The Atlantic Ocean coast runs from just west of Bordeaux, France to just north-east of Bilbao in Spain. A right-angled bend in the land mass is what defines this corner of the often windswept Bay of Biscay. For centuries, cities have prospered here, relying on agriculture and fishing as well as hospitality. This is whether you are looking for weekend getaways or a holiday for the aristocracy. These cities include Biarritz, France, and San Sebastian (also called Donostia), in Spain. Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a smaller French city located between the two, is also known as Donibane Lohizune (in Basque). It is located to the south of Biarritz, and only 20 minutes drive north of France/Spanish border.
Although “Luz” means “light” in Spanish, the etymology for this city’s name is more pragmatic than inspiring. It is a Basque Euskara word that traces back to Saint-Jean-de-Luz, which lies adjacent to the Nivelle River’s wetlands.
Basques are known for being hardy and of a mysterious origin. It is difficult to determine the roots of their language, which remains controversial. For millennia, they have lived in the region that is now the northwest of Spain or the southwest of France. Five centuries ago, Basquemen sailed across the Atlantic to catch cod off the coast of Newfoundland. This tribe was known for being fiercely protective and territorial. Roman armies never dominated their mountain/coastal terrain.
After moving his entire court from Versailles to Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where he remained for more than a month, King Louis XIV married Princess Maria-Teresa of Spain in June 1660. This event consolidated the Treaty of the Pyrenees signed by French and Spanish leaders a year prior to end the war between the two countries. Saint-Jean-de-Luz was said to have received tax reductions for the three-decades in return for hosting this event.
You can visit the city by boat, train, or car. It is a small and pedestrian-friendly place that you can spend several days in. There are many bike trails and walkways. There are also plenty of picnic spots in parks and on the coast bluffs. Local families will often smile and greet you. The gracefully beautiful, though often cloudy, peak of La Rhune is located just behind Saint-Jean-de-Luz. It’s about a four-hour walk away.
Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a cultural hub, is blowing with fresh winds and boasts views of sailboats that crisscross the harbor. The city’s residents are generally optimistic and open-minded, a trait that has been boosted by centuries of receiving visitors for short periods. There are small, cobbled and angled public squares throughout the city. Placards with historical information include photos and provide an overview of the city’s history. A small booklet with English translations can be obtained at most hotels or from the tourist office.
It is difficult to lose yourself in a small, coastal town. So it’s worth taking the time to just wander around. You can find meats such as saucisse Basque or boudin Basque at Les Halles. Or you can look at fresh seafood like whiting (merlan), salmon, and shrimp at the poissonnerie fish market. You can enjoy delicious local foods, such as sweet cherry cake (gateau Basque Cerise) or fresh tortilla cakes that contain ham and mushrooms. Bayonne ham is available in the city centre, flavored with the local spice pied d’espelette or chocolate almond feuillete at Maison Etchebaster bakery. Pata negra, a Spanish ham made from free-range pigs that were fed acorns, can also be found at stores. Book a lesson at the Txingudi surfing school if the weather is nice and you have the desire to learn.
It wasn’t just the city’s natural beauty that earned it renown until the 17th century. Its strong economy was due to three factors. Saint-Jean-de-Luz was granted duty-free status in 1474 by King Louis XIth for goods arriving via sea or land. Whaling and cod fishing were two other sources of steady income. Corsairs, or state-approved and sanctioned pirates, only plunder ships of enemy nations, like Spain and England, and then floated their wealth and shared it with the kings and admirals. English sailors called Saint-Jean-de-Luz a “nest of vipers” because of their reputation. They were able to reap tax benefits and whaling, fishing, and corsair activities, which made them a rich and privileged city. The ocean began to ravage the city’s fortunes in the second half the 17 th century.
Walk half an hour north of the city center, along the coastline, to a point known as Pointe-de-Sainte-Barbe. It is a short walk that ends at a grassy hill, which offers a great view of Saint-Jean-de-Luz’s natural crescent-shaped harbor. You can see the ocean, beaches, and stone defense walls–located within the sea–that were constructed to stop the fury of the rogue Biscay wave.
The city was frequently destroyed by violent Atlantic storms until the construction of these stone engineering defenses. Natural erosion was a major factor in this threat, particularly after 1670 (or ten years after Louis XIV married his bride).
Seven houses were destroyed in the ocean waves of 1749. 180 homes were also abandoned. Dikes and protective barriers were constructed, but in 1782, storms and waves destroyed 40 more houses, and also decimated the area of La Barre. Also, the convent of Ursulines was also destroyed. Two-thirds of the inhabitants fled the city within the next quarter century after the port entrance was destroyed.
A quarter of the town was destroyed by an eight-day storm in 1822.
Napoleon III, in 1854, ordered three major stone fortifications to be built to protect the town. The work started a decade later. The construction of one wall within the harbor took thirty years. It included 8,000 blocks and many of them weighed around 50 tonnes.
The outflow of people was reduced by the taming ocean destruction. The town council decided in 1870 to redevelop large parts of the city. They built a covered market, and Rue Gambetta, which was the only street that crossed the town. The Touring Club of France, a group of avid automobile racers, successfully lobbied to connect Boulevard Victor Hugo with Route de Bayonne in 1910 to allow car races between San Sebastien and Biarritz.
The city’s ability to tame the destructive power and increase safety was a result. Foreigners and French tourists started to flood in to see and purchase vacation homes. This town had approximately 3,000 residents in 1880 and attracted 2,950 tourists, mostly English, Spanish, and French. The Hotel de la Plage, a beach hotel, had 140 rooms and an English club. It was located on Thiers boulevard.
The Covid-19 era includes a French national curfew that was changed this month to begin at 6:00 p.m. and end at 7:00 p.m. Currently, the majority of Saint-Jean-de-Luz visitors are Spanish and French. Visitors flood the city on weekends, despite all bars, restaurants and cafes being closed, apprehensive about another lockdown. This creates a healthy and lively atmosphere. Residents and visitors spend more time walking, biking, exploring and exploring than they do sitting on porches drinking and eating. They are often energetic and look wind-whipped, and even though there are restrictions, they glow with optimism. Basque country is full of enthusiasm for exercise in nature. After restrictions are removed, it will continue. Saint-Jean-de-Luz is a great place to eat, enjoy natural beauty, and learn about cultural history. It also caters to those who love exploring beaches, coastlines, and high peaks.
Saint-Jean-de-Luz is a place that can help you regain your health and mind.