To Bayonne and beyond: Aquitaine, France

by Madra Rua

The Basque capital city of Bayonne offers you a fantastic location with great food, drink, architecture and culture; and probably one of the best parties you are ever likely to experience

It was eleven in the morning and the town had that hangover look about it. Lots of people dressed oddly. Well to be precise, the same. White T shirts, white trousers/shorts, red neck scarfs and red belts. At first I instinctively thought football, until I spotted the first of many sound stages dotted around the town. We had cruised into one of France’s biggest festivals the Fete de Bayonne, which takes place every year on the last Wednesday of July for five days. Our two days of immense enjoyment, laughter and merriment were about to commence.

Bayonne is a beautiful town with a wonderful culture and history. From its Roman occupation to the present day, it has been on the ‘must visit’ list of multitudes. It is not only famous for its chocolate but also for the invention of the bayonet and the surrender of Napoleons forces to Wellington that occurred in a local village. I just happened to stumble across it while on a camping holiday. As our two car convoy drove into the small city we were totally unaware of what lay in store.

The city

Bayonne is divided into two quarters by the river Nive - Grand Bayonne and Petit Bayonne. It has five bridges that connect the two. Along the Nive you will find many of the city’s best restaurants and the market place. You will also find some great examples of colourful Basque architecture and columbage houses, quaint shops and curiosities. The Pont St-Esprit connects Petit with the Quartier St-Esprit across the Adour, Bayonne's second river, where the impressive Citadelle is located as is the railway station.

Grand Bayonne is the commercial quarter, with small and narrow pedestrian only streets containing a great selection of shops offering their famous tasty hams, chocolates, Basque linen and books that inspire. The Cathedrale Sainte-Marie graces the district with its grandeur. It is an elegant building constructed in the gothic style in the 14th century, much of which was destroyed during the Revolution. The Chateau-Vieux, where the governors of the city once resided, is also located in the quarter.

Petit Bayonne has beautiful small bars and restaurants that radiate with Basque ambience and charm. Young and old, locals and tourist mix in a potpourri of music, song and dance. The Chateau-Neuf is among the ramparts of the Petit Bayonne. These walls and an exhibition are open to the public. The Musée Basque is the ethnographic museum. It is here that you learn of the Basque people, their history and culture. The Musée Bonnat is one of the best galleries in this region of France and has paintings by Goya, El Greco and Botticelli, to name but a few. A guided tour is highly recommended to experience the rich history and culture of the city. 

The Fete de Bayonne

Having purchased our red and white attire and amazingly found and booked a hotel, we were ready to hit the town. Little did we realise just what we were about to participate in. From world record breaking events, involving thousands of people, to participating in some kind of animal therapy! The Fete is the biggest outdoor party in Europe and can attract as many as 500,000 people from all over France and beyond. It consists of cultural events, music, pageants, regattas, bull racing, dancing, a children's day, fireworks, grand balls and the greatest competition of all; who can stay awake the longest. Yes, this festival is as non stop in its fun as it is in its staying power. The party is opened from the balcony of the impressive Hotel de Ville (Place de la Liberte) by King Leon with his huge alarm clock in front of thousands of his subjects and one and all are invited to his public ball. Fireworks thunder high into the night sky which illuminate the town's facades and the smiling faces of the young and old alike. Bands strike up the music and the dancing, the singing and the fun begins.

All was well, as we walked into the pretty Place Paul Bert, groups of young men were trying to outdo each other in the art of human pyramid building, a brass band bellowed out traditional tunes and people gathered around the squares cafés drinking. The area was cordoned off and a large seated area occupied one side. That’s odd, I thought as I spotted the large tent with an equally large red cross painted on its side. But was quickly forgotten as a beer was thrust into my hand.

The band played into a sort of frenzy and with accompanying yelps of laughter and applauds a young bull suddenly charged into the square, some gave chase but most fled. I stood amazed, at the sight of people being flung to the ground as the stampeding beast navigated its way in our direction. All beer was discarded as the horned beast headed straight into the bar forcing some speedy and accurate body dives, mainly over the counter top. The partying continues, and as the crowd becomes more intoxicated and courageous, the bulls get bigger and nastier, definitely not for the weak or more to the point; the sane.

Whether it be for a long weekend break, taking in the Fete de Bayonne, or holidaying in the hotels and campsites of the nearby seaside town of Biarritz or the surfers' paradise of Anglet: you will definitely not regret paying this wonderful city a visit.

Where to eat

El Asador (19 rue Vieille Boucherie; 33 5 59590857) - located in the historic quarter this restaurant offers the taste of the Basque country, with a fantastic staff and setting. Serving dishes of the region that include stuffed cabbage with lamb chops, fish a la plancha and hake koska. An average three courses can cost as little as 20 euros.

Ibaia (45 quai A. Jaureguiberry; 33 5 59598666) - one of the oldest bodegas in Bayonne, it offers a fantastic variety of regional delights as well as fantastic tapas from the bar. Great wines and atmosphere makes for a great night out. 

Where to stay

Hotel Loustau (1 Place de la République) - this 3* hotel offers a very central location close to the train station and on the banks of the river Adour. It commands great views of Grand Bayonne and the Hotel de Ville. The rooms are small and basic but are suitable for that short break experience. The staff, although small in number, are polite and helpful. It's location ensures that you are never too far away from the action.  All in all, it has everything that you would require for a short enjoyable stay.
Price double room from 92 euros per night.

Hotel Des Arceaux (26 Rue Port Neuf) - a small 2* establishment, it offers you a homely stay. Sited in a building that dates back three centuries, it is more a bed and breakfast than a hotel. It presents rooms that are nice and cosy, with simple eye pleasing décor and furnishings. The staff are excellent and only too willing to assist your every request. It is located in the historical pedestrian quarter and has all that you would want for a city break on its doorstep. Price double room from 40/80 euros per night.

Best Western Le Grand Hotel (21 Rue Thiers) - beautiful and elegant, this 3* hotel will cater for all your needs. Located in a very central position in the historic quarter, it is within easy walking distance of restaurants, cafes and places of interest. The rooms are well presented, comfortable and airy as is the entire hotel.  The staff are well versed in their knowledge of Bayonne and beyond and are more than happy to ensure your stay is an enjoyable one. Price double room from 100/153 euros per night.

Madra Rua

Liam spends his days transforming people’s bathrooms and kitchens into an oasis of beauty. Utilising his skills as a tiler, he believes that he gives his clients the dream and sanctuary they wish for. As for his travel dreams, well they began at the tender but adventurous age of fourteen. His friend Dessy and Liam both set out on a life changing youth hostelling holiday, from the counties of Donegal to Kerry and Mayo to Wexford. Since then he has zig-zagged his way across America on a greyhound bus; hitch-hiked from Belfast to southern Spain and back; visited most major European cities and a few American; staying in the very best and the very worst of hotels. He has skied in some of the Alps most heavenly resorts; enjoyed the hectic, chaotic, but brilliant holidays that are camping and scorched his fair Irish skin on the beaches of Spain, Greece, Italy and Los Angeles. But he shall always have a very, very, soft spot for Italy and all this wonderfully; delicious and exciting country has to offer.