The Hôtel du Palais radiates charm. It is a hotel rich in memories, style and history.
Memories of an illustrious romance are traced in every grove and harbor, in every molding, in the very paneling of the great salons. They perpetuate the presence of Eugénie de Montijo, wife of Napoléon III, who on a summer’s day in 1855 chose a sandy hillside overlooking the sea not far from the Phare plateau as the site of the Imperial residence, the “Villa Eugénie”.
The style is synonymous with an epoch, the Second Empire, which was to establish the reputation of Biarritz as “the Queen of Resorts and the Resort of Kings”. Today more than ever, it is this style, neither passé nor pompous but profoundly elegant, that makes the hotel such a jewel in a seaside resort smiled upon by fortune and fashion.
Its history, like all romantic histories, has its frivolous, worldly and ephemeral aspects, as well as moments of drama. The Hôtel du Palais provided the perfect rendez-vous for luxury and poetry, becoming as showcase for 19th century Biarritz. The story is illustrated in images, in old prints and photographs… a fairy tale without end.
Its pages speak of fine carriages, parasols, sweeping gowns and to hats, tokens of opulent days when the aristocracy dances beneath sparkling chandeliers to the music of gypsy orchestras. There are chapters too of drama, echoing the guns of three wars.
The history takes us from wave to wave, from summer to summer, from ball to ball up to the present day, and we know that the blank pages that follow will be filled with unforgettable highlights.
In the middle of the last century, Biarritz was a small fishing village of 3,000 inhabitants located where the waters of France and Spain meet, at the foot of the Pyrénées, which Louis XIV, 200 years before, had rashly declared did not exist.
Of course, important visitors throughout the years had already been captivated by the magic of the place. In 1807, Queen Hortense, daughter of Joséphine de Beauharnais and wife of Louis Bonaparte, King of Holland, was completely taken with the wild beauty of the sea and the charm of the port. Victor Hugo, staying with his beloved Juliette Drouet in 1830, was so enchanted that he selfishly prayed that “Biarritz would never become fashionable”. But, of course, his prayer went unanswered, and many years later Sacha Guitry wrote in the Hôtel du Palais guestbook: “Whenever one hesitates between two resorts, one of them is always Biarritz”.
But lets us not get ahead of the story. The real “Making” of Biarritz is owed to a lovely young woman. In 1835, a nine-year-old girl spent her holidays on the Basque Coast in the company of her mother, the Spanish Countess de Montijo. She was a spirited, independent child who loved playing on the beach with her friends, catching shrimp in rock pools, skipping along steep paths and swimming at the Old Port with the local children. One frightening day she would have drowned if two young swimmers hadn’t saved her. She never forgot those holidays. She had fallen in love with the beautiful landscape. With her translucent complexion, light eyes and hair with red highlights inherited from her Scottish ancestors, she was the darling of the local population. Her name was Eugénie and she was to make the glory of Biarritz.
In 1852, Eugénie met Louis-Napoléon, President of the Second Republic. They were married a year later. She finally persuaded her husband – now Napoléon III – to accompany her to her childhood holiday haunt. In 1854 the Imperial couple and their retinue moved to the Château Grammont, in the Saint-Martin district of Biarritz, for the summer. Napoléon, in turn, was seduced by the charm of the coast. He was a man who knew his mind. The château was too small for an Imperial court, and so he purchased a site overlooking the sea where he ordered the construction of a summer palace. It was completed in six months – a record it was christened the “Villa Eugénie”, and it would eventually become the Hôtel du Palais
For sixteen years, with the exception of 1860 an 1869, the Imperial couple never missed a season in Biarritz.
The world’s aristocracy followed. The inhabitants marveled at the endless parade of nobility: Queen Isabelle of Spain, the King of Württemberg, Léopold II of Belgium, the Sovereigns of Portugal, Prince Jérôme Bonaparte, Prince Albrecht of Bavaria, Prince Walewski, the Princes of Metternich, the writers Prosper Mérimée and Octave Feuillet, and the celebrated Otto von Bismarck, the “Iron Chancellor”, who was pursuing a romantic idyll with the delightful Princess Orloff.
There was a constant round of activities: balls, picnics, receptions, fireworks displays and cruises were interspersed with diplomatic meetings. At the Villa Eugénie entertainments included tableaux and “portraits vivants”, charades and other parlor games. Spiritualism was much in vogue and seasons were frequently held. “Serviette” was also a popular pastime:
the ladies, brandishing tea towels, pursued the gentleman or officer they had chosen for their partner in the quadrille.
After the 1870 war and Napoléon III’s défeat at the Battle of Sedan, crinolines gave way to bustles, The Republic succeeded the Empire. But at the Villa Eugénie, purchased by the Banque Parisienne, turned into a casino in 1880 and then transformed to become the Hôtel du Palais in 1883, the fête continued. It was the “Belle Epoque” and the sumptuous display was every bit the equal of those of an earlier day. And with it came a new parade of the royal and illustrious, including Queen Victoria, Edward VII and his brother, the Duke of Connaught, Princess Yurievsky, the morganatic widow of Tsar Alexander II (the celebrated “Katia”, later popularized in a number of films), the King of Hanover, Queen Maria-Amelia of Portugal, Archduke Victor of Habsburg, King Oscar II of Sweden, Empress Elizabeth of Austria (better known as “Sissi”), and even the President of the French Republic, Sadi Carnot.
During this period the “Russian Season” always opened in October, and not a single Grand Duke ever failed to make an appearance: Constantine, Alexis, Vladimir, Boris, Cyril, André and Dimitri arrived at the head of a string of violins, cimbaloms, be feathered and bejeweled wives or companions. In the grand salon of the Hôtel du Palais champagne flowed uninterrupted.
On the first of February 1903, fire destroyed the Hôtel du Palais. It was soon rebuilt and a new wing added. It was here in 1906 that King Alphonse XII of Spain met Princess Ena Battenberg, whom he married the following year.
After the War of 1914-1918, when, like the other hotels in the city, the Hôtel du Palais was converted into a hospital for the wounded, a new style was ushered in by a younger generation beleaguered by five nightmare years and eager to adopt the pleasures of the Roaring Twenties.
It was in 1922 that my father, the Marquis d’Arcangues, organized a “Second Empire Ball” in the sumptuous setting of the Hôtel du Palais’ great rotunda. It was presided over by King Alphonse XIII and the Shah of Persia, whose munificence was to be widely chronicled. The ball was followed by other memorable nights, especially “La Verbena del Amor” and “Le Bal Petrouchka” in honor of Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. Once again the luminaries of Europe danced in the salons of the Hôtel du Palais. Waltzes, mazurkas and quadrilles were still on the program, but the young had begun stepping to the Charleston, the tango and the rumba. It was also the beginning of the Jazz Age. And while kings and princesses were now a rare species, the celebrities of the day included Edmond Rostand, Pierre Loti, Maurice Ravel, Kapurthala, Sarah Bernhardt and Igor Stravinsky.
They were soon followed by Sacha Guitry, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Cocteau, Serge Lifar and Ernest Hemingway. The procession of crowned heads gradually ceded to a new and more diversified world of the arts, literature, fashion and finance.
But all is not light opera in the life of a grand hotel too, is subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
In the history of the Hôtel du Palais, whose fate had been interwoven with that of a city for close to a century, three dates darkened the glow of the carefree, golden years: 1929 and the stock market crash, 1936 and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, 1940 and the German Occupation.
July 1940. General Von Kluge’s entire army arrived on the Basque Coast. The officers were billeted at the Hôtel du Palais, ready to cross Spain to take Gibraltar. The October 1940 meeting between Hitler and Franco at Hendaye, on the Spanish border, resulted in this plan coming to nothing. On the beaches, now empty of parasols and life-guards, soldier’s boots were lined up along the rocks beside piles of neatly folded green uniforms. Men in black bathing suits dove into the rolling waves, heedless of the swirling currents. Occasionally a pair of boots was never claimed by its owner. And sons of Biarritz too, carried away on a different current, were never to return.
By the 1950’s a new page had been turned. Brighter days were dawning, an irrepressible love of life emerged once more and Biarritz came back into its own. The great tradition of glittering galas was reinstated in the natural setting of the Hôtel du Palais.
Since 1950 the hotel has seen an exciting calendar of events, including spectacular fireworks displays,
the “Bal Goya”, the “Bal Edward VII”, the “Nuit du Rayon Vert”, the “Oiseau Bleu”, the “Gala des Années Folles”, and a new “Bal Empire” with Prince Napoleon in attendance.
Under the direction of a master decorator, the hotel’s guestrooms and suites were completely renovated. A magnificent pool was built and its inauguration celebrated with celebrities of the day at my side, including Bing Crosby, Porfirio Rubirosa, Gary Cooper, Frank Sinatra, Jane Mansfield members of Spain’s aristocracy returning to their favorite holiday resort, and a couple who remained faithful to Biarritz to their last days, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Today, some of our most cherished customs shaken to their foundations, some may wonder if a grand hotel like the Hôtel du Palais may not be an outmoded institution. To them we can affirm that the discerning traveler’s desire for luxury, comfort and quality, his fascination with history, glory and tradition, make the Hôtel du Palais a rare hotel indeed – a grand European hotel that has never lost its soul and has thus secured for itself a future as great as its legendary past.