Roopa Farooki on falling for steaming mussels, surfer bars, and delectable food markets in the French beach town of Biarritz
Biarritz is one of my favourite cities in the world, but I almost missed out on it completely. I first went on a whim — my husband and I had spent a few months in Provence and Languedoc on sabbatical from work, and he thought it might be a good idea to pop into Biarritz on our way back to England, as he had a vague recollection there was a good seafood restaurant there. It was a significant detour for a meal, involving a sticky summer drive across the breadth of France, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic coast, but we enjoyed the ride, and stumbled across Biarritz with the offhand indifference with which you bump into someone in the street. It was one of those chance encounters that change your life.
Arriving in Biarritz, we never found that particular seafood restaurant, but we discovered another one in the Port des Pêcheurs (the fishermen’s port) which gave us a silver tray piled high with seafood, and bread and chips on the side, that has since become a regular haunt. After dinner, sitting on a cliff-fringed beach at sunset, watching the surfers catch the rolling Atlantic waves, with the gleaming view all the way down the coastline into Spain, we discovered something else — we were on our way back to London and we didn’t want to go. Our hotelier came down to the beach with his children and ran undaunted into the slightly chilly water; when he came out, he greeted us as he passed; “Pas trop froid?” I asked curiously. He shook his wet hair with an enormous grin, “Perfect, if you’re used to it,” he answered in French.
We had only booked into his little family establishment for the night, but we found ourselves staying on to explore the town, putting off our return a day at a time. We drank local beer in surfer bars and lethally strong aperitifs in smart brasseries where elegant old ladies took a break from the boutiques, while their tiny, handbag-sized dogs yapped about their ankles. We went to the covered market, and bought regional delicacies for picnics on the beach — foie gras, rillettes de canard (duck pâté), local sheep cheese served with black cherry jam, and sandy Gâteau Basque. We gorged ourselves on Arcachon oysters, shucked on the spot and handed to us on paper plates with a slice of lemon, and local wine in chipped tumblers. The laid-back vibe of Biarritz was addictive — wandering around the streets, we found ourselves gazing into the shiny windows of estate agents like kids staring into a sweetshop. Biarritz was beautiful, but unattainable — the prices at the time were just as inflated as London and our terraced house in a southwest suburb wouldn’t have bought us more than a cramped apartment with a balcony. I was jealous of the free-spirited travellers who simply parked their vans on the beach, slept in camp beds in the back, and emerged in bikinis, board shorts and surf gear to spend the day in the waves, steaming mussels and frying sausages on a camp stove with beers in the evening. I wished I was 17 again, so I could join them.
We reluctantly left Biarritz, still notionally on our way back to England, but ended up stopping just 40 minutes from town. A village estate agent had pointed us towards an uninhabitable old ruin, an 18th-century farmhouse abandoned in the forest-bordered maize fields, without electricity or water, and just a mud path for access. It had solid walls of exposed stone and half a roof. We knew it was a termite-riddled money pit, but we didn’t care. We bought it on the spot — completed the sale to the delight of the owners, who asked us to dinner and served us Champagne, as they’d been trying to sell it for years, and moved in with a two-man tent which we staked up in the wilderness of the grounds. My husband renovated the house himself while I was pregnant and writing my early novels, and we ended up raising our first two children there. We’d gone to Biarritz for the night, for a seafood meal, and ended up staying in that idyllic part of France for years.
Even though we moved back to England a while ago, we’re still back in Biarritz for every school holiday, spending time with our local friends on the beaches, and in the cafes, bars and patisseries in town. My children used to crawl naked into the water as babies, but now they leap into the waves with wetsuits and surf boards. The town has inspired my writing, too — I’m writing this piece on the Plage du Port Vieux, near the spot where I once saw a man helicoptered to safety from the buffeting waves on a bright December day, a scene that made it into one of my novels. I sometimes give talks at the local bookshops and libraries in the town, when the French editions of my novels come out, and the staff and readers are always very kind about my ‘adorably accented’ French, and stuff me with gorgeous canapés afterwards. They describe me as a ‘local author’, which is a great compliment, and I tell them, honestly, that it was the fantastic seafood that brought me to town in the first place.
Roopa Farooki’s latest novel, The Flying Man, opens in a hotel in Biarritz and is in the shops now. Her first novel, Bitter Sweets, was nominated for the Orange New Writers Award, while her third, The Way Things Look To Me, was one of The Times’ Top 50 Paperbacks of 2009, and longlisted for the Orange Prize. www.roopafarooki.com
Published in Nov/Dec 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)