Basque Country and Pyrénées-Atlantiques
Our travels for 2013 were to be centred in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques in a french country farmhouse called Betouret. The plan was to have the house to act as base along to head out and explore the towns and villages in the foothills of the Pyrénées before ultimately heading up into the mountains themselves. In addition, the farmhouse was equipped with its own private pool to allow us some relaxation time between exploration. We rented the farmhouse for a week, however as the farmhouse was only available from Saturday to Saturday and with Ryanair flying to Biarritz on a Friday, a short sojourn the town of Biarritz was required at the beginning of the trip.
Flying into Biarritz airport, which is actually located within Biarritz, meant we had a short 10 minute drive from the airport to the main part of the town where our hotel was located. A depression weather system had parked itself over this region of France meaning it was keeping the glorious high pressure weather away from the region. We arrived into what felt like a dreary February day overcast, grey and windy. Realising that my plans for a coastal sunset were in tatters, we quickly put the weather behind us and set out to make the most of our short time in Biarritz.
My impressions of Biarritz were definitely shaped by the weather. Walking around that first day felt like walking around an out-of-season seaside resort rather than resort bursting back to life for another summer season. The dreary weather seemed to accentuate the ageing relics of Nouveau, Art Deco, neo-regionalism Basque architecture holding on the glory days of years gone by as the playground of the rich and famous, aristocrats and glitterati. In reality, Biarritz has undergone a recent renaissancethanks mainly to a thriving international surfing scene leading to a juxtaposition of surf shops and laid-back shoeless surfers with surfboard underarm against high end fashion boutiques and ladies in the latest Christian Louboutins with a poodle in tow.
Biarritz has two beaches separated by a rocky outcrop. To the north is the Grand Plage onto which the 1920's landmark of the Casino Municipal fronts. The 1920's style continues on the Grand Plage through the stripey beach tents available for hire on the beach, but sadly these tents were largely absent on our visit . At the southern end of the beach, the small harbour of Le Port des Pêcheurs adjoins the rocky outcrop. The small white buildings with colourful wooden shutters and doors are partially hidden from view from the road above effectively isolating the harbour from the general bustle of the town.
The rocky outcrop separating the Grand Plage to the north to the Plage Cote des Basque to the south, is guarded by a white statue of the Virgin and child set remote from the headland on a rock and connected to land with a steel bridge. The Virgin looks out across to the sea to protect the safe return of sailors in the face of the raging Atlantic ocean crashing onto rocks below. Also set on the outcrop and dominating the views to the south, the outline of the famous Villa Belza stands proud. The villa,as seen in the feature photo at the top of the post, is characterized by its large tall rectangular and small circular towers both topped with a sharply pointed roof. Beyond the villa, the The Plage Cote des Basque beach continues south to provide two uninterrupted kilometres of sand, sea and surf.
The first evening we ate at Bar Jean located directly across from the central covered market (Les Halles) which itself was adjacent to our hotel. Bar Jean has been a Biarritz institution since the 30s due to its warm, typically Spanish atmosphere but most of all to it's great food. Les Halles is current closed for renovation so the area has temporarily lost some of its buzz but the bar was still packed. Starters consisted of pintxos from the bar but the main course of côte de boeuf ,which was shared between two, was undoubtedly the star of the show. The cut of beef (rib eye on the bone) was deliciously charred on the outside hiding the juicy tender centre which was cooked rare. The côte de boeuf was sliced into strips for presentation and served with garlicky potato dauphinoise. This meal epitomises the different cultural influences of the region from the Basque and French cultures. The pintxos starters reflecting the strong Basque independence of the region and the main course unashamedly French.
The following day we jumped in our hire car and headed out on a five minute drive to the temporary location of Les Halles while the original market is being renovated. Regular visitors to the blog will know that my wife and I love to visit food markets, but sadly we are normally restrained to buying small bits and pieces to eat there and then on the day. This trip was slightly different in that we could stock up on baguette, fresh fruit and vegetables for our week in the cottage. We had to resist the fresh fish, meat and chilled goods we were concerned about leaving them in the boot of the car for most of the day. The remainder of our shopping was purchased at a local supermarket in Biarritz later in the day before we left for the cottage.
The visit to the market wetted our appetite and following some more exploration on foot around the main part of Biarritz, it was time for lunch. The venue for was Le Pim'pi. This small brasserie serves traditional food products and is known for its homemade desserts. After the meat feast are Bar Jean the previous night, we opted for a light lunch which for me consisted perfectly cooked sole meuniere and for my wife the foie gras starter with a green salad on the side. I followed this with a cafe gourmand comprising an espresso and a trio of miniature deserts (creme brule, chocolate mousse and a rum baba) while my wife some fantastic nougatine ice cream. I am a slave to creme brule and can never resist it on the menu and this one was pretty darn good. We were soon joined for lunch by an unusual guest as little black poodle entered the restaurant with its owner. Sitting on a chair beside its owner the poodle also enjoyed a lunch of tidbits of foie gras and sole. The staff in the restaurant were very friendly and welcome despite my limited french vocabulary!
That ended our brief visit to Biarritz as we set of on the 90 minute journey deeper into the Pyrénées-Atlantiques region to our farmhouse for the week which was located near the town of Monein and a short drive from the main town in the area Pau. More on that next time.