Thursday, 23 June 2016

Biarritz: Teh Lowdown on a Swanky Ghost Town

Biarritz, France
November 2015
Today the city of Biarritz is world renowned as a hotspot for glitzy resorts, casinos, sunbathing and surfing.
Instead of lounging in the nonexistent summer sun, we viewed Biarritz through autumn-coloured glasses. Outside of tourist season, the city seemed positively barren. The few people we did see about were bundled up warm against the sea breeze, though there were a few surfers and boogie boarders braving the swells. I also took the opportunity to purchase stamps for postcards I had held onto since Siena (yes, Siena in Italy, which we had left over a month before).

Right next to the beach was the church of Sainte-Eugénie. This place of worship is a lot younger than many other churches we visit (construction was finished in 1903), as it was built in honour of Empress Eugénie, wife to Napoleon III. Saint Eugénie was the Empress' patron saint. In the mid 1800's Napoleon purchased a sizeable plot of land in the city so that his wife would not grow homesick of her native land, Spain, the border to which is very close by. Their fondness for Biarritz greatly increased the number of visitors, who began to flock there to see the palace and bathe in the reputedly therapeutic sea waters. (Napoleon Bonaparte, uncle of Napoleon III, visited Biarritz to bathe in 1808.)

The symbolism of whales is prevalent almost to overuse, where it can be seen on churches, restaurants, and even bins. Whaling was a lucrative business in the Bay of Biscay from the 12th-century, though over the centuries the whales stopped visiting and the whalers had to venture much further out or turn to cod fishing. With the increase of tourist spending, fishing disappeared completely. (Let me interject here about tourist spending. We passed a gelateria which we were tempted by until we saw that one scoop cost €3! Biarritz is way too swanky.)

We walked along the coast, enjoying the fresh air and pretty views. There are two stories I'd like to tell about writers here. One is that when Victor Hugo visited the city he found it so charming he stated "My only fear is Biarritz becoming fashionable." Wow, did his fear come true.
The other is only tenuously linked to a writer, that being Earnest Hemmingway. When Hemmingway's novel The Sun Also Rises was being turned into a film, several different locations were used. One was Biarritz (big surprise, I know, as this is a blog post about Biarritz). The screenwriter Peter Viertel was on set when a friend of his from California came to visit. With him he took a large plank of wood commonly known as a surfboard and was the first person to catch a wave in Biarritz. The rest is surfing history.

Today's post was almost called: Drinking In The Emperor’s Bathwaters