French Basque Country: Bayonne

If things had gone according to plan, I’d now be enjoying a vacation in my beloved Basque Country but as I’m not…………………….let’s return to my series about 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!

French Basque Country: Biarritz

I have waxed lyrical many a time about the Spanish Basque Country. Now’s the time to bang the drum for the Basque Country in France which I love just as much as its Spanish neighbour. It’s not just about beautiful landscapes and great food either, its culture is as fascinating as it is a little mystifying because the French Basques share the same language, culture and traditions as those of the Spanish. They too have managed to maintain a buccolic, country lifestyle but this time among those dark satanic hills of the Pyrenees-Atlantiques.

We’ve often stayed in the French Basque country en-route to Spain and I’m going to start with probably the jewel in its crown Biarritz which, by comparison with the French Riviera, is a relatively bling-free coastal getaway.

Napolean III transformed Biarritzm formerly a fishing and whaling village, when he built a summer palace for his Pricess Eugenie (now the Hotel du Palais). Just like that the health benefits of sea bathing became fashionable among European nobility who descended on Biarritz for the season in the late 1800s. Screenwriter Peter Viertel had a similar impact when he visited in 1957 to film The Sun Also Rises. Impressed by the waves, he sent for his surfboard from California and single-handedly introduced surfing to Europe.

The focus of Biarritz is the Casino Municipal, on the Grande-Plage. The loveliest places to stroll around are the streets between there and the Plage du Port-Vieux. Just beside the Plage du Port-Vieux, the most sheltered and intimate of the beaches, a rocky promontory sticks out into the sea, ending in an iron catwalk anchoring the Rocher de la Vierge, an offshore rock adorned with a white statue of the Virgin, which has become Biarritz’s trademark. Just below is the picturesque harbour of the Port des Pecheurs, backed by tamarisks and pink and blue hydrangeas. Beyond lies the Grande Plage, an immaculate sweep of sand that stretches past the casino, all the way to the lighthouse on the Pointe St-Martin.

Another icon, the lighthouse was built in 1834 and stands 73 metres above sea level overlooking Cape Hainsart (so called because of the oak trees which surrounded it in the past). It marks the boundary between the sandy Landes coast and the rocky coast of the Basque Country. It’s a climb of 248 steps to reach the top but it does offer an exceptional panoramic view of Biarritz and the Basque hinterland.

Also located in the Port-Vieux, you’ll find the neo-gothic Sainte Eugenie Church aka Imperial Chapel also built during the reign of Napoleon III in 1864, on Empress Eugenia’s request, in a Roman-Byzantine and Hispanic-Moorish style. In other words, a bit of a mash-up. It’s dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe and was listed as historical monument in 1981. While, the more centrally located Orthodox Alexandre Newsky Church (above) was built in the Byzantine style by Biarritz architect M. Tisnés. Inaugurated in September 1892, in the presence of members of the Russian imperial family, it has been classified as a Historical Monument since June 2015.

Biarritz has a beautiful red-brick covered market, Les Halles, fresh of façade after a complete renovation. Outside, fat seagulls circle, hopeful of a fishy morsel. I love wandering around markets and always make a point of checking out the produce. Here it was so fresh and beautiful, it looked as if it was sculpted from marzipan. At lunchtime, we enjoyed a few freshly shucked bivalves at an oyster bar.

As one might expect, Biarritz has a lively restaurant scene and plenty of nightlife to satisfy even the most dedicated of party goers. I appreciate that I haven’t even touched on many of its other charms such as its surf culture, golf courses, beautiful coastal walks and cycling highway – we have done that – but maybe this is enough to wet your appetite. Further towns to follow………