Saint-Jean-de-Luz and Cote Basque
Written by expert travel writers with more than 40 titles to their name, Bradt’s Gascony & the Pyrenees is the only current English-language guide to the entirety of this fascinating, relatively under-visited, and consequently affordable region of south west France.
Offering advice on where to stay and eat with what to do and see, this new guide provides everything you need for an enjoyable, fulfilling visit.
In Gascony, everyone can find their own adventure. Surfers can ride Atlantic waves at Hossegor and Mimizan. Sun-seekers can loll on the Landes’ beaches, then stretch their legs by climbing Europe’s tallest sand dune, the Dune du Pilat.
Hikers can trek high into the Pyrenees to gawp at majestic cirques, while those less energetic can ride a donkey uphill. Families can bike along numerous backways, while cycling buffs cheer on the professionals during the Pyrenees stage of the Tour de France.
Activity enthusiasts aside, the region will delight anyone who craves a slower-paced holiday in beautiful natural landscapes. Culture buffs can linger in the coastal art havens of Collioure, Port Vendres, and Céret, or discover Palaeolithic cave art at Niaux and Le Mas-d’Azil.
Pilgrims can follow the path to Lourdes. Fans of the bizarre can visit Salvador Dali’s ‘Centre of the Universe’ (Perpignan train station) or La Pourcailhade, the pig festival of Tri-sur-Baïse. Urbanites can enjoy the splendors of Perpignan, Bayonne, Biarritz, and Auch, or take it down a notch at medieval Catalan villages.
For quirky retail therapy, shopaholics can browse the espadrilles for which Mauléon is famed or the berets synonymous with Oloron-Sainte-Marie. Gourmets will delight in the quality of local cuisine, from cèpe mushrooms and poulet au pot to a flock of duck-based dishes. Cocooned within quiet, natural settings, yoga practitioners can calm the mind and body with various wellness therapies.
And whatever floats your boat, everyone can relax in some of the hundreds of personally recommended places to stay – from charming inns and spas to restored medieval stables, and even the astronomers’ dormitories at the Pic du Midi. All are conveyed through the intimate expert insights that characterize Bradt’s Gascony & the Pyrenees.
Gascony and the Pyrenees – An Extract from the Guidebook
Saint-Jean-de-Luz and the Cote Basque
For those who do not naturally gravitate towards the sun and the fun of the beach, a seaside resort needs a certain special, intangible quality. Like the theatre, a good resort must be able to make one suspend one’s disbelief. In all of southern France, there are very few places that can do this: one is Collioure, another Saint-Jean-de-Luz.
The name is perfect. Light and color can be extraordinary here, illuminating an immaculately white Basque town and the acres of glistening rose-silver seafood its restaurants roll out on tables to lure in customers. Even in the Basque lands, Saint-Jean’s cooks are renowned for their skill and imagination.
The beaches are fine, and, best of all, this is not the sort of town to have entirely succumbed to the tourist tide: the fishermen on the quay still strut around as if they own the place. What more could you ask?
Unfortunately, the name really has nothing to do with light (luz in Spanish). Gradgrind etymologists have traced it back to a Celtic or Latin word louth or lutum, meaning mud, the same as Paris’s original name, Lutetia – Mudville.
Saint-Jean, or rather Donibane Lohizune, as the Basques know it, grew up in a swampy nowhere that coincidentally happened to have a good harbor. It began to thrive as a fishing port when the River Adour started silting up the harbor of Bayonne in the Middle Ages. The Luziens shared fully in the French Basques’ whaling and buccaneering adventures up until the Revolution. It’s tuna and sardines they’re after now, and tourists.
If Saint-Jean is still too frenetic for you, you’ve got two very amiable choices in between, Bidart and Guéthary. Both are perfect Basque villages, with church, mairie and fronton right in the middle, and both have good beaches. If they do get a bit crowded at the height of summer, it’s much too early to call them spoiled yet.
Saint-Jean: Petit Paris
It was a party to remember, and without its tourists, Saint-Jean would be left only with the memory of that one glorious month when it seemed the center of the world. In 1659, Spain and France signed the Treaty of the Pyrenees, putting an end to a century and a half of almost continuous hostility.
To ice the deal, a marriage was arranged between Louis XIV and the Spanish infanta, Maria Teresa. Preparations went on for a year, and this obscure whaling and fishing port, roughly halfway between Paris and Madrid, was chosen as the venue.
Everybody Came in May 1660
In May 1660, everybody came to Saint-Jean, including nearly the entire French court. ‘Monsieur’ (Louis’s neurotic uncle) and Cardinal Mazarin were there, the ‘Grande Mademoiselle’ (Louis’s flamboyant cousin) and her lover floated down, and all the dandies and popinjays of Versailles followed in their wake.
Louis himself arrived last, in a gilded carriage. One observer, Madame de Motteville, marveled at how everyone was covered in lace and feathers and tassels. So were the horses. It reminded her of King Cyrus and ancient Persia.
Years before, a gypsy fortune-teller had predicted that peace between France and Spain would finally come ‘with a whale’. And on the day that Maria Teresa and the Spaniards arrived in Saint-Jean, a great whale was sighted just off the harbor.
The courtiers rushed to the shore to watch the town’s seamen give chase. Young Louis, however, took the opportunity to barge in on his future bride in her chambers; he surprised her en déshabillé and they had an intimate lunch together.
For the wedding, there were Basque dancers, mock naval battles offshore, a bullfight, and a grand ball in the main square, now Place Louis XIV, illuminated with thousands of candles and torches. Louis and his bride lived happily ever after (though the France Louis ruled suffered greatly); when the queen died, Louis remarked that her death was ‘the only chagrin she ever caused me’.
The peace with Spain has lasted up to the present, save for the unfortunate interlude of Napoleon. As for the whale, they caught it, and the bishop of Bayonne, who performed the wedding ceremony, took the tongue and fat of it back to Bayonne with him.
About the Authors
Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls have lived in France’s Lot Valley since 1989,
Over the decades have uncovered all the ins and outs (and quirks) of the region and wider southwest France.
Attending school there, their children have even picked up the local twangy accent and know how to make garlic tourain soup, pommes de terre sarladaises, and cassoulet with the best of them.
Facaros and Pauls have been to nearly all of the festivals at least once, climbed the Dune de Pilat, and poked around every single Romanesque church at least once.
After all these years, what they don’t know about the region isn’t worth knowing. Known as the ‘dynamic duo of travel writing’, Facaros and Pauls have been writing guidebooks since 1977, producing more than 40 titles alongside smartphone apps and numerous newspaper articles. Their oeuvre includes four previous Bradt guides, covering destinations in Italy and Greece. (facarospauls.com)
Buy this book Gascony and the Pyrenees on Amazon
- Litter Robot 4, Family Tree DNA and Other New Finds - September 24, 2023
- Ethiopia: Coffee and Injera with Traveling Ape - September 20, 2023
- Washington DC: The National Mall at Cherry Blossom Time - September 17, 2023