Monday, 12 March 2012

178. The mysterious Château d'Ilbarritz

12th March 2012. What a great heart-warming performance yesterday by England in beating France 24-22 in Paris in the penultimate round of this year's 6 Nations rugby tournament (the best sporting competition in the world in my view!). Watching the teams singing the national anthems in the last few minutes before the kick-off, I must admit that the republican in me is drawn to "La Marseillaise" - one of the great national anthems - whereas I have to say that England's "God Save the Queen" leaves me totally unmoved. 

However, once that whistle is blown, and the white shirts start mixing it with the blue ones, then I become a 100% fully committed supporter of England (albeit from my armchair!). I can't imagine a moment when I could think of supporting any other country. While I have nothing but total respect and admiration for Martin Johnson as a player, I'm afraid that under his guidance England stuttered badly - all too often the ball went sideways. With the benefit of hindsight I think he showed too much loyalty to the elder statesmen of the England squad. And then there were those off the pitch banana skins..

England's try scorers -
Ben Foden, Tom Croft and Manu Tuilagi 
On the other hand, his successor Stuart Lancaster, the interim coach, has picked players based on their current form and they are playing an attractive brand of attacking rugby that I, and many others, have waited many a year to see them play. The new coach has transformed a pedestrian and somewhat unimaginative England side into one with growing self-belief and the confidence to move the ball quickly with a refreshing directness from the breakdown out to the lively backs. Hopefully the England RFU will confirm his appointment in the next few days. 

France are no dummies however - they were the beaten finalists (some say unfairly) in last year's Rugby World Cup and yesterday's match was the first home defeat for them in the Six Nations since they were last beaten there 4 years ago (again by England). In the end, and with only a couple of minutes remaining, Trinh-Duc attempted a drop goal that just failed to clear the cross bar. If he'd been successful with that kick, France might have won by a point. By such narrow margins are matches like these won or lost. I think a win would have flattered France as England clearly were the better side, scoring 3 tries to a late French one. Here are the highlights:
I also think that England were unfairly penalised by the referee Alain Rolland. I think a neutral ref should have been found for this game - Mr Rolland has a French father! If the tables were turned, I can't imagine that France would have been content to accept a referee who was half English - so I think his selection by the IRFU (?) was unwise. We watched the match with some French friends in Biarritz (Madame had to keep nudging me to keep quiet!) and afterwards we all went for a blowy walk along the sea front just underneath the Château d'Ilbarritz (not far from the new Cité de l'Océan).

The Château d'Ilbarritz is a truly magnificent house located high up on a hill overlooking the sea with the kind of views out to the west across the bay to Spain that estate agents dream of. It was constructed between 1895-7 for Baron Albert de l'Espée whose family were heirs to an immense fortune founded on steel.
In the closing years of the 19th century, medical science was of the opinion that fresh sea air was the universal cure for many ailments and so Baron de l'Espée decided that there was no better place to have a house built than on the Côte Basque. So far so good! The Baron acquired a massive 60 hectares (148 acres) plot of land "unpolluted by other people" 2 kms to the south of the glamorous seaside resort of Biarritz where his new house would stand overlooking the blue Atlantic waters of the Golfe de Gascogne (Bay of Biscay). However, this would be no ordinary house. The Baron was, to say the least, something of a character and has been described elsewhere as a fabulously wealthy, mad, megalomaniac, hypochondriac, latter day Monte Cristo. Passionate about pipe organs, he had the Château designed to accommodate the largest pipe organ ever built (below) for a private client and there he would play Wagner with the loud pedal pressed to the floor and with the windows wide open! This organ is now to be found in what is probably the most photographed church in France - Sacré-Coeur in Montmartre (more here).
It's impossible to imagine the deafening impact of the "Ride of the Valkyries"  played on a large pipe organ like this in a private house - with the windows thrown wide open, the sound of the thundering surf outside, the guttering candlelight throwing wild shadows, the diapason of the mighty organ ringing out across the waves, the tormented face of the Baron in his own private moonlit ecstasy..
The Baron would surely have included this next piece in his repertoire - Wagner's stirring "Tannhauser Overture"  played here magnificently by Jonathan Scott again, on a similar 4 manual instrument to that of the Baron. Strap yourselves in and turn your volume up into the red zone for maximum effect!

And here is the Baron's celebrated organ installed at the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, Paris:  
What the locals made of all this is not recorded but the Baron may possibly have been the original inspiration for the Phantom of the Opera! There's more of the curious story of the Baron and his lady friend Biana Duhamel here (on a motorcycling web site of all places).

During WWII, the Château served as the German Headquarters on the Côte Basque. Scroll almost halfway down this link to see the Château d'Ilbarritz and other major buildings on the Côte Basque that were requisitioned by the Germans during WWII.

It appears that the Château d'Ilbarritz is for sale.

It's always interesting to see a town you're familiar with through the eyes of someone else. We'd not visited this particular stretch of coast before and so walking along the coastal path with the high spring tide just yards away was very pleasant indeed. There are a couple of restaurants here too - the Blue Cargo and La Plancha - that face directly onto the sea - it's hard to imagine that they could be any closer. Either of these look perfect for a summer's evening and we'll definitely be going there when the evenings are warmer. Having just found this link for the Blue Cargo I'll amend that to a definite maybe..
Returning to our friends' house via a tangle of narrow unmarked streets, our host (a former fighter pilot and a native Biarrot) took us on a quick guided tour of parts of Biarritz that we normally never find ourselves in - pointing out to us Serge Blanco's anonymous-looking house tucked discreetly away in a quiet area for example. Needless to say, there are some very attractive neighbourhoods there. (ker-ching!) He also pointed out that the gently curving Porte de Biarritz (left) we were on had been built on the path of the former branch line that led from the mainline station at Biarritz-La Négresse to the town centre station (above) at Biarritz-Ville (known by all here as the Gare du Midi) and thought by many to be the most beautiful and elegant of all French railway stations (now transformed into a splendid theatre). The trains would arrive at the level of the clock in the photo above and then the passengers would descend the stairs down to the road level. In the heyday of Biarritz, this is how the crowned heads of state, the titled from all over Europe and the rich and famous would arrive to take their carriages to their villas and hotels.

Following the proliferation of the railway across Europe, Biarritz became one of the destinations of choice in the 19th century. The advent of the railway made travel to the extreme south west of France a practical proposition for the first time and the rapid expansion of the European rail network had a knock-on effect on the development of the Côte Basque. What had been a quiet Basque fishing village was about to be transformed into the Biarritz that we know today. The railway opened up the region to wealthy Parisiens and others - such as the Baron de l'Espée - and the coast was never quite the same again. The English gentry also came here in droves - especially in winter - leaving a permanent mark in the form of golfrugby (more) - and tea rooms!

13th March 2012. I was still in my dressing gown and unshaven at 9.30am on Monday morning as I was watching a repeat of Sunday's France vs England 6 Nations match on BBC to try and understand all the penalty decisions that went against England and, if I'm honest, to re-live the hard-fought and well-deserved win in Paris.

The council has decided to put all overhead wires underground and EDF (the electricity company) is taking advantage of the opportunity to rewire our mains supply. Last year it was the turn of an adjacent avenue and it took around 4 months for all the work to be completed. So it was that at 9.30am the doorbell rang and I opened the door to a young man with a camera who announced himself to me as a lawyer. He explained that he was there to talk about the work that's just about to start in the avenue. He wanted to take 'before' photographs to ensure that properties were properly restored to their former condition when the work is finally completed. If there is any damage to property resulting from their work, restorative action can be taken based on his photographic records. I must admit to being very pleasantly surprised and reassured by this initiative. Well done Bayonne!  

Nice outing this evening in a quad sculler.. did 14km. Here's a link about rowing that explains the sport well.


Tim said...

A most excellent read - thanks.

Pipérade said...

There are still much evidence on the ground that points to the glitzy past of this particular stretch of the Côte Basque. I really enjoyed the evening drive around the less well-trodden byways of Biarritz - it's a fascinating town. Glad you enjoyed reading about it.

Lesley said...

It's such a shame that these old properties are in states of disrepair. Looted and unloved, just have to buy yet another Euromillions ticket and hope for a ginormous win.

The Aquitaine regional Gov. newssheet came yesterday and has a 1/2 page each in Occitan and Basque. I'm sure the 'prove you're not a robot' was in there with all the other completely unpronouncable (to me) words.

Pipérade said...

Apparently someone lives in the house but they keep themselves to themselves.. Odd.
The location of the house couldn't be bettered although I'm not sure I'd feel too secure in there during a winter gale.
Restoring it to its former glory would definitely take a lottery win.