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Articles Blog

St. Jean De Luz, France

Karyn Planett

Beach Basque and Beyond

Our challenge is to recap all that this gem of a town and its surrounds have on offer. Yours is to select among this menu of temptations. Will your pleasure be a peek at Pamplona where lunatics dodge raging bulls or at Balenciaga’s atelier that showcases designs for waify supermodels slinking along a catwalk? A proper tea at Empress Eugenie’s former palace or the loud munching on traditional tapas called “bar-hops” with the colorful locals? A pilgrimage in the footsteps of the faithful at Lourdes or a beach day watching world-class surfers literally walk on water?

What will your pleasure be?

A Check of the Facts And Stats

You’re in the Pyrénées Alps, a mere beret’s throw from Spain. This mini-destination with only 14,000 people is known for its colorful history laced with swashbuckling Basque pirates, wealthy shipbuilders, brave fishermen, a flirt with the royals, and a little-known chapter from WWII. Pirates, aka corsairs, took advantage of rough waters, protected coves, and merchants needing to move their wares by sea. Shipbuilders built ships and crewed them for voyages to the far reaches of the globe, then built magnificent manor homes to announce their success. Fishing fleets in Saint-Jean-de-Luz still take to the seas on the Bay of Biscay and beyond the Fargeot district, though their catch has declined over the years. And, speaking of a “catch”, Louis XIV wed his first cousin, Austria’s Maria-Theresa—the Infanta of Spain—in 1660 in the town’s Church of St. John the Baptist. This brokered marriage signaled an end to generations of bloodshed between two of the most powerful European countries. Some claim this was perhaps the “greatest political marriage” in history. The bride-to-be waited for her wedding in what is today called “Maison de l’Infante”, which still beckons visitors. The final chapter of our brief historical brushstroke speaks of bravery and desperation in June 1940 when a flotilla of small vessels evacuated a group of stranded Polish soldiers, French fighters and civilians.

So Many Choices, Not Much Time

A stroll through Saint-Jean-de-Luz is ideal for first time visitors. To examine the history of success stroll down rue Gambetta, rue Mazarin, and the area around Place Louis XIV. Maison Joanoenea hosted Anne of Austria, the Queen Mother, and the aforementioned Infanta of Spain. The Town Hall, known as the Hôtel de Ville, and other real hotels … The Golf and The Grand for example … feature architectural styles each representing a different period of design. Stop by the local morning market or a waterfront eatery for some ttoro, a type of fish stew with the freshest catch, or a plate of steamy stuffed squid called chipirons in a tomato sauce. Or, when taking tea at the Hôtel du Palais sample the local macaroons, reputed to make grown men weep.

Beyond The Beach

Groomed daily, Saint-Jean-de-Luz’s golden sand beach is truly tempting. Napoleon III even built a sea wall as protection from the pounding seas. But, stray away you must if you wish to explore Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway’s old haunt, Pamplona. His touch is everywhere here including room 217 in Hotel La Perla, his room with a view of the madness during the San Ferman Festival of the running of the bulls down Calle Estafeta. Other spots include Café Iruña (the Basque name for Pamplona), even the bullring where a bronze of the celebrated author keeps watch over the pageantry. “Papa” used Pamplona as the backdrop for his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises and put the town on the international map of “must see’s.” Read his account again to hear the echo of Hemingway’s rugged voice.

But it is the voice of the angels that seems to ring through at the Underground Basilica of St. Pius X in Lourdes. Not far from this port city, it was here on February 11, 1858 that a young girl named Bernadette Soubirous received a vision. According to believers, the Blessed Virgin appeared to her in the Grotto of Massabielle (“the rock”), quite near Lourdes. Hear Bernadette’s story that led from the humble beginnings of an illiterate shepherd girl to sainthood, her body filled with illness and her heart overflowing with the unfailing conviction of her faith.

Biarritz is also worthy of a mention. Referred to as the “queen of resorts and the resort of kings”, it is just that and more. Empress Eugénie de Montijo, the former Spanish Countess of Teba, was the one who put it on the map, so to speak. It was she for whom the Hôtel du Palais was built by her husband Napoleon III in 1855. Situated on the Grande Plage and shaped like the letter “E” for “Eugénie”, it was visited by foreign royalty including Queen Victoria over the decades. It is your day, however, to feel like royalty as you parade through the hotel grounds. Perhaps book a suite for a future visit so you’ll have enough time to explore this bit of Basque France and all it offers.