“Another very wet summer everywhere; dull with few warm days”
The Weather of Summer 2008 Report (Met Éireann)
I don’t need a Met Éireann report to remind me of the “summer” of 2008. My then sun-starved state is still crystal clear in my mind. Sick of almost a year of rain and impatient to wait for my proper sun holiday in September I booked a last minute Ryanair flight to Biarritz in the South of France for 48 hours at the beginning of August.
But the Gods conspired as much as they could against me getting there. “Come back tomorrow and you may get treated” was the response of A&E personnel to my suspected broken toe after hours of waiting in the evening, having been unable to get time off work to visit earlier in the day. “Tomorrow” was departure day so I declined the uncertainty of the Irish health service in favour of French sunshine certainty.
The early morning drive to Shannon Airport almost ended when the fan belt of my Fails On Rainy Days car (mechanics will get the subliminal message here) squealed on hitting a waterlogged road outside Limerick city.
Finally, my incorrectly-sized Ziplock toiletries bag was the source of much consternation by an official at the security screening gate who held it as high in the air as the level of her voice, exposing my errors and personal belongings to everyone within 50 metres. Fellow passengers looked upon me with either scorn (“she’ll delay us all”) or pity. I held my tongue – I needed sunshine.
Biarritz has a surprisingly small airport and an even more surprisingly circuitous bus route from the airport to the city centre. The four miles took over an hour. Goodness knows what the 28 degree external temperature was inside our non-air conditioned vehicle. I randomly disembarked upon the advent of a stuffy-bus headache, luckily finding myself near Avenue de Verdun.
As soon as the confusion surrounding my name was resolved at the hotel check-in I dropped the hand luggage and headed straight for what I had come for: beach and sun.
Prior to la plage I briefly orientated myself by travelling down the main shopping street, Place Clemenceau, and wandered off to side streets which had a plethora of shops selling chocolate and traditional Basque clothing. I headed to Rocher de la Vierge (Rock of the Virgin), a statue built in 19th Century to ensure the safe return of fisherman during inclement weather. I lingered for a while, my eyes absorbing the Bay of Biscay views and my lungs absorbing the bracing air full with salt from waves crashing into the jagged rocks around the Vierge.
Above: VIEW OF BIARRITZ FROM ROCHER DE LA VIERGE
I was finally ready for La Grande Plage but as soon as I started swimming in the southern part of the bay I and others were ordered out by the lifeguard. I waded through the masses on the centre and northern part of the beach finding a few centimetres of sand to lay my belongings and aching toe. I wasn’t as lucky with the swimming. Biarritz is the surfing capital of France with surfers ensuring that it stays that way, aggressively fighting with swimmers for the waves.
Above: LA GRANDE PLAGE
Place Sainte-Eugenie is lined with restaurants and I headed to one of the street’s eateries recommended to me for the camp and animated waiters rather than the food. I wasn’t disappointed in this respect but unfortunately my solo dining status was an inconvenience and was told to be finished by a specific time. I had plans to view a game of Pelote Basque afterwards so didn’t take much offence at their timetable. My Pelote experience deserves its own blog post and so will be treated thus.
As a strict non-vegetarian I couldn’t resist the urge to visit Bayonne and sample some of the world renowned ham. Of course I could have purchased same quite easily in Biarritz but sometimes going to the source is part of the fun of travel. Apart from the dingy train station area, Bayonne is a pleasant place to boulevard around. The Basque architecture of the city contrasts with Biarritz’s glitzy regal and art deco physical structures.
I returned to Biarritz in the afternoon to partake in more sunbathing and swimming. Forgive me if I sound like a beach bum but when you re-read Met Éireann’s summary above my actions are easily put into perspective. Besides, I met a fluent French speaker from Staffordshire who was taking refuge from the equally appalling British summer. A sign near the lifeguards’ station indicated a water temperature of 22 degrees Celsius, a couple of degrees warmer than the air temperature of what I left behind in Ireland.
Reluctantly dragging myself away from la plage I returned to Place Sainte-Eugenie in the evening where I was refused entry into a half-full restaurant for reasons unknown. A couple from Dublin who queued behind me was admitted sans problème. My aching toe and depleted wallet weren’t able to bring me to the famous Chez Albert on Allée Port des Pêcheurs. Instead I settled for an establishment near Place Clemenceau. That wasn’t the end of my hassles. Meandering around town afterwards I was taken aback by the bothersome attitude of the surfing community, a group I always find composed and good-natured. By that point I was looking forward to leaving the conceited attitude of the city behind.
I can see why Napoleon III, his wife Empress Eugenie and European royalty of the 19th and early 20th Century sojourned in Biarritz. There genuinely is something in the air which promotes physical health. Despite my brief and hectic schedule I felt physically refreshed afterwards and for this the city comes highly recommended.
But despite being unable to warm to the place, I can honestly say that Biarritz is a visually appealing, clean and safe destination. I basked in as much sun the city had to offer. And sunshine is something that never fails to put a smile on the face of an Irish person.
Visiting France for the First Time? Why not check out my post on France essential travel information and tips.