Lockdown Diaries: Basque Country

Words and photos by Thomas Lodin

It’s hard to talk about Biarritz without straying towards the cliché.

The city is like a postcard, ready-made and ready to be sent (mom will be delighted, don’t forget to send a kiss). I first came here for its waves—I never said I was going to avoid the clichés—and then, for its light. There is just something special here. I came to try to combine passion and work because, like many, I didn’t see myself sitting in a 9 to 6 office. That was seven years ago and I’m still here.

I am fortunate to travel—correction, was—and every turn felt like a discovery. Life is good here and the location perfect. In half an hour’s drive, you can be completely out of place; lost in the middle of an expanse of sand, on mountain summits, or in another country speaking an entirely different language.

But Biarritz makes you lazy, that’s its main flaw. Why go elsewhere when everything you could want is close at hand? (Don’t worry, I’ll get to the summertime tourists in a minute).

Shopping, surfing, drinking wine, and schools for those who have kids; everything is accessible by a short walk. It’s a comfort and a luxury that we get used to very quickly and it is dangerous, because getting back to reality can be tough. But why go back?

I also like its history, linked to surfing since 1956 of course, but Napoleon used to swim here long before. Victor Hugo had mentioned his fear of it, but Biarritz has indeed become fashionable. I may be a result of this, but in my own way, I try to respect those who came before me.

I wish I arrived here long before, believe me. I’m having a hard time thinking about it, not being born at the right time. I would have liked to know its deserted and somewhat gloomy streets, its wasteland buildings, its empty waves or its Steak House—the real meeting point for travelling surfers, rather than these newly built, white buildings, paved roads or well-cut, shiny green golf courses.

A new face of Biarritz that I did not know was revealed during the two lockdowns we endured last year in France due to COVID. Our lives came to a halt, leaving room for the whistling of birds, crashing waves on the sand and the rapid but determined footsteps of people. Biarritz has become a quiet village with almost no traffic. This situation, as dramatic as it was, was an incredible experience when you stepped outside to go shopping.

The deserted streets, the empty ocean and the seagull’s calls between the buildings was something incredible to experience. It made me think of what Biarritz might have once been: a small, calm fishing village punctuated by the tides, a thousand miles from the summer hustle and bustle that today allows the city to live.

The contrast was edifying and I realised how much you get used to the din, the rush, and how scary a silence can become. Biarritz in summer, when tourists arrive, is an experience. I love to be an amused spectator of this effervescence, it’s a real comedic play.

I like to observe human behaviour, and during the summer months it’s a treat; whether in the streets, on the beach or in the ocean, the French holidaymaker is one of the most beautiful specimens there is. The French holidaymaker is King. The influx of people is extraordinary in normal years, but it was even more disproportionate last summer with travel restrictions being lifted temporarily. A pretty brutal shock after two months of isolation, you can, believe me.

Luckily, fall follows, which we anticipate all year as a surfer. Swells are coming back, the tourists are leaving, and the calm reigns again, until next summer. Just like tides and waves.

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