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Pulling in the glitz - BIARRITZ
Pulling in the glitz - BIARRITZ
Published FT November 3 2007

“How much do houses cost down memory lane?” A quarter of a century ago, I spent a summer scrubbing and debearding mussels in the kitchen of a family-run restaurant in Biarritz. Recently I returned, not just to reminisce but to investigate the area’s property boom.

On the Atlantic coast in the south-west corner of France, Biarritz was transformed from a small fishing port to a fashionable resort in the 19th century. Visiting the childhood holiday haunt of his wife, the Empress Eugenie, Napoleon III picked a prime spot on the beach, built a palace, the Villa Eugenie, in 1855 and spent most of the next 16 summer seasons there, trailing a parade of nobility. Soon, the town was known as “the queen of resorts and the resort of kings”.

An ensuing wave of development saw wealthy newcomers build a number of grand, stone villas in a variety of fantastic architectural styles on the rocks overlooking the sea. And, even following Napoleon’s defeat, a fresh wave of aristocrats, including Queen Victoria and many Russians, flocked to Biarritz. Villa Eugenie became a casino, then the Hotel du Palais.

The 1920s and 1930s were another boom time for the area and royals rubbed shoulders with celebrities of the day: Igor Stravinsky, Sarah Bernhardt, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Cocteau and Coco Chanel. Gambling was a favoured pastime and they played in the newly built art deco casino.

Some bought or built residences in town or in nearby coastal villages – Villa Leihorra by renowned architect Joseph Hiriart with its stained glass windows, ironwork and inner courtyard in Ciboure is one example – while others preferred life inland, buying up traditional Basquais farmhouses with stone-walled ground floors, wooden-framed first floors and low, sloping red-tiled roofs, which were renovated with bigger windows and building extensions. “They also added neo-classical collonaded porches on the front door and a balcony, in order to make the building more noble,” explains Catherine Thomine Desmazures of estate agency Emile Garcin.

Though Biarritz calmed down during the second world war and its aftermath, it was still fashionable in the 1950s and 1960s. The latter half of the 20th century saw some people scared away by Basque separatism but, since 2000, the area has come back into vogue, helped by the arrival of direct flights from Paris, Dublin and London. “Prices have doubled since 2000,” says Julia Troccaz from property-finding service Beyond Biarritz. “Modern villas are very popular with prices starting at €700,000 ($1bn), while chicer properties are going for €1.5m-€2m depending on size and setting. And there’s good year-round rental prospects.”

In Biarritz itself many of the big villas have been turned into apartments, with sea-view units priced at about €10,000 per sq metre, though the cost of flats not near the waterfront but within walking distance might be half that. A 320 sq metre, six-bedroom, six-bathroom space in an 1890s mansion block in the centre of town with a pool and large terraced garden is on the market at €1.95m, while a 45 sq metre studio in need of renovation in a 1930s house recently sold for €180,000. Villa Leihorra, which is in need of significant repairs since ocean spray has corroded the iron reinforcing rods inside its concrete walls, sold for €3m.

Inland are the farmhouses-turned-mansions. One renovated example, with 400 sq metres, a pool and maison d’amis is on the market with Emile Garcin for just over €3.25m, though farms in need of modernisation, with less land and in worse sites, can still be found for under €1m. A pretty, 300 sq metre house with a garden might go for €1m or less if it is right in the centre of a village.

Tight planning controls will limit too much additional construction – “it’s not the Côte d’Azur!” one agent tells me – but there is one new development 45 minutes north of Biarritz in the Landes near the golf course at Moliets et Maâ. “It’s a lot wilder up there, with unspoilt big beaches and the pine forest behind,” Troccaz says.

Most people with homes in Biarritz are there for the beaches, where great, crashing Atlantic rollers come in on blustery days. An annual week-long surfing festival is a tribute to the quality of the waves on the Côte des Basques and at Anglet. “The surprising thing is to go down to the beach and see so many grey-haired surfers,” says Benoit Verdet of Emile Garcin.

But golf is another draw, with four top 100 courses (as ranked by Golf World) plus five other courses within half an hour of Biarritz, including Biarritz La Phare, one of the oldest on the continent, which was first laid out in 1888. “The south-west region of France is recognised as one of the strongest golf areas in Europe,” says Morgan Clarke of French Golf Holidays. “If you want good golf and a great party afterwards, Biarritz is the place.”

In winter, there are also several ski stations only two hours from the airport by car. “Within the triangle of Aihetze, Arbonne and Arcangues is the popular area for those wanting to be between the mountains and the sea,” Desmazures says. “These are small rural villages with a few shops for the essentials.”

Graham Williams, a UK-based executive, and his wife Brigitte bought a seven-bedroom 1950s house to renovate in Guethary, a tiny former whaling village on the coast between Biarritz and Saint-Jean-de-Luz, which is now a super-chic enclave for second-home owners from Paris. “We thought this was an area which had retained its identity and hadn’t been overdeveloped,” he says. “It’s a very French community. There are several lively restaurants, which are less touristy than in the bigger towns, and then you go up into the mountains and find beautiful villages where you can eat a terrific rabbit stew for very little. If you like wine, you’re only two hours from Bordeaux.”

It sounds just like the Biarritz I enjoyed all those summers ago. When I wasn’t working, I enjoyed the food and the wine, explored the towns and, best of all, relaxed in a deck chair on the Grande Plage, salt spray on my face and sand between my toes.

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Local agents

Emile Garcin: Tel: 33 (0)5-59 01 59 59; www.emilegarcin.fr Beyond Biarritz: Tel: 33 (0)5-59 93 86 18; www.beyondbiarritz.com
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