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.