan another road trip across Europe to reach the Atlantic again.

Meanwhile, stay tuned for all the stories in this Portugal Trip series and other travels with our kids, too.

If you feel generous, send me a tip, Buy me a coffee, or a tea, and let’s chat in the comments.

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About the Creator

Gabriela Trofin-Tatár

Full Stack Developer in the making and mother of 3 littles. Curious, bookaholic and travel addict. I also write on Medium and Substack: https://medium.com/@chicachiflada & https://chicachiflada.substack.com/

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