Easily one of the most attractive cities in the Basque Country, from its pretty beaches to its attractive old quarter, Saint-Jean-de-Luz (Donibane Lohizune in Basque) is a jewel in the Basque Country crown. This small beach community is charming, from its port lined with colorful boats to its boutique shops selling surfing gear and lessons year-round. And due to its balmy climate, it’s both a winter and summer resort.
Where Is Saint-Jean-de-Luz?
Saint-Jean-de-Luz is on the French Atlantic coast, the last major town before the border into Spain just six miles (10 kilometers) away. It’s in the Pyrénées-Atlantique department of France and its nearest neighbors are Biarritz and Bayonne.
How to Get There
Take the train or fly to Biarritz. Then take a train (every 12 minutes) to Saint-Jean station on av de Verdun on the edge of the town center and near the beach.
A Little History
Saint-Jean was a wealthy port from its Atlantic fishing and whaling (and the even more lucrative profession of pirates) from the 17th century onwards. But the town’s most illustrious event was the marriage of King Louis XIV, the "Sun King" to Maria Theresa, the Infanta of Spain on June 9, 1660.
The town figured later in the ongoing conflicts between France and England when the Duke of Wellington set up his headquarters here during the Peninsular War of 1813-14.
Saint-Jean was always a strategic port. In World War II, it was the place where thousands of soldiers from the Polish Army in France, Polish officials, British nationals and French who had kept on fighting against Germany after General de Gaulle’s plea to continue the war, were evacuated in 1940 to the UK.
They were taken out to the passenger ships that took part in the evacuation bound for Liverpool.
What to See
First and foremost, Saint-Jean-de-Luz stands in a beautiful and protected sandy bay. It has good beaches, making it ideal for families. Surfers can make their way up to Biarritz for the pounding Atlantic waves that make this such a big draw for the athletic.
Saint-Jean-de-Luz’s success as a fishing port was due to its unique protection. The long stretch southwards from the Bay of Arcachon near Bordeaux has some of the best surfing in France with its exposure to the great breakers of the Atlantic ocean. But Saint-Jean is protected by being on an estuary between two headlands, a natural barrier that was extended by huge dikes and the Artha breakwaters. You get a great view from the quays across the harbor to the old town.
The Old Town
Walk around the streets for some delightful half-timbered mansions, built by the wealthy shipowners and merchants of the town. You can’t miss the two most impressive. The Maison de L’Infante (Quai de l’Infante) is an imposing 4-story redbrick and stone building that once belonged to the wealthy Haraneder family. The infanta stayed here with her future mother-in-law, Anne of Austria, before her wedding.
Today you see the large 17th-century room on the first floor with a huge ceiling painted from the Fontainebleau school and an enormous fireplace. It’s imposing rather than cozy, not the best place for that pre-wedding night. The marriage was not the greatest of successes with Louis XIV straying many times and Maria-Theresa finding consolation in religion. There were several children though none of them survived to become ruler of France. Maria Theresa died in 1683.
The French king stayed at the Maison Louis XIV (6 place Louis XIV) which is magnificent. It was built for Johanis de Lohobiague in 1635 but was renamed after young Louis stayed here in 1660 before his marriage. Inside you get to see different rooms including the magnificent bedchamber (where the business of state was conducted) as well as the kitchen.
The other building associated with the marriage is the church of St-Jean-Baptiste on the main shopping and tourist street (rue Gambetta). The church, dating from the 15th century, is the largest and most famous Basque church in France. From the outside it looks plain; go inside, however, for a glorious, highly-decorated church with a vaulted roof of painted panels. The three tiers of dark oak galleries with wrought-iron staircases that line three sides were reserved for men; women sat at ground level. There’s a gold altarpiece from the 1670s and a 17th-century pulpit to keep your interest. Don’t miss the bricked-up doorway on the outside which was used by the royal pair, then closed forever.
You can surf all year round on the beaches at Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Families should stick to the Grande Plage beach in the town and well protected. There are lifeguards on duty from June to mid-September, and you can hire sunbeds and windbreaks. There are lifeguards on duty daily (from 11 a.m.) from June to mid-September, plus at the weekend in May.
Go a little further out of town for the surfing beaches of Plage d’Erromardie, Plage de Mayarco, Plage de Lafiténia, and Plage de Cénitz, both of which are known as particularly good surfing beaches.
With such a reputation, there are excellent surf shops where you can buy or hire equipment and also book lessons for one-off classes or a week-long immersion into the art.
Where to Stay and Eat
- Les Goëlands (4-6 av d’Etcheverry) is housed in two turn-of-the-century villas near the beach and old town. Ask for a room with a balcony and sea view. They have a restaurant, a garden, and free parking.
- Le Petit Trianon (56 bd Victor-Hugo) is a charming little hotel near the beach with small brightly decorated rooms and good bathrooms. Take the buffet breakfast on the terrace in summer.
- The smart 3-star Hotel de la Plage (Promenade Jacques Thibaud) has balconies looking right over the sea and less expensive rooms overlooking the town. It’s comfortable and well run, with good bathrooms and a good restaurant, La Brouillarta. You'll get good food and if you’re lucky you might catch a view from the huge windows of the brouillarta itself, a storm that rolls in from the sea.
- Zoko Moko’s (6 rue Mazarin) stone walls and pristine white tables and chairs set the stage for some excellent cooking. It’s more expensive than many of the town’s restaurants but worth the price for top seafood and fresh ingredients.
Saint-Jean is a great getaway to experience sea-based spa therapy, and indulge in thermal spa waters. You can find everything from underwater hydro massage to aqua gym classes. There are two main spas and health resorts: Loreamar Thalasso Spa and Thalazur Thalasso Spa.
Tourist Office: Opposite the fish market/corner of bd Victor Hugo and rue Bernard Jaureguiberry
Edited by Mary Anne Evans