The tiny island that is Spanish for half the year, and French the other half

Did you know that there's an island that is French for half the year and Spanish the other half? Not only that, it has a particularly bizarre history involving princess-swaps and hostage-handovers. Welcome to 'Pheasant Island'.

The tiny island that is Spanish for half the year, and French the other half

Most of the border between France and Spain is a land border, running through the Pyrenees and decorously diverging when it gets to Andorra.

But the northern-most portion of the border, which takes in the Basque Country, runs down the centre of a river. In the middle of this river is a very small island – 200 metres long, 40 metres wide, population 0.

Map showing the French town of Hendaye, the Spanish town of Irun and between them, right on the Franco-Spanish border, ‘pheasant island’. Map: Google maps

Despite being tiny, it has five different names; Île des Faisans or Île de la Conférence if you’re speaking French, Isla de los Faisanes in Spanish or in the Basque language either Konpantzia or Faisaien Uhartea Konferentziako Uhartea. All of these translate to either ‘pheasant island’ or ‘conference/treaty island’.

Fun fact: there are no pheasants on pheasant island (the name is believed to be a mis-translation). And at 0.00682 km square it’s unlikely to have much of a future as a conference centre. 

The reason we’re talking about this island is its unique nationality status – from February 1st to July 31st each year the island is part of Spain, then on August 1st it becomes French and remains so for the next six months.

So how did it end up with this weird status? Especially as, a little further up the river is the larger island of Isla Santiagourra – in this case the border simply goes round the island, which is Spanish 365 days a year.

The 1856 Treaty of Bayonne which formalised its hybrid status stated that “Pheasant island, to which so many historical memories common to the two Nations are attached, will belong, undivided, to France and Spain”.

International treaties of this period aren’t exactly famous for careful consultation with locals and the island is, as we already mentioned, uninhabited. There’s no contemporaneous explanation of exactly why it was felt so important to respect “historical memories” but it could simply that no-one could be bothered to argue over this tiny lump of land, or that it was handy to have a ‘neutral space’ along the border.

The island came to prominence 200 years earlier when the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed there, bringing an end to decades of war between France and Spain and establishing the Franco-Spanish border (and giving the island its secondary title of ‘treaty island’).

It remained for decades a ‘neutral’ space that was often used as a handover spot by the French and Spanish, but the rotating nationality was only formally established by the 1856 Treaty. 

The treaty also appointed two viceroys to run the island – the naval commanders of San Sebastian (Spain) and Bayonne (France), which gives the island its further distinction of having the only French example of the quasi-royal title of viceroy – the term comes from the French vice-roi meaning someone who deputises for the king.

In reality, it is administered by the mayor of Irun during its Spanish phase and the mayor of Hendaye during the French phase.

Talking of royalty, the island has an especially royal history – and long before the treaty that cemented its special status it was used as a meeting place for royals from France and Spain.

In 1659, Louis XIV met his future wife Maria Theresa of Spain at the island. Relevant paperwork signed, she said goodbye to her father Philip IV of Spain and crossed into France to become his queen.

In 1721, Louis XV met his intended bride Mariana Victoria of Spain there, this time however the meeting was less successful and the two ended up marrying other people.

The bride-swapping went both ways – Elisabeth of France, daughter of Henri IV, met her future husband Philip of Spain on pheasant island.

And it’s not just women who were traded there – children were too.

In 1526 François I, who was being held hostage by Spanish king Charles V, was taken to the island where he was swapped for his two eldest sons. The boys lived as hostage as the Spanish court for four years, until the French royals agreed to pay an enormous ransom. The scene of the handover? Pheasant island, naturally. 

The island is uninhabited with no regular transport there – so if you want to visit, you will need to wait for the next Journée du patrimoine (heritage open day) when the island is, sometimes, open to the public. 

Pheasant Island is not the only weird, quasi-royal space on the Franco-Spanish border – there is of course also the principality of Andorra, which is (nominally at least) ruled jointly by the French president and the Bishop of Urgell – they rule as ‘co-princes’ which means that, technically Emmanuel Macron is a prince.

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8 French night trains to take this summer

French train operator SNCF is offering sleeper train services between Paris and eight cities across the country this summer, part of a growing network of European night trains.

8 French night trains to take this summer

Night trains are officially back – with more and more European routes opening up (Paris-Vienna is also available this summer) it’s an increasingly popular way to travel for people who are either concerned about the planet or simply prefer to enjoy a more relaxed travel experience.


SNCF is running 8 Intercité services this summer, they depart from Paris and go to;

  • Toulouse – aka la ville rose, the lively university town in south west France
  • Nice – the night train to the Riviera resort evokes (some of) the glamour of France’s famous train bleu
  • Briançon – perched in the Alps, this is France’s highest city
  • Albi – world heritage site and birthplace of painter Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi is situated in south-west France
  • Argeles-sur-Mer – another seaside resort, this is in the Pyrénées-Orientales
  • Ax-les-Thermes – the spa resort in Haut-Ariège still offers water ‘cures’
  • Cannes – the Riviera’s glitziest destination
  • Lourdes – if you’re going on a pilgrimage, why not travel in style?

Journey time

The night train is slow – deliberately so, nobody wants to be woken up in the middle of the night because you have arrived at your destination.

It uses the slower Intercité routes rather than the high-speed TGV.

The journey from Paris to Nice takes more than 12 hours (compared to 6 hours if you take the daytime TGV), setting off from Paris Austerlitz at around 8.48pm and arriving the following morning in the Mediterranean city at 9.25am – but travellers can sleep through most of the journey that’s more environmentally friendly, cheaper and arguably more relaxing than a flight.


Travellers can book seats with a footrest and adjustable headrest, with a personal night light from €19; the cost of a “couchette” bed, from €29, comes with use of a duvet and pillow, as well as bottle of water, cleaning wipes, earplugs and tissues.

The standard couchette has either four or six bunk beds to a compartment, but if you don’t fancy the idea of sharing with strangers, SNCF also offers the option of hiring out an entire four or six-berth sleeping compartment in first or standard class. All you have to do is mention the “Private Space” service. This service costs from €45 on top of the cost of the couchettes and is not available during busy periods.

Women travelling by themselves can book a berth in a compartment for women only. Tick “Espace Dame Seul” when booking online or mention it when booking tickets at the station or SNCF shop.

All compartments are equipped with locks and there are few or no intermediate stops between 12 midnight and 5.30am.

Showers are available to first-class passengers arriving at Paris Austerlitz and Toulouse Matabiau stations.


You can book night trains via the usual SNCF website or app, or at station travel centres.

When booking a ticket via SNCF Connect, and after selecting your destination and date of travel, click on Types de Train and select the Intercités des Nuits option.

A guest appearance from Hercule Poirot cannot be guaranteed.