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Basque Rivier : Two French Resort Towns-One Undiscovered, One Coming Back to Elegant Life- Are Blissfully Far From the Madding Cote d'Azur Crowd

March 31, 1991|VIVIAN and ROY RINGER | The Malibu-based Ringers are frequent contributors to the Travel Section.

ST.-JEAN-DE-LUZ, France — A seaside resort in France where hotel and restaurant prices are reasonable and where the staffs are actually friendly? Where most of the beaches are still open to the public and free of pollution? Where traffic congestion and the clangor of high-rise construction are all but nonexistent?

We fled to such a place early last May to escape the gridlock along the corniches of the Cote d'Azur--the French Riviera--and also to escape prices from Menton to Cassis that were astronomically higher than on our last visit just two years earlier.

But we found much more than affordable prices and relief from bedlam in St.-Jean-de-Luz, a charming fishing port and tourist center on the Bay of Biscay. We also found a culture entirely new to us: the congenial blend of French and Spanish influences that make up the Basque country in the southwesternmost corner of France. (Our only previous contact with Basques had been in their many family-style restuarants in the sheep country of California's San Joaquin Valley.)

St. Jean, all but unknown to Americans, is midway along the the Cote Basque, 20 miles of wild coastline extending south from the once-famous and now resurgent resort of Biarritz to the Spanish border.

The hilly countryside surrounding this ancient whaling and smuggling port--both callings held strong appeal for the daring Basques--is still home to at least a third of the more than 100,000 French citizens of Basque descent. Most of them work on their own farms or in fishing and tourism, while the larger Basque population across the border in northern Spain labors mostly in industry.

The passionately independent Basques have a history that may go back at least 50 centuries, and theyspeak a language of untraceable origins. Although all Basques agree that their homeland--which they call Euzkadi--is unjustifiably split between France and Spain, feelings run higher on the Spanish side of the border, where Basques cling much more tenaciously to their customs and language and where there have been terrorist bombings and other incidents of violence.

We saw no signs of political tension during the five days we spent in St. Jean, although it is only 11 miles from the Spanish frontier (there have reportedly been no outbreaks of separatist violence in France in more than two years). We found the Basques to be outgoing and unfailingly courteous, and if there was an undercurrent of resentment toward the non-Basque French, it was not apparent.

St. Jean is more Basque in character than Biarritz, and although the two towns are only nine miles apart in distance, they are generations apart in spirit.

St. Jean attracts a younger, more exuberant crowd of singles and families, most of them French. (Only rarely did we encounter other Americans, though spring, of course, is off-season.) T-shirts and jeans are de rigueur in the streets and open-air cafes of St. Jean. Popular songs echo from speakers hidden in trees along the main shopping street. Snarling mopeds compete for parking spaces. And if beachfront hotels are time-weary, most are quite inexpensive.

In more fashionable Biarritz, an older contingent of tourists, many of them English, wear skirts and jackets and foulards on their strolls through hotel gardens, and gowns and tuxedos to dinner and the casino in the evening. Limousines whisk guests to and from the airport, Parisian boutiques and saltwater spas. And most of the hotels overlooking the immaculate beaches are very elegant and very expensive.

If St. Jean, with its Latin Quarter vigor and teeming streets, reminds one of Paris' Left Bank, then Biarritz, stately and exclusive, would be the Right.

Wherever one walks in St. Jean, there are constant reminders of its greatest claim to historical interest. Its principal church was the site in 1660 of the marriage of 22-year-old Louis XIV of France to his cousin, Maria Theresa, daughter of Philip IV of Spain.

Images of the Sun King and the Infanta, also 22, adorn post cards, place mats and ceramic spice jars in souvenir shop windows, and one is left with the impression that it must have been one of the great love matches of history. But it was not so. The nuptials were coldly political--a condition of the treaty signed by Louis and Philip a year earlier creating the separation of the Basque population that still exists today. And not long after the wedding, Louis flew back to the arms of his many mistresses.

In addition to its eminence as a whaling and smuggling port, St. Jean was also a haven for French privateers preying on English ships, and there are ever-present reminders of its licit and illicit maritime past. Even in the Eglise St. Jean Baptiste, scene of the royal wedding, a model of a sailing ship sways over the congregation.

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