A bit of history
The marriage of Louis XIV
All of the history books and tourist guides will tell you about the marriage of Louis XIV and Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria and Infanta of Spain, which was held in Saint Jean de Luz on 9th June 1660. Admittedly, the marriage was hardly the beginning of a great love story but it did bring to fruition a peace treaty that put an end to the war between France and Spain. There’s nothing quite like a marriage between double first cousins to consolidate peace between two countries…
But how did the locals react to the sudden arrival of the rich and powerful, with their extravagance and political intricacies, so very far removed from their daily life? We do not know the reaction of the simple fishermen to the arrival of the hundreds of people who made up the royal court with their complicated logistics, and how they felt having to look after these extraordinarily rich, arrogant and demanding people for months. Some recognised the unique financial opportunity the event presented. The king was generous to high-ranking nobles and the clergy, whilst others saw a unique marketing opportunity. It is said the Adam macaroons were presented to the court who immediately adored the sweet treat. Some may not have realised that the royal presence would change their future for many generations. Indeed, today you can still visit Maison Louis XIV, the house where the king stayed during his time here. Let’s hope all were able to make the most of the spectacle, as the town was in debt for many decades following the royal wedding
The wedding is not the only royal connection in the history of Saint Jean de Luz. The town attracted attention for the exploits of its fishermen turned privateers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Don’t confuse pirates with privateers. Pirates were bloodthirsty thieves who looted enemy ships, whereas privateers were bloodthirsty thieves who looted enemy ships by the order of the King…, which is a completely different kettle of fish! Many fortunes were made during this time, as borne witness by the imposing ship-owners houses along the Quai de l’Infante and surrounding the harbour. The sightseeing tours organised by the tourist information office and Pays d’Art et d’Histoire tour guides will recount all the details of this fascinating chapter in the history of Saint-Jean-de-Luz.
Your guide will also tell you about the mysterious “engulfed neighbourhood”, and the floods which led Napoleon III to order the construction of seawalls that still protect the town and harbour from storms to this day. For centuries, the ocean has been a source of fear and gratitude:
- The fear of facing the ocean’s wrath to hunt whales in fragile boats and then, in later years, having to leave home to spend months at sea to fish. Even today fishing remains a dangerous profession.
- However, there is also gratitude as the local economy is primarily based on fishing resources. For a long time the town was the number one sardine harbour in France. No less than 10,000 tons of different fish are sold at Saint-Jean-de-Luz/Ciboure fish market every year. This makes it the 6th largest fish market out of 36 in France.
THE 5 BEACHES
You can choose to visit one or all of them. Each beach has its unique charm; it is up to you to decide which one you prefer.
The Grande Plage. Located right in the heart of the town, it is protected by three seawalls named Fort de Socoa, Artha and Sainte Barbe. These barriers prevent the ocean waves from surging into the bay and so guarantees a calm, flat sea that is very safe for swimming.
Mayarco, Senix, Lafitenia, Erromardie. These beaches are located north of the town, in the Acotz neighbourhood where the campsites are found. Surfers and families share the beach in a friendly atmosphere. Erromardie is the quietest beach. Lafitenia is the most difficult to access due to the steep climb to reach the beach, so it is the least frequented. Makarco[CH1] beach forms a lagoon at low tide which is ideal for young children. Sénix is the smallest and most untouched beach.
A pedestrian street in the historic heart of the town, it is the perfect place for a stroll to admire the half-timbered houses. Make sure to stop at Saint-Jean-Baptiste church, listed as a historical monument. Built in the 17th century, its galleries are impressively high and it contains a sumptuous altarpiece.
Rue Gambetta also has many shops, some names of which are centuries old. For those who enjoy gourmet treats, make sure to visit the Maison Pariès and Maison Adam. Maison Laffargue is internationally renowned for its leather goods, Goicoechea for its pottery, and Lartigue for Basque household linen. There are many other quality stores to visit, some of which have earned the “Label du Patrimoine Vivant” (Living Heritage seal of approval) that recognises the commitment of French companies towards artisanal craftsmanship and industrial excellence.
Take a well-deserved break from shopping at one of the many bar and restaurant terraces on Louis XIV square. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to watch one of the concerts or shows that are regularly organised at the square’s bandstand.
SAINTE BARBE HILL
The view of the Basque Country landscape from Saint Barbe headland is picture postcard perfect! Indeed, the view illustrates all that the area has to offer. Looking towards the ocean you can see boats heading out to sea, the Fort de Socoa, surfers, waves crashing against the seawalls, Saint Jean de Luz beaches and the astonishing flysch cliffs. The picture is completed by the characteristic colours of traditional Basque houses set against a backdrop of the Rhune and Trois Couronnes mountains.
Located along the coastal path, the Pointe de Sainte-Barbe headland is a haven of greenery that welcomes many families who come to enjoy its play area. You will easily find a picnic spot in the shade or you can have a drink at the small bar. Many people enjoy walking to this destination from Saint-Jean-de-Luz.
Saint-Jean-de-Luz is full of life all year round. In the summer you can admire demonstrations of traditional Basque cultural activities such as dancing, singing, and pelote. The bandstand in Louis XIV square hosts various, almost daily entertainments, adding a festive feel to your day.
But the entertainment isn’t just reserved for the summer months as events are organised throughout the year.