Wednesday, 2 September 2009

3. St Jean de Luz & Biarritz

I think France has much to thank Napoleon for in laying down the basis of a well-ordered society. There appears to be a procedure, form, rule or a law for everything. If not, then Système Débrouille comes into play. Système D - as it's more commonly known - is the name applied to whatever it takes to beat the system. I was impressed by the efficiency of it all and the friendliness of everyone we came into contact with. It seemed that nothing was too much trouble for the mainly female staff we encountered. I can only put this down to my winsome charm, boyish good looks and casually windswept appearance.. (in my dreams!) However, I would make two recommendations to anyone trying to do what we did:

1. Make sure that at least one in your party speaks French..

2. Ensure you have multiple photocopies of everything* as they only accept documented evidence.

* = Birth Certificates, Passports, Marriage Certificates, Tax codes, P60s, Tesco Club Cards, Letters from Insurers stating No Claims Bonuses, inside leg measurements, etc etc..

What really made our life easier was the fact that, luckily, we hadn't put our printer/photo-copier in storage - we had it with us. Within the first few days, we’d started the daunting business of looking for a house. Why a house and not an apartment? For several reasons; control of maintenance costs, neighbours kept at arm’s length, the dog (he might bark if we left him alone at home for an evening which, in an apartment, would not be tolerated for long), plus we wanted a garden.

The three major towns in the French Basque country are in fairly close proximity to each other but, despite that, they are all completely different in character and appeal.
Starting from the south and working to the north, you come first to St Jean de Luz. After the hotspots of the Côte d’Azur (Nice, Cannes, Menton etc) and some chic parts of Paris, St Jean de Luz comes a very close second when it comes to high house prices in France. Houses are advertised here by the agents as having so many square metres of habitable space (garages, hallways and landings are not included in this). If this is factored with the price, a price per square metre emerges.
The bay of St Jean de Luz

In St Jean, it works out at a pretty eye-watering figure.. This price/sq metre can and does vary according to the perceived desirability of the property – but it’s a good starting point and it gives you an idea if a property is over- or under-valued. And they are seldom under-valued..!
If I had to show someone the Basque country and had only half an hour in which to do so, without question I would take them straight to St Jean de Luz as it encapsulates all that is good about the Pays Basque. 
The town centre is compact, largely pedestrianised, flat and the main shopping street could hardly be closer to the sandy crescent of the beach. The market is a real treat for the senses - gleaming fish and shellfish fresh from the sea, yellow corn fed chickens from Les Landes, aromatic herbs, sausages, hams, crusty bread, cheeses - what a pleasure to browse the various stalls. (Rule No 1: Don't shop when you're hungry!)
Situated at the mouth of the river Nivelle where it flows into the almost circular bay, St Jean de Luz is bordered by its beach on one side and its port on the other. The architecture is superb – an appealing mix of the traditional heavily timbered Basque properties with their distinctive overhanging roofs and some outstanding Art Deco buildings dating from the twenties and thirties. They usually incorporate an element of Basque styling as well.
Looking across to Ciboure (left) from the inner harbour of Saint-Jean-de-Luz
Across the bay is the little village of Socoa with its beach, a good half dozen seafood restaurants, a sheltered mooring and its Vauban-designed fort.
The sea wall bears the brunt of the Atlantic swells..
The sheltered inner harbour of Socoa
Houses are invariably painted white with doors, windows and shutters picked out in one of three colours; a blood red, dark green or dark blue. While this could sound a little Stalinist, the result is that it does have a pleasingly unifying effect. Private property and public buildings in the Basque country are, with very few exceptions, well-maintained and clean and road verges are largely litter free. St Jean de Luz is spotlessly clean and stylish, with all the shops and facilities anyone could wish for, plus it’s on the main SNCF line to Paris.

The high speed TGV rail link all the way through to Paris will be constructed one of these days and that will drive house prices up even higher. Understandably, there is some extremely vocal resistance to the plan to extend the special high speed track (LGV) through the Pays Basque. At the moment, the TGV runs at high speed (~190mph) from Paris to Tours and then at a reduced speed to Bordeaux and the South West. As things stand at the moment, Paris (some 500 miles as the crow flies) is only ~5hrs from here by rail. Once the TGV track has been extended through to the Pays Basque, then I would guess the journey time will be 3 hrs or less. However, the current financial crisis and local political resistance could well cause the completion of the south-western extension of the TGV to slip to the right. The current plan is to have the new line in operation by 2020 - but a lot can happen in the meantime!
The ski slopes of the Pyrenees are only 1½hrs away by car and a 20 minute drive from Bayonne will find you in Spain. There, San Sebastian is the nearest major attraction and Bilbao, with its strikingly modern Guggenheim Museum lies just beyond it. (We've yet to visit the Guggenheim because of the dog.. we couldn't leave him at home all day and we can't leave him in the car.) St Jean’s beaches are superb and some of the best seafood in Europe is here. All the traditional values of ‘old’ France are upheld here – people dress well and live well still. People-watching is highly enjoyable. Natives and tourists alike are generally of the well-heeled variety (with one notable exception!).
The inviting beach at St Jean de Luz
We read somewhere that property changes hands on average every 25 years in St Jean de Luz compared to every 7 years in the rest of France. While there's no shortage of apartments, there aren't many houses available – especially if, like us, you are looking for something in town with only 2/3 bedrooms and a garage. They like their houses large down here; houses with 6 to 8 bedrooms are not uncommon. It’s definitely a seller’s market in St Jean de Luz and so, if you must have a house there, be prepared to sit it out. Or, bite the bullet and think about an apartment.
La Grande Plage, Biarritz, with the Hotel du Palais (right)
Moving up the coast, we come next to Biarritz. Despite it being an international resort with many 4* hotels and luxury apartments, it's not flashy. Its main beach - La Grande Plage - is dominated by the supremely elegant seaside property that Napoleon III built for his wife - the Empress Eugenie - in the 1860s.. It is now the Hotel du Palais, a Grand Luxe hotel that attracts the world’s rich and famous. Lunch there is buttock-clenchingly expensive at 110€.

That said, Biarritz is all things to all men. There is a whole spectrum of things to see and do and places to eat and drink. Property prices here are generally as sky-high as St Jean, and as one approaches the sea front they surpass the St Jean values. We quickly forgot about looking for anything with a sea view or indeed near the sea.

Rail passengers for Biarritz used to be able to descend at the Gare du Midi which was in the centre of town and built to serve the needs of the Imperial visitors. It has now been converted into a theatre and very splendid it is too.
La Gare du Midi as it was
La Gare du Midi as it is today

Jardin Publique
There are some very attractive areas in Biarritz that we looked long and hard at – the area known as St Charles which, although in town, has a 'village' feel to it, and also the area around Les Halles (the covered market) and the Jardin Publique (right) opposite the theatre. Both areas are very desirable as you can shop for all you need here on foot without having to use the car. But, unfortunately, there was nothing that we liked in either of those areas that was both a. for sale and b. affordable. In a perfect world, we would have tried to buy something in the Avenue du Docteur Claisse, a leafy enclave we discovered that was only an easy 5 minute walk from Biarritz’s Grande Plage.. but this turned out to be one of Biarritz’s prime residential areas. Hmm.
La Grande Plage, Biarritz
Our fall-back plan if we couldn't find anything suitable on the coast would have been to look further inland at Pau. And if we'd had no success there, our third option would have been to look in the Jura, near the Swiss border. Happily for us though, someone 'up there' must have been guiding us - because we next decided to have a look at Bayonne..

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