TAKE A STROLL ST-JEAN-DE-LUZ
With its royal connections and illustrious past, this traditional fishing port is a jewel in the Pays Basque’s crown, says Alex Green, as she follows in the footsteps of saints and sinners
Enjoy the royal history and seafood spoils of the Atlantic harbour town.
Living between the Atlantic coast and the foothills of the Pyrénées, the inhabitants of Saint-jean-de-luz have thrived in this luscious landscape for generations. As I step inside Les Halles, the town’s daily covered market, I begin to see why.
The displays of rich purple artichokes, golden chanterelles and piles of freshly picked herbs punctuate the air with uplifting aromas. By the time I reach the poissonnerie, I am in awe as a prized tuna, about a metre long, is cut into uniformly thick steaks. Fishing has been the main industry since the 12th century, and Basque fishermen sailed huge distances to go whaling or fishing for cod off the coast of Newfoundland.
The market hall is located on reclaimed marshland that once spilled from the mouth of the River Nivelle. Saint-jean-de-luz derives from the combination of Saint-jean-de-marais (Saint John of the Marshes) with the Basque translation, Donhibane Lohizune.
The land was drained and built upon, with the railway station opening in 1864 and the market in 1884. Around the same time, the road was renamed from Rue du Marais to Boulevard Victor Hugo, to mark the writer’s death.
Leaving the market, I cross Place des Corsaires, the first nod to the 17th-century sailors whose activities on the high seas made a big contribution to the town’s wealth. The ‘Corsaires’ were glorified pirates, who were permitted by the king to capture ships flying the flag of an enemy of the state.
They became rich from the proceeds and built homes around Port de Pêche inspired by their travels. On the other side of the river, in the commune of Ciboure, one such elegant house stands out for its Dutch architectural design. Maison Ravel is named after the ‘Bolero’ composer Maurice Ravel, who was born here in 1875. Two centuries earlier, Cardinal Mazarin, who had engineered a peace treaty between France and Spain, stayed in the house when Saint-jean-de-luz was chosen to host the wedding of Louis XIV and his cousin, the Spanish infanta Maria-theresa.
Walking along the harbour towards Quai de l’infante, I admire another corsaire’s house, Maison Joanoenia, built in the Italian Renaissance style, where Maria-theresa and her aunt (the king’s mother) stayed the night before the wedding. It is surrounded by more traditional homes based on a Basque ‘labourdine’ farm, with red-stained timber frames and shutters that are a distinguishing feature seen throughout the town.
I stroll past Place Louis XIV with its pretty little music pavilion and continue on to Rue Léon Gambetta, the main shopping street. I imagine how impressive this must have looked on that historic day, when a carpet strewn with flowers was laid out for the Sun King and his bride as they made their
way to the medieval church of Saint-jean-baptiste.
The church was being extended at the time and the door through which the royal couple passed was replaced a few years later. A plaque to commemorate the occasion marks the spot where the original door stood.
At the far end of the street, I turn left along Rue Louis-fortuné Loquin, arriving at the eastern end of the crescent-shaped bay beside La Pergola. This concrete edifice was built shortly after World War I to house a hotel, casino and cinema for the seaside tourism scene.
By contrast, here, too, lies the site of a former hospital that once served the needs of pilgrims on the Chemins de Saint-jacques. Many opted to follow the coastal road rather than make the perilous trek across the Pyrénées as they made their way to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.
I follow the promenade, admiring the white sandy beach that is protected from the full force of the Atlantic by sea walls before turning into Rue de la République to see the town’s oldest building, dated 1556.
Back in Place Louis XIV, I take a seat in the square under the shade of plane trees where I watch the artists paint a picture of life here, from the past to the present day.
BELOW: The bustling fishing port of Saint-jean-de-luzINSERT: A winning combination of sandy beaches and mountain landscapes
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: The interior of the impressive medieval church of Saint-jean-baptiste; Rue de la République; Huge freshly caught tuna at the Poisonnerie Saint-jean-de-luz; Le Majestic café-bar Place Louis XIV; The imposing Maison Louis XIV is worthy of a visit