Biarritz may no longer lay claim to the title "the resort of kings and the king of resorts," but there's no shortage of deluxe hotel rooms or bow-tied gamblers ambling over to the casino. The city first rose to prominence when rich and royal Carlist exiles from Spain set up shop here in 1838. Unable to visit San Sebastián—just across the border on the Basque Coast—they sought a summer watering spot as close as possible to their old stomping ground. Among the exiles was Eugénie de Montijo, destined to become empress of France. As a child, she vacationed here with her family, fell in love with the place, and then set about building her own palace once she married Napoléon III. During the 14 summers she spent here, half the crowned heads of Europe (including Queen Victoria and Edward VII) were guests in Eugénie's villa: a gigantic wedding-cake edifice, now the Hôtel du Palais, on Biarritz’s main seaside promenade. Whether you consider the bombastic architectural legacies of that era an eyesore or an eyeful, the builders at least had the courage of their convictions. If you want to rediscover yesteryear Biarritz, start by exploring the narrow streets around the cozy 16th-century church of St-Martin.


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