Byline: HELEN CHAPPELL
MAYBE it wasn't the best idea to start my tour of Biarritz by slogging up the 248 steps of the lighthouse, but the view is almost worth it as I hang wheezing over the balcony. My French friend, Maylis, laughs merrily and points out the wide sweep of the Plage du Miramar; the rocky shore lined by cliffs full of hydrangeas and tamarisk trees; the elegant jumble of Basque villas and neo-Renaissance chateaux. This chic little resort once teemed with the jeunesse d'oree of Europe, starting with Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie who summered here from the 1850s. I can see their pink-and-white stucco palace - now the Imperial Hotel. And there's the creamy Art Deco casino, where Chaplin, Cocteau and Hemingway tried their luck.
Even though this is my first visit, I have a vague sense of deja vu. I've been regaled since childhood with tales my father told about summer in 1938, drinking in Biarritz bars with excitable young fascists and communists; arguing about the Spanish Civil War which was raging just over the Pyrenees, and basking on the Grande Plage with an alluring female anarchist (whom he never told my mother about). Here, three years after his passing, I'm curious to find some reminder of his jeunesse d'oree.
Maylis steers me toward the marketplace at Rue des Halles, with fat Bayonne hams and an avalanche of seafood for sale. We take our seats at nearby Bar Jean for lunch, nibbling tortillas and tapas, followed by tarte tatin; we watch soignee French matrons trot past with poodles and terriers. Bronzed surfer boys chat loudly in Australian and Italian accents. "Biarritz is now the surf capital of Europe," declares Maylis, "but the town has always been sportif." In 1938, my dad and chums hiked between youth hostels in the bracing, open-air fashion of the day.
We pay the bill and pop next door to the local history museum. A glass case contains old holiday brochures and invitations to foot races, tug-of-war matches and countryside parties from the 1920s and 1930s. I wonder if dad tried any of them.
There are snaps of visiting celebs, from Queen Victoria to Frank Sinatra and Jayne Mansfield. Empress Eugenie's shawl is displayed next to paintings of the fishing and whaling boats of two centuries ago.
Back in the present, we go in search of places in the pictures.
There's plenty of distraction en route in the glitzy boutiques of the Rue Georges Clemenceau. Resisting the temptation, I arrive at the Port des Pecheurs, the harbour which once sheltered the local fishing fleet, today lined with smart little cafEs and surf 'n' dive schools, converted from the boat sheds. …