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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Why do Spain’s civil guards wear those strange hats?

If you’ve ever seen Spanish national day parades on October 12th, then you’ve most likely seen groups of Spain’s Civil Guards marching along wearing strange black hats. What’s the reason behind this odd uniform attire and where did they originate?

Why do Spain’s civil guards wear those strange hats?

Known as the tricornio, this type of hat is one of the most representative symbols of the Spanish Civil Guard and has been a true piece of their identity for as long as most people can remember.

The main characteristic of the hat is that it has three points. Today, the hat is black, rounded at the front, while at the back is a kind of headboard with two points or wings jutting out either side. Although this is what it looks like in the modern day, its material, shape, size and its colors have evolved over time.

Origin of the tricornio

The origin of this quirky hat goes back to almost the very founding of the Civil Guard. The tricornio became part of the Civil Guard uniform in 1859, only 14 years after it was formed.  

The first ones were made from felt and were the brainchild of the Duke of Ahumada (1803 – 1869), a Spanish Army officer known for being the founder of the Civil Guard and its first director-general. He wanted to make sure the uniforms were both elegant and authoritative, yet with a showy appearance.  

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

He presented General Narváez, head of the Civil Guard at the time and the 1st Duke of Valencia, with a mannequin dressed in the uniform and topped with the tricornio hat, to be worn by the cavalry forces.

This uniform was accepted, but on the condition that the infantry forces also wear it. It was Queen Isabel II, at the proposal of General Narváez, who ruled that the tricornio should be worn by both.  

At the time, it was a type of hat with wings, in which the rear and front wings folded over the crown, and were kept in place by a ribbon and a button, this is why it is said to have three peaks or corners.  

Spanish Civil Guard troops march during the Spanish National Day military parade in Madrid. Photo: JAVIER SORIANO / AFP

Evolution of the tricornio

Both its shape and its size have changed considerably over the years to adapt to the needs of the civil guards – the main ones being that it is now a lot smaller and has also changed colour. Sometimes a gold band was added, while the more modern versions were plain black.

From felt hats, they changed to rubber to be able to withstand various weather conditions. The rubber version was based on a design created by the Civil Guard wives who decided on a new flap with buttons on each side. This version consisted of different layers and colors, but the shape has remained until today.

READ ALSO: Why does France give a gift of three cows to Spain every year? 

Later on, the rubber was covered in plastic, until it became replaced by vinyl, which would give it both shape and shine.

This again was subsequently changed to a material that resembled patent leather to promise better vision and durability.

In the post-war period, the uniform was modernised to prioritise combat requirements, practicality for transport units, and any symbols that may be required.

Starting in 1989, the tricornio came to be worn only as part of the gala uniform for ceremonies, parades and solemn acts, as well as in some operational services, such as those in charge of surveillance of embassies or airport security.  

Even so, these oddly-shaped hats have continued to be used throughout the 20th century and still serve as a visual reference and the most important symbol of the Civil Guard today.