Saint Jean de Luz

Escapade In The City Of Pirates

By Marie Nicolas
In olden times, Saint-Jean-de-Luz was the lair of corsairs. Today the chic town ranks among the most popular seaside resorts in France. Nestled between Biarritz and Hendaye on the southwest Basque coast, the crescent-shaped bay of Saint-Jean-de-Luz has been going through a few decades of ongoing historic battles, traditional whale fishing, royal wedding celebrations and flocks of tourists.

I can vaguely remember my first visit in Saint-Jean. I was probably 7 or 8 years old, my family and I were holidaying in Seignosse – a 45-minute drive north of Saint-Jean – and up until a few years ago, all I could keep in mind were ice cream and the piments d’Espelette (chillies from the village of Espelette) hanging on the facades. It was years later when my older self took me there again that I realised the town had a lot more to offer than good ice cream and dried chillies!

Mistreated by the continuous storms and disputed by every so often the French and the Spanish, Saint-Jean-de-Luz’s history is extraordinarily rich. The town is at the peak of its glory in 1660 with the wedding of French King Louis XIV and Maria Teresa the Infanta, daughter of the Spanish King. Coming right after the Treaty of the Pyrenees putting an end to endless political and territorial feuds regarding what belongs to whom, the marriage celebrations went for days. Now why did the monarch choose Saint-Jean-de-Luz? Some would say that he simply got under the spell of the bay. Others would say that he fell for the tasty macarons from Maison Adam, whose fame goes beyond the French borders.

Whatever the reasons might be, the royal influence is undeniable and can still be found in today’s unique heritage-preserved architecture. The Maison de Louis XIV and the Maison de l’Infante are proof of this royal legacy and are still standing and well-visited each year. Same goes for the stunning Saint-Jean-Baptiste church.

Although it might be hard to conceive, the small fishing port of Saint-Jean was once a pirates’ hub where many rivalries took place. Whether the hunt was for whale, tuna or cod, fishing became the main source of wealth as early as the 14th century and it became one of France’s largest ports. The beautiful mansions make a perfect example of the town’s prosperity and indicate its bourgeois trademark.

Through generations and to this day, Saint-Jean-de-Luz has kept its fishing-related traditions: la Nuit de la sardine (Night of the Sardines) and la Fête du thon (Tuna Festival). Occurring in July and August, they are quite entertaining and if you happen to be in town for these festive events, you will be amazed by how the Basques are fond of their gastronomy.

Not too far from the port is Place Louis XIV, the main square where the town’s liveliness comes at dusk: many restaurants and bistros offer a delicious seafood cuisine. Temptation arises as you read the food diversity on the menus: ttoro – traditional fish soup, fresh-caught cod, grilled sardines or cured ham. Only a glimpse at the menu will make you go into a food coma! Watch the Basque dancers and bandas folklore musicians whilst digesting a wonderful al-fresco dinner and you will immediately be grabbed by the lovely summer atmosphere and the town’s douceur de vivre.
The relaxed lifestyle is precisely what appeals to many tourists coming every year to enjoy the coastline and the peaceful bay. Summer rentals soar from June to September and quite rapidly the streets and beaches become crowded. When the winter months approach Saint-Jean turns into a sleepy town occasionally welcoming French and Spanish retirees wandering the streets or treating themselves with thalassothérapie or spa breaks, another of the town’s successful economy.

For those seeking good panoramic views of both mountains and ocean, la Corniche Basque – a 6-km coastal windy road from Saint-Jean to Hendaye right at the Spanish border is worth a drive down. With waves crashing on its abrupt cliffs, la Corniche is a unique natural landscape where the Atlantic meets the bright green hills of the Basque Country.
If a French King loved Saint-Jean-de-Luz so much there is absolutely no reason you would not have a wonderful time exploring this charming seaside resort too!

Photography by Marie Nicolas

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