This week I’ve popped over the border into the French Basque Country.
A mere eight kilometres (5 miles) from Biarritz is the wonderful town of Bayonne which we’ve visited a number of times, the last one being on a Saturday in 2018 on our way down to San Sebastian.
Bayonne (“Baiona” in Basque) is located at the northernmost point of the French Basque Country where the Nive and Adour Rivers meet. It’s renowned for hosting one of the largest French summer festivals, called the Fêtes de Bayonne. This is the French version of Pamplona’s San Fermin (Running of the Bulls) and attracts more then one million visitors annually. It may not have been that particular festival but the town was full of people who’d dressed up and were playing medieval games.
Even though Bayonne is technically a city, it feels more like a large town. A stroll along the Nive River which separates the two main neighbourhoods of the city, Grand and Petit Bayonne, is both beautiful and relaxing. The buildings are decorated in a lovely mixture of Basque and French architecture, each adorned with colourful wooden shutters. Both sides of the waterfront are lined with bars and restaurants and make for great places to stop and take in the most beautiful views of the city.
Thanks to the Adour River which connects Bayonne to the Bay of Biscay, the city was well positioned and grew wealthy with the help of the whaling and cod industries. This influx of money helped finance many of the city’s buildings, including the massive gothic cathedral.
Because of Bayonne’s commercial importance and its close proximity to Spain (aprox. 30 km [19 miles] away), the city features many fortified structures. Most of the original wall that surrounded the city is gone but it’s still possible to see some of the remnants when wandering through its streets. Some other examples of the city’s defensive structures include the Porte d’Espagne, Château-Neuf, Château-Vieux and the citadel. Unfortunately, most of the fortifications are closed to the public, however, it is possible to view them from the outside.
Grand Bayonne is the more commercial part of town but also its ancient beating heart where one finds the Sainte Marie Cathedral, which dominates the city’s skyline. The construction of this gothic cathedral started in 1213 though it wasn’t finished until 17th century (with exception of the north tower, finished in 19th century). Alongside the cathedral is the cloister, which dates back to 1240 and is one of the largest in France.
Not far from the cathedral, you will find the Château-Vieux (Old Castle). Built in 12th century by the Viscounts of Labourd. This was originally the official residence of the governors of the city (including Edward, the black prince). It’s still owned by the military and is therefore not open to the public.
The impressive Town Hall of Bayonne (La Mairie or L’Hôtel de Ville) is located at the intersection of the Nive and Adour Rivers. It was built in 1843 in neoclassical style and was originally home to the customs office. The six statues on the roof represent the economic and artistic activities of the city. Apart from the town hall, the building also houses a theater and a café with a nice terrace in the square in front of the building.
Next to the Nive River is Bayonne’s covered market called “Les Halles”. This is the perfect place to discover the area’s bounty and particularly the lovely gâteau Basque. The market and its surroundings are especially busy on Saturday mornings, when local producers gather there for an open-air market.
Bayonne also has a botanical garden, called Jardin Botanique, located at the Avenue du 11 Novembre (next to the Tourist Office). It was opened in the late 1990s and it stands on top of a bastion between the cathedral and the ramparts.
Apart from wandering through the streets of this beautiful neighbourhood and enjoying its architecture, in Petit Bayonne, you can visit the Basque Museum. Founded in 1922, it contains a nice collection of Basque and local French history. It is located in a small palace from 16th century called “Maison Dagourette.”
Another interesting museum located in this same aea is the Bonnat Museum. It is named after the local realist painter, Léon Bonnat, whose own work makes up most of the main collection. It was due to reopen in 2020 after extensive renovation works.
Sitting in the highest point of Petit Bayonne you will find the Château-Neuf built in the 15th century by Charles IV. This massive building now belongs to the university and is again unfortunately closed to the public.
From Petit Bayonne, it is possible to cross the Adour River via the Pont Saint-Esprit to the neighborhood of Saint-Esprit, where the citadel and train station are located. This neighborhood was originally part of Gascony and therefore different from the rest of Bayonne. It was settled primarily by Jews who had escaped from the Spanish Inquisition at the beginning of 17th century.
The Jews contributed much to Bayonne’s growth particularly through the introduction of chocolate which first gained its foothold in Bayonne and then later spread to the rest of France. Today, there are still many chocolatiers found in the city, such as the L’Atelier du Chocolat which has a workshop on the far end of Saint-Esprit. Well worth a visit!