Less than six kilometers before river Bidasoa, near the French-Spanish border, empties into the Atlantic Ocean, there lies a small river island called Pheasant. It was here, in 1659, that representatives from France and Spain met and signed the Treaty of the Pyrenees, officially ending the Thirty Years War. The treaty also drew a new border that runs along the Pyrenees mountains, and then follows the Bidasoa river to the Bay of Biscay in the Atlantic Ocean, forming a natural border between France and Spain. As is usually the case with borders that follow the course of a river, the French-Spanish border was fixed along the center of the river. Ideally, the border should have cut right through Pheasant Island splitting the 1.6 acre island into two halves, with France and Spain controlling their respective sides. But the Treaty of the Pyrenees agreed upon a different kind of arrangement, by which Pheasant Island became a condominium.
Pheasant Island (Isla de los Faisanes, in Spanish, and Île des Faisans, in French, as seen from the Spanish side. Photo credit: Zarateman/Wikimedia
A condominium is a territory over which multiple nations exercise equal dominion and sovereignty, without diving it into different national zones. Antarctica is one example of a successful condominium. Historically, there have been a few condominiums but most didn’t survive for too long. The success of such an arrangement requires cooperation of all parties involved, something which is difficult to ensure over long periods of time. Once the understanding fails, the condominium fails.
Pheasant Island is not only the oldest surviving condominium, it is also the only one where sovereignty isn’t shared simultaneously, but alternately. For six months a year, Pheasant Island is French. For the other six, it is Spanish. As the New York Times puts it, “it’s like the ball in an extremely slow game of ping-pong between France and Spain.”
Prior to the war and the signing of the treaty, Pheasant Island’s status was undefined. As a neutral venue, it was frequently used as a meeting place between French and Spanish monarchs and as a place where prisoner exchanges took place. As a result, many important historical events took place on the island. It was here, on Pheasant Island, that French king Louis XIII met his Spanish bride, Ana of Austria, while at the same time her brother, Philip IV, laid his eyes on his French bride and Louis XIII’s sister, Elisabeth of France. Later, Louis XIII’s son, Louis XIV met his future wife Maria Theresa of Spain. Over the years, other bridal exchanges took place —Marie Louise d'Orléans was handed over to Charles II of Spain, and Mariana Victoria of Spain to the French king, Louis XV, although the marriage never went ahead.
Today, Pheasant Island is off-limit to visitors, although one can get pretty close to the island. It lies less than 100 feet from the Spanish bank of river Bidasoa, in the town of Irun, and about 150 feet from the French side in the commune of Hendaye.
Louis XIV of France and Philip IV of Spain meeting on Pheasant Island for the Treaty of the Pyrenees. Oil on canvas by artist Jacques Laumosnier.
Photo credit: www.armada.mde.es
A monolith built on Pheasant Island to commemorate the signing of the treaty. Photo credit: Eugenio Perez/Panoramio
Every six months officials from Spain and France meet for a little ceremony during which transfer of documents take place. For the next six months, the receiver assumes control of the island. Photo credit: www.armada.mde.es
Photo credit: Eugenio Perez/Panoramio
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