The wealth of the region's history matches the abundance of its table and the fruitfulness of the land. The Romans knew the province as Narbonnese Gaul, from which Julius Caesar returned to Italy in triumph in the first century bc, content to have left it "well-supplied with luxuries and accustomed to defeat." Medieval Christendom knew the province as the possession of Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose marriage to Henry Plantagenet in 1154 attached it, for three hundred years, to the realm of the British crown.
During my own brief passage to Biarritz, I stayed at the Hôtel du Palais, the once-upon-a-time palace that Napoleon III built for his empress, Eugenie, during the same decade that gave rise not only to the art of modern finance capitalism but also to the painting of the Impressionists and the modernist literary sensibility of Gustave Flaubert. Transposed into a hotel at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, the building burned to the ground in 1903, but was then resurrected (in all of its gilded splendor and with every one of its marble columns) by a French government that understood the commercial uses for so extravagant a display of Victorian luxury. The replica sustains the premise of the original (Napoleon's crowns and crests and emblematic bees woven into the carpets, carved into the wood, embossed on the silver and the towels), and the effect, which is very grand, brings to mind the long procession of opulent celebrity passing through the hotel's public rooms over the last 150 years: the doomed Archduke Maximilian on his way to Mexico in 1864, a few years later Emile Zola and Ferdinand de Lesseps (the former with his manuscript of Nana, the latter with his blueprint for the Suez Canal). And then, nearer to the present, the Edwardian figures of the Belle Epoque, followed in the 1920s by Ernest Hemingway and Charlie Chaplin, in the 1950s by Ava Gardner, King Farouk and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
The architecture in the city plays similar tricks with time, some of the buildings descended from the age of Louis XIV, who married the Spanish Infanta in 1660 in St. Jean de Luz, others on loan from the era of the Napoleonic wars, when Nelson's channel fleet loomed just under the edge of the horizon on the Bay of Biscay.
Although an acquaintance with the history of the landscape doesn't improve one's chances off the fifth tee at Chiberta or on the seventh green at Seignosse, I noticed that when the ball was lost in the wind or buried in the sand, I took some solace in the thought that Aquitaine was famous for its reversals of fortune and that its lessons on the vagaries of human temperament and character resembled those that Willie Dunn sought to impart--together with a proper appreciation of the niblick and the driving iron--to William Vanderbilt on the fourteenth tee at Le Phare.
For A Tee Time, Call ...
Golf De Anglet Chiberta
Golf De Biarritz Le Phare
Golf Blue Green De Seignosse
Golf De Moliets
and for splendor . . .
Hôtel Du Palais