Site banner

Bret very kindly drove me to Finsbury Park to catch the bus to Stansted Airport. I wondered what happened to people who didn’t arrive early because we left the stop seven minutes before the departure time! And this was London, not Switzerland where I noticed that the trains and buses are precisely on time or even a little early.

After everything I’ve heard about RYAN Air I confess to feeling a bit daunted and was almost expecting to have some official or another find fault with something. Too heavy, dimensions too large, etc. But fortunately my large suitcase was only point seven of a kilogram too heavy and a blind eye was turned. And my cabin bag, which I’d bought the day before because I was sure that the one I always use would be too deep, passed through without difficulty.

The flight itself was very different from what I’m used to, however. The hostesses were very helpful but there were continual announcements about this or that ‘special offer’ and it felt a bit like a ‘happy campers’ outing. But the airline prides itself on being on time and we did arrive exactly on time.

Biarritz didn’t seem to be any warmer than the London I’d left behind. I hired a lovely taxi driver who told me that the temperature the day before was the highest for the whole of France – 32 degrees. What a pity it didn’t stay hot. The sun was shining but the wind was very cold and that was my experience for the next few days. Despite the weather, we had an easy trip from the airport and he found the apartment block without any trouble. I found out fairly soon that ‘my’ apartment was the one at the very top on the left.

Sabine and Simon, my lovely French friends who’d lent me their apartment, had arranged for their neighbour to be ‘at home’ when I arrived. I duly knocked on his door and he proved a marvellous guide. He unlocked their front door, turned on the power switch and showed me how everything worked. What a relief.

And what a view! Biarritz lies in the Bay of Biscay and is popular with surfers. The surfing beach is to the south of the city and from the eighth-floor apartment, I have an excellent view of it. I can also easily see Spain to the south, just 18 km away.

The apartment is big! The view of the ocean can be seen from the whole length of the apartment from the big double bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen and the lounge/dining room. And in the two large rooms at each end, there are three floor to ceiling ranch sliders which makes it all very light and airy.

The sitting room is very large and has a huge sofa which can double as an extra double bed for visitors. There’s also a very large dining table where I can do all my work. The main purpose of this visit is to accomplish as much as I possibly can on my new book ‘It’s your questions that count’ – ‘How to use your questions to transform your relationships’. But in this environment, I can see that I could be easily distracted!

It’s great to take a shower with the window open and a view like this, especially as no-one can see in!

Average temperatures for May and June are only between 18-20 degrees but there can be the odd hot day. I read that the ‘rainfall isn’t significant but there could be the odd rainy day’. Well, I must have struck Biarritz on the odd rainy day. But actually it went on for four days and, coupled with an icy wind, it was freezing. I’d only brought one change of ‘warm’ clothes so didn’t dare go outside in the pouring rain for fear of getting my only warm clothes wet! But, from the point of view of writing, it was excellent to be house-bound.

Transport-wise, the town is well served. It’s easily accessible from Paris by France’s high-speed TGV and more regionally from Bordeaux by TGV or TER. Trains also travel east towards Nice. The train station is about 4km south-east of the city, about the same distance as the airport which is almost due east.

The airport is served by airlines from within France, from the UK, Spain and Germany.

My first morning was a Sunday and I went for a stroll with the goal of finding somewhere where I could connect to the internet every day. Not far from the apartment, I found the Radisson Blu Hotel on Avenue Beaurivage. I’d recommend this Hotel to anyone. The service I was offered was second to none. It’s only a block from the ocean and close to the Centre Ville.

I spoke first of all to a lovely man on reception – Laurent.

He immediately agreed that the Hotel would agree to let me connect every day in return for a cup of coffee. What a relief! And as the days went by he was unfailingly kind in response to all my questions. It was he who explained where I could watch a match of Le Basque Pelote (more of that later) and he explained the basic rules of the game.

Coffee came in different shapes and sizes depending on whichever person was serving me. But Jean-Paul always gave me a whole pot of coffee, a pot of hot water and a jug of milk because I think he knew how long I’d be sitting there, and one cup of coffee wasn’t going to last very long! And besides that, he loved to try out his English while I experimented with my French so we had lots of laughs.

And so it was that I installed myself every day in the same place with an electric socket, a table, my coffee and my netpad. And as well as downloading emails and responding to those, I was able to access the net and research some of the things I was doing and also, some days, Skype – which was really excellent.

Shops in France close at mid-day on Sundays, if they open at all, so on that first day I stocked up with essentials and went home to set myself up for the month ahead. The sun blazed down in the afternoon but the wind off the sea was very cold and a bit strong so I didn’t venture out onto the balcony or open the French windows.

Monday was a working day which meant that Corinne, the receptionist in ‘The Chateau’, which is part of the apartment complex, would be at her desk. Not only did she give me very helpful advice, but so did some of the residents who were also in Reception at the same time. It was a very jolly gathering in a stunning work environment.

I thought it would be a good day to start exploring the town. The architecture of Biarritz is very different from what I’ve experienced in the rest of France – very traditionally ‘Basque’, different in some ways from other areas of France, and very beautiful.

Although the sky looks very blue, the wind was still bitterly cold. The sun rises at about 7.15 and sets at about 9.30 with beautiful sunsets over the Atlantic. But I haven’t felt its warmth yet.

Biarritz (a Basque name) is in the traditional province of Labourd in the French Basque Country and Basque flags and symbols can be seen from time to time. It falls into the Aquitaine region of France, adjacent to Bayonne and Anglet.

Biarritz made its fortune from the sea as a whaling settlement from the 12th Century onwards. From the 18th Century, however, doctors recommended that the ocean at Biarritz had therapeutic properties. This inspired patients to make pilgrimages to the beach for alleged cures for their ailments! However, it became even more famous in 1854 when Napoleon III built Villa Eugénie on the beach in the mid-19th Century for his wife, Empress Eugénie. This is the town’s most enduring landmark. It was originally dubbed ‘Eugénie’s Basque folly’ but is now the elegant Hôtel du Palais. It is built in the shape of a letter E in honour of the Empress.

The British royal family regularly took their holidays in Biarritz and Queen Victoria and Edward VII were frequent visitors as well as Alfonso XIII of Spain.

As I’d walked this far, I decided that it would be rather special to have afternoon tea in the Hôtel. Braving the rather fierce guard at the gate who challenged me because he thought I was just going in to take photos, I made my way up to the entrance where non-residents can enjoy some of the food and drink the Hôtel has to offer.

The Hôtel has three restaurants including the Michelin Star Villa Eugénie. I was seated close to this restaurant where guests can sit and enjoy their meals overlooking the ocean.

A simple cup of coffee set me back €6.50 but, given the stunning surroundings and the ambience generally, it was worth every centime.

The period furnishings are original and all the air-conditioned rooms and suites have magnificent views. I thought it was a bit sad to discover that all the rooms have flat-screen TVs with satellite channels and free Wi-Fi access. I’d have imagined that if you could afford to stay there, you’d want to spend every moment experiencing what it had to offer rather than being glued to a television or the internet.

I couldn’t explore much because it really wouldn’t have been a good look, but I understand that the luxury 5-star Hôtel has two large pools and a spa and fitness centre with hot tub and massage treatments.

The view from the balcony outside where I had my coffee, overlooking the swimming pool and the Grande Plage with the Port des Pêcheurs in the background, is really exceptional.

Leaving the Hôtel behind me I walked along beside the Grande Plage, reminiscent of every Mediterranean beach I’ve ever been to. It was littered with people sunbathing, swimming, playing or surfing. Goodness knows what it would be like in the high season. I was very glad that I was visiting when it wasn’t quite so busy.

Although I’d walked round much of the town by this time I thought it would be a good idea to take a trip on Le Petit Train so that I could get my bearings and a sense of what I wanted to explore in more detail. Asking the driver where he would like me to sit I was totally charmed when he asked me if I’d like my commentary in French. Assuring him that I’d better have it in English to make sure I understood the finer points of the commentary, he expressed the normal, charming Gallic surprise and showed me to the rear of the train where he said the acoustics would be good.

It was a delightful trip and although the commentary broke up now and then, there was enough information to enable me to confirm where I wanted to explore in the days ahead.

Back at the terminal, the driver was kind enough to take a photo of me holding the Basque flag as I’d shown a particular interest in it. The flag was designed in 1894 to represent the province of Biscay in a set of one flag for each of the seven Basque provinces and one for the whole country. However, only the Biscayne flag was publicly recognised and in 1933 it was proposed as the flag for the whole of the Basque country. The regime of General Franco prohibited it in 1938 and it became a symbol of defiance.

During the Spanish transition to democracy, it was legalized in 1977. It has remained as an unofficial flag for some sectors of Basque society in the rest of the provinces.

Meandering back towards the centre of Biarritz, Place Georges Clémenceau, I passed the Casino which lies at the southern end of the Grande Plage.

The Casino opened on 10 August 1901 and this and the beaches make the town a notable tourist centre for Europeans and East Coast North Americans. Venturing inside isn’t high on my list of priorities so I may have to make do with photos on the internet.

After all the walking and enjoyment of many of the special places Biarritz has to offer, I decided it was time to walk home and leave some of the other many attractions for another day.

So the next day I paid a visit to the Église St-Alexandre Nevsky which is also known as the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s actually located across from the Hôtel du Palais on the opposite side of Avenue Edouard VII. I’d tried to visit it the day before but it’s only open on a Thursday afternoon.

This Byzantine-Russian landmark was built in 1892 for the large numbers of Russian nobility who took their holidays in Biarritz in the 19th Century. It’s claimed to be the first Orthodox Church in the French Basque region. It’s famous for its gilded dome, the interior of which is the colour of a blue sky on a sunny day.

It was in the 19th Century that the Russian aristocracy discovered the positive effects of the mild climate of this area. An Orthodox church was built in the city of Pau in 1867, the third in France after Nice 1860 and Paris 1961. The presence of Napoleon and Eugénie, who used to stay for several months from 1864, attracted people from all over Europe. The Russian presence in Biarritz soon increased to an important level, especially between September and November, the so-called ‘Russian season’.

However, after the Emperor’s abdication and exile in 1870, the French government refused the idea of a new church in Biarritz. When the former imperial palace was sold and transformed into a Hôtel, an Orthodox chapel was installed in one of the rooms and consecrated in 1887. However, this chapel soon proved to be too small for the increasing Russian community. Thanks to the intervention of Tsar Alexander III they bought the ground opposite the Hôtel and started the construction of an Orthodox church which was inaugurated in 1892 in the presence of the Russian Imperial Family. It is difficult these days to keep the building restored. The last restoration in 1984 was realised thanks to subscriptions and donations from all over the world, including from Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Inside, the sanctuary is separated from the nave by the iconostasis. Only priests and acolytes serving in the sanctuary enter this ‘most holy place’.

On the right side of the Royal Doors is an icon of Christ the Saviour, on the opposite side one of the Mother of God with her child.

The two side doors show the archangels Gabriel and Michael. Alongside the right door there is an icon of the patron saint of the church (Alexander Nevsky) and on the opposite panel, Saint Nicholas, highly venerated by Orthodox Christians.

I was glad that I’d come back to see inside. It’s a peaceful and beautiful place.

Friday and Saturday dawned cold and wet and I thought that would put paid to a visit to the Chapelle Imperiale which is only open on a Saturday afternoon.

Having just about given up hope of the rain easing, there was a break at 2.30 and I set off for a brisk walk downtown to visit the Chapelle, wrapped up really warmly against the very inclement weather.

The gates were open and I found this little building,

To one side was a small garden with a bust of the Empress.

The plaque below reads, ‘She had this chapel built and dedicated to Notre-Dame of Guadalupe on 16 September 1865’.

Unlike at the Russian Orthodox Church, no photos are allowed inside the Chapelle which is a real shame because it’s very beautiful. However, before I was told this I did get one photo which will save you from having to race off to the internet to see what it looks like.

It has an intricately decorated roof interior and the wall tiling is very elegant. One tile which appears consistently along all the walls at about eye level has an intertwined N and E.

The Imperial Chapel was built in 1864 at the request of Empress Eugénie de Montijo and was listed as an historical monument in 1981. The Chapel is a ‘harmonious combination of Romanesque, Byzantine and Hispano-Moorish styles’ and, as it said on the statue outside, was dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Black Madonna of Mexico.

By the time I’d visited both the Hôtel du Palais and the Chapelle Imperiale, I’d become very interested in the history of Napoleon III and his Empress so decided to do some research. It’s fascinating! If you’re not interested in history, skip this bit!

Naploéon III and Empress Eugénie
As I’ve mentioned before, Biarritz began its life as a small fishing village mostly for the purpose of catching whales. It soon came to the notice of Napoleon III and in 1854 he bought twenty acres of land on which be built Villa Eugénie which later became Hôtel du Palais as we now know.

Eugénie was born in Granada in Spain in 1926. She had a title of her own as 16th Countess of Teba and 15th Marquise of Ardales. She was Empress from 1853-1871. Most echelons of the French Empire regarded the marriage as a humiliation. But they married, and their only son, and heir-apparent, Napoléon Eugène Louis Jean Joseph Bonaparte was born in 1856 and became the Prince Impérial. Unfortunately, Napoléon III had a reputation as a womanizer and had many mistresses. His affairs were not trivial sideshows. They distracted him from governing, affected his relationship with the Empress, and diminished him in the view of the other European courts. It didn’t take long for him to stray after the marriage as Eugénie found sex with him ‘disgusting’. It’s doubtful that she allowed further approaches by her husband once she had given him an heir. In fact, he suffered from numerous medical ailments by the time he reached his late forties. He had kidney disease, bladder stones, chronic bladder and prostate infections, arthritis, gout, obesity and the effects of chronic smoking. All in all, perhaps not a very attractive proposition to the many women in his life.

As Eugénie was educated and very intelligent, her husband usually consulted her on important questions and she acted as Regent during his absences. Then the Second Empire was overthrown after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-1871, and the Empress and her husband took refuge in England where she continued to live after his death in 1873. They settled at Chislehurst in Kent until after Napoléon’s death in 1873 and that of their son in 1879, fighting in the Zulu War in South Africa. Eugénie moved in 1885 to Farnborough in Hampshire and to her villa in the South of France where she lived in retirement. Her house in Farnborough is now an independent Roman Catholic girls’ school, Farnborough Hill. When her health began to deteriorate her doctor recommended that she visit Bournemouth which was famed as a health spa resort at the time. During her visit in 1896, a groundskeeper lit hundreds of little tea candles in the municipal Bournemouth Gardens to light her way to the sea at night. This event is still commemorated in the same gardens every September in an elaborate public display, set to music, of both static and floating lighted candles.

The former Empress died in Madrid in 1920 at the age of 94 during a visit to her relatives in her native Spain. She’s buried in the Imperial Crypt at St Michael’s Abbey in Farnborough with her husband and son. Her deposed family’s friendly association with the United Kingdom was commemorated in 1887 when she became the godmother of Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg (1887-1969), daughter of Princess Beatrice who later became Queen consort of Alfonso XIII of Spain. The baptism was an early example of church unity as Victoria Eugenie was baptized in the protestant Church of Scotland.

To this day, Napoléon III lacks the favourable historical reputation that Napoléon I enjoyed. Victor Huge portrayed him as ‘Napoleon the Small’, a mere mediocrity in contrast with Napoléon I ‘The Great’ who was presented as a military and administrative genius. But historians have emphasised his attention to the fate of the working classes and poor people. He ruled as Emperor of the French from 1848 until 1870 but not without some problems. Between 1838 and 1839, Louis-Napoléon stayed at No. 6 Clarendon Square, Royal Leamington Spa. The building is now called Napoleon House and sports a Blue plaque on the outside. His Empire is said to have been the first regime in France to give priority to economic objectives. It has also been cited as one of the few in French history to make a concerted effort towards breaking down trade barriers. 

Domestically, his reign saw a major period of industrialisation for the French economy and he oversaw a major renovation of Paris which created the outline of the city as it is today. His main reason to transform Paris was his desire to modernize the city based on what he had seen of the modernisations of London during his exile in the 1840s when he lived in Chislehurst. The rebuilding of Paris turned it into the city of broad tree-lined boulevards and parks, so beloved of tourists today. He continued to seek the preservation of numerous mediaeval buildings in France which had been left disregarded since the French revolution. Many buildings were saved, including some of the most famous in France, Notre Dame Cathedral, Mont Saint-Michel, and Carcassonne, among others. In fact, the economy, the second largest in the world at the time (behind the United Kingdom) experienced very strong growth. Names such as steel tycoon Eugène Schneider or banking mogul James de Rothschild are symbols of the period. Two of France’s largest banks, Société Générale and Crédit Lyonnais were founded during this period and still exist today. And between 1859 and 1869, a French company built the Suez Canal, opening a new chapter in global transportation and trade.

But in 1870 he made a serious misjudgement during the Franco-Prussian War and took personal command of the army, which was poorly organised. He was trapped and captured on 2 September 1870, following the Battle of Sedan. In Paris, two days later, he was deposed by the forces of the newly formed Third Republic. The War proved disastrous for France but was instrumental in giving birth to the German Empire which would take France’s place as the major land power in continental Western Europe until the end of World War I. After six months as a prisoner in Germany, Napoléon spent the last few years of his life in exile in England with Eugénie and their only son. The family lived at Camden Place in Chislehurst in Kent where he died on 9 January 1873 during surgery for a bladder stone. An autopsy showed he also had fatal kidney disease. He was haunted to the end by bitter regrets and by painful memories of the battle at which he had lost everything.

He was originally buried at St Mary’s, the Catholic Church in Chislehurst. However, after the death of his son fighting in the British Army against the Zulus in South Africa in 1879, the bereaved Eugénie decided to build a monastery. The purpose of the building was to house monks driven out of France by the anti-clerical laws of the Third Republic and would also provide a suitable resting place for her husband and son. Thus it was in 1888 that the body of Napoléon III and that of his son were moved to the Imperial Crypt at St Michael’s Abbey, Farnborough, Hampshire. Eugénie died many years later, in 1920, and rests in the same Abbey. The caskets can be viewed by visitors to the Abbey during public tours. It was reported in 2007 that the French Government was seeking the return of his remains to be buried in France, but this is opposed by the monks of the Abbey.

After several days holed up in my apartment, the weather finally showed some improvement but it was still cloudy and chilly – a good day to visit a museum. So off I set again on my travels around the town. The Asiatica Museum houses a significant collection of Asian art, primarily from India, Nepal, Burma, Tibet and China. This was a very worthwhile visit. Musée Asiatica sets out to transport one to a distant region, to know their culture, their religions, their masterpieces, their craftsmanship and, at every stage, their history, their styles of painting and sculptures. It was certainly an enriching experience. A number of times the audio guide let me know that something I was looking at was the only one of its kind in the entire world. That, in itself, was humbling. The Museum deals specifically with the cultures of the orient, particularly those of India, China and Tibet. There are information cards on all these countries and the works of art that characterize them. But there are also audio guides available in English and French and I was thrilled with the English one. The two guides told fabulous stories from their fount of knowledge and spoke in gentle, melodic voices with beautiful oriental music playing in the background. The exhibits from China include jades of all periods, ivories, bronzes and porcelains. Those from Tibet illustrate the lamas, the wrathful deities, the mandala and the celestial guardians. The great beauty of the works of art from Nepal is reflected in the many gilt bronzes and ritual objects. Exploring the Himalayan regions and eastern India, one finds exquisite sculptures in diorite which comes from the temples of the 9th and 10th Centuries. The collection also includes the ‘mohra-faces’ of divinities which resemble masks. This collection of Mohra at Asiatica is apparently unique in the world. The provinces of India are presented in a long gallery downstairs where an atmosphere has been created so that one can sense that one is approaching the sacred space where the gods await in the dark the arrival and offerings of the pilgrims. Here and there one can get to know the deities, some of them masterpieces of mediaeval religious art and study mythology, iconography and their place in time and space.

Taking photos was acceptable but I didn’t want to use my flash and the lighting wasn’t always quite good enough to get a really good photo. Some of the items on display are quite amazing, like this engraved elephant tusk. If you look from the side, you can see down the whole tusk. It was breathtaking workmanship.

Some of the intricate carvings with wood were equally amazing. Here is a lintel that would have been over a door in a Hindu middle-class home.

And this is a panel from a chariot. It shows the mischievous side of Krishna. He has climbed a tree with the saris of the ‘gopis’ who are bathing below. They’re cold and they want their saris back.

Krishna is the central figure of Hinduism. He’s described variously as an infant or young boy playing a flute, or of a youthful prince giving direction and guidance. Stories about him appear across a broad spectrum of Hindu philosophical and theological traditions. He’s portrayed in various perspectives, a god-child, a prankster, a model lover, a divine hero and the Supreme Being.

He’s usually shown standing with one leg bent in front of the other, raising a flute to his lips. And he’s often accompanied by cows, emphasising his position as the divine herdsman, or with gopis (milkmaids) with whom he spent much of his childhood.

And this carving shows the wheel of a chariot, 2.7m in diameter with the carved chariot itself behind.

One room was devoted to paintings, textiles, handicrafts and jewellery where it’s possible to admire the specialized techniques of the artists and craftsmen of India.

Having already spent a whole afternoon in a Museum (because the weather was still awful) I decided to spend the evening watching a match of Le Basque Pelotte. I’d sussed out the venue on the way back from the museum and found that it was only a stone’s throw from the apartment. I’d also seen some people practising so had some idea of what they were trying to do. But I had absolutely no idea how they were going to score!

The match started at 9.00 pm – late perhaps by New Zealand standards. There was still plenty of daylight left when the game started but it was dark at the end when I walked home. It was such a good experience that I shall have to go again! It’s a sport typical of the Basque area. Its roots can be traced to the Greek and other ancient cultures but in Europe they all derive from tennis. Today it’s played in several countries, centred in Spain and France in Europe but also in Latin America and parts of the US. World Championships take place from time to time and the current medal count from 1952-2010 places France ahead on gold medals but trailing Spain on overall medals. Mexico comes third with Argentina fourth with other countries lagging further behind.

The origin of the sport is tied to the decline of the ancient ‘jeu de paume/palm (jeu de paume au gant/glove)’ in about 1700. While the game evolved to the modern ‘jeu de paume’ (with racquet, called real tennis in England) and eventually to tennis itself, rural alpine and Pyrenean communities kept the old tradition. And here was another link to Napoléon – according to one historian, the first matches took place in Napoleonic times.

In the Basque country, local versions of the ‘paume’ evolved into the peculiar style of Pelote. Instead of playing face to face with a net in the midfield, the Basques began to fling the ball against a wall! And ‘fling’ is the operative word! The Pelote craze began in the mid-19th Century. In 1850 the ‘Chistéra’ was introduced. This is a basket-shaped racquet which can propel the ball at incredible speeds. The players use it to catch the rubber ball and propel it back against the main wall. The Basque Government claims that it’s the ‘fastest game on earth’, the record being 302km/h in Rhode Island in 1979! In fact, Basque Pelota was a feature of the 1990 summer Olympics! 

Our Basque Pelote match was played in the open-air. I paced out the length of the court because I couldn’t find the dimensions on the net. It’s roughly 100m long by my estimate.

That’s long when you consider that players are actually ‘throwing’ the ball. The little figure you can see in the distance is a boy who’s about my shoulder height. That’ll give you some idea of the distances. And the wall itself is pretty high.

Using the Chistera attached to the end of their arm, players hurl the little ball at the front wall. This guy is about to hurl the ball, backhanded, towards the front wall which is behind him!

The game is played with different rules for different age groups. Basically, it has very much the same rules as in tennis except that if the ball hits the sidelines it’s out. A team scores one point by playing the ball so that it rebounds off the front wall in such a way that the opposing team can’t play it back before it has hit the ground more than once, or by playing the ball in such a way that it rebounds off the front wall and hits the ground outside the playing area. Balls hitting the front wall either below the low line or above the high line are out. And points are lost if a player hits the ball in time but it fails to reach the front wall.

When one team makes a mistake, they retreat further back on the court and members of the other team go further forward. One of them serves and to do this they stand very close to the front wall. Depending upon which game is being played and the ages of the players, they have to get the service a certain distance down the court.

There were two ‘forwards’ and one ‘back’ in the match I watched. Most shots were aimed towards the top of the wall and they rebounded high in the air towards the wall at the other end of the court. Sometimes they were so high on the back wall that the ‘back’ wasn’t tall enough to reach them. When the team could see that happening, the back would leave the ball alone and let it bounce off the wall back into the court and one of the ‘forwards’ would go back to collect it before it bounced more than once.

The guy here in the foreground was my favourite ‘back’. You can see the size of his Chistera and he could hurl the ball enormous distances. He had a beautiful style and made it all look very easy. I’m quite sure it isn’t!

Mostly the players ‘caught’ or ‘trapped’ the ball inside their Chisteras on their backhand side and hurled the ball from this side as well. This helped to explain how they were able to get such amazing strength behind their shots.

I’ve never seen a game before so I couldn’t judge the level of play against international standards. But some of the players hurled the ball amazing distances at incredible speeds and caught balls that were moving very fast with apparent ease. I could have watched a game every evening but there was more sightseeing to be done.

Close to the apartment is Église St-Martin, one of the few things that remain of the port’s early boom days as a whaling centre.

This church was built in Biarritz towards the middle of the 12th century. It was restored in 1541 and has a flamboyant gothic chancel and a nave with low arcades. The more recent organ is one of the most spectacular in the region. Unfortunately it was far too dark to contemplate an interior photo but the architecture was very interesting and there were some beautiful murals. It is classified as an historic monument.

Halfway through my month in Biarritz, I decided it was time to explore Pointe Atalaye, the point sticking out into the sea due west of the Centre Ville. There are quite a few lovely sights to be seen.

At the very end of the point if the Rocher de la Vierge. Unfortunately, the Virgin herself was mostly hidden by scaffolding and the rocks leading up to her position were shrouded in white tarpaulins so she was very difficult to get close to, or to photograph. Considering what has been written about her, it was quite interesting to see how small she was. She’s the little white speck on top of the rock.

The guidebooks say that ‘the impressive Rock of the Virgin owes its name to the statue of the Madonna set at its summit in 1865’. Her statue is located at the end of Pointe Atalaye. The statue is said to have protected the sailors and fishers in the Bay of Biscay and has become something of Biarritz trademark.

Construction of the footbridge that connects it to the mainland was directed by none other than Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, designer of the tower in Paris that bears his name. The walk out onto the edge of the rock, with crashing surf on both sides, is said to be the most dramatic in Biarritz. On a clear day, the view extends far to the south, all the way to the mountains of the Spanish Basque country. It was a real shame that access was denied while I was there.

Just to the east of the Rock is a monument to the patriots who died in both World Wars. I thought this was particularly poignant and so much more meaningful than statues of soldiers, which tell a very different story from the one told here of those mourning the loss of loved ones who have died.

Walking north I could see the beautiful lighthouse in the distance beyond Hotel du Palais. I’ll walk there before I leave, but in the meantime, it’s a great sight, even from a distance. There a golf-course near the lighthouse. This was created in 1888 by British residents. I couldn‘t, however, find anywhere to play croquet!

The lighthouse was erected in 1834 and dominates Cape Hainsart. It provides Biarritz’s best view of the Atlantic. It sits 73 metres above sea level and if one climbs the 248 steps of a spiral staircase to its summit, the reward is a wonderful panorama, encompassing the Rocher du Basta and the Rocher de la Vierge, the beaches, the Port des Pêcheurs, the Bellevue Casino, the Landes coast, the Pyrénées and, on a fine day, the Spanish coast.

As I took the photograph of the lighthouse, I was looking down on this tiny area which is a natural tidal pool, sheltered by rocks. This little area, located below Place Ste-Eugénie, is the colourful and picturesque Port des Pêcheurs (fishermen’s port). Crowded with fishing boats, this port for seamen and yachtsmen was created with the remainder of the imperial endowment after the works for the Port du Refuge were discontinued in 1870. All that is left of the old Biarritz can be found in the old wooden houses called ‘crampottes’ which are backed up against a cliff. Among all the driftwood, rope and lobster traps, there are trendy tapas bars and restaurants which serve delicious local seafood.

Walking on round the edge of the cliff to the southern edge of Grande Plage, I reached Place Ste-Eugénie by passing through a short tunnel in the rocks. This was my first view of Ste-Eugénie itself as I came alongside it. It’s stunning.

I popped inside and found a really beautiful and spacious building. As usual inside churches, there wasn’t much light but this photo, looking towards the rear, gives a fairly good indication of its size and presence.

Place Ste-Eugénie is Biarritz’s most gracious old square. Lined with terraced restaurants, it is the town’s most popular rendezvous. The beautiful church, designed in the gothic Edwardian style, stands majestically alongside the cafés and shops.

Passing the church and looking back across the old square towards the sea it’s easy to imagine why it’s such a popular rendezvous.

And there were plenty of shops and plenty happening. Clearly, this area is the centre of tourism in Biarritz. Pavement cafés and lots of tasteful little shops line the streets and people sit outside and enjoy their refreshments.

And finally, before I set off for home again I took a peek at the beach I thought I’d spend some time enjoying if the weather ever became more settled. It’s called Plage Port Vieux. It’s completely sheltered on three sides which makes it look very attractive. And there weren’t too many people. Some, but not too many.

And a few steps above the beach on two sides were little cafés where one could get hot or cool drinks – a perfect situation really – but not for today. Although the weather was perfect I decided to save the pleasure for another day.

And on one of those ‘other’ days, I set out to visit Le Musée du Chocolat à Biarritz – I’m sure that needs no translation!

There were actually two groups about to go round so I contented myself with a good look around the shop and asked a few questions.

I was told that in 1496, the Jews, who were expelled from Portugal by the Inquisition, settled in Bayonne in the village of Saint-Esprit on the banks of the river Adour and developed the manufacture of chocolate in 1610.

The people of Bayonne learned how to manufacture the chocolate very quickly. They were the first agents of the Kingdom of France to work with the cocoa bean and became experts in its production. It’s said that Bayonne became the first town to taste the delicious new beverage they made. The church disapproved of it, to begin with, claiming it to be an aphrodisiac! However, the threatened wrath of the church was quickly ignored for something so delicious, and chocolate became one of Bayonne’s most famous exports.

In South America, Christopher Columbus came upon this strange concoction that was used by the Indians, not for barter, but as the necessary ingredient for a rich, strong drink. The explorers returned home with the distinctive bean and shared the secret technique for turning the cocoa bean into chocolate. Today the city is well known for the famous dark, bitter chocolate, which has a high cocoa content. Their products are a delicious and interesting testament to the fact that chocolate originated here in the Basque Country during the reign of Louis XIV. Basque is intensely proud of its claim of introducing hot chocolate to the world. Don’t leave Basque without sampling some of this “devil’s brew”!

To reach the Chocolate Museum I’d passed along Avenue Beaurivage, the main road along the top of the cliff overlooking the ocean. Here I found a delightful little gathering of, mostly, older men, playing Boules.

Seeing me watching with my camera, one or two came up to me and asked if I’d like the rules explained. I told them that I knew the rules but was pretty bad at the game myself! They were very chivalrous and invited me to play but they were far too good to have a novice in their midst so I said I’d much rather watch!

I was now feeling quite at home in Biarritz and could find my way around most of the time without a map in hand! So I thought it would be a good idea to explore further afield and that meant taking a bus, not just one or two stops around the town, but north-east to Bayonne.

I’d already caught a bus a few stops back to the apartment after a visit to the Chapelle Imperiale because it was raining hard when I came out. The short trip of about five stops had cost me €1. So when I boarded the bus for Bayonne, I expected to pay much more. Amazingly, the cost to take the bus is €1, however far you go. So it was €1 there and another €1 back again! And the journey took just over half an hour even though it’s only about 8km away – lots of stops!

And what a treat was in store. Bayonne is an ancient city dating from mediaeval times.

I got off the bus beside a beautiful bridge called Pont Saint Esprit near the mediaeval centre which is called Le Petit Bayonne.

Here was a wonderful statue of Cardinal Charles Martial Lavigerie who lived from 1825-1892. It turns out that he was not only a French Cardinal but also Archbishop of Carthage and Algiers and Primate of Africa. Important guy. I decided to find out a bit more about him.

He was born in Bayonne, educated at St Sulpice in Paris and was Professor of ecclesiastical history at the Sorbonne from 1854-1856. In 1856 he accepted the direction of the schools of the East and was brought into contact with the Islamic world for the first time. ‘It was there’, he said, ‘that I learned my calling’. He dedicated much of his life to missionary work. In 1868 he landed in Africa when the great famine was making itself felt and began to collect the orphans into villages. Contact with the natives during the famine made him hope for their general conversion but his work was frowned on by Pope Pius IX who nevertheless placed the whole of equatorial Africa under his charge. In 1874 he founded the Sahara and Sudan mission and sent missionaries to Tunis, Tripoli, East Africa and the Congo. The order of African missionaries has since become famous under various translations of the French White Fathers after the white Arab dress they wore. Their official name is Society of Missionaries of Africa. The later years of his life were spent in ardent anti-slavery propaganda and his eloquence moved large audiences in London as well as in Paris, Brussels and other parts of the content. He also hoped, by organizing a group of armed laymen as pioneers, to restore fertility to the Sahara but unfortunately, this did not succeed.

As I walked towards my destination of Le Petit Bayonne, the mediaeval part of the town, I passed another lovely statue, this time of Jeanne d’Arc. The plinth was engraved with the words, ‘Jeanne d’Arc liberator of France’. She’s greatly revered in France, more so around Reims where she had her greatest influence, than down here in Basque country. One can’t help but be inspired by her history. Joan of Arc, nicknamed ‘the Maid of Orléans’ lived only a short while from 1412-1431. She was a peasant girl who claimed divine guidance, born in what is now eastern France. She said that she had visions from God that instructed her to recover her homeland from English domination during the Hundred Years’ War. The uncrowned King Charles VII sent her to the siege of Orleans as part of a relief mission. She gained prominence when she overcame the dismissive attitude of veteran commanders and lifted the siege in only nine days. Following this, several important victories paved the way for the coronation of Charles VII of France at Reims and settled the disputed succession to the throne of France. She was captured by the Burgundians, sold to the English, put on trial for charges of ‘insubordination and heterodoxy’ and was burned at the stake for heresy when she was only 19. Twenty-five years after her execution, an inquisitorial court examined the trial, pronounced her innocent and declared her a martyr. She was beatified in 1909 and canonized in 1920. She is one of the patron saints of France. Right up to the present day, Joan of Arc has remained a significant figure in western civilization. From the time of Napoleon I onwards, French politicians of all persuasions have invoked her memory. Famous writers and composers have created works about her, including Shakespeare, Voltaire and Verdi. Cultural depictions of her have continued in film and television, video games, music and performances.

A little further down the street and round the corner I found a real treasure in the form of l’Église Saint-André. The buildings on all sides of the Church prevented the possibility of taking a photo which did it justice because I couldn’t get far enough away. I’d have liked to have included photo on the sign outside the Church but unfortunately graffiti is alive and well in France as well as everywhere else so it doesn’t bear showing. However, the sign says that the Church was built in the middle of the 19th Century on the site of a mediaeval church and the 17th Century municipal high-school. It’s a classic example of the type of Neo-gothic churches built during this period.

I was obviously in the middle of a student area. All the cafés were full of young people and enjoying the outdoor eating which is so popular in the South of France. In the background are what appear to be castle walls but there was enough scaffolding to make it difficult to appreciate what it can look like.

I walked away from Le Petit Bayonne and walked through the gorgeous streets back towards the river because I could see some beautiful spires in the distance which I believed to be La Cathédrale Sainte-Marie.

Having crossed the river, I discovered myself beside Les Halles, a feature of most French towns where all sorts of wonderful products are displayed and sold.

Sabine had suggested to me that I shouldn’t leave the area without buying ‘un gateau basque à la cerise’. It was easy to find in this beautiful Artisan Boulanger specializing in Basques Gateaux – and it’s every bit as good as she’s led me to believe it would be. Fortunately I only bought an individual gateau – not one of the large ones on display!

Sabine had also suggested that I try some strong cheese with black cherry jam. I’m not entirely sure that I got exactly what she meant, but it was a total delight to shop in this beautiful stall.

Leaving Les Halles behind me I walked up the hill to the Cathedral through the very pretty street I had seen before. It looked as if it was going to be very lovely when I got there and I was looking forward to going inside. However, there was a Mass in progress so entry was forbidden and I had to make do with enjoying its beauty from the outside. And although the outside is really lovely it was difficult, again, to capture its magnificent appearance because of the proximity of buildings on all sides. I wish I’d have been able to see the inside. The plaque read,

'Built between the 12th and 16th centuries on the site of a Roman church, this Gothic building, which is reminiscent of the Champagne region, was largely restored and Bayonne has been listed by UNESCO World Heritage since 1998 as part of the Pilgrim’s Route to Santiago de Compostela'.

By this time I’d walked a long way and was glad to get back on the bus for Biarritz and, if truth be told, catch up with what was happening in the French Open at Roland Garros in Paris. The French take their sport very seriously and the French Open is televised for much of the day. In these early days of the first week, most of the televised games are, understandably, of French players, but we do get the odd look at players from other countries too!

The following day dawned with a covering of high cloud – another great day for a bus journey, this time to Saint-Jean-du-Luz, 16km to the south. This wasn’t such a local bus and they don’t go so frequently either – about every 90 minutes. The fare was €3 each way.

I got off at the bus terminal thinking that perhaps I’d be a little way out of town but it was actually close to the Tourist Office which was a help and I soon secured a map and some suggestions of where to go.

On my way to the Fishing Port, I passed an inevitable Les Halles. The strong smell of fresh fish coming through the open doors gave me a clue about what St Jean de Luz was going to be all about!

The Port, which is the small enclosed area on the top left of the map, was really tiny but perhaps all the boats were out at sea.

Passing the Port on my left I crossed the narrow strip of land and turned right along the Promenade, walking a long way beyond the streets shown on the map. I thought I might linger and watch a game of volleyball but the young men were actually practising rugby throwing and catching which wasn’t quite as entertaining.

But this idyllic scene has apparently not always looked like this. Well-sheltered by the imposing cliffs which partly enclose the bay, the town was prosperous, made wealthy by its considerable maritime trade.

However, the sea, the rain and the wind gradually eroded its natural protections and from 1670 the town was the victim of regular flooding. Despite the construction of a 400m protective wall built on the beach in 1707, the town continued to live at the mercy of Atlantic storms. Every year the wall was rebuilt, lengthened and strengthened but the damage continued and in 1782 the sea destroyed the town’s protective defences and engulfed the whole of the La Barre district, destroying 40 houses and the large Ursulines Convent.

The entrance to the port, which frequently silted up, became increasingly impenetrable with the result that maritime trade was in ruin. Local residents left the town in such large numbers that the population plummeted to two-thirds in twenty-five years. The limited protective measures carried out under Louis XVI couldn’t do anything to prevent eight days of storms from washing away the district which encompassed one-quarter of the entire town in 1822. In the middle of the 19th Century, after two centuries of constant battles with the sea, Saint-Jean-de-Luz was on the verge of destruction. The coast was receding at the rate of 1-3m each year.

Enter Napoléon III! Again!

In 1854 he authorized the construction of new sea defences. Work started in 1864 with the construction of three large sea walls. The whole project, which was divided into stages, was huge and took almost 30 years to complete. Finally, in 1895 the town was finally protected from the sea. The sea walls are regularly maintained and every year some 50 blocks weighing 50 tons are added to the walls in order to strengthen them, using the same techniques employed a century ago.

It all seems very safe now.

At the end of the Promenade on the map stands the Pergola which was built in a single year and opened in 11928 housing a hotel, a casino, shops and a cinema. It’s designed to resemble a cruise liner standing in the sand.

Because of its attractive location, the Pergola soon became a magnet for visitors to the town. During the 1950s the building was disfigured by a number of transformations and extensions which may account for what I thought was its very unattractive appearance, whichever side you looked at it from.

Personally, I thought the look of Le Rosewood Restaurant next door was much more in keeping with the architecture of the town.

Having reached the end of the Promenade, I turned back towards the town and was delighted, not only by the little pedestrian shopping streets but also by the signs which gave their names.

This particular street is, in fact, the Promenade and was named in honour of Jacques Thibaud. He was born in Bordeaux in 1880 and is considered to be one of France’s greatest violinists of the 20th Century. He gave his first public concert at the age of twelve and received his first prize at the Paris Conservatory at the age of fifteen. He’s renowned for his unique tone and style and a combined warmth and tenderness which Yehudi Menuhin referred to as an ‘enchantment’.

Another notable street is rue de la Baleine, the last surviving vestige of a trade that made Saint-Jean-de-Luz’s fortune in the 217th Century.

For hundreds of years, the Basques have profited from the presence of beached or stranded whales. The Basque fishermen would head out to sea in rowing boats to chase the whales along the coast. Texts dating from the 11th Century tell of this highly organised, but highly dangerous, activity which rapidly became a pillar of the local economy and contributed to the solid reputation they earned. Many fishermen died every year.

From the 15th Century onwards and as a result of the invention of the compass, fishermen crossed the Atlantic to the rich whaling grounds of Newfoundland. The 16th Century marked the peak of these expeditions and the town became a major boat-building centre. In 1578, 80 boats were built in the town and 3,000 sailors headed away in the spring to return in the autumn.

In 1713, the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht de-possessed France of its Canadian fishing grounds. From this moment on, the fishing port and associated trade declined and the town, increasingly ravaged by the sea, was gradually reduced to poverty.

Yet another street was a delightful shopping street where I came upon this wonderful little shop selling hats for ‘after the rain’ ….

Since I bought one in Montpellier about three years ago, I’d been looking, unsuccessfully, for another ‘gavroche’, a sort of cap but with a high dome. I explained my needs to the owner and sure enough, came out with just what I was looking for. What a find!

And so I began to make my way back to the bus terminal, but not without passing the Church of St John the Baptist on the way. Again, it was hard to photograph because of the proximity of the surrounding buildings, this Church is dedicated to the town’s patron saint and was probably built on the ruins of an earlier church. The oldest parts of the building date from the 14th and 15th Centuries. It’s been destroyed many times in fires that ravaged the town while it was being regularly invaded by the Spanish in the 17th Century. I read that Louis XIV and the Spanish Infanta María-Teresa were married here in 1660.

And so on through the lovely Place Louis XIV, which seemed appropriate considering that I’d just left the Church only to see Maison Adam at one side of the square, with exquisite chocolates in the window.

Of course, I can’t believe that anything in Saint-Jean-de-Luz was named after such an English name as that of our son, Adam, but it was rather fun to find it there.

Finally, while waiting at the bus terminal, I turned and noticed that in this little town, so close to the Spanish border, the street directions are written in two languages – French and Spanish.

Back in Biarritz and getting close to the day of my departure from this lovely area of France I decided to visit the Museum of the Sea. On my way, I walked past one of the popular surfing beaches alongside le Côte des Basques, showing the coast and the mountains of Spain in the background.

Approaching the Museum, I looked down at surfers, waiting in the gentle waves for something they could ride.

The most popular Musée de la Mer in France was inaugurated in Biarritz in 1935. It’s no surprise that it’s visited by both domestic and international tourists on a regular basis. Its exterior alone is in a very striking art deco style. It displays a wide collection of different species of fishes and other invertebrates that live in the Bay of Biscay. It’s possible to view swordfish, sharks and the guitar ray.

The Museum is extensively devoted to the treasures of the sea. It’s possible to embark on the most original experiences in the depths of the ocean and it provides a complete vision of a living ocean, complex and fragile, through fun and science-based activities. Thanks to state-of-the-art technology, there are 12 themed experiences, over 150 films and breath-taking decors.

And so, finally, having exhausted my tourist capabilities I settled down to enjoy the last couple of days, enjoying a glass of wine on the balcony of this lovely apartment and delighting in one of the many stunning sunsets.

Biarritz, Bayonne and Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France - 12 May to 8 June 2012

+ Text Size -