Some 355 years ago in the small French Basque fishing port of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Louis XIV, France’s Sun King, married the Infanta Maria Theresa of Spain.
The union marked the end of Franco-Spanish hostilities and the start of a golden era for local citizens who, as a thank you for hosting the nuptials, were exempted from paying income tax for 30 years.
Today, the residents of St-Jean enjoy no special fiscal benefits, but are still blessed to live in an exceptional location. This low-key royal town on the Atlantic coast, 10 miles from Biarritz and the Spanish border, is a stylish mix of French, Spanish and Basque influences.
Nearby there are tapas bars and art galleries in San Sebastian, skiing in the Pyrénées and traditional Basque villages such as Ainhoa and Sare, both ranked for their beauty and history.
St-Jean is easy to reach via airports at Biarritz and Bordeaux, or by high-speed train direct from Paris, yet it is off-radar for mass tourism.
'Jewel box market'
“St-Jean attracts predominantly French buyers, though it is also popular with affluent Spanish buyers,” says Joachim Wrang-Widen of Christie’s International Real Estate.
“I call it a ‘jewel box market’, exclusive and highly attractive to discerning buyers keen to avoid the more ostentatious lifestyle of Cannes or Nice.”
St-Jean certainly punches above its weight. Its year-round population of 13,000 enjoys Michelin-star restaurants — try one-star Zoko Moko, where a three-course lunch is a bargain £19 — a covered market and narrow streets filled with small boutiques, along with leisure choices that include golf, cycling, horse riding and swimming in the protected soft sand bay.
Strict planning regulations have kept the coast relatively undeveloped and many properties follow authentic Basque architecture — half-timbered colombage under a steep pitched roof with chunky, deep red wooden shutters.
Forty fishing boats still operate from the harbour, but the pirates who once legally patrolled the seas bringing great wealth to the town are long gone.
“St-Jean is safe, chic, friendly and typically Basque,” says Caroline Laffontan of estate agents Laffontan Immobilier. “Families return for their holiday year after year and we have many expat French owners from London.”
About 42 per cent of properties in St-Jean are holiday homes with an average price of £331,220, according to online agency EffiCity. Christie’s figures show that sales of luxury properties in St-Jean grew by 43 per cent last year, helped no doubt by price falls since 2008.
Christie’s has an 818sq ft two-bedroom apartment, just 300 feet from the beach, for £392,450. Even closer to the water, it is marketing a 1,216sq ft apartment for £578,000.
In neighbouring Ciboure, across the river that divides the beach, a loft-style open-plan apartment with two bedrooms is £217,500, through Laffontan.