On the French Atlantic coast, shun the beach in favour of a tree-lined avenue and a delightful covered market, perfect for that most Gallic of pastimes: people-watching.
Could it be that the best thing about Biarritz is the French? An English yelp or a German bark is an infrequent, head-turning occurrence along the promenade even at the height of summer, making Biarritz a breath of fresh Atlantic air in comparison to the desperately Anglicised south of France.
Biarritz is the belle of the belle époque, a coastal enclave that has played, and still does play, host to kings, queens and French society’s thinkers and drinkers. Just 32km from the Spanish border, the town has a unique character and can be best described as having the ambiance and attitude of a snazzy ski resort by the sea. Towards the end of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century, Biarritz was the preferred suntrap of European royalty and the grandparents of what would become the jetset.
The town’s hilly streets feed down towards two beaches. One oft-overlooked stretch is Avenue Victor Hugo and the adjoining square. Although Victor Hugo is just steps away from the high-end shopping drag of Place Georges Clemenceau, this leafy residential street is a quiet diversion from the moneyed masses.
Food is the main fixation on the avenue. Forget the beach – the best place to observe locals and while away the morning is in Les Halles, the elegant covered market where you can see winsome housewives squeezing and sniffing fresh produce for the evening pot.
After a Basque lunch at Bar Jean, wander along Victor Hugo and pick out a hat at the milliner before grabbing a bottle of Txacolí, the lightly sparkling Basque white wine, at Caves Bordelaises.
Avenue Victor Hugo
No 1 Backgammon
What drew us to Backgammon were the colourful, handmade puppets in the window. A pleasure to browse in, this is the kind of grown-up toy shop you wish your kids were interested in.
No 5 Maison Arostéguy For 134 years, the Arostéguys have been supplying the wealthiest residents with essentials for their larders. For everyone else the family has launched its own line in foie gras, caviar and teas and coffees. Current proprietor Pierre (pictured) is always on hand to take you through the range of everyday, and not so regular, delicacies.
No 6 Le Rond dans l’Eau This furniture shop opened in 1975 to deck out Biarritz’s beach and townhouses in the latest interior trends. The owner still offers advice and a secretive nod in the right direction – she has a curator’s eye for detail.
No 8 Divine
Milliner Jean-François Legrand and his partner Pascale Testant sell seasonal hats and timeless styles from their atelier halfway up Victor Hugo. The couple’s haphazard display wouldn’t be out of place in Paris’s first arrondissement and les chapeaux, including perfect Panamas, are a cut above.
No 9 Cour Intérieure
Many of the local houses have perfectly attended grounds thanks to their gardeners, but when it comes to bringing the outside in they turn to Cour Intérieure for their bouquets, arrangements and indoor garden implements.
No 20 Caves Bordelaises
Caves Bordelaises specialises in local wines including Bordeaux from a little further north and even Basque varieties. One of our favourites is the sparkling local Txacolí, which is ideal for a picnic on the beach.
It is very rare to discover a market that is both authentic and well kept. Fresher than the Bay of Biscay and as clean as a Rothschild Reserve, this covered market offers everything: cured meats, breads, conserves, seafood and fruit and veg – all grown, picked, fished and slaughtered locally. Open daily from 09.00 until 13.30 and worth the trip alone.
No 1 Maison Charles Larre
Originally produced as cloths to be put on the backs of oxen in the fields, Basque linen has evolved and the signature stripe is now applied to espadrilles, table linen and bag cloth. An authentic and lesser-known locally woven product.
No 5 Bar Jean
Bar Jean is the life and soul of Les Halles. Lunch is served by sexy waiting staff who chatter away in French, Spanish and Basque. Let them take you through a menu of seafood, lamb and tasty dessert dishes. Try to get a table on the street or out back for bigger parties.
No 7 Café Moka Fina
Specialising in Brazilian blends, the baristas have a grinding room next to the café that they will be happy to show you around. For the best espresso in the region, head here and sip your coffee at the ingenious retractable tables outside the shop.