VI.

 

MY next impressions were gathered on the margin of a southern sea - -if the Bay of Biscay indeed deserves so soft-sounding a name. We generally have a mental image beforehand of a place we think of going to, and I supposed I had a tolerably vivid prevision of Biarritz. I don't know why, but I had a singular sense of having been there; the name always seemed to me expressive. I saw the way it lay along it's gleaming beach; I had taken in imagination the long walks toward Spain over the low cliffs, with the blue sea always to my right, and the blue Pyrenees always before me. My only fear was that my mental picture was not brilliant enough; but this could easily be touched up on the spot. In truth, however, I was exclusively occupied in toning it down. Biarritz seemed to be decidedly below it's reputation; I am at a loss to see how it's reputation was made. There is a partial explanation that is obvious enough. There is a low, square, bare brick mansion seated on the sands, under shelter of a cliff; it is one of the first objects to attract the attention of an arriving stranger. It is not picturesque, it is not romantic, and even in the days of it's prosperity it never can have been impressive. It is called the Villa Eugénie, and it explains in a great measure, as I say, the Biarritz which the arriving stranger, with some dismay, perceives about him. It has the aspect of one of the "cottages" of Newport during the winter season, and is surrounded by an even scantier umbrage than usually flourishes in the vicinity of those establishments. It was what the newspapers call the "favourite resort" of the ex-Empress of the French, who might have been seen at her imperial avocations with a good glass at any time from the Casino. The Casino, I hasten to add, has quite the air of an establishment frequented by gentlemen who look on ladies windows with telescopes. There are Casinos and Casinos, and that of Biarritz is, in the summary French phrase, "impossible." Except for it's view, it is moreover very unattractive. Perched on the top of a cliff which has just space enough to hold it's immense brick foundations, it has no garden, no promenade, no shade, no place of out-of-door reunion - -the most indispensable feature of a Casino. It turns it's back to the Pyrenees and to Spain, and looks out prettily enough over a blue ocean to an arm of the low French coast.

Biarritz, for the rest, scrambles over two or three steep hills, directly above the sea, in a promiscuous, many-coloured, noisy fashion. It is a watering-place, pure and simple; every house has an expensive little shop in the basement, and a still more expensive set of rooms to let above stairs. The houses are blue, and pink, and green; they stick to the hillsides as they can, and being near Spain, you try to fancy they look Spanish. You succeed perhaps, even a little, and are rewarded for your zeal by finding, when you cross the border a few days afterward, that the houses at San Sebastian look strikingly French. Biarritz is bright, crowded, irregular, filled with many sounds, and not without a certain second-rate picturesqueness; but it struck me as common and cocknified, and my vision travelled back to modest little Etretal, by it's northern sea, as to a more truly delectable resting-place. The south-western coast of France has little of the exquisite charm of the Mediterranean shore. It has of course a southern expression which in itself is always delightful. You see a brilliant, yellow sun, with a pink-faced, red-tiled house staring up at it. You can see here and there a trellis and an orange tree, a peasant woman in gold necklace, driving a donkey, a lame beggar adorned with ear-rings, a glimpse of blue sea between white garden walls. But the superabundant detail of the French Riviera is wanting; the softness, luxuriousness, enchantment.

The most picturesque thing at Biarritz is the Basque population, which overflows from the adjacent Spanish provinces and swarms in the crooked streets. It lounges all day in the public places, sprawls upon the kerbstones, clings to the face of the cliffs, and vociferates continually in a shrill, strange tongue, which has no discoverable affinity with any other. The Basques look like the hardier and thriftier Neapolitan lazzaroni; if the superficial resemblance is striking, the difference is very much in their favour. Although those specimens which I observed at Biarritz appeared to enjoy an excess of leisure, they had nothing of a shiftless or beggarly air, and seemed as little disposed to ask favours as to confer them. The roads leading into Spain were dotted with them, and here they were coming and going as if on important business - -the business of the abominable Don Carlos himself. They struck me as a very handsome race. The men are invariably clean shaved; smooth chins seem a positively religious observance. They wear little round, maroon-coloured caps, like those of sailor-boys, dark stuff shifts, and curious white shoes, made of strips of rope laid together - -an article of toilet which makes them look like honorary members of base-ball clubs. They sling their jackets, cavalier fashion, over one shoulder, hold their heads very high, swing their arms very bravely, step out very lightly, and when you meet them in the country at eventide, charging down a hillside in companies of half a dozen, make altogether a most impressive appearance. With their smooth chins and childish caps, they may be taken, in the distance, for a lot of very naughty little boys. They have always a cigarette in their teeth.