Ain't No Country for our Pheasant Island
Updated: May 24
Between France and Spain, east of San Sebastian is a two-acre tiny river island that switches sovereignty every six months as part of a rare, centuries-old agreement. Pheasant Island sits in the Bidasoa River just a mile or two from the Bay of Biscay. It has been administered jointly by France and Spain since the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees. For three months, the Spanish and French negotiated the end to their long war on the island, as it was considered neutral territory. Wooden bridges were extended from both sides. The armies stood ready as the negotiations began. A peace agreement was signed - the Treaty of the Pyrenees. Territory was swapped and the border demarcated. And the deal was sealed with a royal wedding, as the French King Louis XIV married the daughter of the Spanish King Philip IV.
Pheasant Island is the oldest surviving condominium. A condominium is a territory over which multiple countries exercise equal sovereignty without dividing it into different national zones. Every six months, representatives from both countries meet on the Island to exchange official papers, handing sovereignty of the island from one country to the other.
In theory, this means that a camper on Pheasant Island could go to sleep in Spain and wake up in France, without ever moving an inch. In practice, this is impossible, because neither country allows visitors to the island. Pheasant Island is totally off-limits to visitors but there was a time when Pheasant Island had become a traditional meeting place for significant royal marriages between the two countries.
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, Elizabeth 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.