By Charles Bricker

It ain’t the Biarritz frequented by the British royal family during the golden years of the 20th Century, but it still has great restaurants, great beaches, great surfing, great weather, a great sense of bonhomme with its tourists and — I’m saving the best for last — great tennis.

Among the first things I do when I arrive in a new French venue is find the best clay courts and start working on finding hitting partners, and I didn’t have to wait long after arriving at the Biarritz OlympiqueTennis Club.

So there I stood, at the entrance of the club, looking down at the terre battue (red clay, and if you want to say it correctly, repeat after me: “tair bot-too”). The woman at the reception desk, fighting to comprehend my still-evolving French, gave me phone numbers for three members, all of whom spoke at least a little English, and, for all the nonsense about the French not liking Americans, I hit it off instantly with Patrick, who reserved us a court on Tuesday.

“Neuf heures,” I suggested 9 a.m. No, he had to drop his two young children at school. So, dix heures (10 a.m.) it was and two hours after we had come off the court, I was still beaming with pride about how good it feels to hit on the red powder, and also about the red stain on my socks.

If you’re like me, you make room for tennis on vacation. I pack just one racket, but bring extra string and extra grips. I didn’t need either on this one-month holiday, but you feel a lot better packing them along.

This was my 15th trip to France, but my first to the Pays Basque (Basque country) of the southwest corner, where France borders Spain. I wanted to feel a new French culture, and it’s definitely different from Paris or Strasbourg up against the German border or the bustle of the Cote d’Azur in the southeast.

Tennis isn’t the No. 1 sport in France, which prefers football and rugby, but it’s running a solid third, though not in Biarritz, where pelote (we call it jai alai) is not only extensively played but still a strong part of the Basque culture.

Nevertheless, the courts are here, just as they are almost everywhere in France, and the French know how to do tennis. I recall once going to the public facility in Nice, just to hit the wall in mid-day, and there must have been 200 children there receiving lessons for at least one instructor on every court.

Even the small towns and villages have a couple of courts. Not terre battue and without windscreens and sometimes without even a center strap, but the courts are there because sport is taken seriously in France.

You can fly into Biarritz or its companion city, Bayonne, but if you’re going to Paris first, take the five-hour TGV (average speed 130 mph) down from Gare Montparnasse in the south of Paris to Bayonne with only three or four stops. Smooth ride and all the civility no longer available in air travel.

Hotels? Beaucoup. But if budget is a very strong issue, go on-line and find what the French call residence hotels. I stayed at Residence Villa Clara in the small town of Anglet, which is immediately west of Bayonne and immediately north of Biarritz, and the cost in May, which for me is the best time to go, was under 100 Euros per night.

For that you get a very large one-bedroom apartment with full kitchen, whirlpool bathtub, hot tub and swimming pool just outside your front door and the beach a five-minute walk away. Well, depending on which beach you want.

My closest is Plage de Cavaliers, but over a distance of four kilometers there is a continuum of five beaches. Take your pick. The water is warm enough to swim, but, be forewarned, there’s a lot of heavy surf and swimming isn’t alfways advised.

Restaurants? I prefer dinners at home and long lunches from 1-3 in the afternoon. Food is expensive in France so if you’re ultra-careful with the Euros and like pizza, you know the drill. I am not a pizza eater, so for a plate of smoked salmon with a glass of Bordeaux, I’m putting down about 16 Euros ($21).

Still, it’s my only meal out during the day, not counting the daily morning baguette, croissant or pain au chocolat. I can live with it.

The Biarritz Tennis Club sounds private, but it’s not. It’s run by the city and if you’re lucky enough to meet a member, your hit is going to be 7.50 Euros for an hour, or until you’re bumped. Play at 10 and chances are you can have the court until you fall face down in the red stuff from fatigue. Yes, 7.50 is high. But you’re on the red clay, you’re on vacation and your friends back home envy you.

You’re not going to play tennis all day, so drink in the rest of Basque country. Go to seashore in Biarritz and have lunch at L’Oceane, overlooking the Atlantic. Have dinner at the Auberge du Cheval Blanc in Bayonne. Sample the Bayonne ham. Treat yourself to gateau Basque, a buttery individual Basque cake filled with cream or cherries. Drive out to the hillside villages of St. Jean Pied-de-Port or Campo and just wander.

Then come home, get the red clay off your socks and prepare for tennis the next day.

Charles Bricker can be reached at nflwriterr@aol.com

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