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Biarritz, in southwest France, was an isolated whaling station until Empress Eugénie discovered it in 1854. Her husband, Napoleon III, built a summer residence for her in the town – the Villa Eugénie, now the Hôtel du Palais – and Europe’s nobility followed. In 1888, the British built the Golf du Phare, the town’s first golf course. And in the 1930s, Edward, Prince of Wales, travelled to Biarritz with Wallis Simpson, issuing the instructions: “Chill the champagne, pack the pearls, and tune up the Bugatti.”
After the second world war, Biarritz’s star began to fade: the Côte d’Azur, with its drier summers and calm bathing beaches, became the coast of choice for the wealthy. Now the surf crowd has reinvigorated Biarritz, giving it a youthful feel.
Local authorities have tried to preserve the architecture by placing preservation orders on 830 buildings of architectural and historical interest, including villas, mansions and palaces built during the height of the resort’s popularity.
Biarritz has a permanent population of about 25,000, but the combined urban area of nearby Bayonne, Anglet and a number of other towns comprises of more than 170,000 residents.
Compared with much of the rest of France, property prices in and around Biarritz are buoyant, thanks partly to the arrival of professionals from Paris seeking a lifestyle change. According to MeilleursAgents.com, a French property portal, house prices in Biarritz grew by an average of 12 per cent over the past five years (not adjusted for inflation), compared with 4 per cent in the region of Pyrénées-Atlantiques as a whole. Apartments in the resort begin at €3,000 per sq metre, rising to €8,600 per sq metre.
By comparison, the region of Alpes-Maritimes, which includes the Côte d’Azur, also registered a 4 per cent increase over the same period, with an average 7 per cent growth in Nice, the region’s biggest city. Average prices in Monaco, meanwhile, dropped by 18.8 per cent in the same period, according to Knight Frank, although they are now rising again.
There are two main differences between the property market on the 40km Basque coast and the market on the Côte d’Azur, says Sébastien de Lafond, chairman of Meilleurs-Agents.com “The geography is fundamentally different,” he says. “On the Basque coast there is plenty of room to build in the hinterland, but on the Côte d’Azur – and in particular the stretch between Nice and the Italian border – there is less space between the mountains and the sea. On top of that, the Côte d’Azur has an ultra high-end segment that does not exist anywhere on the Basque coast.”
The typical Basque house is built of local red sandstone, with whitewashed walls and tiled roofs. Traditionally, the front door is topped by a decorative stone lintel inscribed with the names of the husband and wife who built the house. In rural parts of the Basque country, villagers are sometimes known by the name carved on the house rather than by their own surname.
A modern Basque building style, favoured by the town’s planning department, is in evidence throughout the town, with overhanging tiled roofs, wooden balustrades on upper-floor balconies and, of course, whitewashed walls.
A good example of this modern Basque style is a four-bedroom, three-bathroom house on a 1,050 sq metre plot close to the town’s Ilbarritz beach, on sale for €990,000 through Barnes International.
Some of the 19th-century mansions have been divided into apartments. A three-bedroom, three-bathroom 124 sq metre apartment in a building with a grand entrance lobby, featuring marble columns, plaster mouldings and wrought ironwork, is available for €995,000 through Emile Garcin.
According to Didier Lepinoux of Biarritz Immo, strikingly modern homes are fairly rare on this stretch of coast (the modern Basque style has become, he says, “almost an obligation”), but he has been instructed to sell one – an angular concrete and glass home with five en-suite bedrooms and an outdoor swimming pool. The house is a minute’s walk from the beach, 2km from the centre of the town and is on sale for €2.65m.
“The property market in Biarritz is stable with a consistent demand for properties from Parisians and, to a lesser extent, [buyers from] other French cities, such as Bordeaux and Lyon,” says Lepinoux.
“But,” he adds, “homes that appear overpriced by more than 10 per cent simply won’t get any viewings.” These days, buyers in France (Biarritz included) know that the market is basically flat and have little appetite for lengthy haggling to bring down an inflated asking price.
Lepinoux says the “Biarritz effect” on property prices can extend to villages as much as 40km inland. But the interior of the Basque country also offers bargains for buyers with the patience to make renovations. In Hasparren, a small town 30km from Biarritz with a wealth of traditional Basque dwellings, a five-bedroom, house with 140 sq metres of living space is advertised for €161,000 through Logic-Immo.
There are other options in the low-key resort of St-Jean-de-Luz, between Biarritz and the Spanish border, which is popular with families for the calm waters in its horseshoe bay. Here, a 53 sq metre, one-bedroom apartment with a balcony and a parking space close to the town centre and the main beach is on the market for €320,000 through Luz Immobilier.
● While summers are rather damp, it can be 20C in December
● Biarritz is about five hours from Paris by high-speed train
● A like-for-like seafront apartment would cost 30 to 40 per cent more in Cannes than Biarritz
● According to the French National Institute for Statistics, in 2011 there were 1,100 assaults per 100,000 people in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, compared with 485 in Aquitaine
● Estate agents typically charge a commission of 5 to 6 per cent of the sale price
● Buyers should budget about 7.5 per cent of the purchase price to cover land registry taxes, notary’s fees and miscellaneous expenses
● Property transactions in France are down 20 per cent compared with two years ago
What you can buy for . . .
€1m A four-bedroom house in Biarritz with a swimming pool
€3m A recently built 400 sq metre house on a 4,000 sq metre plot next to a golf course in Biarritz
This article has been amended since publication to show that the typical commission charged by estate agents is 5 to 6 per cent of the sale price, not 56 per cent