While it can’t compare to the French Riviera, Biarritz is certainly one of the hipper towns in France. Here, surfers and day trippers wearing flip-flops and Patagonia jackets comfortably mingle with fashionistas in their espadrilles and designer floral scarves.
Something looked a bit odd to us both as we approached our train from the Bordeaux Saint-Jean Station bound for Biarritz. There were the usual number of passenger coaches for the short 2-hour journey, yet there was a locomotive at either end. This may not seem unusual, providing that the two engines are pointing in the same direction. That was not the case with our train as either engine was pointing in the opposite direction!
Oh well we thought, it’s time to board.
Sitting in the upper deck we settled into mile after mile of gorgeous French countryside dotted with farms and expansive tree plantations. Thousands of rows of surgically planted trees had a hypnotic effect. So hypnotic in fact that when the train made one of its scheduled stops we barely realized that the passenger coaches were being uncoupled and the two resulting trains would now be heading in opposite directions. As luck would have it, we were on the wrong train! A bit of quick thinking and some scrambling and we were on the right train to continue our journey to the lovely seaside town of Biarritz.
Dating back to the mid 1800’s Les Halles Biarritz quickly became the pride of the city center and at roughly 170 years old, it’s not hard to understand why. The vendors are friendly and the selection of breads, fruits, vegetables and cheeses along with poultry, fish and meat were all of exceptional quality. Another plus for the vendors, as well as the shoppers, is that the market is covered so when the nasty weather rolls in off the Atlantic nobody misses a beat. We knew that we would return the following day to shop for dinner at home.
While walking through the market we noticed a small bistro across the street called L’amiral and decided to duck in for lunch. The food was great, the service convivial and we had a leisurely lunch in the typical unhurried manner that the French enjoy their meals.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon walking the path along the sea shore, stopping for photos while enjoying the fresh ocean air. Being part of the daily joie de vivre that the French are known for was an enlightening experience, as we watched young people mingling with seniors and surf instructors helping budding boarders learn the ropes. It was living in the moment at its most real and its most precious.
After a couple of hours of walking we headed home for a quick shower and a glass of wine before dining at Ragazzi Da Peppone, a popular Italian place with a large outdoor patio along one of Biarritz’s busier dining avenues.
A couple of hours later we headed home for the evening. Sleep came quickly. A few glasses of wine, a good meal and the ocean air will do that to you.
Another bright blue day greeted us as the rising sun lit up the living room of our apartment in shades of pink and orange. No sleeping in today as the farmers market beckoned.
As is the case with most farmers markets the savvy shoppers arrive early, so off we went. While we were enjoying a cup of coffee with croissants (what else for French breakfast?) at a stand up table just outside the market we noticed a chocolate shop with a very distinctive name, Monsieur Txokola, the Cocoa Alchemist. Was this a French version of Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory or simply an interesting name for a chocolate store? Turns out, it was a little bit of both! It was still early and the shop was closed so we did our shopping to buy time until it opened.
The owner, Ronan greeted us with the enthusiasm of someone who was born to spread the gospel of bean-to-bar chocolate. Along with his partner, Cyril they have a combined 30 years of experience with cocoa and all things chocolate. Together they create some of the finest tablets, spreads and cocoa powders.
After tasting several of Ronan’s chocolates and sharing our own chocolate stories he informed us that we were welcome to visit his factory in nearby Bayonne where we would be hosted by Cyril. We dropped off the groceries from the market, hopped on a bus and headed to Bayonne!
Little did we know that Bayonnes is considered the “French capital of chocolate” along with the added distinction of introducing chocolate to the whole of Europe. Lining every avenue, alleyway and rue were dozens of chocolate shops selling unimaginable amounts of everyone’s weakness in countless configurations.
Realizing that we would need a week to visit every chocolate shop, not to mention the abundant fromageries, we decided to focus on finding the Cocoa Alchemist’s factory. From the moment that we met Cyril we knew that he too was born to be a chocolatier, and a teacher. The passion that he showed for the process of bringing a bean to a bar and for sharing his knowledge was unquenchable and genuine.
After an hour or so of receiving our chocolate education, and more tasting, it was time for lunch. Cyril was kind enough to recommend one of his favorite restaurants in Bayonne, just across the river from his shop. Fifteen minutes later we were sitting at the bar of La Table Sebastien, one of Bayonne’s most popular bistros. The place was convivial, inviting and undeniably one of the best meals we had since leaving Bordeaux.
Good call Cyril!
With numerous chocolate tablets in hand we boarded the return bus for surf city. Back in Biarritz there was still enough time for us to head down to the beach to enjoy the sunset. From a lookout high above the beaches a crowd gathered to enjoy the blazing sun drop into the mighty Atlantic ocean.
Dinner that evening was a farmers market delight of handmade raviolis from the Italian pasta shop along with a salad of fresh greens and tomatoes. Dessert came in the classic way of the French as a small plate of various cheeses. Real Italian raviolis with French wine and cheese, in a seaside town called Biarritz.
Our morning outing found us enjoying the same farmers market breakfast as the day before and then heading up the coast to see a nearly 200 year old lighthouse.
Built in 1834, the Biarritz lighthouse, stands 240 feet above sea level and dominates Cape Hainsart. It marks the boundary between the sandy Landes coast and the rocky coast of the Basque Country. Approaching it we could see that the upper portion of the lighthouse was surrounded by scaffolding which meant our one chance to climb the 248 steps to the top was out of the question. It would be left up to our imagination to visualize the exceptional panoramic view of Biarritz and the Basque hinterland.
Undaunted, we spent an hour or so in the park at the base of the lighthouse watching the ocean heave mighty waves against the rocks below. With crystal clear skies the views up and down the coast were stunning and standing in France while seeing the shoreline of Spain was a truly unique experience.
Lunch by the beach was followed by an afternoon siesta to recharge for another late afternoon sunset walk. Same spot with the same amazing sunset. We even recognized the faces of some of the sunset lovers from the previous day. Knowing that we had an early bus to catch the following morning we decided to call it a day and headed home for dinner.
Our four days in Biarritz were just enough to give us a taste of what it must have been like to visit here in the heydays of the 1950’s when Californians first brought surf culture to these sandy beaches. Although the popularity of Biarritz has ebbed and flowed over the decades a recent revival has taken place in the water as well as onshore. It appeared to us that the beauty of French Basque Country was truly back in vogue, regardless if you’re sporting flip-flops or espadrilles!
Next stop, Bilbao, Spain. It’s good thing we wouldn’t be taking a two way train!
QUICK TRAVEL FACTS
Average Weather in Biarritz France. In Biarritz, the summers are comfortable; the winters are long, cold, wet, and windy; and it is partly cloudy year round. Over the course of the year, the temperature typically varies from 42°F to 76°F and is rarely below 31°F or above 86°F.