Eat a macaroon on the waterfront, do yoga on a paddle board or let yourself be tempted by the menu at Kaïku, a Michelin-starred restaurant… Saint-Jean-de-Luz has a lot to offer! Here are 5 great reasons to go.
Walk in the footsteps of Louis XIV
9th June 1660: Louis XIV was 22 years old when he entered the Saint-Jean-Baptiste church to marry Spanish Princess Maria-Theresa. Situated on a bustling commercial street, rue Gambetta, in the centre of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, the church is dominated by an imposing bell tower. Inside, the 17th century altarpiece (created after the reign of Louis XIV), is impressively ostentatious. While the baroque altarpiece features imposing statues, the architecture features traditional Basque elements: a single nave (where the women were seated) and wooden galleries where men sat for mass. And masses are still celebrated with Basque songs. Tradition stands strong!
You can extend your tour in the footsteps of the Sun King by visiting la Maison Louis XIV, one of the most beautiful residences in the Basque city, built between 1643 and 1645. Louis XIV stayed here for 40 days for his wedding and also spent his wedding night here. Continue to the other side of the Louis XIV square to find la Maison de l'Infante, which welcomed Anne of Austria and the Spanish princess. Today, the building is occupied by Jean Vier, a homeware brand established on the Basque coast more than 30 years ago, known for linen tablecloths designs featuring the traditional mantes à bœuf pattern.
Savour "traditional" macaroons
First stop at Maison Adam (on Louis XIV square) to buy macaroons. The recipe? Is a jealously guarded secret since 1660, but they do divulge the main ingredients: ground almonds, egg whites and sugar. These soft confectionaries melt to perfection in your mouth. Tip: they can be kept in the vegetable compartment of your fridge for up to 8 days. Contact: +33 (0)5 59 26 02 13.
On rue Gambetta, Maison Pariès is family friendly bakery that serves Basque specialities and treats: black cherry jam cake, soft chocolate, hazelnut or even coffee flavoured caramels (les Kanougas), and fragrant macaroons that burst with flavour (les mouchous). Contact: +33 (0)5 59 26 01 46.
From Louis XIV square, take rue de la République to the sea. The Socoa, Artha and Sainte-Barbe dykes that have protected the bay since the time of Napoleon III lie straight ahead. Naturally protected by cliffs and sand dunes, Saint-Jean-de-Luz endured such tremendous storms at the end of the 17th century that part of the city (la Barre district) disappeared. The secure wall built to protect the town from the incessant tides was not enough. Since then, the three dykes have become part of the landscape and the old wall has been transformed into a promenade, giving the houses direct access to the beach.
It's lovely to stroll by the sea. Walk as far as Sainte-Barbe where a short climb gives views of the Saint-Jean-de-Luz bay. Local inhabitants take their Sunday walks here, bringing a picnic to enjoy the view.
Our favourite? Stop at the La Réserve hotel, more specifically at its Ilura table, for a meal on the terrace overlooking the cliff. The view of the park, the infinity pool and the sea make the excursion worthwhile. As well as being a talented surfer like many locals, young chef, Fabrice Idiart serves delightful fish dishes, especially hake. Bon appetit!
Family paddle in the bay
More stable than a surfboard, paddles are perfect for a little outing on the bay. First lesson for beginners: kneel and then get up slowly to stand with your legs shoulder width apart. Most importantly, look straight ahead, otherwise you will end up in the water! Once up, stay slightly flexible and paddle a few times on both sides to advance in a straight line, and avoid going round in circles. So far so good. If the sea is calm, the whole family can have a go. You can even sit down and do yoga exercises on the board or just relax in the sun.
Heading into the waves with the paddle is a bit trickier, and can get complicated. You have to paddle quickly when the wave starts forming and place your feet in line on the paddle, obviously without falling in. In short, I'm still a long way from successfully standing up on a real surfboard, but the exercise gave me a good reason to indulge in a plate of macaroons.
Information and reservations at Territoires d’Aventure Evolutions 2 Pays Basque: Tel: +33 (0)6 74 47 09 55. Price: €15 equipment hire for 1 hour, €25 for 2 hours. Group rates for 1.5 hours: €20 and for 2 hours: €27
Eating at Kaïku
This is undoubtedly the place to eat. Watching the chef (Nicolas Borombo) working the kitchen, leading his team like an orchestral conductor, is evidence that the diners at Kaïku are in for an intense culinary experience. The chef earned his stripes at Crillon, Georges V in Paris, and the Grand Hôtel in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, before deciding to spread his wings. The result: he has just received his first star and a second will soon be on its way because his tasting menu (64 euros) awakens all the senses: combinations of textures, colours and flavours with pea foam mousse; local and exotic produce with teriyaki manex pork from the Basque country; chocolate perfection in his flagship dessert, le Louis XIV, in reference to the king who introduced this delicacy to the French court; all accompanied by golden crisp sesame nougatine, and Souston peanut ice cream. We have just had a heavenly culinary experience in the oldest house in Saint-Jean-de-Luz (1540).
Kaïku, 17 rue de la République, 64500 Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Tel: +33 (0)5 59 26 13 20