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St. Jean de Luz is our French Newburyport

Newburyport, Massachusetts is about a 45-minute drive from our home, and it’s a ride we don’t mind taking every few weeks just to sit with a coffee or have lunch. The onetime mill city at the convergence of the Merrimack River and the Atlantic has, over the last couple decades, reinvented itself as something more tourist-friendly and quainter than its rough-and-tumble roots, but still retains its local charm and doesn’t feel so far removed from its blue-collar origins as to be unrecognizable.

My wife and I love that we can decide, on the fly, to hop in the car and, within the hour, be sitting with a coffee watching boats navigate the river’s mouth from the Adirondack chairs outside of Plum Island Coffee Roasters. There’s a good chance that the people next to you have their dog with them, lying in the square of shade under a table, as contented as the rest of us. To our left, we might catch the drawbridge being raised, traffic backing up to allow an oversized fishing vessel to pass, its wake rocking the moored boats that pepper the river, seagulls momentarily annoyed with the disturbance.

To the right is a long boardwalk lining the river with whale-watching boats and the occasional yacht, but mostly this stroll is another opportunity to run into a few more friendly dogs, tongue and tails wagging, happy to be outdoors, happy for the attention and the warm sweep of salt air billowing from the sea.

Farther along, Water Street leaves Newburyport behind and, a mile or two later takes you onto Plum Island with its summer cottages packed close together along the dunes and reedy grasses, pinned laundry drying on lines, the rippling of their cloth echoing the boat sails in the distance. This stretch makes for a nice bike ride, the quiet street flat and gritty with sand that’s chipped off the dunes. Another mile down this road and you’ve reached the boat shop and beach at the end of this thumb of land pushing toward the ocean.

With the bikes back in the car, we can take the two minute drive back into downtown Newburyport for lunch and a craft brew or cider at Brick & Ash, converted from an old mill factory, its ancient brick and woodwork kept exposed (its downstairs barroom has two stone fireplaces, making this a cozy spot in the winter as well). Or we might hit The Grog for a more local, less polished feel. My wife loves The Port with its brick walls and incredible burgers. The city has a couple funky bookstores and a small, family-run indie movie theater with a nondescript façade,and the city hosts a literary festival each April that I never miss. Every time I drive home from Newburyport, my head and sinuses feel a little clearer, my body a little looser and more relaxed, abuzz with caffeine and the magic of New England salt air.

* * *

Which brings me to the small town of St. Jean de Luz in France, just across the border from Spain and about a 45-minute train ride from the Basque town of San Sebastian, where I led a study-abroad program for a couple summers. Each of those two summers, I’d ventured off on day trips across the border to visit a few nearby French towns: Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne, and, of course, St. Jean de Luz. Unlike Newburyport, with its red brick converted mills clustered around its downtown center, St. Jean de Luz’s aesthetic focused on red-roofed buildings with white siding and a lot of red timbered clapboard. Visually, the two towns don’t really resemble one another, except maybe for the fact that they’re both perched on the coast: Newburyport on the Atlantic and St. Jean de Luz looking out at the Bay of Biscay, both butting against rivers emptying into the sea.

But the two places share a vibe. My wife and I visited for the first time in 2015, eating a casual lunch at outdoor seating in one of the tight side streets, the lazy ripple from the bleu de France of the French flags echoed by the brilliant summer sky. In the distance, at the end of the street toward the Grande Plage, a sparkling band of ocean blended into this sky like a chameleon. We sat, legs crossed and faces turned toward the sun, eyes closed so as to enhance the other senses, in no particular hurry for our check.

On a different day trip we’d visited Biarritz, another coastal resort town, beautiful too, but St. Jean de Luz existed on a more low-key plane, registering on a different frequency, one you had to sit still and close your eyes to feel. We felt like tourists in Biarritz, wanderers in St. Jean de Luz. We strolled the promenade after lunch, waves slapping the sand on our left, the pink frosted cake of the Grand Hotel on our right that Napoleon once called home. Following the dog-leg curve of the beach, I spotted a young man selling two-foot-long baguettes right out there on the sand. Two of my favorite things, right there: beach and bread. Then we hiked up to the cliffs for dramatic views and photos. This must have been on our second visit, the following year. I remember I’d worried that the magic of stumbling into this gem of a town the previous summer would have dissipated on this second visit, our expectations too high, a year’s worth of build-up. But that wasn’t the case. “This is our French Newburyport,” I’d said to my wife, following our curiosity down another side street, her hand slipping into mine.She liked the sentiment and repeated it later, first on the train back to San Sebastián and then, before bed, in her travel journal.

Before leaving, though, I stopped for a galette on this second annual visit at a curbside food cart, French waffles you could smell all the way down the street, powdered sugar dusting my forearm and T-shirt. We walked some more, shopping a little but mostly just doing what we do best—strolling and watching and settling into the rhythms of the town. St. Jean de Luz is an easy town to find the addictive mental equilibrium that travel, at its best, can bring: when you’re not reminiscing about the past and you’re not thinking ahead, work in a couple weeks or even, for that matter, dinner later that evening. I guess the simple term for it is being in the moment, but I like this idea of travel equilibrium.

We turned down another side street and found that we were the only ones here. Flower planters lined the center of the pedestrian avenue, offering a pop of color to the cream houses and brick-red timbers. From an open second-story window, an elderly woman leaned her elbows on the sill, taking a look and taking in some fresh air. I took my wife’s photo, standing in this empty street in front of the flowers, the only other figure in the frame this old woman in the background, looking off into the distance with a contented smile. Then I put the camera away with one hand, finishing the last bite of my galette with the other while my wife caught up and hooked her arm through mine. “I want to be her,” she said.

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