John Bopp. St. Pierre and Miquelon is a tiny archipelago just south of Newfoundland. Despite its proximity to Canada, it’s actually an “overseas collectivity” of France, the last vestige of New France that once covered huge swaths of North America.
The main island, St. Pierre, is actually smaller in area, and home to just over 5,800 people, while the much larger Miquelon (including Langlade, which is connected via an isthmus) has a population of only 600. Today, St. Pierre is a quiet fishing village, but it has a very colorful history, which we were able to discover on our trip there last August.
The Basques were among the first Europeans to visit the islands, well before Portuguese explorer João Álvares Fagundes came in 1520. Between the first permanent inhabitants in the 1670s and the 1814 Treaty of Paris which ended the Hundred Days’ War, France and Britain were constantly settling, sacking, invading, and transferring the islands back and forth. However, by 1816, the islands were firmly in French hands, and settlers from the Northern Basque Country, Brittany, and Normandy came to fish. The “Zazpiak Bat” Jai Alai court was built in 1906.
Fishing has always been the main industry, and has brought varying degrees of prosperity, depending on the time period. Great riches befell the island in the 1930s as the island was the perfect staging ground to smuggle alcohol into the US during Prohibition, but that source of income also dried up.
During the Second World War, the local government took the side of Vichy France, but when the governor was finally replaced, 98% of the populace voted to side with Free France, and eventually sent over more than 200 volunteers.
The Basque language was still spoken on the island into the 1950s.
In 1981, the Basques on the island organized the first Basque Festival, a week of Basque dances, song, pelota, and fun. It’s still going strong 38 years later, and we got a taste of it this August.
The afternoon started with several really fun rounds of pelota, with teams that just kept getting better and better. Having seen so much southern Basque Country-style pelota, with two walls, it was interesting to see the dynamic with only one. One of the players explained to us how the original wall had been made of wood, but it was blown up in some disagreement, and almost immediately replaced with the stone one they use today.
After the matches, the local Basque dance group came and put on an amazing show. This was followed by a choir, singing songs in Basque, including one written about the island. And in true Basque style, there was much merriment, and the local tavern, owned by a man originally from Pasaia, was open late into the wee hours of the morning!
Our only regret was that we couldn’t be there on Sunday, which we were informed is by far the highlight of the week. But we’re planning on going back, so we’ll schedule our trip better, we promise!
Due to the small size of the island and the tourism industry, there are only four or five hotels, so be sure to book well in advance (and follow the ferry company’s advice and book the hotel before the ferry!). We stayed at the Hôtel Robert, right on the waterfront, and it was quite charming, with staff that spoke English and a restaurant serving dinner and breakfast. Nearby (really, everything is nearby), there were a couple of streets with several restaurants and bars, and just past the jai alai court was the tavern we spoke about earlier.
The ferry and St. Pierre harbor are capable of transporting cars, but the terminal in Fortune, Newfoundland hasn’t been upgraded yet, so it’s still only possible to cross on foot (the ferry company offers parking in Fortune). Fortunately, in St. Pierre, you won’t need a car, as it’s an eminently walkable town and you only have to climb a hill if you want to get the best views. The tourist information office is on the same plaza as the ferry terminal, and the friendly, knowledgeable staff will answer all your questions (in English, too!)