Thursday, 8 September 2016


The Lighthouse (Le Phare)

We arrived in Biarritz last night and succeeded in finding an excellent fish restaurant on the small quai of the Port des Pecheurs. Today's mission was to have a proper look around and as we are staying out near the lighthouse, we are starting our walk there. Unfortunately, it was rather grey on this day, so I re-shot many of the photos later in the week. A seaside resort is always going to look better with blue sky and sea and sunshine!

The lighthouse is a splendid sight on its promontory. It was built in 1834. It stands 73 meters above sea level overlooking Cape Hainsart (so called because of the oak trees which surrounded it in the past, now replaced by tamarisks). The lighthouse marks the boundary between the sandy Landes coast and the rocky coast of the Pays Basque.

It was possible, by clambering onto a wall, to get an immediate overview of the city and its beaches. Some characteristic wispy Tamarisk trees can be seen in the foreground.

We headed down the road and could quickly see that there are a large number of large and impressive houses. I was especially take by this one, Rocher Ronde.

We turned right down a narrow passage that led to the back of the Plage Miramar. Our first view of the sea was, appropriately enough the actual Rocher Ronde.

When we reached the Hotel Palais, the Plage Miramar gave way to the Grand Plage. The Hotel Palais was built in 1855 by the Emperor Napoleon III as a summer residence for his wife Eugenie - he had bought a plot of 50 acres in what was then a fishing village. Eugénie de Montiji, as she is known in France, was the daughter of Spanish nobleman and part of the attraction of Biarritz was its proximity to Spain. The palace was rebuilt on a larger scale after a fire in 1903. It is a big, but rather formless, structure with little or no discernible architectural merit.

The Grand Plage is dominated by the imposing art deco Casino Municipal (1929 by the architect Alfred Laulhéwith), the Piscine Publique occupying a separate wing out of shot to the left. It was renovated in the 1990s.

There is not much decorative detail, but I rather liked a couple of panels with diamond patterns at either end of the facade.

Continuing along the coast we passed the pretty rocky island of Bellevue, connected to the mainland by a narrow bridge. The vast white Belle Epoque building of the same name can be glimpsed on the right.

We paused at the Port des Pecheurs for some lovely grilled sardines and climbed a steep path to a high viewpoint offering a fine perspective over the two main beaches. Looking ahead there was another rocky islet connected by a bridge - the Rocher de la Vierge. We later discovered that the figure of the Virgin, erected in 1865, is now illuminated at night. Perhaps a bit tacky?

We followed the path down to reach the front of the impressive art deco Museé de la Mer (the Aquarium). It was opened in 1933, renovated in 1992 and extended 2009-11.

A closer look reveals that the emblem on the main facade depicts men in a rowing boat trying to harpoon a whale. The whale doesn't look too bothered.

It turns out that the Basques were among the first to hunt whales and Basque whaling peaked in the late 16th and early 17th centuries - the decline thereafter was basically because almost all the Right and Bowhead whales which they hunted had been killed. 

Now we continued past the pretty beach of the Porte Vieux. And in fact this was once the place where
caught whales were cut up.

Round the corner was the extensive Plage de las Cotes des Basques. This was where surfing was introduced into France in the 1950s and it remains one of the premier sites for it. Although the weather wasn't great, there were still plenty of people in the sea, perhaps mostly learners.

We climbed a steep and zig-zagging path to the clifftop and into the town to find our way past the Market, Les Halles, with its classic French market buildings and into the town centre.

Now we headed back towards the start, inland but parallel to the sea on our left. The main thing we wanted to see was the Imperial Chapel. It was built on the imperial domain in Biarritz by the architect Boeswillwald in 1865, at the imperial request of Empress Eugénie.

From the outside, you see a simple neo-Romanesque chapel ...

 .... albeit with some beautiful tile decoration especially around the apse.

Inside, it is an exquisite riot of colour with Moorish and Byzantine elements jostling with each other.

This is a detail of one of the side columns (all have different designs on the capitals).

When we finally drew ourselves away there was just one more thing to see: the Russian Orthodox church. This was constructed in 1890-92. Compared to the Russian Orthodox cathedral, also dedicated to Alexander Nevski, that we recently saw in Tallinn, it is remarkably restrained.

A short walk up the hill bought us back to the start.

Conditions: cloudy on the original walk, sunny two days later.

Distance: about 3.5 miles.

Rating: five stars. Wonderfully interesting coastline and some great buildings.

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