Basque Rivier : Two French Resort Towns-One Undiscovered, One Coming Back to Elegant Life- Are Blissfully Far From the Madding Cote d'Azur Crowd

The Malibu-based Ringers are frequent contributors to the Travel Section.

A seaside resort in France where hotel and restaurant prices are reasonable and where the staffs are actually friendly? Where most of the beaches are still open to the public and free of pollution? Where traffic congestion and the clangor of high-rise construction are all but nonexistent?

We fled to such a place early last May to escape the gridlock along the corniches of the Cote d'Azur--the French Riviera--and also to escape prices from Menton to Cassis that were astronomically higher than on our last visit just two years earlier.

But we found much more than affordable prices and relief from bedlam in St.-Jean-de-Luz, a charming fishing port and tourist center on the Bay of Biscay. We also found a culture entirely new to us: the congenial blend of French and Spanish influences that make up the Basque country in the southwesternmost corner of France. (Our only previous contact with Basques had been in their many family-style restuarants in the sheep country of California's San Joaquin Valley.)

St. Jean, all but unknown to Americans, is midway along the the Cote Basque, 20 miles of wild coastline extending south from the once-famous and now resurgent resort of Biarritz to the Spanish border.

The hilly countryside surrounding this ancient whaling and smuggling port--both callings held strong appeal for the daring Basques--is still home to at least a third of the more than 100,000 French citizens of Basque descent. Most of them work on their own farms or in fishing and tourism, while the larger Basque population across the border in northern Spain labors mostly in industry.

The passionately independent Basques have a history that may go back at least 50 centuries, and theyspeak a language of untraceable origins. Although all Basques agree that their homeland--which they call Euzkadi--is unjustifiably split between France and Spain, feelings run higher on the Spanish side of the border, where Basques cling much more tenaciously to their customs and language and where there have been terrorist bombings and other incidents of violence.

We saw no signs of political tension during the five days we spent in St. Jean, although it is only 11 miles from the Spanish frontier (there have reportedly been no outbreaks of separatist violence in France in more than two years). We found the Basques to be outgoing and unfailingly courteous, and if there was an undercurrent of resentment toward the non-Basque French, it was not apparent.

St. Jean is more Basque in character than Biarritz, and although the two towns are only nine miles apart in distance, they are generations apart in spirit.

St. Jean attracts a younger, more exuberant crowd of singles and families, most of them French. (Only rarely did we encounter other Americans, though spring, of course, is off-season.) T-shirts and jeans are de rigueur in the streets and open-air cafes of St. Jean. Popular songs echo from speakers hidden in trees along the main shopping street. Snarling mopeds compete for parking spaces. And if beachfront hotels are time-weary, most are quite inexpensive.

In more fashionable Biarritz, an older contingent of tourists, many of them English, wear skirts and jackets and foulards on their strolls through hotel gardens, and gowns and tuxedos to dinner and the casino in the evening. Limousines whisk guests to and from the airport, Parisian boutiques and saltwater spas. And most of the hotels overlooking the immaculate beaches are very elegant and very expensive.

If St. Jean, with its Latin Quarter vigor and teeming streets, reminds one of Paris' Left Bank, then Biarritz, stately and exclusive, would be the Right.

Wherever one walks in St. Jean, there are constant reminders of its greatest claim to historical interest. Its principal church was the site in 1660 of the marriage of 22-year-old Louis XIV of France to his cousin, Maria Theresa, daughter of Philip IV of Spain.

Images of the Sun King and the Infanta, also 22, adorn post cards, place mats and ceramic spice jars in souvenir shop windows, and one is left with the impression that it must have been one of the great love matches of history. But it was not so. The nuptials were coldly political--a condition of the treaty signed by Louis and Philip a year earlier creating the separation of the Basque population that still exists today. And not long after the wedding, Louis flew back to the arms of his many mistresses.

In addition to its eminence as a whaling and smuggling port, St. Jean was also a haven for French privateers preying on English ships, and there are ever-present reminders of its licit and illicit maritime past. Even in the Eglise St. Jean Baptiste, scene of the royal wedding, a model of a sailing ship sways over the congregation.

The seafronts at St. Jean and Biarritz are among the most spectacular on France's west coast. Unlike the bruising stony beaches common to many Atlantic resorts, the sands along much of the Cote Basque have been ground to a fine texture by the pummeling of 4O-foot tides in the Bay of Biscay.

The beach is at its best in the early morning when, as one strolls atop the seawall on the Promenade Jacques Thibaut, the silence is broken only by the rushing surf, the mewing of gulls and the bells of St. Jean Baptiste summoning worshipers to early Mass.

Later, the town comes to life on the Rue Gambetta, a long pedestrian thoroughfare that connects the beach to the fishing port, only minutes' walking distance apart.

The low-key shops along the Rue Gambetta cater to every possible customer--from housewives shopping for the day's pastries, to brides-to-be trying on wedding dresses, to tourists buying Basque linen and wool in bright patterns.

Popular music cascades from speakers in the trees along the thoroughfare, assailing even communicants coming or going to mass in St. Jean Baptiste. On the outside, the 15th- to 17th-Century church where the regal vows were spoken is plain and squat, but the wooden interior is full of surprises: intricate carvings adorn the pews, gold-trimmed altar and railings. It is the most ornate example in the region of a traditional Basque church.

The prayer books are in both French and Basque. And there is strict segregation of the sexes: the women on the main floor and the men in three tiers of galleries above, an old symbol that men are "closer to God."

Just beyond the church is the spacious central square--Place Louis XIV (what else?). A huge bandstand, with a startlingly blue canopy, is the hub of a series of tree-lined paths.

A number of cafes face the square, one of them occupying the ground floor of the Maison Lohobiague, where Louis spent his last 30 days as a bachelor while awaiting his wedding day. Once the home of a prosperous shipbuilder, the four-story mansion--built of light stone--contains an impressive display of ornate furniture and souvenirs of the king's brief tenancy. There are daily tours in the summer, but the guides speak only French.

The Maison de l'Infante, where Maria Theresa was also in premarital seclusion for a month, is only a minute's walk away in an equally imposing mansion, but her retreat is not open to the public.

A short street leading off from the square, the Rue de la Republique, has an almost unbroken rank of restaurants, most specializing in Basque seafood. We had been sent there by Jeanne Piquet, a clerk in a nearby bookstore, who told us her favorite restaurant was the Auberge Kaiku and that we would be wise to reserve for dinner early in the day.

(We have found that wherever one travels, bookstores and art galleries are the only authoritative sources of restaurant recommendations. The staffs are unfailingly imaginative, have epicurean tastes and are highly discriminating within the constraints of their always meager salaries.)

St. Jean's fishing port, the largest on the Cote Basque, is just beyond the square on the banks of the Nivelle River. But unlike the picture-post-card marinas along the French Riviera, where sleek yachts snuggle safely in their slips, St. Jean is home port to honest fishing craft, their flanks rusty from the bay's infamous storms.

Scores of purse seiners, their deck houses matching the bright red, blue and yellow hues of their nets, moor at long wharves or wait their turn at buoys in midstream.

The activity is unending. While one vessel is unloading its catch of tuna or sardines, the crew of another is patching nets or taking aboard stores for the next voyage.

A bridge crosses to Ciboure, another fishing village on the opposite bank of the Nivelle. We were looking, without much success, for the harbor-front residence where composer Maurice Ravel was born in 1875.

A tall, elderly passer-by, wearing a floppy Basque beret, came to our rescue, leading us to a bleak four-story house at 12 Quai Ravel. "You must remember," he said in parting, "Ravel was not French. He was Basque and Swiss, but mostly Basque--a countryman of mine."

The Rue de la Republique was teeming with locals and French tourists on a balmy Friday evening. Most of the prospective diners would move up and down the street, checking the outdoor menus until they found agreeable prices.

As for the cuisine, the choices in all the restaurants were virtually the same seafood dishes: shrimp, sea bass, mullet and tiny octopus swimming in a broth fragrant with saffron . . . mussels and lobster in a cream sauce . . . delicate oysters from Ciboure . . . sizzling filets of freshly caught tuna.

Basque omelets with tomatoes, black olives, shallots and ham--all redolent of olive and garlic--and hearty provincial dishes of lamb and chicken were also on the menu, plus what must surely be the crustiest bread in France.

We could have spent the entire evening sipping our after-dinner espresso and watching the flow of life just beyond our table.

We left reluctantly for a nightcap on the Place Louis XIV, which was full of young lovers walking arm-in-arm, but stopping at intervals to embrace under trees blazing with lights of every color. Older couples, recalling their own rituals of courtship, were smiling witnesses from tables at the outdoor cafes.

We saw a crew of electricians scaling ladders to install speakers in the trees, and carrying sound equipment onto the bandstand. "Are they preparing for a grand fete over the weekend?" we inquired of our waiter.

"No," he said, "it's for tonight's jazz concert."

We were incredulous. "But it's already 11 o'clock."

" C'est normal ," he replied.

Just a 15-minute drive up the coast from St. Jean is Biarritz, and no resort in Europe has had a more illustrious history nor a more rapid fall from grace.

Until the Great Depression of the 1930s, the town could rightfully claim to be "the resort of kings and the king of resorts."

Even today, the names of streets and squares--Reine Victoria, Alphonse XIII, Edouard VII, Reine Nathalie--recall the parade of European royalty that came to Biarritz to lose pounds in the spas and francs in the casinos. Leading the parade, of course, was Empress Eugenie and her consort, Napoleon III, whose palace is still the place to stay in Biarritz.

Bismarck, the Shah of Persia and Grand Duke Nicholas were also visitors. Russian bluebloods came in such great numbers that they built their own church--and it still stands on the Rue de Russie.

But the first World War and the Depression cut deeply into Biarritz's tourist economy. Then came World War II, when the only visitors were German troops. The final blow came when Brigitte Bardot purchased a villa in St. Tropez and led a mass exodus of tourists from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean coast.

The flaking facades of once-proud hotels, the closure of many shops, the reluctance to invest in new tourist accommodations and attractions--all were signs that Biarritz was aging. And not very prettily.

Biarritz can claim much of the credit for its own revival. More hotels have been built and others are on the drawing board. New owners are restoring pre-World War I hostelries to their belle epoque elegance. The beaches, parks and gardens are immaculately kept. There are no air-polluting industries nor high-speed motorways.

In fact, the view from the heights of Pointe St. Martin on the northern edge of the town is much the same as it was many decades ago--white surf pounding up a long crescent of beach, Victorian villas set among gardens on steep hillsides, the aristocratic Hotel du Palais and an ancient fishing port set in a maze of jetties.

And although it still has lavishly expensive hotels and restaurants, there is now a much greater range of prices than on the Cote d'Azur.

Golf is still the premier sport in Biarritz, with six courses in and around the town, and the Centre International d'Entrainment au Golf, where a host of pros are on hand to teach affluent duffers and scratch players alike.

The French penchant for education also reveals itself in tourist courses in scuba diving, sailing and windsurfing. Towering breakers just south of Biarritz attract world-class surfers, but, as at St. Jean, there are also long stretches of safe, sandy beaches.

Visitors who overdo it on sports--or in the bistros--can head for the Institut de Thalassotherapie Louis Bobet, a saltwater spa and exercise center bearing the name of the one-time French cycling champion. Bobet's is the most expensive of the thalassic centers, which take their name from the application of kelp, mud and other gleanings from coastal rather than deep-sea waters.

Biarritz is a compact town, and it is possible to explore most of its attractions in a single day on foot. The best place to start is on the seafront in the centre ville , where a long promenade curves toward a lighthouse atop Pointe St. Martin.

Along the way, a number of paths lead up to hillside gardens and to the vast lawns and profuse landscaping of the Hotel du Palais, the resort's most striking landmark. Eugenie was forced to sell her red-brick palace after the fall of the Third Empire, and the city now maintains it as the most opulent hotel in Biarritz. The lobby is very much as it was more than a century ago--marble columns, lush greenery, damask wall coverings, velvet upholstery, antiques, glittering chandeliers, plush carpeting and gilt trim everywhere.

The Ave. de l'Imperatrice descends from the Palais past other, more plebian hotels to Place Clemenceau, the main square. Most of the exclusive shops can be found in the square or on Avenue Edouard VII, and most of them have a distinct English or Parisian flair.

The most popular sidewalk cafe in Biarritz is Les Colonnes at 4 Ave. Edouard VII. We found its rattan furnishings, brass rails and huge mirrors a restful atmosphere in which to cool our feet, sip a Limonade Pschitt and observe the passing parade. Rolls and Jaguars were mingling with mopeds and mini-Citroens, and an elderly British couple was making its way on the sidewalk for a covey of easel-toting art students from Japan.

From Place Clemenceau, the Rue Mazagran, a narrow street of colorful Basque shops, runs downhill toward the sea and the Place Ste. Eugenie, a vast square with many open-air cafes, small hotels and the impressive Ste. Eugenie church. We had an excellent seafood pizza and Salade Pescatore Napolitaine at Le Capri.

Just steps away from the square is a fishing port, much smaller than St. Jean's, hidden from Atlantic storm waves behind a series of stone jetties. The port is a jumble of fishing nets, lobster pots, dories and rusting anchor chains. The aroma of a chef broiling fish over a wood fire outside a cafe brought us back the next day for a generous filet de loup , a sea bass.

Frequent bus service connects Biarritz and St. Jean. Although we chose to stay in the latter resort because of its informality and more authentic Basque character, we found it pleasant to spend a morning or afternoon in Biarritz.

There are many whitewashed Basque towns to explore in the green hills behind both coastal towns. One day we drove a rental car from St. Jean to the border town of Hendaye, then an hour west along the Spanish coast to San Sebastian. Unlike the airy, sunlit aura of towns north of the border, San Sebastian, capital of the Basque province of Guipuzcoa, has the darker aspect of Spain's industrial north.

But the day trip into Spain is worthwhile if only to observe the vivid contrast between Basque cultures on either side of the frontier--the warmth and spontaneity north of the Pyrenees and the severe manner of the west.

GUIDEBOOK

France's Cote Basque

Getting there: Air Inter has daily flights to Biarritz from Paris. There are also daily flights from London in the summer. Fast trains from Paris serve Biarritz and St.-Jean-de-Luz directly. Motorists approaching from the north should take Autoroute 63 south from Bordeaux.

St.-Jean-de-Luz is a 15-minute drive south from Biarritz, and there also is frequent and inexpensive bus service to the town.

ST.-JEAN-DE-LUZ

Where to stay: Although generally lacking in amenities such as TV, most hotels directly on the seafront are clean and inexpensive. One, the family-run El Prado, has 38 rooms; a double is $55 in season. Also in El Prado's favor are its lively terrace cafe, an after-dark mecca of the young set, and its proximity to the town's underground parking. Rooms 1 and 2 have the best views of the beach. Address: Place de la Pergola, St.-Jean-de-Luz 64500, France. Local telephone: 59-51-03-71.

Le Madison, a minute's walk from the sea on a principal shopping street, is more attractive than El Prado but has much the same rates: up to $65 for a room with bath. With 25 rooms, the hotel has a pleasant lounge and bar and a covey of caged lovebirds to welcome guests. 25 Blvd. Thiers, St.-Jean-de-Luz 64500. Phone: 59-26-35-02.

Our most pleasant hostess in St. Jean was Mme. J.J. Garraialde at the Hotel de la Plage. Most of the 30 rooms front on the ocean, and the atmosphere is strictly Basque. Double rates start at $50 in season. 33 Rue Garat, St.-Jean-de-Luz 64500. Phone: 59-51-03-44.

Golfers might prefer the Chantaco, a serene Basque mansion set in its own gardens just south of town. Its 23 deluxe rooms, all with bath, are directly across the street from a challenging golf course. Double rates average $225. Route 918, St.-Jean-de-Luz 64500. Phone: 59-26-14-76.

A new seafront hotel, Le Grand, has 45 rooms and two luxury suites. Its restaurant commands a striking view of the bay. Double rates start at $200-plus. 43 Blvd. Thiers, St.-Jean-de-Luz 64500. Phone: 59-26-12-32.

Where to eat: We kept returning to the Auberge Kaiku, a cave with stone walls, light green beams and a gallery of paintings, and where the chefs work in an open kitchen. Our dinner tariff was $60, including wine. Phone: 59-26-13-20.

Also appealing, and slightly less expensive, is the nearby Le Kayola. Phone: 59-51-01-12. Ostatua, 25 Rue Eglise, is more staid in atmosphere--heavy beams, white linen--and a bit costlier. Basque seafood dominates the menu. Phone: 59-26-47-22.

For more information: The Syndicat d'Initiative on Place Foch has a hotel booking service and schedules of excursions and special events. Closed Sundays. Phone: 59-26-03-16.

BIARRITZ

Where to stay: The 140 rooms of the Hotel du Palais, 1 Ave. de l'Imperatrice, are the height of luxury, and its services are impeccable. High-season double rates range from $275 to $400. Reservations must be made through Leading Hotels of the World (800-223-6800) or Concorde Hotels (800-888-4747).

The Hotel Miramar, 13 Rue Louison-Bobet, is an almost too-modern hotel with an exterior as stark as the Palais' is classic. But its 126 rooms and suites are spacious, and many have spectacular views. Summer rates for a double average $250. Phone: 59-41-30-00.

The Hotel Windsor, 11 Ave. Edouard VII, has 37 rooms just steps away from the most popular beach. The furnishings are modest, but many of the bright, airy rooms have ocean views. Rates start at $100. Phone: 59-24-08-52.

Hotel Regina et Golf, 52 Ave. de l'Imperatrice, is on a hilltop within sight of the lighthouse and public gardens. Recent remodeling has brought many of its 70 rooms up to their former elegance. The double rate averages $200. Phone: 59-24-09-60.

Biarritz also has a large number of hotels in the $50-$80 range. They include:

The President, Place Clemenceau. Close to the beach and town center; 64 well-kept rooms. Phone: 59-24-66-40.

Le Petit Hotel, 11 Rue Garderes. Three years old; only 12 rooms; a warm, friendly atmosphere. Phone: 59-24-87-00.

Edouard VII, 21 Ave. Carnot. On a hill overlooking the shopping district; 15 plain but clean rooms; the restaurant serves hearty local dishes at moderate prices on an outdoor terrace. Phone: 59-24-07-20.

Le Chateau du Clair de Lune, 48 Ave. Alan Seeger, Route d'Arbonne. A short drive from Biarritz in a garden setting; seven rooms in the small chateau, all in different styles. Phone: 59-23-45-96.

Note: Many hotels in both resorts close during the off-season, genrally from fall to spring.

Where to eat: Cafe de Paris, 5 Place Bellevue, rates one Michelin star. It has plush, elegant decor that contrasts with the light nouvelle cooking of chef Pierre Laport. The set menu is about $40. But specialties (rack of lamb with caviar and eggplant, lobster in a Basque piperade ) can run up to $100. Figure on $150 to $200, without wine. Phone: 59-24-53-41. Another Laport restaurant in the same building, L'Alambic (same telephone), has lower prices, $80-$100. It features a buffet of hors d'oeuvres as well as steaks and paella.

Le Grand Siecle, 1 Ave. de l'Imperatrice, the principal restaurant in the Hotel du Palais, has luxurious decor and a sweeping sea view. The menu is a bit on the conservative side and features game, veal and seafood. Dinner without wine for two starts at about $150. Tel. 59-24-09-40.

Galion, 17 Ave. General de Gaulle, is a new, ocean-view restaurant popular with the locals. Chicken, fresh fish and shellfish dominate the nouvelle cuisine. Dinners start at $70-$80. Phone: 59-24-20-32.

Chateau de Brindos, a small hotel-restaurant overlooking a lake southeast of Biarritz, also has a Michelin star. The cuisine is mostly Basque. Dinner for two, at least $100-$120. Lac de Brindos, three miles from Biarritz on Route N10. Phone: 59-23-17-68.

Biarritz also has a number of popular restaurants where a couple should not have to spend more than $50 or $60 for a three-course dinner. Among them:

Chez Albert in the Port des Pecheurs is only steps away from the fishermen's wharf, and the seafood is as fresh as one would expect it to be. The atmosphere is warm and congenial. Phone: 59-24-43-84.

Chez Maurice, 87 Ave. de La Marne, features grilled meats and fish in a cave-like atmosphere with a fireplace and heavy beams. A favorite with locals. Phone: 59-24-01-61.

For more information: The Comite de Tourisme et des Fetes, Square d'Ixelles. Closed Sundays except during high season. Phone: 59-24-20-24.

The French Government Tourist Office has a number, (900) 420-2003, that costs 50 cents per minute to call. Or write to the office at 9454 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 303, Beverly Hills 90212. --V.R. and R.R.

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