Kim Jones and her family are bowled over by Biarritz
As I clutched my board and struggled to stay upright in the force of the crashing waves, I had to admit I’d underestimated the size of the surf on the French Atlantic coast. Now I was up to my neck in it, it was clear to see why the beaches around Biarritz are considered an European Mecca by professional surfers who know their stuff.
Me, my other half and our two sons are keen bodyboarders, but we’re more used to Brit beaches where the waves are kinder (albeit a lot colder). I’d never seen anything like these whoppers! Whilst I caught a few of the tamer sprays, I had to admit the big breakers were way too boisterous for me, so I left them to it and retired sharpish (and sheepish) to read a book, behind my sunglasses, on the beach.
We were holidaying near Biarritz, a grand, stylish old town overlooking the Atlantic near to the border of Spain, in the heart of the Basque country in south-western France. Fronted by The Grande Plage – the largest and ‘most fashionable’ beach of Biarritz – it’s a treat to take coffee at a café near the huge Municipal Casino overlooking this expanse of sand to people-watch.
The town is a magnet for surfers, so you’ll see lots of them strutting their stuff, but it’s also a favourite with well-heeled Parisians, as the array of chic designer shops in the town hint at.
There are countless costly eateries to dine in at Biarritz, but if you shop around, there are some well-priced authentic places to be found, too. We discovered an authentic fishing-shack – Casa Juan Pedro – down at the old port, an area of Biarritz that seems almost forgotten, complete with several mysterious-looking wooden fishing cottages looking out to sea. We had to queue for a table as we watched the busy chef barbecuing fish on a non-stop loop but the wait was worth it. Simply cooked, fresh and delicious sardines, calamari and Dorade (Sea Bream) washed down with unpretentious wine at a price that didn’t break the bank, savoured alongside the splashing waves.
Our base was Camping le Ruisseau, a Canvas Holidays campsite located in woodland near the village of Bidart and a short drive from Biarritz. The caravan was roomy and spotlessly clean with a view of the site’s outdoor pool complete with water slides (there’s also an indoor heated pool, with lazy river and Jacuzzi if the sun EVER stops shining). Other onsite activities include a gym, tennis courts, bicycles for hire and mini golf, plus a basketball and football court.
Campsite entertainment during our stay included the fascinating ‘Force Basque’ or ‘Strong Man Games’ – a traditional Basque competition where two teams of village farmers compete in unusual feats of strength based on agricultural tasks. Think ‘straw bale throwing’ – where players pitchfork a 12kg bale of straw over a horizontal bar which gets successively higher during each round, and a weight lifting race where players carry two 40kg milk pitchers, one in each hand, covering as much distance as they can. It was only when the teams called in spectators to have a go and some guys who looked pretty hefty had trouble even lifting up the pitchers that we realized just how strong these French farmers were! Mon Dieu indeed.
We were also lucky enough to catch an evening match of Pelota at a stadium in Bidart. It’s a traditional Basque game (every village has a Pelota wall) and is known as the world’s fastest sport. Two teams use ‘grand chisteras’ (curved baskets with integral leather gloves) to throw and catch a ball at high speed against a pelota wall. We weren’t sure of the rules, but it was an exciting watch nonetheless and if you cheer and gasp when the rest of the crowd do, no one will know you’re a novice.
Back to beach-life and, though my first attempt at bodyboarding was a washout, there were plenty more beaches for us to try. Biarritz itself boasts six strands along a six-kilometre coastline. All are sandy and have showers, but do take your own parasols as there’s no shade to be found for miles – and be warned that they all get jam-packed during summer holidays.
It’s well worth heading away from Biarritz to hunt for more space on the sands – the coast to the north and south is literally bursting with beaches, all with their own personalities, so we were spoilt for choice. We particularly liked the Corsaires beach in Anglet (with its own beach library serving free doughnuts) and the numerous beaches around Bidart. Most beaches are lifeguard-patrolled. There are flagged areas in which it’s safe to swim, but venture from these and you take your life in your hands thanks to the strength of the swell here.
During our week’s stay we managed to catch a few more waves without being swallowed up into the abyss. But I can see why there are so many surf schools here – aimed at naïve Brits like us who fancy their chances until they’re faced with the reality of the power of the Atlantic.
Brittany Ferries operate up to seven sailings a week from Plymouth and Portsmouth to Santander and Bilbao in northern Spain (Bilbao is about 100km, just over an hour and a half drive from Biarritz). Fares start from £229 each way based on two people sharing an en suite 2-berth cabin and taking their car. For more information visit www.brittanyferries.com or call 0871 244 1400.
Seven nights in a Classic (two bed) mobile home starts at £257. Price is for two adults and up to four children and includes return, off-peak ferry crossings from Dover-Calais. www.canvasholidays.co.uk
Pic credits: Atout France/Aquashot/L.Masurel