Visiting Saint-Jean-de-Luz: A Beachside Basque Gem

by Christine Cantera on May 14, 2009

by Christine Cantera | May 14th, 2009  

saint-jean-de-luzOne of France’s most charming and picturesque beach towns, Saint-Jean-de-Luz is a quiet Basque seaside community located in southwestern France near the Spanish border. In the heart of Basque country and hugging the coast along a sheltered bay, St.-Jean-de-Luz boasts a beautiful, long sandy beach as well as a great pedestrian shopping area, Basque architecture, delightful town squares and awesome surf conditions. There is also a small but active fishing port here, where you can watch fisherman pull in large catches of sardines, anchovies and tuna.

When not lazing around in one of the great bathing tents along the sandy beach here (one of the Best Beaches in France), visitors to Saint-Jean-de-Luz can spend hours (if not days) shopping in the covered markets, checking out France’s largest Basque church or people watching in the bustling Place Louis XIV.

What to Do in St.-Jean-de-Luz

Hang out at the beach

stjeandeluzbeachSt.-Jean-de-Luz has a pristine beach along the bay bearing the same name. Here you can rent beach tents to get out of the hot sun, from June through September, for about €7 for the day. If you’ve never done it before, be warned – it is a fantastic experience that will spoil you forever.

Visit the Eglise St.-Jean-Baptiste

The rather plain façade on France’s largest Basque church hides a magnificent interior. Here you can check out the splendid Baroque altar where Louis XIV and Marie-Thérèse of Spain were married in 1660.

Check out the lighthouse

Walking out on the Pointe Ste.-Barbe at the northern end of the bay provides some fantastic views of St.-Jean-de-Luz. And if you further and climb to the lighthouse via Rue du Phare, you’ll get a glimpse of the coastline that will take your breath away. Make sure your camera’s charged!

Go surfing

surffranceAlthough St.-Jean-de-Luz is a lesser known surfing area than nearby Biarritz, it is nonetheless a great place to catch waves year-round. There are funky surf shops in town where you can rent boards, sign up for lessons or even commit to a week-long surfing school. The best surfing can be found about 5 km north-east of St.-Jean-de-Luz at Plage de Lafitenia (Lafitenia Beach).

Go boating

As a beachside town, it is not hard to imagine that many of the popular activities in St.-Jean-de-Luz center around the sea. The Espace Voile International in town offers windsurfing and yachting courses, but also rents out motorboats and sea kayaks for those interested in hitting the high seas on their own.

Eat fresh sardines (and other local seafood dishes)

sardinesSucking down succulent sardines by the dozen that come from the waters near St.-Jean-de-Luz makes for a fantastic meal, especially when matched with a crisp glass of Semillon white wine from the region. Stop by Buvette de la Halle next to the town’s fish market, where diners sit in plastic chairs under a canopy of white lights.

Hang out in Place Louis XIV

A pleasant pedestrianized square in town, here you will find La Maison Louis XIV, where the famous monarch spent the last few days of his bachelorhood before marrying Spanish princess Marie-Thérèse in the nearby Eglise St.-Jean-Baptiste. You can take half-hour guided tours of the house, or simply sit and people watch in the square on a sunny afternoon.

Hunt down French soccer star Bixente Lizarazu

bixente-lizarazu-2This soccer legend and avid surfer from St.-Jean-de-Luz actually has an entire stadium named after him in the French Basque region. Affectionately called Liza by his fans, Bixente is one of the most celebrated and decorated French players in history. He also made my list of Sexy French Footballers, so trying to hunt down Liza and his rock-hard abs probably wouldn’t be a total waste of time. Just saying.

Go shopping on rue Gambetta

This pedestrianized street in St.-Jean-de-Luz is home to shops and boutiques selling everything from tacky tourist wares to salt water taffy and stylish clothes.

Festivals and Events in St.-Jean-de-Luz

Fêtes de la St-Jean, nearest weekend around June 24

This is the biggest and probably best of the summer festivals that take place in St.-Jean-de-Luz. Centered around the summer solstice (and longest day of the year), this festival is celebrated with beach bonfires, music and dancing. Residents will be dressed in traditional red and black garb.

La Nuit de la Sardine, on a Saturday in early July and the Saturday nearest August 15

This festival, which translates literally as Night of the Sardine, might sound like a fishy event having to do with these small sea creatures; but this festival is actually a night of music, folklore and dancing in honor of one of the area’s biggest fishing catches.

La Fête du Thon, July

Translated as the Festival of Tuna, this is yet another celebration of the bounty coming from the sea near St.-Jean-de-Luz. The streets fill with Basque music and dancing – and best of all, lots of stalls selling sizzling hot tuna steaks. Yum.

Bastille Day, July 14

While there are celebrations all over France commemorating the national holiday, St.-Jean-de-Luz features a fireworks over the ocean and lots of dancing and celebrations.

>>Read more about Bastille Day: Where and How to Celebrate the French National Holiday

Weather in St.-Jean-de-Luz

The weather in this part of France tends to be temperate and warm year-round, so whether you find yourself in St.-Jean-de-Luz in July or October, you should have pleasant and realitvely mild weather. The summer months tend to be hotter, with average temperatures in July and August hovering around 86 degrees F (30 C). Fall and spring tend to be slightly cooler, with average temperatures around 70; winter highs usually fall into the 50s.

>>Read more about Weather in France

Where to Stay

Because Summer in France is definitely high tourist season, especially along the coastlines where people flock to the beaches during the warmer months, you’ll want to make sure to reserve a room well in advance as hotels and hostels can book up months ahead of time. You may be best off getting a comfortable room in a chambre d’hôte (bed and breakfast type accommodations).

Getting to St-Jean de Luz

Traveling by train in France is almost always the best way to go, as the TGV (high-speed train) can whisk you from Paris to southern France in just a few short hours. Saint-Jean-de-Luz is on the main Paris-Madrid line and there are five high-speed TGV trains a day leaving from Paris.

photos by mikeyb50, one day in my garden, cacahouette


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