The pheasant with a foot in both camps

Peter Williamson, 06 February, 2018
The national boundaries of European countries may seem orderly and logical today, but historical machinations have left one or two quirky anomalies, as Inntravel’s Peter Williamson explains.

On the western coast of Europe, where France and Spain meet, stands the fishing port of Honarribia, the final destination on our walking holiday from the Pyrenees to the Atlantic.

Just a few of kilometres upriver from the harbour, a small, unassuming island is set in the middle of the River Bidassoa between the towns of Irun and Hendaye. This is Pheasant Island (or Ile des Faisans  in French and Isla de los Faisanes  in Spanish), and it has a rather strange claim to fame.

The border here between Spain and France runs up the middle of the River Bidassoa – and right through the centre of the island. However, rather than be a point of contention between these two former adversaries, it is the focus of a quirky and rather endearing compromise.

It all dates back to The Thirty Years War (1618-1648), a politically complicated and destructive European conflict which pitted various Protestant countries against those who supported the Holy Roman Emperor. Although the wars ended with a series of treaties in 1648, the French and Spanish still had scores to settle and kept at each other until the Spanish were defeated by an Anglo-France alliance in 1658. The following year, the Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed and territories were ceded and gained and national borders demarcated.

Formal negotiations for the treaty were arranged and Louis XIV of France and Philip IV of Spain sent their chief ministers, Cardinal Mazarin and Don Luis Méndez de Haro, respectively, to represent them at the talks. A neutral site had to be chosen for this historic meeting and Pheasant Island was deemed the perfect location, floating on the border between the two protagonists.

Wooden bridges from both riverbanks were erected by engineers to access the island and a camp built for the protracted talks. Meanwhile, the opposing armies faced each other across the river – just in case it all went wrong.

In the end, it took three months for the sides to reach an amicable settlement, with territory being ceded to France including Catalonia ‘north of the Pyrenees’ and the Cerdanya.

Other agreements were made, deals were done, alliances formed – and the whole thing was sealed with a royal wedding when King Louis XIV of France married the daughter of the Spanish King Philip IV.

Peace was restored and all was in order though two quirky anomalies slipped through the net – and remain in place to this day.

The first came about when the Cerdanya region of the Pyrenees was ceded to the French. The treaty had stipulated that only all the ‘villages’ north of the Pyrenees should become part of France and this was duly accepted.

However, the Spanish were at pains to point out that the historic town of Llívia was classed as a ‘ville’, and so did not fall under the remit of the treaty and was thus unintentionally exempted. It remains a Spanish enclave within French territory yet still part of the province of Girona.
The other revolves around Pheasant Island itself. No-one had given any thought to the island during the negotiations and only when the dust had settled and the ink had dried did the question of the island’s sovereignty come to the fore. To solve the situation, it was quickly agreed that the island would be shared between France and Spain, with control alternating from one to the other – every six months. And so from 1 February to 31 July, the island is governed by Spain, and from 1 August to 31 January it falls under French rule.

This joint sovereignty, or condominium , is overseen by the Mayors of Irun and Hendaye, the two towns that now line the opposing banks, although it is the naval commander of nearby San Sebastian and his French counterpart in Bayonne who are the official governors of the island.

In reality, there’s not a lot for them to do. It is simply a case of cutting the grass and pruning trees once a year, a task that is slowly reducing in scale year by year. Currently, the island is approximately 200 metres (660ft) long and 40 metres (130ft) wide though snow meltwater from the mountains is speeding up erosion and it is slowly shrinking. It is thought to now be about half the size it was in 1659. All access is banned except for special heritage days when people come over by boat to visit the monolith erected on the island to commemorate the treaty. Otherwise, it isn’t accessible on foot except at extreme low tides from the Spanish side.

The treaty was signed on 7 November 1659, but no anniversary celebrations take place on the island. Nor do either country mark the bi-annual handover in any formal way. It simply passes from one to the other, for a quick makeover, then lapses into obscurity once again, it’s place in history fading as inexorably as its shoreline.

Further information

Pyrenees to the Atlantic
Follow a thrilling walking route that meanders along the Franco-Spanish border amid the high peaks of the dramatic Pyrenees and ends at the Atlantic Ocean and the historic port of Hondarribia.
More about our walking holidays in the French Pyrenees >
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