The island governed by Spain and France on which Velázquez organized a wedding

Interrupting the course of the Bidasoa River and located practically at its mouth is this modest and small oval-shaped islet, whose jurisdiction is divided between the city of Irun (Basque Country, Spain) and the French commune of Hendaye. So it belongs to two countries simultaneously? Yes, it does. In fact, it is the smallest condominium in the world.

Aerial view of the Pheasant Island and delimitation of the French-Spanish border. La Razón

Although this small island may seem inconsequential, the truth is that it has witnessed very important events, the most outstanding being the consummation of the Treaty of Peace of the Pyrenees on November 7, 1659, which put an end to the conflict between France and Spain initiated more than 20 years earlier in the context of the disastrous Thirty Years’ War. Through this agreement, the disputed territorial possessions were divided (in fact, the name of the treaty derives from the use of the Pyrenees as a natural border between the two kingdoms in that area) and the marriage between the Infanta María Teresa of Austria, daughter of Philip IV of Spain, and her cousin, the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, was instituted, which was celebrated in June of the following year on the same island. A marriage between two dynasties that augured the future metaphorical immolation of the Habsburgs in favor of the Bourbon dynastry. Among the attendees was Charles de Batz-Castelmore, captain of the Sun King’s musketeer guard. You may be unfamiliar with this name, but if I tell you that he was the Count of Artagnan (or d’Artagnan in French), you will probably be more familiar with it.

This painting by Jacques Laumosnier depicts the meeting between the Spanish monarch (on the right) and his French counterpart on the Pheasant Island to consolidate the Treaty of the Pyrenees. To the right of Philip IV is his daughter, the future queen consort of France. [La entrevista de Luis XIV y Felipe IV en la isla de los Faisanes]. Jacques Laumosnier – El Español

No expense was spared for the ceremony. Despite its small size, the island housed a luxurious pavilion for the celebrations. The master painter Diego de Velázquez was responsible for the logistics, who worked hard for two months to complete the work within the stipulated time. Not only would he organize the decoration and assembly of the pavilion, but also the banquet, the costumes, the gardening, and the entertainment, everything down to the smallest detail. Undoubtedly, it must have been exhausting for the artist, especially considering that he was already 61 years old at the time (his death, which occurred a few weeks after the event, on August 6, 1660, has been associated with this arduous work). That formidable episode is remembered today by a humble commemorative monolith located in the center of the islet.

The sovereignty of the island is amicably divided between France and Spain. This has been the case since the delimitation of the Spanish-French borders by the Treaties of Bayonne (1856-1868). In this way, Spain accepted the condominium of the Pheasant Island, until then Spanish territory. Each country administers the island for one semester of the year: France from August to January and Spain from February to July. This formula was decided in order to find a solution to the disputes that arose between fishermen from both countries and to tackle the problems of smuggling in the area. The handover ceremony is held in front of the monolith commemorating the Treaty of the Pyrenees.

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Handover ceremony in front of the memorial monolith. Forocoches

When Victor Hugo passed by in 1843, he was dissapointed not to see pheasants swarming around the island. “There are no pheasants on Pheasant Island; at most a cow and three ducks, probably rented to take on the role of pheasants for visitors” the French playwright would say ironically. The island’s name is really misleading actually. Its origin is not very clear, and it has been suggested that it is a botched translation from French. Be that as it may, it is not the only name it receives. In France it is often referred to as Île de l’Hôpital or Conference Island (after the events of the 17th century).

The passage to the island is forbidden. Only the French or Spanish authorities are allowed access for maintenance work. At most, the visitor can contemplate the Pheasant Island from the banks of the Bidasoa river and dream of scenes that once took place there.


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