While the French coastal town of Hendaye is a fairly popular destination for beach holidays, it also has an insane history. Nowadays the beach is a hotspot for surfers and the nearby hotels host families and couples who come here to relax. But each time I’ve been to Hendaye, it’s been impossible for me to simply soak up the sun, sea and sand without thinking about the town’s dark past. I would often wonder; how many of these tourists on the beach know about the political assassinations that took place here in 1984? Or the 1940 meeting between Adolf Hitler and General Franco that was held inside the train station?
For those who define the Basque Country not simply as a region of Spain but rather as an unrecognised nation that spreads over into France, Hendaye holds the title for having its longest beach. The beach is made up of two main areas; the Plage d’Hendaye, which is the larger of the two, and Les Deux Jumeaux whose name derives from the two stone monoliths that rise from the water like identical twin cliffs. These two beach areas are joined together by a long and narrow stretch of sand, popular among surfers, swimmers and sunbathers, and aligned with restaurants and brasseries.
In 1940, during World War Two, it was here in Hendaye of all places where two Fascist dictators, Franco of Spain and Hitler of Nazi Germany decided to meet. The meeting would take place, quite bizarrely, inside the small train station with both dictators arriving by train from opposite directions. Accounts from Spain would later boast that during the meeting, Hitler tried to persuade Franco to join the Axis powers in their war effort but Franco cleverly avoided it. However, historians such as Paul Preston regard this claim as nothing more than Francoist propaganda, saying that the real purpose of the meeting was to discuss Spain’s relations with Vichy France. Whatever they discussed, Hendaye’s modest train station seems an extremely odd choice of location.
When Basque separatists were wanted by the Spanish police, the Basque region of France became their natural safe haven with many residing in border towns such as Hendaye. It was here on Rue d’Aizpurdi where on February 8th 1984, Vicente Perurena and Angel Gurmindo, alleged members of the Basque separatist group ETA, were assassinated in a drive-by machine-gun shooting carried out by GAL – a Spanish paramilitary group. On March 1st of the same year, Jean Pierre Leiba, a French railroad worker, was also assassinated by GAL whilst working on the nearby railroads in a case of mistaken identity. During the 1980s, this otherwise peaceful border region became riddled with such atrocities and Hendaye was clearly no exception.
Hendaye’s war history is also impossible to miss, especially as you get closer to the Spanish border and notice monuments to the French war dead and rows of old canons pointing across the river towards their Spanish neighbours in Hondarribia. And if that’s not enough drama, the old town is also home to the mysterious cross of Hendaye, a monument bearing strange symbols which many believe to contain hidden messages warning us of the apocalypse. But did I mention the wine here is excellent?
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