Biarritz's Short History
Like Saint-Tropez on Côte d'Azur that was made fashionable in the '60s by the famous Brigitte Bardot, Biarritz was transformed from a sleepy fishers town into a glamorous destination by Empress Eugenie de Montijo, the wife of Napoleon III, who made the city and the Basque Coast her favorite summer destination.
The history goes that before coming with regularity to Biarritz, the imperial couple was spending its summers mostly in the town of Vichy in the center of France.
All that changed on Monday, July 27, 1863 when a famous scene (that remained in history under the name of "the story of the little dog") took place in the Vichy's Rosalie square.
Walking with his wife Eugenie, Napoleon saw the little dog of his mistress Marguerite Bellanger - who was also present in Vichy! - coming friendly towards him showing unmistakable signs of friendship and obeisance. Eugenie understood perfectly the situation and furious at her husband infidelity, left the city that night, never to return.
Thereafter the summers were to be spent in Biarritz!
The town was not however unprepared for the imperial holidays, for in 1854 already, Eugenie built here an imperial summer residence known as Villa Eugenie – a Second Empire style building listed now as a historic monument by the French Ministry of Culture under the name Hotel de Palais (a 5 stars hotel). The imperial couple came to Biarritz each summer until 1869.
Biarritz became this way the place to be for the world’s rich and famous during the last decades of the 19th century, trend that lasted well into the first half of the 20th century (the Hotel de Palais has rooms named after celebrities that stayed there including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Charlie Caplin etc.) .
In 1888 was built “The Golf Course of the Light House”, the second oldest golf course on the continent. It is a place where future King Edward VII used to come often to play golf.
We get a glimpse of what life in Biarritz was like in this era from the first Pays Basque travel guide published in 1904, guide called "Guides Joanne":
"During the high season, the tourists' day starts quite late, around 10am, with a morning walk in the city, with stops at the stores on Mazagran Street and the Town Hall Square. The walk continues sometimes until "Port-Vieux". From 10:45am until 11:30pm everybody goes on the big beach, "Grande Plage", to take a bath in the ocean or just look at the ones who bath. Next everyone rushes to the hotel to change before lunch. After this meal, people smoke, read the newspapers, engage in conversations until about 4pm and, having changed clothes again, they go to eat cakes at Miremont or Dodin tearooms or go to the casinos for a concert, before going again to the beach for the evening bath. Around 6:30 pm everybody goes back to the hotel, changes in formal attire, and then goes to dinner. After that is back to the casino or the many elegant terraces where the orchestras play the most brilliant pieces of a rich repertoire. After the concert people go dancing in the many salons or in the big hall of the Biarritz casino before retiring at 3am or later.
From November to May life in Biarritz is calmer. Life is simple and people know each other. The customers are mainly English with the exception of the Easter holiday when Parisians descend here."
In 1957 the renowned American novelist and screenwriter Peter Viertel impressed by the waves of the Golf of Gascogne decided to open a surf club bringing thus this sport to Europe. Nowadays surfing is a part of biarrots life, no matter the season, so much so that youngsters can take a surfing option for the baccalaureate.