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A seaside holiday in France

Published September, 2012  Battle Creek Enquirer

Fresh oysters at Nopal Brothers at Les Halles.

In the freshest oyster, just opened, you can taste the sea. Biarritz, a lovely French city on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean and the border of Spain, you can see, taste, smell and feel the ocean in the food, the air and the warm spirit of the people.

The fortunes of the city have risen and fallen with the sea. Biarritz began as a whaling center in the 12th century. In the 1800s, European doctors recommended to their wealthy clients that the ocean at Biarritz had therapeutic properties. For us, an invitation from old friends prompted us to visit.

Biarritz, in the Basque region, straddles two countries. We flew into Bilbao, Spain – 90 minutes from our destination. Bordeaux, France is two hours the other way.

The city of Biaritzz, France

The town was discovered in 1854, when Empress Eugenie (wife to Napoleon III) built her palace on the beach. On a future visit, I plan to stay at the five-star Hotel du Palais, Imperial Resort and Spa. Why shouldn’t I indulge myself overnight at Eugenie’s palace? We wandered through the landmark hotel’s gardens and Belle Epoque lobby to admire the surf, and we pretended we were royalty.

We, of course, had much nicer accommodations with dear friends, where we laughed, cooked, ate, drank and then laughed some more. In the true French style, we went out every morning to buy fresh baguettes, croissants and sugar brioche (think large round doughnuts) to enjoy with our café au lait.

Eating, shopping for food, preparing food, and eating again were the primary aspects of the rhythm of French life and a terrific one for over-tired Yanks on vacation. Our daily walk was to the covered market, Les Halles, which stays open until 1:30 p.m. We first visited the Nopal brothers’ (Jean and Marc) oyster bar for the bargain price of six euros for six oysters and glass of wine ($7.50). The center of the room was filled with fresh fish of every kind. In the next hall were vegetables, fruits, cheese, poultry and meat, laid out in one tempting display after another.

Filling our bags with local cheeses and a fresh chicken to roast, we stopped by the Milwaukee Café, with American style counter service with baked goods, coffee and fresh juice. I wanted carrot cake, but had some tasty green beverage with carrot juice instead. I understand their pancakes are delicious, but we were past breakfast and rounding the corner to lunch.

A few hours on the beach were required before eating again. Biarritz has several choices including the La Grande Plage, where we parked ourselves on the sand. A long boardwalk filled with umbrella-topped tables provided a welcome break when we tired of the sand and surf. The waves were dotted with neoprene-clad people waiting for their big ride. I settled for a mystery novel, vowing that next time I would sign up for those surfing lessons.

A wonderful fish entree at Le Surfing.

The best surfing beach was a couple of coves over at the La Cotes des Basques. We visited a great restaurant on the same beach, appropriately called Le Surfing. It’s a special place to watch the surfers and the sunset while enjoying an excellent well-priced meal ranging from burgers to excellent fresh fish.

Biarritz caters to an upscale, summer clientele and featuring several lovely shopping streets. I went directly to the Jean-Vier linen store to browse Basque tablecloths. These brightly striped linens reflect the Basque traditions of the region.

Our last stop was to buy a Gateau Basque. The torte-like cake, with its crumbly almond texture, was the perfect ending to one of many terrific meals with friends in one of France’s most charming seaside cities.

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