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Good Holiday Ideas | May 22, 2024

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A rather grand secret

A rather grand secret
  • On 22 October 2014

Alex Ninian discovers sensational St Jean de Luz.

I’ll be in dead trouble with some for writing this because those who love the place don’t want anyone else to know about it. It has no high-rise hotels and it’s off the package holiday track so people have to discover it for themselves like we did.

It is a homely place, small enough for the town’s “character” with his umbrella and ankle-length tweed coat in mid-summer to be given a patisserie or a slice of Bayonne ham by the shopkeepers as he passes by. But it is big enough to offer visitors (not tourists) dozens of small hotels and scores of restaurants as well as a clean, safe beach.

Situated on the Atlantic coast just south of Biarritz it is only a decent walk, six miles, from the Spanish border and its skyline is dominated by the Pyrenees. It is French but only just; Basquedom reigns in this country within a country. The first time I came here was from the Spanish side and I noticed that the road signs were in Spanish plus another language that I couldn’t decipher. Across the French border the signs were in French plus the same impenetrable hieroglyphs. Basque is a unique collection of x’s, double z’s. tt’s and rr’s. Meet Monsieur Acoztarra, see rue Etcheverrigaray, eat ttoro (fish soup), drink Izzarra. Related to Hungarian and Japanese, they say. I quite believe it.

Once pirates, then whalers and now France’s main tuna fishermen, the locals have always been tough and independent, but it would be wrong to say that they are more Spanish than French because the Basques over the border don’t even consider themselves Spanish. Let’s say they are more Basque than French. I met a local man who told me that his parents had been born in St Jean de Luz and never learned French.

Yet fine style and high culture have always been equally a part of its history. The harbour is a picture postcard scene of half-timbered houses painted bright red and white, and the galleried church of St Jean-Baptiste is a bijou showpiece of gilt, statuary and stained glass. It was built in the 1400s and was made famous when the Sun King, Louis XIV, came here to marry Marie-Thérèse of Spain in 1660.

Everywhere there is music. Youngsters strum guitars in the street; there are folk music concerts in the open air, and the church and several halls have orchestras and choirs. Maurice Ravel was born here and professors give master classes to students of his piano music.

Here and there among the narrow streets of the town comes the sharp crack of the pelota ball. Some schools, and even pubs, have indoor and outdoor courts where young men whack a hard-ball with hard wooden rackets against a wall, in a way similar to squash.

The fast version, cesta punta, is the traditional Basque game which attracts crowds of spectators to watch teams from all over the region. It is played with long wicker gloves which propel the ball like a missile up to 200 miles an hour. For a slower moving ball, there’s plenty of tennis and squash and for those who like to hit a stationary one there is a picturesque golf course at the Club de la Nivelle which runs through the hills along the river and has a vast practice ground.

I suppose most sports in this area are in or on or near the sea, like sailing, windsurfing and diving. But there’s one special thing in that the curve of the sandy bay is protected by a boom which runs from headland to headland and nothing is allowed inside the boom except swimmers, so the water skiers and jet skiers and power boaters have to go out to the real sea along with the tuna boats.

In between sport and culture comes “thalassotherapie” which is something between activity and passivity and many come here for a course of it which can last anything between one day and one week. The Hotel Hélianthal offers programmes of swimming, sauna, jacuzzis, aerobics, massage, and every kind of therapy in an attempt to sort out mind and body.

At the end of the day the bars of Place Louis XIV with the seats spilling out over the square serve drinks to the sound of music from the bandstand, before everyone moves on to the port area or boulevard Thiers or Rue de la Republique where the restaurants sit literally side by side on both sides. Being the south west, duck appears on most menus but the specialities are Atlantic fish, tuna, sardine, shellfish and gateau basque. The most famous vineyards in the region are Rioja just over the border in Spain and restaurants serve it as local wine.

The best of all I leave till last – ttoro or fish soup, which epitomises all the traditions of seafaring, culture and good living of the region. It is on every menu and eaten in every home and at the end of September it is honoured and revered in the Fête du Ttoro. After service in the church, the square is taken over in late morning by a couple of dozen cooks who set up their charcoal grills and arrange their fish, vegetables, herbs and spices ready for cooking in pans swimming in butter and garlic. As the aromas fill the area each cook adds their magic ingredient to their secret recipe before their soup is left to simmer in vats for much of the afternoon. Meantime the town band parades the streets leading a fancy dress parade of grotesque creatures and costumes before the panel of judges convenes. Wearing tricorn hats and robed like judges they taste the soup of each competitor before retiring with a few bottles of wine to agree on the winner. The ttoro (everyone’s) is then carried round the streets to the town’s restaurants and the day ends at midnight with a confetti fight in the crowded streets.

It really marks the end of the holiday season although more and more hotels and restaurants remain open all year, for visitors who are looking for peace, the bracing air from the mountains and the sea, and a bit of winter sunshine.