I visited France in 2007: Paris, Brittany, Bordeaux, St Etienne, Orleans…
I enjoyed all the things people told me I wouldn’t: Bad manners, arrogance, poor customer service… but good food I argued.
I enjoyed the many Parisians who wouldn’t bend in the name of the tourist buck: ‘This is Paris and you want extra Monsieur?’ Paris straight-up was just fine.
Things softened the further south I drove. Not that it bothered me. I just always figured Biarritz in the south would be the opposite of say Brittany in the north.
Bernard Hinault was from Brittany. Le Blaireau as he was affectionately christened by those in the region. That’s the Badger to you and me. He fought like one, through five Tour de France victories in a row, in the 80s.
I never heard talk of anyone equally defiant in stature from Biarritz, lots of rugby players sure, most of the team Munster beat to win their first Heineken Cup in 2006. But Le Blaireau? Non!
I didn’t make it as far as Basque country that time but pledged to return, in November? Why not?
There are a couple of different Novembers in Biarritz however. There’s the T-shirt wearing November where the sun burns with an aftertaste of summer warmth and there’s another one when the city stands quiet against the pounding of the sea; when the sky is coloured gun-barrel grey.
The swell rolled through the bay in heavy sets turning the shoreline into a Jacuzzi of white-water; all the while, heavy rain pebble-dashed the orange and red slate rooftops that climbed stair-like around the city.
An old church within a steeple-height of the storm was as good a place as any to retreat and a light a candle for better weather. It was worth a try anyway.
It wasn’t an evening for looking out the window of room number 35, Hotel Atalaye, my guest house, perched on a gradient so severe one rogue wave might have washed the concierge Gregory, the receptionist Maud and the rest of us guests away.
Look. Maybe lean is a better word. Because the room’s long window allowed for leaning out into the city, making an extra room of those slate colored roofs.
And the bright and blue of the morning was certainly made for that. People do a lot of leaning in Biarritz, out windows, against walls, around cafes where French women don’t ‘do lunch,’ they just sit about, smoke and look elegant.
Biarritz indulges the idle.
But you need those moments of respite because walking about the place raises your heart-rate way above 120 beats per minute.
From the beach at De La Cote Des Basques to Perspective de la Cote des Basques, its 160plus cloud-climbing steps and a heart thumping beat for every one.
Take your time and you are still going to stop to sit down on the low wall at the top, feet dangling, chest out, air in.
The view, well, I got that edge-of-space-feel. Miles of Blue Ocean rippled away from a shoreline. To the south, the Pyrenees, San Sebastian and Spain faded away in the distance.
Below, waves propelled by the energy of the previous night’s storm rose up and sprinted into the bay sending a mist on a climb up the cliff-face.
Earlier, Gregory had suggested hiring a bike: “The VERY best way to see Biarritz,” he said. But his recommendation came with a warning: “Remember the roads Monsieur…remember, we drive on other side, yes?
Hiring the bicycle proved the difficult part but only because I find speaking French difficult. It took a bit of pointing, some form-filling, tyre-pumping and saddle fixing. Then it was downhill past the Villa Belza, standing on the pedals and cutting through a sea-breeze that would water the driest of eyes.
Pit-stops. Biarritz felt like one big coffee stop, full of caffeine hits coloured pearl black and served in white bowl-like cups. The scent of coffee was nearly always accompanied by a bakery smell that fills windows with chocolates and pastries.
Starbucks. Non. Costa. Neverrrrrrr. If there commercial presence exists in Biarritz, then I failed to see the gaudy greens and reds which colour their signage.
‘Miremont, founded in 1872.’ Now that was a coffee house to chain a bike to. Inside, a floor to ceiling window opened up a panoramic view of the ocean.
There was no abrupt service style here, only lazy service that lapped about the place like the sea.
It was just so in Hotel Atalaye too, the guest house with an elevator made for two, but with a warning to carry no more than four.
“They would attempt more in the summer said Maud waggling her finger. “The Hotel is always full then and busy with the English.”
There weren’t many English voices in Biarritz in November. The most recognisable was Sam Fox, former Page 3 model, on French TV, singing: ‘Nothing’s going to Stop me now’…and I don’t want to talk it oooover, because…’
The best of the 80s? Debatable. That’s what the programme was called – my French and powers of deduction had improved by day four and so had the weather. The thermometer touched 20 degrees and the afternoon sun spilled in the window from the roof-coloured-leaning-room outside.
Even all that black coffee couldn’t ally the allure of sleep. Siesta time then! Well, I was close enough to Spain to get away with it.
Ryanair run daily flights from Stansted and there are four flights a week direct from Dublin. Flying time from London is just under 80-minutes.
Log on to Budget car hire before you leave http://www.budget.co.uk
Where to stay?
If you only plan to use your hotel just for sleeping then best to avail of one of the many guest-houses Biarritz has to offer. Hotel Atalaye was quiet, welcoming, clean and simple with great coffee for breakfast and plenty of rooms with beautiful views. Out of season a double room with en-suite will cost about £50 a night, rising to £62 during peak season.
Where to eat?
When on the move it is hard to beat mashing together crusty bread and soft cheese, for Pit-stops just follow the scent of coffee and in the evening try Restaurant Tikia Sarl Trokouts, 1 Place St Eugenie, the wine is great, the food French in style but with Spanish-sized-portions.
How to get around?
The city is small enough to explore on foot but be prepared to lean into a few hills. Bicycle is best but like Gregory said: “Remember the roads!”
What to do?
Drink coffee, take in the views, relax, sleep, lean about the place, eat good food, take an official tour of the city. Biarritz is a Basque retreat out of season and a party town when the season is high. It is also very safe.