Biarritz is pronounced Bjaʁits in French; in Basque: Biarritz [biarits̻] or Miarritze [miarits̻e]; and Gascon Occitan: Biàrritz [ˈbjarits]
Biarritz is located on the Bay of Biscay, on the Atlantic coast of Aquitaine in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department 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 Palaeolithic age shows that the Biarritz area was inhabited at that time. The Middle Palaeolithic broadly spanned from 300,000 to 30,000 years ago. Modern humans began migrating out of Africa during the Middle Stone Age/Middle Palaeolithic around 100,000 or 70,000 years ago and began to replace earlier pre-existing Homo species such as the Neanderthals and Homo erectus.
French Basque Country
The oldest mention of Biarritz appears in a cartulary, Baiona’s Golden book, from 1186. The first urban town was at the top, and 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. On one hand, the église Saint-Martin (Biarritz) was active in the neighbourhoods in the territory’s interior. On the other hand, the château of Belay, also called château de Ferragus (Biarritz), 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 in Biarritz.
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 was used as a whale-observation post.
Superb view from the Atalaye plateau Lookout
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. The inscription written on it is: 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) – 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.
Basque Whaling fisheries in 1720
A document exists which states in the year 670 a delivery of 40 “moyos” (casks of 250 litres) of “aceite de ballena” (whale oil) or “grasa de ballena” (whale blubber) was made from Bayonne to the abbey of Jumièges, between Le Havre and Rouen, for its use in lighting. A bill was passed in 1059 to concentrate whale meat in the market of Bayonne. By 1150 whaling had spread to the Basque provinces in Spain. This document also states that “in accordance with custom, the King should have a slice of each whale, along the backbone, from the head to the tail”. Whaling also spread to Asturias in 1232 and finally to Galicia in 1371.
Up to 49 ports had whaling establishments along the coast from the French Basque country to Cape Finisterre. The principal target of the trade was what the French Basques called “sarde” later called the Biscayan right whale, and now known as the North Atlantic right whale. It was caught during its migration from October/November to February/March, with peak catching occurring in January. They may have also hunted the grey whale, which existed in the North Atlantic until at least the early 18th century. They may also have caught the occasional sperm whale. Remains of this species have been found in the old buildings used to try out the blubber into oil.
When a whale was sighted, the watchman alerted their fellows by burning straw, beating a drum, ringing a bell or waving a flag. Once alerted, the whalers launched small rowing boats. The whale was struck with a two-fluted harpoon, lanced, and killed. A larger boat manned by ten men towed the carcass ashore, waiting for high tide to beach the whale, where it was flensed. The blubber was then brought to a boiling house where it was rendered into oil.
Whalers preparing to harpoon
The whalers of Biarritz and the rest of the French Basque country were exempt from taxation, although they voluntarily gave the whales’ tongues to the church as a gift. The kings of England, acting as the Dukes of Guyenne (Aquitaine), began tax/charges to be enacted against them. Under a 1324 edict, Edward II (1307–27) collected a duty on the whales caught in British waters, which included the French Basque coast. His successor, Edward III (1327–77), continued this tradition by collecting a £6 tax for each whale taken and landed at Biarritz. In 1338, this was relinquished to Peter de Puyanne, admiral of the English fleet stationed at neighbouring Bayonne.
The trade had reached such importance in the Basque Provinces that several towns and villages depicted whales or whaling scenes on their seals and coat-of-arms. This practice included many towns in Spain, and Biarritz, Guéthary, and Hendaye in France. Whaling was important enough that laws were passed in 1521 and 1530, barring foreign (French) whalers from operating off the Spanish coast, while in 1619 and 1649; foreign whale products could not be sold in Spanish markets.
The industry in the French Basque region never reached the importance it did in the Spanish provinces. Few towns participated and only a small number of whales were probably taken. From the number of documents and written references Aguilar surmised that French Basque whaling peaked in the second half of the 13th century, and subsequently declined.
Only four whales were reportedly caught in the Bay of Biscay in the 19th century. The first was caught off Hondarribia in 1805, the second off San Sebastian in 1854, the third off Getaria-Zarautz in 1878, and the last off San Sebastian in 1893. The Basques, Bretons, and Normans were the first to reach the New World “before any other people”. Bordeaux jurist ‘Etienne de Cleirac’ in 1647 made a similar claim, in stating that the French Basques were pursuing whales across the North Atlantic, and discovered North America a century before Columbus. Belgian cetologist Pierre-Joseph van Beneden (1878-1892) repeated such assertions by saying the Basques, in the year 1372, found the number of whales to increase on approaching the Newfoundland Banks.
Basque whalers at Red Bay Labrador
The first undisputed presence of Basque whaling expeditions in the New World was in the second quarter of the 16th century. It appears to have been the French Basques, following the lead of Breton cod-fishermen that reported finding rich whaling grounds in Newfoundland and Labrador. The Basques called the area they frequented “Grandbaya” (Grand Bay), today known as the Strait of Belle Isle, which separates Newfoundland from southern Labrador.
Initial voyages to this area were mixed cod and whaling ventures. Instead of returning home with whale oil, they brought back whale meat in brine. The French Basque ship La Catherine d’Urtubie made the first known voyage involving whale products in 1530, when she returned with 4,500 dried and cured cod, as well as twelve barrels of whale meat. After a period of development, expeditions were sent purely aimed at obtaining whale oil. The first establishments for processing whale oil in southern Labrador may have been built in the late 1530s,
By the end of the 1500s the 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”.
Two species of whale were hunted in southern Labrador, the North Atlantic right whale and the bowhead whale. The former were taken during the “early” season in the summer, while the latter was caught from the fall to early winter. The Spanish Basques used well-armed galleons of up to 600–700 tons, while the French Basques usually fitted out smaller vessels. An intensive era of whaling began when peace was established after the French/Basque ‘Valois marriage’ in 1572. An average of fifteen ships was sent to Newfoundland each year, with twenty being sent during the peak years.
The end came in 1697, when the Spanish Basques were prevented from sending out whaling expeditions to Newfoundland, while the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) finally expelled them from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Later the French Basques still sent whaling expeditions to Newfoundland, often basing them at Louisbourg, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. The port of Louisbourg was an important investment for the French government because it gave them a strong commercial and military foothold in the Grand Banks. For France, the fishing industry was more lucrative than the fur trade in New France /North America.
As early as the 14th century, Basque whale men 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.
Lacking the technical know-how to hunt them, they sought help abroad. In 1602, Basque whalers accompanied the governor general of Brazil; to the colonial capital of Bahia de Todos os Santos and it was there that crews introduced commercial whaling to colonial Brazil. Each year for a decade Basque ships made runs from Biscay to Brazil, where the oil they produced supplied sugar mills with a dependable source of fuel for nocturnal grinding, as well as oil for lubricating machinery and caulking boats and ships. This ended in 1610, when one of the Basque captains tried to smuggle Brazil wood out of the country. The same year the crown declared whaling to be a royal monopoly.
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 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.
Basque whaling in Iceland 17th century
It was in the northeastern North Atlantic in the early 17th century that 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
In the northeastern North Atlantic the French Basques employed 250-ton frigates (r. 100–350 tons) with reinforced stem-posts and timbers in order to withstand the rigors of whaling in the West Ice – the area between eastern Greenland and Spitsbergen. They were also fitted with six to fourteen cannons, as France and Holland were often at war during this period. Poor catches in the 1680s and the War of the League of Augsburg (1688–97) caused a dramatic decline in French Basque whaling. By the early 18th century, only one or two vessels were left in the trade.
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. The first Biarritz lighthouse was built in 1650.
Whale ship design
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-town’.
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. All this 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 make 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 Victoria, Alfonso XIII from Spain, aristocrats, rich people, actors, from Europe and South America… In the summer-time, high-status people gathered in Biarritz. Therefore, the number of population remarkably increased, from 5,000 to 18,000. At the end of the 19th century, 50,000 vacationers were gathering 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
Southwest France, maybe the ‘best beach breaks’ in the world
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 and the coastline is known for having the ‘best beach breaks’ in the world
Recent royal visitors to Biarritz in 2016 were Prince William (future king of England) and his wife Kate the Duchess of York and their two children Prince George and Princess Charlotte.
World Surfing Champions, Jeff Hakman, Nat Young, Paul Nielsen, Ian Cairns, Mark Richards, Mark Warren, Reno Abeliro, Peter Townend, Shawn Tomson, Wayne ‘Rabbit’ Bartholomew, Tom Carroll, Tom Curren, Damien Hardman, Barton Lynch, Martin Potter, Kelly Slater, Derek Ho, Marc Occhilupo, Sunny Garcia, C.J. Hobgood, Andy Irons, Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson and Gabriel Medina have all surfed at Biarritz such is the quality of the waves there. The Champions represent the cream of the competitive surfing world since 1974.
The Quiksilver surf brand has their European headquarters just to the south of Biarritz since 1984, whilst Billabong and Rip Curl have their European headquarters just to the north of Biarritz. With France having been selected for the 2024 Olympics, Biarritz will again be the focus of sports and surfing world fans in 2024. If nature fails to provide suitable waves at the beaches, an artificial wave pool is to be constructed in or near Biarritz with a projected budget of 20 million euros, which will ensure a successful Olympic surfing event.
G7 meeting Biarritz in 2019
Biarritz was again be in the headlines in august 2019. The 2019 G7 meeting of World Leaders took place in Biarritz 25 to 27 August 2019. It is hoped the reader will be suitably attracted to Biarritz and to attend the AA Conventions hosted here in this or the coming years.