When you find yourself in downtown Biarritz, you get the impression of a much larger city. Believe it or not, it has a permanent population of less than 30,000, but when you count the adjacent towns of Anglet and Bayonne it is closer to 120,000.
It was a traditional fishing and whaling settlement until Empress Eugenie (the wife of Napoleon III) arrived and built a Palace here in 1854. Through her connections the town became popular with Queen Victoria and Edward VII, so to keep the hangers-on occupied, a casino was built in 1901 which remains a big attraction to this day. The Palace is now the Hôtel du Palais, one of France’s most famous and luxurious hotels. The Palais sits on a privileged position looking west along the beach, with large-scale portraits of the Emperor and Empress inside.
More recently, Biarritz has become a Mecca for surfers, owing to its magnificent waves, drawing many thousands of people from all around the world to sample its waters, and the nightlife that goes with it. The surfing company Quicksilver has its worldwide base in Biarritz and holds an annual surf event here.
Surfing is just one of the obsessions of the locals. The other is Biarritz Olympique, the notoriously hard-to-beat titans of French rugby, and last, but not least is the ancient Basque sport of Pelota. Pelota is now played in a number of countries across the world owing to the Diaspora of Basques who travelled for work over the years, mostly to the Spanish-speaking countries of South America.
Anyone who was not aware of Basque heritage on arriving in Biarritz will be by the time they get home. The Basques are a tremendously proud people. When you mix that Basque culture with rugby, surfing and Pelota, you then get an idea of what to expect from Biarritz.