St Jean de Luz is a unique gem on the French Atlantic coast; a delightful and tranquil village that explodes into life in summer. Located in the French Côte Basques seaside region, and sheltered from the powerful Atlantic current, St Jean de Luz has become a mecca for swimmers and sunbathers in the warmer months. They flock for the impeccably clean beaches and stay for the village’s quaint hotels, unspoiled architecture and stellar seafood restaurants. Smaller and more intimate than its more famous neighbor, Biarritz, St Jean has the allure of a yet undiscovered resort, as visitors have only relatively recently discovered the virtues of this long-standing Basque fishing port.
Although it is hard to believe when standing in the middle of St-Jean in high season, the village’s fame as the premier destination on the Atlantic coast only really started to grow in the late 20th century. For centuries, this formerly sleepy and unassuming village made its wealth solely from its port and past; St Jean was associated with not only fishing but pirating. Basque pirates -with the Kings backing – amassed much wealth from their illegitimate activities over the years and many of the village’s fine buildings were constructed with this wealth. All part of St Jean’s long and colorful history as a Basque settlement.
The Basques are, of course, the region’s oldest inhabitants and have maintained their own language and culture throughout the ages, despite the area being conquered in the 1st century by the Romans. After the Roman invasion of South-West France, they baptized the region as Aquitania or Aquitaine. The area remained under Roman control for centuries, prospering as a small trading port. However, as the Roman Empire began to crumble in the 5th century, they lost control of the region and in 418; Rome gave the provinces of Aquitania to the Visigoths, tribes from Northern Europe. A period of conflict followed, with several tribes fighting for control of this desirable part of the French Atlantic coast.
The Vikings, a tribe from modern-day Scandinavia, conquered the Basque region in 840 during their invasion of Gascony and held onto this prize for over a century until the province was re-taken by the Basque Duke William II Sanchez of Gascony. He drove out the Scandinavian invaders and reintroduced Christianity to the region, monasteries soon sprung all over this part of the Basque country. However, the area soon split into feudal Kingdoms and was not unified until Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II of England, giving him possession of the French territories of Aquitaine and Gascony.
This foreign control of the French Atlantic region would continue into the 13th century after Henry III, the English King appointed Simon de Montford as Governor of Gascony. From hereafter, St Jean would enter a turbulent period of history, during the 100 years war between England and France Philip IV battled Edward I for control of the region. Many lives were lost in the bloody battles and atrocities were committed by both sides. St Jean’s fate was finally resolved in the Treaty of Paris in 1303, which gave the English King full control of Autiance.
St Jean de Luz enjoyed a more peaceful and prosperous existence after the signing of the Treaty and entered its Golden Age in the 17th century, its fame encouraged by St Jean’s importance as a coastal stop on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. The village’s prosperity was largely funded by fishing and whaling, with a good deal of pirating also contributing to St Jean’s good fortune. Many grand residences were built on the back of this wealth in the 17th and 18th century, some of which are still completely intact today. They housed the Basque families and merchants, in addition to accommodating a very famous guest in the shape of Queen Mother, Anne of Austria.
Queen Anne was in St Jean to oversee the marriage of Louis XIV to Marie-Therese of Spain, following the signing of the ‘Treaty of the Pyrenees’ between Spain and France in 1659. In what was arguably the village’s proudest moment, the couple chose the Basque church of St John the Baptist to host their wedding. At this point, St-Jean became the second largest town in the region, with a population over 12,000.
However, this Belle-époque was not free of turmoil or incident, in 1609 more than 600 of the village’s women were accused of witchery by the Church, and sentenced to be burned alive! Luckily, they were saved from their judgment as heretics when their husbands returned from a fishing trip and fought to claim their wives. It is the stuff of legends!
St-Jean-de-Luz continued to prosper until the French Revolution in the 18th century, although the Basque region didn’t bear the full brunt of the conflict by any means. After the Revolution and subsequent abolition of the monarchy, a new centralized government abolished the local privileges that had been granted by the so-called ancient regime. The village faded into slight obscurity during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, continuing to earn a living through fishing but not really sharing in Biarritz’s fame as a fashionable resort.
Nonetheless, St-Jean greeted the 20th century with a quiet sense of optimism, as its clean beaches and unspoiled coastline were starting to attract discerning European visitors. Sadly, two World Wars would bring hardship to its citizens, many French young men would never return home during the 1st World War. During the 2nd World War, St-Jean was the scene of a dramatic series of events when Polish soldiers used the village’s beaches to attempt to board their ships to escape to England. The bad weather prevented a German air force attack and the village citizens helped the soldiers to board the ships on fishing boats – another proud moment for St-jeans; townsfolk, who selflessly risked their own lives to help others.
Although the Basque region did not experience much fighting during World War Two, the French Atlantic zone came under Nazi control and the entire coastline was declared a military zone, placing it off-limits to French civilians (except for local inhabitants, who required a special pass). After the war years, the importance of fishing in maintaining St-Jean prosperity declined as overfishing increased and competition drove merchants out of business. However, this change encouraged St-Jean to capitalize on its attractions as a upscale resort and the village started to invest in its tourism industry. The number of holiday homes trebled in 1960 and 70s – helped by infrastructure improvements – including a new motor route to Bordeaux and Spain.
St-Jean has continued to attract a considerable number of discerning visitors into the 21st century, maintaining that vital balance between preserving its heritage, and developing its potential as a chic holiday resort. While St-Jean may have enough hotels, restaurants, bars, shops and casinos to satisfy even the fussiest of tourist, its real charm lies in its unrivalled cultural heritage, with musical and other events held through the year. Add to that the legendary Basque talent for gastronomy, and of course, clean, totally unspoiled coast and it’s not hard to see why hotel guests return every year.
Gastronomy & Wine
These are two things that the French take very seriously indeed and the citizens of St Jean de Luz are no exception. In fact, its Basque inhabitants take a passion for gastronomy to another level and you could argue that some of the finest French cuisine resides in the Basque region. Good food isn’t just an option here, it’s a way of life and cooked indifferently at your peril, locals like to say!
St-Jean offers a whole range of dining options, from simple and (relatively) inexpensive local fare to the very finest haute Basque cuisine with prices to match. Unsurprisingly, seafood restaurants are to be found in abundance along the waterfront, although many good options present themselves further back from the Atlantic. Try Pantxua for excellent, traditional Basque seafood dishes and great views of the bay.
As you can imagine, local Basque cuisine is always based around high quality, local seasonal ingredients rather than elaborate sauces or spice combinations The Basque people have a long history of seafaring and the fish here is unbeatable. Cod, hake and fresh tuna are popular when the Oysters are in season they sell out fast! Wild game, hams, and mushrooms are all popular staple local cuisine. What of the wine? Well, the Basque country produces Txakoli, a crisp white wine that is perfect as an aperitif. The Basque region of Alava produces exceptional red Riojan wines, a perfect match to local game and lamb dishes. Most restaurants in St-Jean will have well-stocked cellars, containing good wines from Bordeaux and the Languedoc in south-west France, the options are virtually endless. Of course, no feast would be complete with a glass of Champagne – or Cava – as your aperitif.
Located outside St-Jean de Luz in Hendaye, this beautiful 19th-century Château enjoys unrivaled views across the Atlantic Ocean. It is a real curiosity, as the exterior of the Château presents a classic medieval design, inside, however, visitors are greeted with oriental design. The owner – Viollet-le-Duc took the unorthodox option of adding an observatory so that scientists could gaze at the stars.
One of the best aquariums in Europe, the sea museum is housed in a wonderful art deco building in Biarritz, merely 15 minutes’ drive away from St Jean de Luz. Biarritz’s Musée de la Mer is teeming with underwater life from the Bay of Biscay and beyond, as well as exhibits on fishing recalling Biarritz’ whaling past. It’s the seals that steal the show though (feeding time, which is always a favorite with children, is at 10.30am and 5 pm) – Unmissable if you take the kids!
Parc National Des Pyrenees
This stunning area of natural beauty is easily accessible from St. Jean and extends 100 KM along the French-Spanish frontier. It boasts some of the most splendid alpine scenery in Europe and is rich in animals and plant-life. There are over 350KM of footpaths within the park, making it very visitor friendly – an outdoor lovers’ dream.
A small train that runs up the Rhune Mountains in the summer season, offers spectacular and unmissable views of the mountain range. Visitors can catch the train in the town of Ascain, which is about 5km east of St-Jean.