Thursday, February 20, 2014

I Left My Heart in Biarritz

I think it's been a pretty mild winter here, considering the past two. The sun has shone more, the temperatures haven't been unbearable, and it hasn't snowed. Even still, I'm longing for summer days when the sun begins shining bright before 5am and doesn't go down until after 10pm. When I get a little gloomy, it helps to remember our vacation to Biarritz, France back in October.

La Grande Plage
We chose Biarritz on a real whim. We wanted to go somewhere warm just before it began getting cold here, and it had to be a destination offered by Ryanair because we didn't want to break the bank. All of the usual options were there: Spain, Portugal, the Canary Islands, but for some reason Biarritz kept catching my eye. I did some quick research and discovered that it's the surfing capital of Europe! Back in 1957, American screenwriter Peter Viertel arrived in Biarritz to film "The Sun Also Rises." He quickly became distracted by the large waves crashing onto the beach and sent for his surfboard back in California. These days Biarritz still retains a bohemian vibe, with lean, long-haired surfers walking around town and retro cars and vans parked alongside the beach waiting for the waves. Surfing schools are advertised everywhere and Biarritz also hosts televised surf competitions throughout the season.

Surfers Waiting

All of this information was enough of an endorsement for us to book our tickets and apply sunscreen.

We arrived around lunchtime, checked into our hotel, and found a cozy French restaurant off-the-beaten-path. Tourist season was at its end since summer was over and we were the only Americans in the restaurant. It's one of those places where everyone is seated extremely close so conversations from neighboring tables eventually blend together easily and new friends are made fast.

Our new friend was a character. She was in her 80's, a perfectly-coiffed, heavily made-up French lady fashionably dressed and dripping in jewels. She was dining alone and happened to be sitting beside me. She smiled as soon as we were seated beside her and I could tell she was amused by us from the beginning. After we'd chosen our wine she leaned toward me and said, "That's a good choice. A nice, light red for lunch." I replied, "Oh, good! I'm glad we made the right decision!" She smiled knowingly and then leaned back into her seat.

A few moments passed and she couldn't contain herself any longer. She touched my shoulder and asked, "Where are you from?"
"The United States," we replied.
"Oui, oui, but where in America?" she asked.
"I'm from Chicago and my wife is from Florida," my husband said.
"Ahhhhh, Florida! Are you from Miami? I love Miami! Miami Beach is so fantastic. I go there all of the time and stay at the same hotel. Last time I was there it was my birthday and they gave me a big cake with lots of champagne. They know me there. It's fabulous!" she exclaimed.
"That sounds nice," I said. "I've actually never been to Miami. I'm from north Florida."
She squinted at me in disbelief, as if Florida only exists for the purpose of Miami and said, "But you must go there. It's fabulous."

She then produced a key chain with her name on one side and Miami and palm trees on the other. She pressed a little button and the name plate lit up as she giggled delightedly. We told her that even though she liked Miami, we were very excited to come to Biarritz.

Sunset in Biarritz
"Ugh, Biarritz," she replied disdainfully. "It's not as nice. Do you know how much I pay in healthcare? It's astronomical. And the beaches here.... ehhhhhh, not so good. Oh, sure, you get a sunset. Big deal. And some people broke into my house once! Did you know that?! Terrible, it is. I want to move to Miami."

Right after this, our food came. She looked over our plates with approval and then proclaimed to the waitress, "Gabrielle, the young American couple would now prefer to have the "Vin du Jacqueline." The waitress looked at us questioningly and I quickly said, "Yes, sure, that would be great." She soon produced the same bottle of wine that Jacqueline was nursing. We took a sip of our first glasses and agreed that it was very good. "It's the best wine you can get here, in this place," she remarked. "Perfect for a nice lunch of omelette."

We began eating as she smiled contentedly. Suddenly, as my fork was mid-air, she asked, "What do you think of Obamacare?"

We were a little startled by the question. I stuffed my food into my mouth and waited for my husband to give a diplomatic answer. It's always tricky talking politics with people from other countries. You never know what they're thinking. Sometimes they love America and sometimes they really hate it. We had just ordered the new bottle of wine and began eating so we knew it would be an uncomfortable afternoon if we got into a debate with Jacqueline. Much to our relief, she really only wanted to give her opinion on healthcare so we chewed and sipped as she glugged and lectured about her thoughts on healthcare in France, America, and Switzerland, where her daughter lives.

Eventually she quieted down and that was a good thing because by now Gabrielle, the waitress, looked ready to swoop in at any moment to pardon us from the spirited Jacqueline. There was no harm done, though. Jacqueline finished the last of her wine and said (not for the first time), "Okay, children, I must go now to my hair appointment. You can see my hair is a mess and I must make it look nice."

As she was standing, she patted me on the knee and said, "You are so American!" Then she winked and said, "Goodbye, children" over her shoulder as she strutted out of the restaurant and onto the streets of Biarritz, leaving behind a faint whiff of Chanel and Vin du Jacqueline.

It was an exciting start to our vacation!

Crashing Waves and the
Hotel du Palais
Though Biarritz is mainly known today for its surfing, the luxurious seaside town has a unique history that began long before the arrival of California culture. The Hotel du Palais was built by Napoleon III in 1854 for his wife, Empress Eugenie. Eugenie had fallen in love with Biarritz and their residence soon became host to all manner of European royalty and even Russian nobility. Today, the former palace is a luxury hotel with a prime location right on the beach. Needless to say, we could not afford to stay at the Hotel du Palais during our vacation but we did take photos and ogle people going in and out of the secured grounds. As far as I could tell, there were no royals.

We visited a history museum one afternoon. It mostly featured the story of Napoleon III and Eugenie. There was also an interesting portion dedicated to Biarritz at the end of World War II. In the summer of 1945, the Americans opened a university aimed toward providing a transition between army life and academic life. Many of the students had been in the front line during the war and all were ordered to remove their caps, un-ranking them and making them equals.

Walking Out to a Summit

We also walked along the coast to the lighthouse. It was built in 1834 and unfortunately wasn't open while we were there. Otherwise, we would have climbed the 248 steps for a panorama of the Basque coast. We weren't too disappointed though; the grounds around the lighthouse were well-manicured and lovely and the views were still breathtaking. We walked back to the town through hidden gardens and alcoves built right into the cliffs.

The sea was generally a little too rough for swimming (great for surfing) but luckily there was a nice, calm cove perfect for a dip. The water was a bit too cold for me but my husband braved the chilly waters of the Port-Vieux beach and swam for a while. Sometimes there's a strong undercurrent that swimmers claim pulls you out to sea. My husband said he felt it while he was swimming. Though the water was cold, we saw several dedicated swimmers during our few days there. They most likely belonged to the Polar Bear Club, one of the oldest clubs in Biarritz, established in 1929. Its members swim every single day of the year, even Christmas!


The Perfect Lunch
While I watched my husband swim and made sure he didn't get sucked out into the Atlantic, a group of school children walked to the beach and sat down to eat their lunches. They were all so well-behaved and I was delighted to see that they were eating baguettes! How very perfect and French! I thought about how nice it must be for them to have the Basque coast for their lunchroom. But then again, maybe they are too accustomed to it now and share Jacqueline's underwhelmed opinion. I hope not. Maybe that doesn't happen until you're 80, and those children have a long way to go and many happy lunches ahead of them.

Coastline at Night
Biarritz is very small and conducive to ultimate relaxation. All we really did was eat, drink, relax, and watch the sunset every evening. All of the restaurants were great and well-priced. We went to a unique tapas bar in the heart of Biarritz a few times. Its called Le Comptoir Du Foie Gras. The foie gras was prepared in every way imaginable. I thought my husband was going to turn into a duck because he ate so much. The other tapas were creative and delicious as well. There was a nice mixture of cheese, bruschetta, cured meats, and vegetarian options. We stood at tall round tables on the outside of the bar and ate our fill as we sipped champagne. It was extremely decadent and lots of fun. The crowd was an eclectic mixture of people just getting off work and enjoying happy hour, and salty surfers taking a break from the waves.

Biarritz is a beauty. We had an affordable, restful vacation and I would love to return someday with my children so they can eat baguettes on the beach. With its old-world charm and rich history, it feels almost like a place time has forgotten. The sprawling Hotel du Palais looks much the same as it did when Napoleon III and Eugenie were entertaining royal guests. The beaches are clean and untainted and there are lots of different summits to stand upon as you watch the sun fade into the ocean. But just when you think you're going to turn around and see elegant sunbathers from the 1800s, an athletic girl with drenched, sun-streaked blonde hair jogs past you holding her surfboard high, eyeing the next big wave.

I'll be back, Biarritz. Keep the Vin du Jacqueline in stock.

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Sunday in Slovakia

Bratislava is about an hour's train ride away from Vienna. We had a day to spare so we decided to country-hop to Slovakia. Bratislava is the state capital and largest city in Slovakia. We kept to the old town city center during our visit. It's the smallest part of Bratislava but tourists, shops, and restaurants fill the tiny streets.

Our entry into the old town was rather traumatic. We asked a taxi driver how much it would be for a ride to the city center and he confidently replied, "Fifteen Euros." We didn't know any better so we accepted his offer and hopped into the jalopy. Less than 5 minutes later we were dropped off at a curb and of course realized then that we had been cheated since the train station was so close. The cab ride back to the station a few hours later was a much more reasonable 5 Euros. Oh, well. You'll know better when you go to Bratislava.

It was around 10am on a Sunday morning so the streets were quiet and peaceful in the old town. We entered by passing under St. Michael's Gate and Tower. It was built in the 14th century and is the only preserved gate of the city's medieval fortifications.

St. Michael's Gate and Tower

Old Town Hall and square
We spent some time going in and out of shops and taking photos of the interesting buildings in the old town. We also made a quick stop at a restaurant to try some creamy garlic soup, a Slovakian specialty. It was very good. And very garlicky. Sadly, I can't remember the name of the restaurant we found on a tiny side-street but they also served some amazing dark beer with a complexity and richness that rivaled many Belgian beers I've had. Slovakian beer; who knew?

St. Martin's Cathedral
Our next stop was St. Martin's Cathedral. It's on the very edge of the old town and was built in the 13th century. In the late 14th century, Gothic architecture replaced the original Romanesque construction. 19 Hungarian emperors were crowned in St. Martin's Cathedral.

Artwork on the windows of a cafe under the cathedral.

From the cathedral, it's an easy walk up to Bratislava Castle. The castle has been inhabited since the late Stone Age, with its first written record dating back to 907AD. After 1526, it became the seat of Hungarian monarchs and was later transformed into a luxurious Baroque residence. In 1811 the castle was burnt down and reconstruction began many years later, in 1953. The Crown Tower, built in the 13th century, is still standing today.

We spent about an hour wandering around the castle grounds and taking in the  panoramic view of Bratislava. It's certainly a city where old meets new in a very abrupt way, almost crashing. The walk leading up to the castle is crumbling, grassy steps but all you have to do is look to the left during your ascent and you are confronted with a highway directly below, and a bustling metropolis across the Novy Most (New Bridge) over the Danube River.

New Bridge over the Danube

There was still one more food specialty for us to try in Bratislava: Bryndzove halushky, potato dumplings with sheep cheese and roasted bacon. Needless to say, it's a very rich, heavy dish that is difficult to finish in one sitting since it's served so generously. Who doesn't like potatoes, bacon, and cheese, though? It's like a loaded baked potato but much more decadent and delicious. I thought the food in Bratislava was great. Portions were large, prices were reasonable, and the dishes were flavorful. Not surprisingly. the menus reminded me a lot of those in Budapest.

We finished the day by watching the sun set over the Danube. I found the old town in Bratislava to be charming and clean. Though we were joined by other tourists, the crowds weren't overwhelming and it was nice to be able to experience the quiet, clean streets without hordes of people.

If you're ever in Vienna with a day to spare, hop on the train to Bratislava and take a gander at the old city and castle. It's worth it, especially if you can find that dark beer.