Biarritz is located on the Bay of Biscay, on the Atlantic coast of Aquitaine in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department (64) in the French Basque Country in southwestern France. It is located 35 kilometres (22 mi) from the border with Spain. It is a seaside tourist destination known for the Hôtel du Palais (originally built for the Empress Eugénie circa 1855), its casinos and its surfing culture.
Analysis of stones from the Middle Paleolithic age shows that the Biarritz area was inhabited at that time. The Middle Paleolithic broadly spanned from 300,000 to 30,000 years ago. Modern humans began migrating out of Africa during the Middle Stone Age/Middle Paleolithic around 100,000 or 70,000 years ago and began to replace earlier pre-existing Homo species such as the Neanderthals and Homo erectus.
The oldest mention of Biarritz appears in a cartulary, Baiona’s Golden book, from 1186. The first urban town was at the plateau in the interior, where the church of San Martin is located today. This church is the oldest in Biarritz. In 1152, Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II of England, who became suzerain (Emperor) of the Duchy of Aquitaine. Prince Edward, oldest son of Henry III of England, was invested with the duchy, and betrothed to Eleanor of Castile, who brought him rights over Gascony. (Modern day Aquitaine/SW France)
Two population centers are recorded in the Middle Ages in what is today Biarritz. On one hand, the église Saint-Martin was active in the neighbourhoods in the territory’s interior. On the other hand, the château of Belay, also called château de Ferragus, protected the coast and the current Port-Vieux (old port), while religious life and community assemblies took place at Notre-Dame-de-Pitié dominating the Port-des-Pêcheurs, or fishing port.
Fishing activity is documented on May 26, 1342 authorising ‘les Biarrots’ to “remit to Bayonne all the fresh fish that inhabitants of Biarritz can fish from the salt sea”. Suffice it to say Biarritz was a settled community from early in the 2nd millennium and earned its wealth from Fishing and whaling. Construction of the château de Ferragus was decided by the English, on the foundations of a Roman work, on the summit of the promontory overlooking the sea, Atalaye, used as a whale-observation post.
Basques and Whaling
Most documents, records and official agreements in the archives from Biarritz mention whaling. This was the principal local industry. Consequently, the town’s coat of arms features the image of a whale below a rowing boat manned by five sailors wearing berets, one of whom is preparing to throw a harpoon. This is the inscription on it: Aura, sidus, mare, adjuvant me (The air, the stars and the seas are helping me).
Biarritz has long made its living from the sea: and from the 12th century onwards, it was a whaling town. In the 18th century, doctors claimed that the ocean at Biarritz had therapeutic properties, inspiring patients to make pilgrimages to the beach for alleged cures for their ailments. After the 7th century, Biarritz had many confrontations with Baiona, with the Kingdom of England – Labourd (Lapurdi) was under English control at the time – and with the Bishop of Baiona. Almost all the disputes were about whale hunting. In 1284, the town’s right to hunt whales was reinstated by the authorities of Lapurdi and the Duchy of Aquitaine.
From the Middle Ages and Early modern period a watchtower looked down over the sea at Biarritz, from Atalaye, waiting for the sight of a whale. Whenever a whale was sighted, they would burn wet straw, to create a large amount of smoke and thus communicate the news to their fellows. The watchtower no longer exists. Even though the population from Biarritz was originally Basque, it is hard to assert whether the main language of the village was Basque or French.
The Basques were among the first to catch whales commercially, and dominated the trade for five centuries, spreading to the far corners of the North Atlantic and even reaching the South Atlantic. The French explorer Samuel de Champlain, when writing about Basque whaling in Newfoundland, described them as “the cleverest men at this fishing”. By the early 17th century, other nations entered the trade in earnest, seeking the Basques as tutors, “for they were then the only people who understand whaling”, lamented the English explorer Jonas Poole.
Having learned the trade themselves, other nations adopted their techniques and soon dominated the burgeoning industry – often to the exclusion of their former instructors. Basque whaling peaked in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, but was in decline by the late 17th and early 18th centuries. By the 19th century, it was moribund as the Right Whale was nearly extinct and the Bowhead Whale was decimated.
In the 16th century, the whales migrated to other places. Whale hunters from Labourd/Lapurdi crossed the Atlantic in pursuit of them, and spent time in the Labrador Peninsula and in Newfoundland. Later, instead of hunting whales, they started cod fishing in Newfoundland. A century later, due to the ban on fishing off the coasts of America and the steely competence of English and Dutch fishermen, the number of fishing boats from Biarritz diminished and nowadays, the Biarritz fishing industry in these areas has come to an end.
By the end of the 1500s Basques (French & Spanish) were delivering large cargoes of whale oil to Bristol, London, and Flanders. A large market existed for “lumera”, as whale oil used for lighting was called. “Sain” or “grasa de ballena” was also used (by mixing it with tar and oakum) for caulking ships, as well as in the textile industry. Ambroise Paré (1510–90), who visited Bayonne when King Charles IX was there in 1564, said they used the baleen to “make farthingales, stays for women, knife-handles, and many other things”.
As early as the 14th century, Basque whalers made “seasonal trips” to southern Ireland and the English Channel undoubtedly targeting right whales. These regions became particularly well-known to them by the 16th century. By the first decade of the 17th century, Basque whaling had reached Brazil, on the initiative of the colonial government. With imports of whale oil from the Basque region and Cape Verde not meeting the demands of the expanding colonial sugar industry, they saw a solution in the humpback and southern right whales that inhabited their coastal waters.
The first mention of Basque whaling in Iceland is from the early 17th century. Basques whalers were active around the Westfjords in 1610.and were whaling from Strandir in 1608. 26 Basque ships were sent to Iceland in 1614. Only ten reached Iceland, as the rest had been scattered or robbed by the English. Most of the Spanish Basque ships spent the summer in Steingrímsfjörðer, while a few of the French Basque were situated to the north. Basque whaling in Iceland continued, but by the second half of the 17th century, French and Dutch whalers were present more often than the Spanish Basques. Ships from the French Basque ports hunted whales off Iceland. They resorted to Iceland during the latter part of the season after having finished whaling off the eastern coast of Greenland.
In the northeastern North Atlantic in the early 17th century Basques whaling expeditions went to Spitsbergen, where they hunted the bowhead whale. Upon reaching Spitsbergen they discovered such an abundance of whales “that for a stretch of sixty leagues along the coast the sea was obscured.” The expedition returned “with glowing reports of the wealth of the fishery” that a patent was secured from the Viceroy of Navarre. Its report led others to send out a fleet of whaleships to Spitsbergen, including the ports of Holland, northern France, and the Basque provinces. This ended in commercial disaster and conflict with the English and Dutch.
In Finnmark (Northern Norway) the Basques received the same undue treatment they had met with in Spitsbergen and Iceland. In order to avoid having to pay fines to the sovereigns of northern lands (e.g. Spitsbergen, Finnmark), the Basques began using ship-board tryworks to process blubber into oil. This technique was introduced in 1635. Whales could now be caught and processed offshore. Off Northern Norway, French Basque whaleships hunted whales “à flot”, in other words, offshore
The last Basque (French or Spanish) whaling expeditions were prior to the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). Several attempts were made to revive the trade, but they were unsuccessful.
Biarritz was an independent municipality until 1784, governed by a clergyman, and twelve deputies. Deputies were democratically chosen: there were four neighbourhoods, and three deputies had to be chosen from each of them. However, deputies were chosen by the abbot and sworn. Since they had no Town House, they gathered in a ward near the church. As they had no place for meeting, they had their meetings in the cemetery. At that time, Biarritz had around 1,700 citizens. In the mid-18th century, the city began to change into a worldwide known bathing-city.
From 1784 onwards, after the French Revolution, taking a bath in the sea was no longer behaviour of those who were considered fools; sea-baths were fashionable. In 1808, Napoleon himself broke prejudices and took a bath on the Basque Country’s coastal water. In 1840, the Municipality of Biarritz organized an initiative to promote and attract those who loved the sea. From the 11th century, Biarritz was a village dedicated to whale hunting, until Victor Hugo, found it in 1843. He complimented Biarritz in his book “Alpeak eta Pirinioak” as follows
I have not met in the world any place more pleasant and perfect than Biarritz. I have never seen the old Neptune throwing joy and glory with such a force in the old Cybele. This entire coast is full of humming. Gascony’s sea grinds, scratches, and stretches on the reefs it’s never ending whisper. Friendly population and white cheerful houses, large dunes, fine sand, great caves and proud sea, Biarritz is amazing. My only fear is Biarritz becoming fashionable. Whether this happens, the wild village, rural and still honest Biarritz, will be money-hungry. Biarritz will put poplars in the hills, railings in the dunes, kiosks in the rocks, seats in the caves, trousers worn on tourists.
Either for good or for bad, Victor Hugo’s prophecy was fulfilled. Biarritz planted poplars, tamarinds, hydrangeas, roses and pitosforuses on the slopes and the hills, set railings on the dunes, covered moats with elegant stairs… and polluted with land-speculation and money-hunger. Humble and proud tourists praise Biarritz’s coast. Biarritz became more renowned in 1854 when Empress Eugenie (wife of Napoleon III) built a palace on the beach (now the Hôtel du Palais). European royalty, including British monarchs Queen Victoria and King Edward VII (who caused a minor scandal when he called H. H. Asquith to kiss hands at Biarritz in 1908 rather than return to London for the purpose), and the Spanish king Alfonso XIII, were frequent visitors.
The Biarritz casino, opened 10 August 1901, and beaches, made the town a notable tourist centre for Europeans and East Coast North Americans. The city has also become a prime destination for surfers from around the world, developing a nightlife and surf-based culture.
The presence of French Republic’s authorities and the fact of having launched the Paris-Hendaye train, led Biarritz to become one of the most outstanding tourist areas all over Europe. The queen of the beaches became the beach of the kings: Oskar II from Sweden, Leopoldo from Belgium, tireless traveller, the empress of Russia, Nikolas II’s mother, Elisabeth from Austria, Natalia from Serbia, and her ill son Alexandro, Jurgi V from England, Eduardo VII and England’s Queen, Alfonso XIII from Spain, aristocrats, rich people, actors, from Europe and South America… In the summer-time, high-status people gathered in Biarritz.
The big store, Biarritz Bonheur, created in 1894, and enlarged twice (in 1911 and 1926), and still operating, became the temple of luxury and fashion. At the start of the 20th century, most of its workers spoke in English.
At the end of World War II in Europe, the U.S. Army’s Information and Educational Branch was ordered to establish an overseas university campus for demobilized American service men and women in the French resort town of Biarritz. Hotels and casinos of Biarritz were converted into quarters, labs, and class spaces for U.S. service personnel. The University opened 10 August 1945 and about 10,000 students attended an eight-week term. This campus was set up to provide a transition between army life and subsequent attendance at a university in the USA, so students attended for just one term. After three successful terms, the G.I. University closed in March 1946
In 1957, the American film director Peter Viertel was in Biarritz with his wife Deborah Kerr working on the film The Sun Also Rises. One of his Californian friends came for a visit, and his use of a surfboard off Biarritz is recognized as the first time surfing was practised in Europe. Biarritz eventually became one of the most popular European surfing spots. The coastline is known for having the ‘best beach breaks in the world’