When people think of France, their mind immediately jumps to Paris. And who could blame them? Every inch of the capital oozes with romance and possibility; every street sign, terrace, and quartier has the zest of the tricolor flag. One feels plucked out of a Maupassant novel, ambling through the shadows of columned Rue de Rivoli – a flaneur -, or having a degustation of a vigneron’s new cuvée in the Jardins de Luxembourg.
On paper, who wouldn’t choose the city of love and lights for a year abroad? There’s buckets of schools, universities and opportunities for internships, as well as countless other British students, desperately trying to appear Parisian with their fur coats and vintage sunglasses. On paper, it’s a safe bet. A safe bet, but a boring one, and what’s more, it’s just plain lazy. In terms of area, Paris roughly occupies 0.015% of the total area of France, which leaves 99.985% of cosy villages, awe-inspiring, silent Alps, sweltering coasts, and tons of other cities, rendered all the more attractive by their lack of English presence.
The destination I propose is an ideal location for anyone planning a year abroad, or for anyone wanting a break post-Covid. When I asked a market vendor why he chose to live there, he responded passionately ‘c’est le paradis quoi’ – it’s paradise you know.
Arriving in Gare du Nord, choose adventure and kiss Paris goodbye; head down to Gare Montparnasse and take the train destined for Hendaye. Swap Maupassant for Hemingway as you cruise past Bayonne before disembarking at your final destination…
Biarritz is a city right in the south-western corner of France, flanked by the mighty Atlantic with the Pyrenees only 20 miles to the south. Though it may be small (its population is roughly 25,000), it makes up for this by its charm, natural beauty, and opportunities quite unlike anything else on offer in France.
Walking from the station to the centre, you are overwhelmed by a wave of smell; a certain je-ne-sais-quoi touch reminding you that you are far away from the cold, wet boulevards of the capital. Palm trees jut out among the baserri – half-timbered/stone farmhouse-style houses typical of Spanish and French Basque country. As you begin to descend towards the old port and the centre, this traditional style is found in the mansions and intricate châteaus, built in the late 19th century when Napoleon III made the city a hotspot for the upper-class. Continue into the vieux port, with its blend of unassuming bars, surf shops and high-end fashion, or pop into the market where organic fruit and veg, and vegan cooking combine with grass-fed Basque meat and beer on-tap. As the day goes along, it is worth heading to Cheri Bibi, a cave à vin specialising in natural wine from all over France.
For any outdoor sport enthusiast, this area is a mecca. In 1957, European surfing was born in Biarritz when an American tourist decided to have a go out on the waves – the first time that surfing had ever been practiced in Europe. Nowadays, clusters of bodies, like colonies of bobbing seagulls, can be found on the two main breaks (Grand Plage and Côte de Basques), whilst others, fleeing the crowds, push up to Hossegor or down to Bidart. If you prefer the land, hiking is limitless in this region, as mountains loom to the south and east, and the Camino de Santiago slithers below – its start only 55km away in Saint Jean Pied de Pont.
The Spanish border itself is a 20 minute train journey away, and a short metro ride after that takes you to San Sebastian; a city described by the Telegraph as the “world’s best city for foodies”. Onwards from there, the heat and sex of Hemingway’s Pamplona is only an hour’s bus away, with easy access to Madrid, and even Portugal.
Above all, Biarritz shines brighter than Paris; heck, more than any other city in France, thanks to the people and the community. To anyone wanting to feel part of it, experience the sunset from Côte de Basques. Every evening when the sky is blue and the sun is kissing the timber with its heat, families, groups of friends and couples perch on the wall of the beach carpark watching the sun sink over northern Spain. When I first experienced such a sunset, I remember thinking to myself that such a moment could happen nowhere else in France. A group of locals, all in love with their city, chatting, smoking, and drinking, their laughter harmonising with the crashing of the swell as orange and then red stripes appeared in the sky – a people coming together in the midst of a pandemic. Gone was the blaring traffic, the impersonal rush of bodies everywhere, and the throngs of Oxbridge students trying to keep up their Parisian disguise. In their place came tranquillity, pride in their identity, and a palpable connection with the rest of Europe.
Images by Henry Donoghue