Thursday, August 20, 1998


Written in 1998 for Condé-Nast Traveler magazine

It is hard to get any rest in Biarritz, and there’s little point even trying. The shore itself is restless, an alternating sequence of long beaches and formidable bastions of rock that seemingly belong to different seascapes but characterize La Côte Basque in France’s southwest corner, near the Spanish frontier. The surf crashes day and night as if kneeling in homage to the stone resort of tan hotels, shops, and cafe-bars hovering above, linked by switchback lanes and hydrangea-encrusted staircases systematically curlicued around the coast’s idiosyncracies.

The town, a balmy version of Proust, has a kind of fickle grandeur. Its casino happily chewed up the continent’s great fortunes and eventually, like the habit of coming for a season to promenade and take the waters, sank out of fashion. But the Basques are survivors: Biarritz is chic again, energized with concerts and parties spilling onto the street until all hours, ready to surf after morning coffee. You will not get much sleep here.

I went for the week when July shifted to August, not knowing what to expect besides sunshine and cool breezes. There was Biarritz of the fabled name: the grand wedding-cake hotels, the majestic beach captured by Picasso in Les Baigneuses (1918) where a young Nabokov had met his first love amid the lavish, mildly louche “Monte Carlo of the Atlantic.” I wondered if any history was still alive from the days when society required you to make a splash at the casinos of Biarritz, Cannes, Deauville. All my French friends told me Biarritz had ascended in recent years, a balearic phoenix—for them it was riding a healthy wave of European youth.

There was no mystery why after my first sight of La Grande Plage, an expansive stretch of golden sand dotted at each end with dramatic boulders and islets that exaggerate the surf as if placed deliberately. At dawn no one’s on the beach; at eight-thirty (when it’s still hard to get café and a croissant) the surfers are already out. By ten it’s in full swing, with flags to signify which areas are for swimming and which for surfing or body-boarding.

Meanwhile the red, blue, green, or mustard white-striped umbrellas, with shade flaps down one side like a kepi, are being set up in important rows just below the art deco Casino. By noon one of the loveliest beaches in Europe is full of children scampering through the aftermath of crashing five-foot waves, the parents in up to their waists with that easy chattiness peculiar to French resorts; young men are paddling balls at each other, busy ignoring the demi-mini-bikinis attacking with bronzed flesh from all sides.

And the surfers put on the best show of all, all day long.

“Biarritz,” says Robert Rabagny, “is now the California of France.”

Rabagny looks Californian, with the deep tan and sun-streaked hair of a lifelong surfer. He took up the sport here over thirty years ago; indeed, most Europeans under fifty know the place not for its associations with Jean Cocteau, Pierre Loti, and Charlie Chaplin, but for having the biggest surf on the continent. Rabagny, who opened the very successful Le Surfing above the beach at Côte des Basques with its view of the Spanish mountains, is the major-domo of surf hereabouts. His restaurant-bar is not just the epicenter of the new Biarritz but also a surfing museum, its walls and ceiling lined with Hawaiian shirts and fifty boards dating back to 1949.

“In the ’60s and ’70s,” an architect who comes every year told me, “Biarritz lost its allure. Spots like St. Tropez on the Côte d’Azur became the places to go. But now they’re seen as crowded, ruined, artificial. Show-off places for the new money. Biarritz is much more discreet; an important gentleman from Paris can stay anonymous here. It’s old money—and now also the young, with not much money maybe but plenty of energy. And surfboards. Plus all France is mad for anything to do with surfing; the clothes, for example. So the fashion people are here non-stop—Karl Lagerfeld keeps a villa. At the same time the luxury era that Biarritz represents, the classic lifestyle, is chic again. So it’s got both French obsessions covered.”

Not just the French. Each summer Biarritz pulls in the athletic youth of Europe who come to swim, tan, and enjoy the scene. Rabagny (who surfs here year-round) runs the Biarritz Surf Festival every July, a week-long fête which is much more than an international competition.

“It’s a meeting of cultures, a celebration of the art of following the surf lifestyle. Many older grand masters come, like Fred Hemmings, Clyde Aikau, Greg Noll, Donald Takayama. We have tandem surfing—pairs on one board. For 2000 our theme will be young surfers. In 1999 it was Surf ‘n’ Rock. My dream was always to bring the Beach Boys here—I kept in contact with Brian Wilson. But, anyway, we have groups playing Sixties rock all week. It begins with a ceremony that’s an exchange of waters. Each person brings water from his continent, it’s mixed in a big bowl with the others, from Japan, from Hawaii, from Australia, from Tahiti, from America, you see? A man carries it on horseback into the sea. It’s enormously touching to start the week this way.

“There’s a huge European youth movement for surfing. The big boom began seven or eight years ago, and expanded around many things that come out of surfing, like skateboards and body boards and windsurfing and all the rest. I started the Surf Masters competition here at la Grande Plage twenty years ago. At the moment it’s the Spanish and the Italians who are coming up fastest as surfers in Europe, but it’s really everyone—Germans, Scandinavians, English, Dutch. Everyone. You know why? Because surfing isn’t expensive, and it means freedom. Before, Biarritz was only an expensive place. Now it’s also surfing, which anyone can afford.”

These surfers who filled the beaches and the clubs and bars every night were staying in inexpensive campsites on the town’s outskirts, or sleeping in vans. No wonder so much of the music in clubs was thirty years old. In many ways the young crowd here were seeking an innocent ’60s lifestyle. They only enlarged the spirit of the place; Biarritz still looked swank.

One morning on the beach by the Casino I watched a surf school get underway—for kids aged seven to twelve. In wet suits, they carried the short yellow and blue and red boards down to the water’s edge, laid them in the sand, and practiced getting smoothly upright from their bellies to their feet.

Along the casino’s esplanade a skateboarder was getting going, too.

I asked Patrice, the surfing school director, about the relation. At the airport the arriving skateboarders had seemed a parody of the blond guys dragging their big boards. He said, “Sure, there’s the whole similar problem of balance. But waves move, that’s what makes it so difficult! A sidewalk doesn’t move.”

I wondered whether there was any point in someone in his forties starting to surf. It turned out he’d started “late, at fourteen.” I personally didn’t feel ready to try what those eight-year-olds were eager for. He shrugged. “Maybe the inspiration is harder as you age. You won’t become a champion. But can you learn well, and enjoy it? Absolutely.”

Another who started late—at sixteen—was Emmanuelle Joly. Born in Biarritz, a long-legged, confident blonde, at twenty-eight she’s been French national champion twice and European champion twice. She’s also the only woman surfer in France who earns her living from the sport, and the only French surfer of either sex to ascend to the top circuit of professionals.

“Every year there are more and more surfers in Biarritz, more and more foreigners,” she says. “In France the mentality is different than somewhere like Hawaii. Here’s it’s not even considered a sport yet. But that’s changing. The young ones coming after us are very strong. Now there’s a whole generation of surfer parents. Our parents, in general, were afraid of the sea: we had to start ourselves. But to ride the waves, from the very beginning, for me was wonderful.”

Surfing was brought to Biarritz (and Europe) by an American screenwriter and director, Peter Viertel, at work here filming The Sun Also Rises in 1957. He saw the waves, missed California, and had someone make him a board. A group of a dozen or so locals who saw him took it up with evangelistic enthusiasm, calling themselves Les Tontons Surfeurs—“The Surf Daddies.” Half are still alive. I watched one, Claude Durcudoy, out on his long board at Côte des Basques, his white hair evident from a distance. For him the changes in the sport were not necessarily improvements—back then, he said, it was more about a group of friends. Now, with short boards, surfing was “more individualist, more competitive, more aggressive.” But like the young zooming beside him across the curling lips of the waves, he stayed out there for hours.

Viertel had changed the history of Biarritz. An ex-fishing port, it has in many ways been an invention of foreigners since the mid-19th century. When Eugénie, the Spanish wife of Napoleon III, fell in love with its echoes of her childhood, he built his princess an imperial vacation palace in 1855. Due to her, a resort of high architectural beauty grew up. Wealthy English and Russians (as well as the French haute société) came in droves. Biarritz still remains an Anglophile town, with avenues named for Queen Victoria and Edward VII.

The emblems of grand Biarritz were easy to find. There was a Russian Orthodox church, L’Église Alexandre Nevsky, with an exquisite blue dome (1892), and Arosteguy, the sumptuous “Grande Épicerie de Biarritz” from 1875. I took breakfast daily at a belle-époque pâtisserie, the Miremont, in a salon tiled with mirrors, and its blue-mosaic ’30s equivalent, the Café de la Grande Plage, right on the beach. The monumental art deco Casino and its large theater were recently restored, though only the outside is original. Its atrium of slot machines is always crowded, but not the sleek, smaller, faux-marble salon des jeux with its few roulette wheels and vingt-et-un tables.

Très triste,” said a casino employee. “Very sad. But the slots bring in far more money, these days.”

And the town itself is a remarkably lucky situation of architectural preservation, now officially protected. A good deal of Biarritz was either built between 1860 and 1930 or looks like it was—tall shutters and balconies, carved stone heads and angular domes, an austere elegance amid palm trees.

Presiding over all that past is the Hôtel du Palais, built in 1905 on the site of the original imperial palace. It is a wonderful vanity to sit, borne by the inspiration of a couple of gin fizzes, beneath the eminent gaze of Napoleon III and the Princess Eugénie in the rotunda dining salon, amid the gleaming chandeliers hung like brilliant earrings, the urns of ferns and flowers, the gilded moldings, the elaborate candelabras on each table reflecting the room’s ghosts in enormous windows atop the background of unfurling surf. The Palais is a changeless image of wealthy France: stodgy, imperial, lavish, theatrical, and proper, its dining salon one of France’s most eminent. It was there I heard a father lean over to his son, brooding with distaste over a plate of peculiar crustaceans, and say, “Look, go ahead and try some. It’s just like escargots.”

The adjoining bar was also a good place to observe that French trademark, the romantic couple of different generations, each splendidly enjoying a contradictory sense of power. If you stay late you can watch the white-coated, epauletted waiters setting the tables for tomorrow’s breakfast after the other diners have gone, talking and joking through their gavotte of preparations, the white tablecloths levitating in their hands and billowing.

A lot of foreign sports enthusiasts were here to surf or watch surfers. For me an equal lure was cesta-punta, the Basque sport which many Americans know as jai-alai and which makes other team ball sports look timid. I had the good fortune to catch the finals of the world professional championships, for the sport is a uniquely Basque obsession. About two thousand spectators filled the town’s main fronton; I got a good seat the evening of the finals and sat transfixed by the fastest ball game on earth. Every Biarrot I spoke to had told me with delight, “You’ll love it, it’s so beautiful.” They didn’t say what a thrilling match it’d be, or even mention the rigorous athleticism. It was the beauty they noticed.

The Basques have several versions of the sport, using bare hands or a wooden racquet. The most spectacular uses a hard heavy ball slightly smaller than a tennis ball, and a cistera: the long woven basket, curved like an eagle’s beak, that turns a man’s right arm into a hyper-extended claw twice its normal length. A leather glove secures it, wound with a white bandage. Teams are two players, one forward, one back. Each team wears either red or white shirts, and always white helmets and chin guards, trousers, sneakers, and often elbow pads. They play on a hardwood court fifty-four meters long and about as wide as a tennis court, with three very high walls. A netting like a sheer veil separates the crowd from the court, making the fourth side.

The players neither walk nor look like athletes, yet they launch themselves impossibly through the air to snag the ball, landing in a crouch while spinning around so that, creating a nearly 360-degree arc with the woven claw, they can hurl the excitable ball from their basket at two hundred miles an hour so it caroms hard off the front wall, hugs the entire side wall, bounces off the back, then rebounds the entire length of the court toward the opposing player positioned up front. A point may go on for twenty such exchanges, team to team, as the crowd murmurs and gasps in French, Basque, and Spanish, and finally erupts at a death-defying save or a nasty-angled kill.

“The objective,” said the older man sitting next to me, who wiped his glasses after every other point, “is to put the ball as far back as possible. Because if we leave out a possibility of error—these men do not make many accidents or errors—they win most of their points up close, eh?”

He meant the putaways near the front wall, where they could achieve a double carom that bounced very low, then veered wildly and unplayably to the side. The sport was all anticipation and concentrated calm, for in the most furious point usually only one player out of four was moving at any moment. There was also a suitably ancient aspect to this sport invented by the people with the oldest language in Europe. Sometimes the men seemed like versions of Icarus, flying and falling, tumbling and hurling, but always getting up to fly again.

It was astonishingly beautiful—the powerful sight of a man running backward, whipping his body into a long curve to throw a ball at a wall behind him which he essentially does not see until the ball has left his basket. The players ranged from seventeen to thirty-four; some were from Spain, some local, but all were Basques, come back from around the world to compete. No wonder the crowd surged with such a current of Basque pride. If anyone else wanted to try cesta-punta, God help them.

After the two players from Miami won against the two from Dania, in northern Spain, I said to my neighbor, “It’s too bad so many of the best players end up leaving, no?”

He shrugged. “They’ve played here for years and years already, every week of the year. So we know them. It’s normal they should go to the U.S. to make their careers. Because Americans bet on the game, players earn a lot more there than here. But they come back for championships like this one, and if you look, you’ll see they all have Basque names.”

The French rate the Côte Basque high for its cuisine, and I’d heard rumors of an odd, ongoing convocation of “the big names.” The small Bar St. Pierre at first seems ordinary, until you notice the period red and white formica of the tables and of the bar itself, and the 1940s cone lamps set on the walls. Most of all, on any Friday morning for the last thirteen years, around 8:30, eight of the greatest chefs in this part of France are assembled around morning coffee, having done their market work at Les Halles a few steps away.

They are sober, well-put-together men, with the wide-eyed concentration of masters who stay up too late and get up too early, who work much too hard because they know they are at the top of their game—I counted as many Michelin stars as chefs. They each sipped a single espresso, stirring and nursing it for a half-hour, trading the news.

“—and the lady was running after him like a pigeon, warbling, ‘Monsieur Bocuse! Monsieur Bocuse! Sign my book!’”

“Incredible how these scoundrels talk about those herbs, it’s like they’re selling you contraband.”

“You know what I’m talking about, no? You were cooking in Paris for a while, right?”

“Twenty-three years.”

“See that lady? You know who she was? Her husband, for a belle époque, had the most beautiful cuisine in Biarritz. A small place, I’m talking about thirty years ago. Then he had a heart attack, poof.”

I asked Christian Parra, from the Auberge de la Galupe (two stars) how long it took to be a great chef. He said, “I don’t know yet. All your life. Then your restaurant closes. And you have to be a little crazy. I went to sleep at one-thirty, I’ve been up since six. And you must love people. Your clients and your colleagues. That’s why all the chefs are invited to this bar every Friday. Anyone who wants to come can come.”

Another morning in the Bar St. Pierre I met Bob Ausnit, a retired American who lives most of each year in Biarritz, the rest in Aspen. Over a late-morning aperitif, while skimming a Spanish newspaper, he told me about his life.

“I was born here in 1936,” he said. “My mother was Spanish, my father Rumanian. We had a beautiful villa by the lighthouse, but when the war began we had to leave. I’m half-Jewish, you see. We moved to Madrid. After the war we recovered the villa without any problem, but eventually my parents split up and I went to the States, to a boarding school I hated and then to Harvard. My mother sold the house in the ’50s, which broke my heart. I wound up in the film business and began returning, and about seven years ago I moved back. The weather’s reliable—we get about two beautiful days out of three, year-round. I like to stay through Christmas. September’s my favorite month. There’s a great deal of art always going on here, between the concerts and dance and everything else. You have to realize, when I was a boy this was the top resort in Europe. Coco Chanel kept a salon of seventy seamstresses for visiting ladies. This fad of spending the hot months, the summer, on the Côte d’Azur, is a recent idea. Back then the Riviera was for the winter. You came to Biarritz to cool off in the summer, you see? But this place has remained more discreet than the Riviera, luckily.”

There is still a social whirl here, primarily Parisians who come down to their villas during summer or, if they have children, more often—in the French school system children get two weeks’ vacation after every six weeks of school, then another two months in summer. This means the population of Biarritz doubles every six weeks for about ten days, then triples in July and August to about 110,000. Golf is extremely popular with a certain crowd; within thirty miles there are ten courses, including the second oldest in Europe. In France golf is a game for only the wealthy.

The word everyone used about Biarritz was “discreet” (to distinguish it from the Riviera) and one of the most discreet couples of all were M. Pierre and Mme. Genevieve Hebey: I was fortunate to be shown their home. Somewhere near their seventies, though neither looks it, they are often in Paris, where he is an eminent business lawyer. They are also often here. Frequent house guests have included Isabelle Adjani, Jacques Chirac, Catherine Deneuve, and Karl Lagerfeld, before he bought his own villa. Likewise their friend the publisher Daniel Filipachhi, introduced to them by their old friend Max Ernst, whose works hung everywhere. . . .

Their property was in Anglet, just outside Biarritz—two spacious, traditional white-walled Basque houses that were farms a hundred fifty years ago. Now their gardens of exploding flowers and quiet passageways adjoin the Duke of Spain’s. The Hebeys have, over several decades, filled the two houses with modern art and books and an unbelievable panorama of furnishings from the great designers in Europe of, say, 1890-1930. This autumn in Paris, for example, they would be auctioning off their collection of fifty-three Ruhlmanns.

M. Hebey was clear about what kept the old Biarritz alive. “Here there are no show-offs. For retired people it’s very safe, and people do things here—sports, the beach—they don’t just consume, unlike the Côte d’Azur. Another difference: there isn’t that awful heat. You can concentrate, which helps my writing. It’s a revitalizing climate. Everyone comes to see us and is seduced by the Côte Basque. I have never grown tired of it. Five minutes from Biarritz you’re in the country. In a half hour you’re in Spain. When Franco was in charge all the Spanish drove here to gamble, or see forbidden films. We come as often as we can. Lagerfeld came to stay with us and it was raining and after two days he said, That’s it, I’m buying a property, the rain here doesn’t bother me. In Biarritz famous people are accepted, they can walk around without problems. One day the postman opened our door and saw Catherine Deneuve in the kitchen, preparing the vegetables. He nearly fainted.”

There was another kind of social scene here, too, with plenty of bars open late. One of the trendiest was Le Caveau: a beautiful brunette in a skimpy outfit greeted me at the door, wearing a tank on her back that spritzed, via an obscene tube, a drink that tasted like “banana chewing gum.” This was how a young Dutch investment banker put it. He’d been here a week, surfing in front of the Casino. Now he and his friends were heading down for “a few days of culture” to the new Guggenheim museum just over the Spanish border in Bilbao.

The bar was sleek, post-modern deco, full of a very high proportion of attractive men and women. I mentioned this and he said, Well, of course, didn’t anyone tell you it was a gay bar? Well, no. And the disco underground? Gay, too, at least mid-week; on weekends it became much more heterosexual. He wished me better luck in a different kind of bar and I moved on.

The small Ventilo Caffe, on two levels, was the most branché (literally, plugged-in) spot, so dark you could barely make out the sparse ’60s and ’70s kitsch on the walls. The music was mostly French rap, which is less aggressive than American. Many of the crowd were Parisians, under forty, drinking hard and shouting; the surfers, who look healthy even after drinking all night, were elsewhere. I ended up in a conversation with a Parisienne who designed financial software and came down here every chance she got. She had no interest in surfing; she liked the Biarritz bar scene, the food, the Basque countryside, the beaches, and especially the African bouncer.

The place where all the different social strands meet, however, is outside town. The Blue Cargo—once a serene private house—activates a cliff above the beach of Ilbarritz from lunch until deep into the night, and in the evening its two lower levels, under billowing white tents, can get eight hundred celebrants a night. French society takes pride in being seen, and this is one of Biarritz’s top choices. The house itself is not so large: a bar decorated with an old Victorian-era street lamp and a gold record, African masks and whirling deco fans. The restaurant, which is superb, is one white-walled room open to the winds, with wood benches and tables, bas-reliefs of pelota players, post-modern lamps, local pimentos dangling in dark bunches, sculptures of swimsuited surfing babes, a Thirties tourist poster of La Côte Basque, and an enormous painting of men in a seaside tug-of-war.

I ate dinner there one night and was gone by eleven. It was still quiet. Another night I arrived at two, and under a white tent on the spit of sand above that glimmering beach several hundred people were dancing or at least drinking to the Rolling Stones; grey-haired bankers from Paris, surfers from Australia, Biarrots checking out the foreign men and women. It was a simple formula: a fine sound system, a bar, the beach, the breeze, plenty of space.

I remembered then what the mayor, Didier Borotra—much responsible for permanently protecting Biarritz’s architecture—had told me. “The constant party here is truly the Basque personality. It’s spontaneous, and maybe the most important part of our lives. In many ways Biarritz is not Basque, not even French, but in that way it is very Basque. We Biarrots love to drive to Spain for a party and come back the same evening, or the next morning. What pleases me most is that this town began by living off the sea. The beach attracted people here for years. And now, because of the surf, the sea is looking after Biarritz once more.”

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