Travel: France: Between a rock and a rich place

Biarritz has long been a jet-set destination. Now, from next week, the jets from Britain will be back. By Cathy Packe
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The Independent Culture
For 150 miles to the north of Biarritz, the coastline is featureless: uninterrupted sand dunes, with no cliffs or natural harbours to speak of. But Biarritz is the abrupt punctuation between the gentle Cote d'Argent and the beginning of the much wilder Basque coast. A steep headland juts out into the Bay of Biscay. A short way offshore stands a large and solitary rock, the Rocher de la Vierge. With a statue of the Virgin on top, this monolith is the town's main landmark, and its original raison d'etre. This geological eccentricity is connected to the cliffs by an iron bridge, built by Gustave Eiffel; his more solid structure replaced an older wooden bridge, but even this is impossible to cross in bad storms.

Initially the rock sheltered a few fishermen. Then the residents of Bayonne, five miles away, arrived by donkey to enjoy the medicinal qualities of the sea water. As bathing became fashionable, the Spanish crossed the border to make the most of the beaches, and an emperor made Biarritz his home.

The British have been regular visitors for more than a century, when the resort was first recommended in a popular tourist guide; and high- profile visitors, such as the future Edward VII, continued the trend. The Sterling crisis of 1931 proved a temporary damper, but by the Fifties and Sixties, the resort was served by frequent flights, with Caravelles and Comets bearing the jet set.

Then its international popularity plummeted in favour of more far-flung destinations. But that could soon change: from Thursday, the British are back, airlifted in by new direct flights from Stansted.

While some towns are planned, others just happen. Biarritz is one of those that happened, with the result that its popularity as a tourist destination has turned the area behind the seafront into a freestyle urban sprawl. One look at the Place Clemenceau - not so much a square, more the epicentre of traffic chaos - and you wonder if this is a town whose planning department is long on lunch but short on ideas.

Among the shops and hotels of this jumbled hinterland there are some semi-precious gems, like the town's Historical Museum, in the disused church of St Andrew. It has a nostalgic display showing the development of Biarritz from small fishing village to playground of the international jet set. But visitors do not come here for the sights, more its magnificent natural location.

On the Plateau de l'Atalaye at the top of the cliffs, a tower was built to keep watch for whales: if any were sighted, smoke signals were sent up as a warning. The area is now a good place for watching the world go by, especially from the terrace of one of the many cafes that have opened up there. At the northern end of the Plateau there is still a small fishing harbour; on the other side, the old port, with its sheltered beach, has been a popular bathing spot for more than 200 years. As the only beach that is well protected from the Atlantic waves, it is still a favourite with local families.

Many of the Spanish visitors who crossed the border a few miles down the coast were escaping the ravages of the Carlist wars. One of the families that came here regularly was that of the Countess of Montijo, who arrived with her daughter, Eugenie, in 1838. Had it not been that Eugenie married the future Emperor, Napoleon III, and persuaded him to visit Biarritz with her, the village might have remained in obscurity. But Napoleon was taken with the pleasures of the seaside and built a holiday home for himself and his wife. The red-brick Villa Eugenie was set on a terrace facing the sea at the point where the Grande Plage meets the Plage Miramar; it has since been extended and turned into the Hotel du Palais, the most luxurious address in town.

In a social climate where spending the summer in a seaside resort had become de rigueur, the attractions of a resident Emperor made Biarritz irresistible to the upper classes from all over Europe. Gradually the clientele became more and more cosmopolitan, and more villas and hotels were built to accommodate them. An orthodox church was built so that the Russian community, which arrived in the latter half of the 19th century, could continue to worship; a service is still held there every Sunday.

In 1857, the casino was built to entertain the visitors; nowadays, part of the building has been turned into a conference centre, but there are still rooms for serious gambling. "Suitable" clothes have to be worn even during the day, and the dress code becomes more formal after eight o'clock at night; but despite the rules, the casino lacks the panache of Monte Carlo.

Regardless of the attractions of being seen in the right places, the main reason to go to Biarritz - both then and now - is for its beaches, which stretch for miles to the north and south of the centre. The lighthouse at the Pointe St-Martin marks the northern end of the Plage Miramar, which is usually the quietest beach; it turns into the Grande Plage just below the Empress Eugenie's villa. This is the most fashionable beach in Biarritz and the most popular with holidaymakers. A row of cafes and restaurants have beach-side terraces, and immediately behind are the designer shops of the town centre: it is hard to find any shop in Biarritz that doesn't sell designer labels.

The atmosphere around the headland is completely different. This is the quietest part of town, with extravagant villas perched at various points on the cliffs.

The beaches on this stretch of coastline are very popular with surfers. There are a few places to hire boards, but most people bring their own, strapped to the top of the camper vans and four-wheel-drive vehicles, which they park along the coast road. Few of the registration plates are British, though countless UK cars roar past on the nearby autoroute en route to Spain. Perhaps if the pioneering passengers put the word around, Biarritz could be back on the British map of the world.

Flights from Stansted to Biarritz on Ryanair (0541 569 569) begin on 22 April, with a lowest return fare of pounds 79.99. On the same day, the airline starts flying to Dinard in Britanny and Hahn, near the Moselle Valley