18 Nov My Sojourn in Southwest France.
THE MORNING was slightly overcast and humid. The breeze from the sea immediately welcomed us after stepping off the plane onto the small runway. After a short flight from Paris, my brother and I landed in Biarritz, France.
The unmistakable scent of the Atlantic Ocean cast over me and I was filled to the brim with joy. My soul felt at home in this foreign place.
We rented a car and slowly drove through the outskirts of town, past beautifully aged wooden farmhouses and cafes whose pastel colors had faded from the salty air. This gave them a distinguishing patina.
In the 1960’s surf culture took over Biarritz, changing the face of this erstwhile whaling town rooted in Basque tradition.
French Basque Country, Pays Basque in French, is the region of Southwest France on the border of Spain. This place took a hold of me like the tide of the sea, where once in its grip I didn’t want to let go. Being there makes you breath deep, slow down and take a look around. It makes you happy to be alive.
Biarritz is one of the chief towns in Pays Basque, considered by many the surf capital of Europe. Surrounding Biarritz are many villages and towns, each with its own rich history and story, each with a nuanced way of living. One could drive from town to town as my brother and I did, getting lost in the languid surf culture that makes this part of the world unlike anywhere else year-round.
Considered one of the oldest spoken languages in the world if not thee oldest, the Basque language is gritty, it’s passionate, yet still, its origin remains shrouded in mystery.
While French is the dominant language of the region, the Basque language is spoken in parts of both France and Spain, a commonality between these countries along with world-renowned Basque cuisine and a profound love of the ocean.
The green and brown Pyrenees mountains are speckled with white snow and serve as the region’s backdrop, where in the cold winter months the snow from the mountains may travel to the seaside towns as it has recently.
Last winter the beaches were covered, a local told us in a beach parking lot while we visited the neighboring village of Guéthary.
During the summer months tourists come from all over the world, hoping to be cleansed by the nourishing qualities of the saltwater and take in some sun. Still, the spirit here feels untapped, pure, real, remaining as it always has in its own sheer beauty.
We arrived in town eager to get a bite. I’d been waiting to take a page out of one of my favorite books The Sun Also Rises by starting with some shellfish and a beer, followed by a dip in the water.
That first night it began to softly rain. The ocean became a pale grey blue as we prepared to jump in before a late dinner. The rain only made it better. The tide had risen and the waves crashed against the stone staircase leading down to one of the small inlets off the boardwalk. People watched as they sauntered by.
I swam deep, taking in the summer rain. Being on the Atlantic side of France, the ocean is colder and rougher than the Mediterranean. My heart was shocked and my body felt good as I waded in the water and looked back at the city, an oil painting in motion. The evening festivities began to commence among the charcoal background of dusk.
St. Martin’s Church sits in Port Vieux, the center of the town, and looms over the surrounding bistros and surf shops. The cathedral is a reminder of the medieval history of this city, a fascinating cultural blend of the past and present.
The next morning I got up early. The aroma of fresh coffee and pastries rose from the bakeries and intertwined with the crisp, damp air. Shopkeepers began opening their stores and fishermen set out for their day. I made my way down to the dock, observing the stillness of the fishing boats as their reflections glistened off of the algae green water.
Since the Middle Ages Biarritz has been a whaling town. Its coat of arms portrays seafarers alongside a blue whale with the inscription ura, sidus, mare, adjuvant me (The air, the stars and the seas are helping me).
From there I set out to explore the city from end to end along its coast, about an hour walk from one point to the other if you stick to the main route. But I wanted to get lost among the labrynthian trails and walkways that make up the city’s cliffs, so I bobbed in and out, ran into a few field mice along the way, and came across some incredible vantage points.
On one side of town is la Grande Plage, the city’s main beach to lounge and enjoy the baking sun. In 1854, the wife of Napoleon III constructed the Hotel Du Palais, the quintessential hotel of the city which serves as a background to a stroll on the boardwalk. I viewed the hotel from outside its metallic gates, although it’s more of a novelty these days.
Off Port Vieux is an island about a quarter mile out to sea, where a statue of Mother Mary sits atop a man made hill, blessing fisherman as they set out for the day. I was there early and fortunate to be the only one visiting, along with a lone fisherman trying his luck.
“Can I take your photo?” I asked in my best French.
“Yes,” he replied with a subtle smile.
“They’re not biting today.”
It didn’t matter all that much to him.
He returned to his bait, attached a small fish to his line and kept at it, simply enjoying the moment as I was.
Around the other side of Port Vieux is the main surf beach, the Cote des Basques. The gentle rolling waves serve as a great beginner surf spot. On the overlooking cliff sits Extola Bibi, a small beach cafe to grab a beer or coffee after a surf. We went for sunset one evening and split a bottle of local wine. This put us right where we needed to be.
We watched the final surf sessions of the day while the golden, darkening sky blended as one with the color of the ocean, the clinking glasses and lively chatter surrounding me and my brother. We couldn’t have been happier.
We spent our days exploring the different beaches and towns, trying the multitude of diverse restaurants, simply enjoying this place I’d not known much about before but became so amazed by.
The people that give it spirit, the architecture that gives it charm, the history that gives it meaning. It’s evident what qualities matter in life, to let the unnecessary fade away, to enjoy the good and savor each moment.
On my final night in Biarritz, I went down to the Grande Plage to take in the air. At the far end of the beach atop the hill sits the Phare de Biarritz, a lighthouse built in the 1800’s as a guide for fishing boats. No matter what’s happening out at sea, no matter the size of the waves or the impact of a storm, a light house is there to guide you home, a beacon to turn to and trust. I walked down the boardwalk towards the lighthouse, laid down on a bench, and listened.