A tiny fishing town near the border with Spain is a well-kept secret for Parisian families looking for a summer bolthole. Cathy Hawker pays a visit.
When the mercury starts to rise in the world’s most important capital cities, successful families tend to decamp to their summer weekend homes. New York has the Hamptons and Milan has Lake Como, but where do Parisians head?
The answer is St-Jean-de-Luz. The town lies at the foothills of the Pyrénées in the Pays Basque, a dozen or so miles south of Biarritz. Where the Hamptons and Lake Como have international fame and an illustrious line of second-home owners (and their paparazzi in tow), St-Jean-de-Luz is quite distinct: it’s an understated beach resort that the French keep to themselves.
With the Spanish border just 10 miles to the west, elements of Spanish, French and Basque culture, cuisine and architecture are threaded through the town. Just across the border lies northern Spain’s gourmand capital, San Sebastián, and the industrial might of Bilbao.
High-speed trains arrive from Bordeaux in two hours and Paris in 51⁄2 hours, a time set to improve by 2017. From the train station in the centre of St-Jean, car-free streets filled with boutique shops and intimate restaurants wind down to wide, sandy beaches.
Along with this geographical beauty, St-Jean has historical significance. In 1660, it was where Louis XIV sealed the Treaty of the Pyrénées by marrying Spain’s Infanta Maria Teresa. The magnificent galleried church where they wed is still there, although the door- way the couple used was immediately and permanently blocked up.
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St-Jean-de-Luz’s current population of 14,000 is only 2,000 more than in those halcyon 17th-century days, when fishermen and corsairs—legal pirates— brought great wealth to the town. A fleet of fishing boats still head out to sea every day from the harbour, so it’s a working town year round, but, as a considerable number of the properties are second homes, it’s during the summer months, when affluent families and surfers descend, that the place comes alive.
‘St-Jean is known for its quiet rhythm and charming architecture and is an ideal holiday-home location, offering sandy beaches for summer and winter skiing in the Pyrénées,’ says Joachim Wrang-Widén of Christie’s International Real Estate, who sells in the area (00 33 5 59 26 82 60; www.christiesrealestate. com). ‘St-Jean attracts predominantly French buyers, although it’s also popular with affluent Spaniards.’
The resort recently featured in Christie’s Luxury Defined report, an annual overview of 80 global luxury locations, as a ‘weekender destination’ in the same category as the Hamptons on Long Island and Pebble Beach in California. Christie’s figures show that luxury-home sales, defined in St-Jean as those achieving more than $1 million, grew by 43% between 2013 and 2014, driven chiefly by local wealth.
Among the Parisian and Bordelaise owners, there are also British visitors who fly in through Biarritz or Bordeaux airport, says Caroline Laffontan of Laffontan Immobilier (00 33 6 60 29 45 65; www.laffontan-immobilier.com). ‘St-Jean is safe, friendly, smart, full of Basque character and traditions and popular with French expatriates,’ she explains.
Most homes are typically Basque in style, featuring colombage—half- timbering—and chunky wooden shutters painted in deep-red varnish. Strict planning rules mean there is little new build and demand for what exists is strong. Expect to pay about €500,000 for a central two-bedroom apartment, although these are difficult to find, and large detached family houses on the coast within a 10-minute drive of St-Jean start from €800,000.
Laffontan Immobilier are selling a two-bedroom apartment facing the bay with parking and easy beach access for €550,000, as well as a five-bedroom detached house in neighbouring Ciboure, a brief walk across the Pont Charles de Gaulle, for €620,000.
Christie’s are selling a four-bedroom Basque-style house with a swimming pool, garden and wonderful bay views for €1.3 million and a bright, modern apartment with three bedrooms, also in Ciboure, for €800,000.
‘Growing numbers of international buyers now appreciate St-Jean’s excellent quality of life,’ concludes Mr Wrang- Widén. ‘Leisure activities centre on the beach and golf, tennis, riding and cycling add to the appeal. Bordeaux is an easy day trip away and the growing expansion of the TGV rail network makes St-Jean feasible as a weekend destination for Parisians.’
St-Jean is delightfully Basque from its pintxos (tapas) to the traditional striped linens. This is the town that created the macaron and food plays an important role, from fresh seafood to gâteau Basque. Lunch in Spain, followed by dinner in France, perfectly possible in St-Jean, is something that not even the smartest Hamptons holiday home could provide.