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

France - - Contents -

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

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