If Bayonne is the center of commercial affairs for the Basque country, its citizens must, at any rate, go to Biarritz if they want to live “the elegant and worldly life.” The prosperity and luxury of Biarritz are very recent; it goes back only to the Second Empire, when it was but a village of a thousand souls or less, mostly fishermen and women.
The railway and the automobile omnibus make communication with Bayonne today easy, but formerly folk came and went on a donkey side-saddled for two, arranged back to back, like the seats of an Irish jaunting-car. If the weight were unequal, a balance was struck by adding cobblestones on one side or the other, the patient donkey not minding in the least.
This astonishing mode of conveyance was known as a “cacolet,” and replaced the “voitures” and “fiacres” of other resorts. An occasional example may still be seen, but the “jolies Basquaises” who conducted them have given way to sturdy, bare-legged Basque boys-as picturesque, perhaps, but not so entrancing to the view. To voyage “en cacolet” was the necessity of our grandfathers; for us it is an amusement only.
Napoleon III., or rather Eugenie, his spouse, was the faithful godfather of Biarritz as a resort. The Villa Eugenie is no more; it was first transformed into a hotel and later destroyed by fire; but it was the first of a great battery of villas and hotels which has made Biarritz so great that the. popularity of Monte Carlo is steadily waning. Biarritz threatens to become even more popular; some sixteen thousand visitors came to Biarritz in 1899, but there were thirty-odd thousand in 1903; while the permanent population has risen from 2,700 in the days of the Second Empire to 12,800 in 1901. The tiny railway from Bayonne to Biarritz transported half a million travelers twenty years ago, and a million and a half, or nearly that number, in 1903; the rest, being millionaires, or gypsies, came in automobiles or caravans. These figures tell eloquently of the prosperity of this “villegiature imperiale.”
The great beauty of Biarritz is its setting. At Monte Carlo the setting is also beautiful, ravishingly beautiful, but the architecture, the terrace, Monaco’s rock, and all the rest combine to make the pleasing “ensemble.” At Biarritz the architecture of its Casino and the great hotels is not of an epoch-making beauty, neither are they so delight-fully placed. It is the surrounding stage setting that is so lovely. Here the jagged shore line, the blue waves, the ample horizon seaward, are what make it all so charming.
Biarritz as a watering-place has an all-the-yearround clientele; in summer the Spanish and the French, succeeded in winter by Americans, Germans, and Englishwith a sprinkling of Russians at all times. Biarritz, like Pau, aside from being a really delightful winter resort, where one may escape the rigors of murky November to March in London, is becoming afflicted with a bad case of “sport fever.” There are all kinds of sports, some of them reputable enough in their place, but the comic-opera fox-hunting which takes place at Pau and Biarritz is not one of them.. .
The picturesque “Plage des Basques” lies to the south of the town, bordered with high cliffs, which in turn are surmounted with terraces of villas. The charm of it all is incomparable. To the northwest stretches the limpid horizon of the Bay of Biscay, and to the south the snowy summits of the Pyrenees, and the adorable bays of Saint-Jean-de-Luz and Fontarabie, while behind, and to the east-ward, lies the quaint country of the Basques, and the mountain trails into Spain in all their savage hardiness.
The off-shore translucent waters of the Gulf of Gascony were the “Sinus Aquitanicus” of the ancients. A colossal rampart of rocks and sand dunes stretches all the way from the Gironde to the Bidassoa, without a harbor worthy of the name save at Bayonne and Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Here the Atlantic waves pound, in time of storm, with all the fury with which they break upon the rocky coasts of Brittany further north. Perhaps this would not be so, but for the fact that the Iberian coast to the southward runs almost at right angles with that of Gascony. As it is, while the climate is mild, Biarritz and the other cities on the coasts of the Gulf of Gascony have a fair proportion of what sailors, the world over, call “rough weather.”
The waters of the Gascon Gulf are not always angry; most frequently they are calm and blue, vivid with a translucence worthy of those of Capri, and it is this that makes the beach at Biarritz one of the most popular sea-bathing resorts in France to-day. It is a fashionable watering-place, but it is also, perhaps, the most beautifully disposed city to be found in all the round of the European coast line, its slightly curving slope dominated by a background terrace, decorative in it-self, but delightfully set off with its fringe of dwelling-houses, hotels, and casinos. Ostend is superbly laid out, but it is dreary; Monte Carlo is beautiful, but it is ultra; while Trouville is constrained and affected. Biarritz has the best features of all these…. Saint-Jean-de-Luz had a population of ten thousand two centuries ago; to-day it has three thousand, and most of these take in boarders, or in one way or another cater to the hordes of visitors who have made itor would, if they could have supprest its quiet Basque charm of coloring and character–a little Brighton.
Not all is lost, but four hundred houses were razed in the mid-eighteenth century by a tempest, and the stable population began to creep away; only with recent years an influx of strangers has arrived for a week’s or a month’s stay to take their placesif idling butterflies of fashion or imaginary invalids can really take the place of a hard-working, industrious colony of fishermen, who thought no more of sailing away to the South Antarctic or the banks of Newfoundland in an eighty-ton whaler than they did of seining sardines from a shallop in the Gulf of Gascony at their doors.