Fishing port and attractive resort
www.saint-jean-de-luz.com. A former whaling station with a sheltered natural harbour, Saint-Jean-de-Luz successfully combines its dual roles as an important fishing port (sardines and tuna) and attractive resort. Concessions to tourism include countless summer fêtes, and a couple of pedestrian streets housing chic boutiques, fancy espadrille sellers and pricey fish restaurants; meanwhile, the port area remains resolutely Basque and very businesslike, with even the yacht basin relegated to neighbouring Ciboure across the harbour.
The town’s prosperous history is reflected in a fine collection of 17th-18thC houses grouped around the port and rue Mazarin in the Quartier de la Barre between the port and the beach. Focal point of the the Old Town is place Louis XIV, flanked by the illustrious Maison Louis XIV built by Jean de Lohobiague in 1643, but named for the French king who lodged here before his marriage to the Spanish Infanta Maria-Teresa in 1660. Descendants of the Lohobiague family still own the house and open a suite of comfortably lived-in rooms to the public in summer. The high spot is the painted dining room decorated with hunting and whaling scenes, rambling flowers and birds. The Infanta’s retinue stayed in the pink Maison de l’Infante on the quayside, visible across the corner of the port.
The royal weddinq took place a short step away at the Eglise de Saint-Jean-Baptiste, rue Gambetta. A splendid traditional Basque church, the largest of its kind and built like a fortress, you enter by a diminutive doorway to the left of the great portal which was walled up after the wedding service. The plain, whitewashed interior is edged by three tiers of oak galleries, increasing to five at the back, which were reserved for the menfolk, while women sat in the body of the church. In contrast, there is an elaborate gilded Baroque altar. A model ship suspended from the ceiling is a replica of Empress Eugénie’s pleasure steamer which was almost shipwrecked off Saint-Jean in 1867.
Pedestrianized rue Gambetta still has a sprinkling of old-fashioned grocery stores squeezed in amongst the haute couture and yachting gear. Doorways are strung about with garlic and red peppers from nearby Espelette, and trays of tomatoes, peaches and plums spill out onto the street.
Across the harbour, Ciboure (or Zubiburu in Basque) rises steeply up a wooded slope grouped around the pagoda-like belfry of the 16thC Eglise de Saint-Vincent. The composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was born here, at 12 quai Maurice-Ravel, and there are great views back to Saint-Jean.
The D912 heads south from Ciboure on a rollercoaster cliff-top run to Hendaye.