“You’ll love Saint Jean-de-Luz!”
So said a friend of mine who is madly in love with this town that’s almost a stone’s throw away from the Spanish border on the Atlantic coast of France. It’s the extreme south-west corner of the country and it’s Basque country.
Nothing to do with a nice form of ladies underwear, this is the part of the world where traditions run strong and both the language and culture of the area is still thriving.
I arrived on what for them was a moderately warm day in late June. It was 23 degrees at a time when 30 would be more the norm. In any case, that suits us Irish folk just fine, particularly when the air-conditioning in the car had ceased to function for reasons known only to the car itself.
“Phew!” I exclaimed as we ended our 3-hour drive from Bordeaux and pulled into the area of town where our hotel was situated. After some sandwiches and drinks from the back of the car GAA-match-style, we checked in to a place on the northern outskirts of town called the Hôtel Les Goëlands. It’s billed as a four-star hotel and it’s a quiet part of town.
One parking/check-in/installation later, we were walking into the centre of St Jean de Luz. The hotel was much nearer to town than we had thought and the main promenade was within a couple of minutes via a very elegant and wide set of steps leading down to sea level.
We almost gasped when we saw the sea. I could see immediately why our friends liked it so much: the long beach follows an almost perfect semi-circle and it’s all soft sand – none of your pebbles or rocks and such. At either side of the large bay, there are cliffs, with a lighthouse on the southern side. Furthermore, there are harbour walls jutting out from either side so as to almost completely enclose the bay. These were funded by the French royal family who were also big fans of this loyal Basque town. In fact, Louis XIV himself was married here to the Spanish infanta Maria-Theresa back in 1659.
There is a harbour tucked away well out of sight to the south as well (where there is also a marina), so the beach is free of commercial traffic. It makes for a very calm and pleasing vista.We had arrived St Jean on the very feast-day of Saint Jean (or John, as we know him). France may not be the most Catholic of countries any more (as you’ll see if you witness the very small numbers attending Mass on any given Sunday in any given town), but they do love their feast-days.
All French men and women uphold the tradition of treating the feast day of the saint with the same name as them as an excuse to indulge in all-out day-long celebrating. This explains the preference for most people to name their children after saints still – otherwise they risk never having a good old feast-day piss-up if they get called something obscure and/or American.
And when towns celebrate the feast day of a saint that it happens to be named after, then it goes balubas also. There are at least eleven towns named St Jean in France. In the case of St Jean-de-Luz, they do things in style. The whole town dresses in black and red. The standard attire seems to be black shirt or tee-shirt with a red neckerchief and optional wide red beret. There’s traditional Basque dancing in the streets, bands (both stationary and roaming) strike up a tune at the drop of a cap and the streets are jammed with revellers. Out on the water, meanwhile, there are regattas each day of the three-day fest.Later on in the evening, bonfires are lit and there’s a variation on another tradition more commonly associated with Spain. The Toro del Fuego involves a bull running around with fire or fire crackers attached to its horns. In the St Jean variety, it’s mercifully a timber bull that’s used – carried around the streets on the shoulders of brave volunteers.