The Ilbarritz Castle


Since my childhood i always saw this castle standing in front of the sea and as all the kids here, i wondered what could have been the life of Albert de L'Espée living inside this house. I know he was playing organ on the Bidart beach during the stormy nights and was saying that the vew he had from the tower was the second incredible vew after the Rio bay...

In 1854 Biarritz's became renowned when Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, built a luxurious palace on the beach (now called the Hôtel du Palais). The city now has an international reputation as a glamourous seaside resort, making it much more famous than the whaling village it once was, and has been frequented by the British royal family; European royalty such as Queen Victoria, Edward VII, and Alfonso XIII of Spain. A variety of archietecture adornes the cliffs of Biarritz including one eclectic residence built by Gustave Huguenin, know for his secrecy, which faces Spain and still intrigues locals.

What goes on up on the hill of Handia? The new owner is reclusive, eccentric, and very strict about trespassing on his land and insists he does not was to be disturbed. To help him keep his privacy he has erected 2 iron fences on the 148 acres of land making it a fortress to all who would hope to visit. He is quite open that no one is welcomed on his land. Not only that but he rarely leaves his estate and has nothing to do with society in general. Who is this modern day Howard Hughes? We may never know.

Gaston Lacroix’s Phantom of the Opera struck a cord with Baron de l’Espée who hated humanity and was wealthy enough not to care. He developed an obsession with pipe organs that forced him to live alone on his many properties scattered throughout France.

This changed a bit when he met the famous vocalist Biana Duhamel, who was 20 years his junior, and he became infatuated. She was drawn to the Baron’s eccentric personality as well as his vast wealth. Biana was the soft spot in the Baron’s armor and he would give in to her every whim, want, and need as long as she remained at his disposal. Their relationship is still not fully understood throughout the Ilbaritz region.

Baron de L'Espée is an avant-garde dreamer and designer. He wants his romance and he wants it to take place in an impenetrable fortress of solitude. In addition to the castle, the Baron has built the "villa des Sables" a luxury villa housing his sweetheart Biana Duhamel and her mother.

This glamorous property is surrounded by high walls and is connected to the castle through a covered path allowing Biana to be taken wherever she wants on the Baron’s property without fearing for the weather.

On the beach, from the South to the North; except the kitchen and the hydro-electric factory, one could find the bath cabins, the marine establishments (heated pools and Turkish baths), and the medieval castle (a small neo-gothic castle).

On the East of the Ilbarritz castle, an extraordinary panoramic living room built on pillars which architecture was similar to a mausoleum. Underneath the castle, an artificial cave wonderfully decorated leading to a natural spring and allowed the lovers to take refuge and to quench their thirst...

All of these locations provided the couple with new adventures to enjoy together on a daily basis. Compared to other properties built by Baron de L'Espée none of them shows such unabandoned creativity and fantasy that Ilbaritz afforded him. In the end Ilbaritz was designed as a gigantic theater to appeal to his lover and offer them endless hours of amusement.

All was not as lush and happy as it seemed though. The Baron took it upon himself to become the jailer of Biana and forced her to stay by his side or on the property at all times. In Januaray 1898 Biana began attempting to escape her lover’s prison to enjoy the nightlife in Biarritz. The Baron became furious at these attempts and installed a giant spot light on top of Castle Belvedere to watch the villa des Sables (this light was so bright and blinding it caused the auto accident of the Queen of Serbia). Try as he might the Baron could not keep Biana locked up forever and in February 1898 she left him for good.

The mystery surrounding the castle is not limited to the eerie quiet that engulfs the property. Long ago some evenings a rumble would seep out from the very heart of the manor and escape into the moist night air. This beating heart drumming out Wagner’s tunes was the largest pipe organ ever built for a private person by the world famous Cavaillé-Coll.

The castle was actually built around this masterpiece to enhance the acoustics and overall sound. This pipe organ was the jewel in the crown of the famous organ-smith Cavaillé-Coll. It was built using cutting edge technology in its day which included: 4 manual keyboards and pedals, 78 games, mechanic traction of games and keyboards. This great organ was dismantled in 1903 and returned to Cavaillé-Coll (relocated to La Basilique du Sacré Coeur de Montmartre in 1919).The original organ was replaced in 1906 because the Baron had found a slightly smaller, but more technologically advanced organ built by Mutin. This second organ can now be seen in the church of Uzurbil, close to San Sebastian in Spain.

Sold in 1911 the building was transformed into a hospital around 1917. It then shut its doors again in 1923 and doesn’t see activity until 1939. In the 1940’s the building is requisitioned by the Pyrenees Inférieures and is used as a recovery location for refugees from the Spanish Civil War and then as a holiday resort used by Hitler’s SS Divisions (especially “Das Reich”) fighting on the Eastern front and allowed them a strategic lookout point while enjoying their time.

While fortifying the cliffs from Biarritz to Hendaye by the Todt Organization, it is found that Organ Castle is so enormous and built of concrete and iron that no fortifying was necessary. In 1945 the FFI staying in the castle testify to the excellent state of the castle and comment on the marble tops, woodwork, and titled floor covering the 1200m² terraces are in pristine condition.

After the turmoil of World War II the castle was left to the elements and was used as an annex for a farm. Looting also took place during this time as supplies were scarce.

Within 10 years of neglect the castle is torn apart. Fireplaces and rare marble covering first floor rooms and the organ room up to its gallery are all stolen. Fine chiseled woodwork, golden bronze doors, window frames, and anything of the remotest value are stolen. All that is left after this period of plunder are a few tiles from the terraces.

In 1958, an attempted renovation of the castle is started by a new owner, but he files for bankruptcy in 1986 and the castle is again left to the elements, looters, and squatters.

In 2002, the building is taken over by a private project for reclamation but they find the iron work of the building in sad shape. The metallic structures are badly damaged and require severe work. This slows down the progress of the project, not-to-mention that the design of the building itself (initially planned for an organ an a couple!) makes the use of the building difficult.

In 2008 the building is a permanent residence and is guarded around the clock. Although it may appear as a ghost ship this incredible building shines once again over the Basque Coast.