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Spain’s Geographical Quirks of History

I’m shortly setting off for Spain and my first stop will be in the town of Irun, in the Basque Country. Irun is on the Atlantic coast and borders France. It is also the location of one of Spain’s geographical quirks, or oddities, of history.

Readers of this blog know of my interest in curious geographical quirks of history, whether the historically fascinating co-principality of Andorra, exclaves, enclaves and the like. You can read all about these fascinating pieces of territory in this amusing and educational site.

This part of Spain is separated from France by the Bidasoa River, which serves as a natural boundary between the two countries. Near where the river reaches the sea there are several small islands. One of them—Isla de los Faisanes (French: Île des Faisans, English: Pheasant Island)—by virtue of a historical footnote, is what is known as a ‘condominium’, which is a piece of territory that is ruled by several sovereign powers (in this case jointly by Spain and France).

As seen from Spanish side
Pheasant Island from the Spanish side (Credit: Wikipedia)

The Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed on the island in 1659, ending the Franco-Spanish War (itself part of the Thirty Years’ War). As a result, this island is jointly owned and ruled by Spain and France and there is a historical monument on this 200-metre-long, uninhabited island. Spain and France take turns ruling the island every six months. As well as a condominium the island is also an enclave because it is wholly within Spanish territory. You can read more about this curious quirk of history here.

Monument, Pheasant Island
Monument in Pheasant Island

The process of uniting Spain’s kingdoms into a single country began with the Catholic Monarchs (Ferdinand and Isabella) a little over 500 years ago. Now, of course, it is a united whole, albeit a country which is divided into autonomous communities. There are scores and scores of geographical quirks of history across Europe, especially further north, but Spain too, has its own territorial quirks. Irun’s Isla de los Faisanes (Pheasant Island) is one of them, but there are also others.

Church at Llívia

The town of Llívia, a Spanish town about a mile away from the border within France, is both an enclave and an enclave. Then there are the exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, two cities on the North African coast. Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory and what is known as a ‘pene-exclave’ by virtue of being partly surrounded by the sea.


There is also the rocky exclave of Peñon de Vélez de la Gomera which is connected to the Moroccan mainland by a sandy isthmus, as well the Alhucemas and Chafarinas islands, also just off the Moroccan coast. Then, of course, there are the Canary Islands way down the Atlantic Ocean close to Western Sahara.

There are hundreds of such geographical oddities across the world, many of them in Europe. Spain does not immediately come to mind as a country where such quirks exist, but as this post has indicated it has its share of them.

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