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San Juan de Luz, an historical visit

Actualizado: 4 abr 2020

¿Have you ever visited Saint Jean de Luz? If not, you might know that is a town somewhere in the French Basque Country, very close to the Spanish border.

Maybe you heard about its beauty from some relatives and/friends that were lucky enough to organize a trip to the French Basque Coast (Labourd). Or as it was my case during my first visit to Saint Jean de Luz, when I was on the way from Madrid to a weeding in Normandy, you have visited it briefly, swum in its beach, admired its architecture, and left with the impression that it was just a very charming and delightful holiday resort.

But you could be one of those lucky ones that visited the city with a deeper look, maybe with the help of a tour guide, and were dazzle by its rich historical heritage.

But no matter what is your case, keep on reading this post if you want to travel with me to Saint Jean de Luz's captivating past.

Thanks to its privileged location between the estuary of "La Nivelle" river and a naturally protected bay in front of the Gulf of Biscay (Atlantic Ocean), Saint Jean de Luz has been since immemorial times, a town of fishermen and sailors.

The ocean brought a lot of sources of wealth to Saint Jean de Luz, like the whale hunting "industry" that guaranteed economical prosperity during the middle ages, like in many other Basque ports like Guetaria, Hondarribia, Lequeitio or Biarritz. But maybe victims of the excellence of the Basque sailors in this activity, whales stopped visiting the Bay of Biscay progressively from the XV century. It was the beginning of the Basque epic sailing expeditions following the whales to the Great North, Iceland and other remote waters. But that's another story.

During the XVI century, the proximity of Saint Jean de Luz to Spain, marked the destiny of the town, as it happened many other times throughout history. In that time conflicts between France and the Spanish Empire were frequent, and the town suffered several sieges by the Spanish Imperial Troops. The worst one was the siege of 1558 when the Imperial Army of Charles V sacked and fired Saint Jean de Luz, destroying almost the whole town. It is shocking to admire nowadays the "Maison Ezquerrenea" (17, rue de la Republique), the only building that survived from that tragedy.

In the XVII century, the proximity of Spain marked the proximity of the town again, but this time for good, as the city was chosen to host the wedding between the the Sun King, Louis XIV, and the Spanish "Infanta", Maria Teresa. This union was expected to bring peace between both nations. It took placed in 1659, in the magnificent Church of Saint John's the Baptist (Rue Gambetta), that still conserves, sealed, the arched door used by the royal couple to exit the church.

By this time whale hunting had been almost totally replaced by cod fishing, a lucrative activity that brought wealth to the town during the times of peace. And during war times, the legendary privateers of Saint Jean de Luz used to come back to port with impressive booties, captured from Spanish or English enemy boats. A handful of Saint Jean de Luz's shipowners made great fortunes during that century and built magnificent "palaces" that still give a distinct appearance to the town. The most remarkable ones are the "Maison de l'Infante" and the "Maison Louis XIV", famous for hosting the "Infanta" Maria Teresa and the King Louis XIV in the days prior to their weeding. The XVII century was without a doubt Saint Jean de Luz's Golden Age.

The XVIII century brought the crisis to Saint Jean de Luz. The Franco-British wars, the French Revolution and the later Napoleonic Wars ruined what it used to be a rich port. Cod fishing was replaced by sardine fishing, that did not demand the need of far sailing trips that became more and more dangerous. The"Kaskarots" (a marginal class to the rest of the local society of that time) used to sell a small part of the captures in Saint Jean de Luz and in neighbouring towns like Bayonne by shouting, but the biggest part was processed in canned food factories. But this emerging "industry" did not prevent the town from entering in a period of decadence. The 10.000 inhabitants leaving in Saint Jean de Luz during the XVII century, were only 3.000 after the 7 Year's War (1756-1763).

From the Ocean came some of the tragedies that affected the town, like the great storm of 1852, that destroyed more than a quarter of the city and convinced the Emperor Napoleon III to take up previous projects aiming to reinforce the eroded natural protection of Saint Jean de Luz's Bay. The huge sea-walls of "Socoa", "Sainte Barbe" &"l’Artha" were finished. By that time Saint Jean de Luz was just about becoming, like Biarritz and the rest of the French Basque Coast, the holiday resort in fashion for the European aristocracy. As a consequence of that, during the second half of the XIX century and the first half of the XX century, the old fishermen town was transformed drastically. Many of the neo-vasque and neo-regional villas and beautiful "belle epoque" buildings of its coastline, like the "Grand Hotel" or the "Grand Hotel d'Anglaterre" were built during that period.

But apart from tourists, the XX century brought a new fishing "Golden Age" to the town. It seems that the exiled "Carlistas" escaping from the "Carlist Civil Wars" of Spain, settled in Saint Jean de Luz and help reactivating its fishing activity. This and other factors, like the arrival of new fishing techniques, help transforming Saint Jean de Luz into the first sardine port of France and later into the most important tuna port in Europe. And even though fishing had fallen down radically in the last decades, it has not disappeared completely. Today the"Saint Jean de Luz line-caught hake" fished by not more than a dozen local boats, is highly appreciated. You can buy it every morning in the town market ("Les Halles, Boulevard Victor Hugo").

Nowadays Saint Jean de Luz is mainly a residential town, mainly dedicated to commerce, tourism and sea-related activities, and has a charming port that is still active. And hides a great history ready to be discovered, waiting for you in the small details, together with the echoes of glorious and tragic past events that still resound between the walls of its majestic houses and animated streets. I invite you to discover it by booking one my guided walking tours of Saint Jean de Luz!

The port of Saint Jean de Luz. Guided walking tours French Basque Country.

Beach of Saint Jean de Luz. Guided Tours French Basque Country.

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