History of Biarritz

FROM WHALE FISHING TO FIRST SEA BATHS

The time of the whales

The whales were the first sea bathers in Biarritz, not the elegant ladies from the 19th century.

In the Middle Ages, Biarritz was spelt Beariz. It was a small fishing port and the fishermen had a good reputation for harpooning whales. The animal fat was very much sought after as it was used for lighting houses. Bones and ribs were also used to make enclosures. The skin, cut up in strings, was used for making seats and helmets. Of course, people used to eat whale meat and the tongue was served as a delicacy to the famous people visiting the town.

The village site was particularly well adapted to whale fishing. The cove where the old port is now located stood well clear of the open sea. A channel gave the boats access to the bay. The gentle slope of the seashore allowed the fishermen to beach the whales
when the tide was high. People would then wait until it was low tide to cut them up. The villagers worked on the beach itself where they had set up ovens to melt the fat, fires to cook and smoke the meat, and jars for keeping the oil in.

Fishermen subsisted on the whales until the middle of the 17th century when the whales moved away from the coast. The fishermen had then to go all the way to Newfoundland to find them.

Biarritz becomes a Seaside Resort

The people of Biarritz were well ahead of Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie as regards sea bathing. In 1609, an observer, Councillor de Lancre, commented on this practice that he disapproved, saying “this mix of young ladies and young fishermen that one can see on the coast, naked under their bathing costumes, swimming together in the water…” The people of Biarritz did not pay any attention to such remarks and carried on bathing, eventhough it was officially forbidden in 1774 to erect changing huts.

Sea bathing was only recognised as a treatment for general aches and pains in the middle of the 18th century.

Victor Hugo was one of the first to be enchanted by Biarritz in 1843. He was charmed by a “white village with red roofs and green shutters, set amongst grassy hills”. He was immediately concerned that Biarritz would become “fashionable” and perceptively remarked, “this day will come soon”.

Eleven years later, the Countess of Montijo who had come to Biarritz during her childhood, decided to settle there for a period of two months after she got married to Napoleon III. The Imperial couple was warmly welcomed by the cheers of the crowd and decided to stay in the Chateau de Gramont which belonged to the Mayor of Bayonne.

Soon after, Napoleon had a summer residence built for his wife, the “Villa Eugenie”, where the couple would come every year until 1868 to enjoy the climate and the sea’s invigorating effects. Following their example, many Royals discovered Biarritz. These were the Kings of Wurtenberg, Belgium and Portugal. Russian, Polish and Roumanian Princes, Spanish Grandees and English Lords made Biarritz a very special town where 10,000 summer visitors came each year.

High Society and Night Life

The Second Empire gave way to the Belle Époque at the end of the century and the Royals of the 1st Republic came to spend lazy days in Biarritz. In the meantime, many stylish and flamboyant houses were built in Biarritz and enhanced the town’s image. Sadi Carnot, Poincaré, Clemenceau, Jules Ferry, Alexandre Dumas and Zola met around the beaches. English aristocrats, whose ancestors had discovered Biarritz at the beginning of the century during the Napoleonic wars, came to stay there, as did the Prince of Wales, and later Edward VII, who spent over a year in the old Imperial residence. It was transformed into a hotel, the “Hôtel du Palais” in 1893. The English gave Biarritz its first golf course, the “Golf du Phare” and its first horse shows. Elizabeth of Austria, known as “Sissi” also came to Biarritz looking for comfort in the town’s atmosphere.

At the end of the 19th century, the newly built Municipal Casino as well as the Bellevue Casino attracted many theatre people and gamblers. Sarah Bernardt and
Lucien Guitry, the father of Sacha Guitry, gave shows in Biarritz. Once the shows were over, they would party all night. The refined pleasures of 19th century society life gave way to busy Parisian style nightlife in the Roaring 20’s, where people practiced the new art of charleston and large villa owners organised huge parties in their parks, such as Natalie of Serbia’s palace, which later became the “Royal Pavillion”. After the Second World War, Biarritz came to life again, thanks to the magnificent parties thrown by the Marquis of Cuevas. Biarritz still attracted high society people such as Farouk of Egypt, Michael of Romania and Peter of Yugoslavia. Movie stars such as Frank Sinatra, Gary Cooper and Bing Crosby came to Biarritz as did Rita Hayworth who stayed with the Aga Khan.

Parties were still in full swing in the 60’s, just a touch more discreet, but as sumptuous as ever. Since the 70’s and 80’s, Biarritz is having  much more to offer than just its nightlife which tempted many busier modern men.

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