Biarritz is a popular tourist destination that has a double heritage. It was the favourite seaside resort of Emperor Napoleon III and his wife Empress Eugénie and the European capital of surfing.

One of the oldest French seaside resorts

The tourist history of Biarritz did not start during the Second Empire (1852-1870). When Victor Hugo (2014) discovered the city in 1843, during his trip to the Basque Country with Juliette Drouet, he admired the fact that the 1500 residents coexisted with unspoiled nature, and he feared its rapid transformation under the influence of money: “then Biarritz will no longer be Biarritz. It will be something colourless and bastardised like Dieppe and Ostend.”

“Biaris is recommended for sea bathing, indeed one cannot do so more comfortably anywhere else.”

Malesherbes, 1767

Sea bathing was renowned for its therapeutic virtues in the mid-18th century. In 1765, the sub-delegate of Bayonne ordered the paving of portions of roads because “people of quality” must come to bathe in the sea (Gibert, 2014: p. 16). In 1767, Malesherbes wrote that “Biaris is recommended for sea bathing, indeed one cannot do so more comfortably anywhere else.”  (Puyau, 2009: p. 26-27). The decline in maritime activity – in particular, whaling – was compensated by the growth of this new seaside activity. Projects to build changing huts on the beach were proposed in 1784 by a carpenter in the city but did not receive the approval of municipal authorities.

In the 1820s, as English occupation had helped to popularise the site during the Napoleonic wars, the municipal council realised the importance of providing conveniences and amenities for bathers. Access to the Port-Vieux beach was difficult and the amenities were rudimentary.

To regulate the seemingly uncontrolled development, the city decided in 1832 to impose a tax on each tent set up by individuals at the Vieux Port. In 1837, a municipal ordinance required bathers to change into bathing costumes in changing huts. Sailors in Biarritz then went into the business of selling huts and tents, and offering rescue services to the seaside establishments (Puyau, 2009: p. 121-124). The Spanish discovered these beaches during the civil war (1835) and the emigration of the Carlists (1839), including the Countess of Montijo who sought refuge there with her family, leaving behind the beaches of San Sebastian.

In 1852, Doctor Affre published the first edition of his Manuel des Baigneurs, which provided useful information for foreigners about “Biarrits.”

The intrusion of the imperial couple Eugénie and Napoleon III

The imperial couple had the Villa Eugénie built in 1855-1856 by architects Durand. With architecture too similar to a school or barracks, it was reconstructed in 1857. Its 40-meter-long façade of red bricks and stone cladding rises up 10 metres facing the sea. Two wings frame a courtyard facing the city (Ill. 1). Napoleon III and Eugénie spent all of their summers in this villa, accompanied by the best society of Europe, until 1868.

Ill. 1. The Villa Eugénie drawn by Hubert Clerget (1818-1899) (BNF Collection)

The opening of the Bayonne railway line made it easier for the imperial couple to travel to Biarritz. In 1857, the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer du Midi decided to extend the Bayonne-Hendaye line. The sovereigns’ life in Biarritz was simple and without ceremony. The first foreign political personalities arrived starting in 1857, including the King of Belgium in 1859, and five visits by Bismarck from 1862 onwards.

The urbanisation of the seafront continued. A great many villas (the term was used in Biarritz starting in 1841) and chalets were built, with a number intended for rental to tourists. Tourism in Biarritz was primarily hotel-based, mostly in family-run hotels. Tall houses were not the norm throughout the 19th century, with residences with three floors accounting for less than 1% of the total during the Second Empire (Puyau, 2009: p. 31).

The seaside resort was equipped with amenities considered necessary. The Bellevue Casino opened in 1857. The Moorish style Napoleon Baths, topped by two domes, were built by the municipality in 1858: 166 huts were made available to bathers (Ill. 2).

Ill. 2. Biarritz Beach, with the Casino and the Baths, drawn by Hubert Clerget (1818-1899) (BNF Collection)

The Second Empire ended after France’s defeat in the war with Prussia in 1870. Despite the testamentary provisions, Eugénie refused to live in Biarritz, but her absence did not hinder the seaside resort’s development.

An Attractive Resort

After the successful era of the Second Empire, Biarritz faced competition from other coastal resorts that were popping up along the French coastline, especially with the growing interest in summer destinations along the Mediterranean in the 20th century. However, Biarritz continued to attract an international clientèle, including English, Spanish, Russians starting in the 1890s, and Americans from the 1920s onwards. The number of tourists visiting Biarritz continued to rise, from 16,000 in 1879 to 40,500 in 1913 (Laborde, 2008: p. 78).

Development of the resort continued, with a tramway connecting Biarritz to Anglet and Bayonne in 1870. In 1881, a metal footbridge built by the Eiffel workshops was installed to link the Rocher de la Vierge to the mainland. This improvement was used to create a refuge port (now vanished), showing the multiple complementary uses of coastal improvements.

A socio-spatial differentiation emerged at the end of the 19th century. The older, working-class area of Biarritz, near the ports, grew denser due to the build-up of modest housing. An upper class area persisted in the north, with castle-like architecture in the Imperial Estate housing development, located on the site of the gardens of Villa Eugénie, and near the Grande Plage and the current Miramar Beach (formerly known as the Château Beach in 1884). In the south, the Basque Coast (for which the term “beach” was avoided as it was the birthplace of surfing in Europe) experienced more diffuse urban development, on the plateau, with few buildings along the coastline (Ill. 3).

Ill. 3. Map of Biarritz and surrounding area, by E. Ardoin (Map of Biarritz and surrounding area. Scale 1 / 5.000 e. / 1884 / Bibliothèque Patrimoniale Pau, côte 220067 / The map shows, in the north of the city, the early days of “The Domain of the Villa Eugenie” housing development, also known as the imperial domain development (numbered plots).

At the turn of the 20th century, the city was depicted in tourist guides and posters as both a summer and winter resort, at the expense of Pau, its main competitor among the English clientèle. The Saline Thermal Baths opened in 1893, and in 1912, Biarritz was classified as a coastal, climatic, thermal, and hydromineral resort.

A resort that benefited from the Roaring Twenties of seaside tourism

Biarritz experienced a boom in seaside tourism in the 1920s, like other large French resorts such as Deauville, as tourism began to become more widespread among different social classes (Ill. 4). Seaside tourism increased three-fold during the decade.

Ill. 4. Postcard of the Grande Plage de Biarritz in the Interwar period (BNF/Archives et bibliothèques Pau Béarn Pyrénées collection)

However, the financial crisis of 1929, along with the Spanish Civil War which resulted in a loss of regular tourists (diplomatic relations between France and Spain were halted between 1936 and 1947), led to the division of large properties and the closure of hotels (Hélianthe, La Roseraie etc.). The financial difficulties continued until World War II, as was the case in other major tourist destinations.

In the post-war period, Biarritz’s resort suffered from the outdated and dilapidated state of its hotel facilities. Focused on luxury clientèle, it no longer met the expectations of the more modest tourists, who sought out sunnier destinations such as the French Riviera or less expensive options like Spain in the 1950s. A 1950 guidebook on resort towns, “The Guide Alix,” noted this shift in the social demographic of tourists visiting Biarritz, stating “Biarritz is once again receiving its former clientèle.”

The crisis was short-lived. The construction of a new airport in 1954, with regular flights between Biarritz and London, allowed the resort to attract major personalities again, particularly show business celebrities. The seaside resort also found a new growth engine with the sport of surfing.

The image of excellence continues to this day. The reputation of the resort in connection with the imperial period remains intact, even though the Villa Eugénie estate was developed into housing at the end of the 19th century and the Villa Eugénie itself was transformed into a hotel (the Hôtel du Palais), which was rebuilt after a fire in 1907. For example, when Arcachon decided to build a golf course after World War II, it was Biarritz’s that served as a model. After the war, Jean Cocteau tried to establish a film festival in Biarritz to rival Cannes, but without lasting success. When the first “luxury hotel” distinction was awarded in France in 2011, the Hôtel du Palais was one of eight establishments selected, and the only luxury hotel on the Atlantic coast to date (2021). The sport of surfing has also played an important role in distinguishing Biarritz since the 1950s.

Surfing: Renewal in Continuity

In France, the country where surfing was introduced in Europe, the practice first took place on the beaches of the Basque Coast and specifically in Biarritz in the late 1950s. Books about the history of surfing describe the origin of surfing in France as coming from North America, through Peter Viertel, a California-based writer, director and scriptwriter who surfed in Biarritz while he was on holiday there in July 1957.

Peter Viertel, originally from East Germany, was 37 years old in 1957. He was enjoying growing fame in Hollywood, particularly due to his work with Alfred Hitchcock. He was under contract to Twentieth Century-Fox while working on the script for the movie The Sun Also Rises, which was filmed in the Basque Country in 1956.

Between 1955 and 1958, there were only about a dozen surfers in the area, but they nonetheless initially and symbolically coded the activity in France. The locals and the “Parisians on holiday in Biarritz” according to Joël de Rosnay, one of the “Tontons Surfeurs,” socially structured surfing in its early stages.

Joël de Rosnay was born in June 1937, in Curepipe on the island of Mauritius, where a neighbourhood bears his family name. He is from a wealthy social background and began travelling abroad at a very young age. He lived at the time in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. He has considerable cultural resources (he holds a PhD in sciences), as well as social and symbolic resources, and at the time was one of the only surfers bringing media attention to the sport by writing about surfing in the local press and specialised magazines.

The first surfing club in Biarritz was inaugurated in the presence of local elected officials, who saw surfing as a full-fledged sporting activity and shared the practitioners’ social and cultural values. The average age of the club’s active members, which was relatively high when the first club was created (31 years old), broke with the essentialist vision of surfers, who were often perceived as young. The first practitioners enjoyed high and cosmopolitan social resources, as evidenced by the list of honorary members of the “Waikiki Surf Club” in 1959: Hawaiian surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku; Peruvian entrepreneur Carlos Dogny; and local dignitaries, including Guy Petit, Senator and Mayor, and deputy mayors, the Marquis d’Arcangues, the president of the Biarritz Tourist Board, the President of the Biarritz Sports Union, the mayor of Anglet, and the president of the Anglet Tourist Board.

In 1960, the club had 39 active members. Most of the new members, not all of whom were surfers, were Parisian acquaintances of Joël de Rosnay with high social resources (family friends, golfing friends, etc.). Summer weekends were the best times to introduce surfing to summer visitors who flocked to the Grande Plage by the hundreds.

The local daily, La Gazette de Biarritz, began to mention surfing in its pages, particularly after July 20, 1960, when a demonstration was organised by the club, supported by the Biarritz Tourist Board. The magazines Elle, Marie-Claire, and L’Equipe published special reports on this “new” and still “exclusive” activity in Biarritz that same year. Surfing reinforced the image of a bourgeois resort, a place for “fashionable” sports. The rarity and novelty of surfing and the social properties of practitioners at the time were the conditions for the support of the Biarritz municipality for the clubs.

As a free and disinterested activity, surfing was a way for Biarritz surfers to maintain and diversify their already substantial social and symbolic capital. At this time, surfing was structured and shaped by a bourgeois habitus whose representatives were deeply committed to the values of the sport defended earlier by the aristocracy (Guibert, 2007). This process firmly established surfing within an Anglo-Saxon athletic and ascetic ethos. The first surfers were predisposed to introduce surfing in France, especially in Biarritz.

The first French Championships, won by Joël de Rosnay, took place in Biarritz on September 12, 1960 (sponsored by Caron Perfumes) and the first European Championships in August 1961. The Patou Cup, sponsored by Patou Perfumes, was held in 1964. That same year, the “Waikiki Surf Club” had 112 members. The number of competitions increased considerably, and the sponsors were prestigious, as indicated by names such as the Hermès Cup, the Chamonix Hotels Cup, and the Joubert Jewellery cup.

Surfing in Biarritz in the 21st Century: A Changing Regional Identity

Several coastal towns may claim a surf image as their identifying principle, but only Biarritz, with its history in French surfing, can successfully market itself as “authentic” – at least according to successive municipalities – a rare resource in the competitive space of surf cities.

However, over the long term, from the advent of surfing in Biarritz in the late 1950s to today, the identifying factors have undergone variations and reconfigurations that reinforce the theory that Biarritz’s relationship with surfing is non-linear. For instance, the “Biarritz Surf Master”, a professional competition in the 1980s, and then the “Biarritz Surf Festival” in the 1990s, an event promoting the legitimate (Polynesian) “culture” of surfing and the local history of the sport, have given way to the museumification and patrimonialisation of surfing.

A number of relatively ephemeral events have marked this political will to capitalise on the “eternal yesterday”. In 2007, “Surfing Biarritz, 50 ans de surf” was organised to showcase the introduction of surfing in the seaside resort in 1957 (Ill. 5), while exhibitions and numerous sports and cultural events were held in 2017 for the 60th anniversary of surfing in the town. The museum called the “Cité de l’Océan et du Surf” was inaugurated in 2011, a stage of the Women’s Longboard World Championships is held every summer and the “International Art Market Dedicated to Surfing”, a summer art gallery of surfing-related art works was put on several times in the 2000s and 2010s.

Ill. 5. Poster of the 60th anniversary of the introduction of surfing in Biarritz (Christophe Guibert collection)

These events, by relying on facts and representations linked to the past, structure the surfing space in Biarritz differently from that in other nearby communities (Lacanau, Hossegor, Seignosse, etc.) where professional competitions are the main source of regional identification. Events external to the local history are pretexts for the patrimonialisation of surfing in Biarritz, such as this event in July 2021 (Ill. 6) in honour of a Californian surfer, Greg Noll, a pioneer of big-wave surfing in the 1950s and 1960s in Hawaii, who passed away in June 2021.

Ill. 6. Photo of the tribute ceremony to Greg Noll, July 31, 2021, Côte des Basques Beach, in the presence of the last “Tontons Surfeurs” (photo by C. Guibert)

By relying on a distinctive dual “tradition”, namely “prestige” of the imperial era heritage and “authenticity” of surfing, which imbues the city with a certain art de vivre, the destination of Biarritz is clearly identified by tourists in search of history and/or sports in a coastal area.

Christophe Guibert et Johan Vincent


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