For genuine, un-touristy Basque flavor, venture a little further up the coast from the elegant, bustling resort of Biarritz to the quintessentially Basque city of Bayonne, or Baïona in Basque, once the most important commercial port on the coast and the spiritual capital of the Pays Basque. Straddling the Rivers Ardour and Nive, and home of the largest summer festival in France, Fetes de Bayonne, the city was founded by the Romans and is still protected by the ancient ramparts, complete with a fort built by Maréchal Vauban, Louis XIV’s leading military engineer. On a side note, during the many armed conflicts of the 17th-century, soldiers in Bayonne, running out of ammunition, shoved knives into the barrels of their muskets, thus inventing the bayonet.
Unlike Biarritz, Bayonne, with its hard working population of 45,000, does not “pretty up” for tourists. Not putting on airs, it is what it is. While many of the whaling merchants’ mansions facing the rivers may still be in need of a fresh coat of paint, and the city still shuts down for siesta, it’s a charming and totally authentic place to spend the day, or even a few days, as a base to explore the immediate area.
If you are not driving to Bayonne, you can reach the city from Biarritz by bus: Chronoplus Bus (about 22 min), or on the 816 ATCRB Bus from the Biarritz-La Négresse bus stop near the train station, or from the Biarritz Airport. The 816 ATCRB Bus also runs between St-Jean-de-Luz-Ciboure and Bayonne several times a day.
If you don’t want to take the bus, then you can hop on the train (highly recommended) between St-Jean-de-Luz, (36 min), Biarritz (16 min) and Bayonne, and save on parking and fighting the traffic during the busy summer months. Once in Bayonne, the in-city bus (centre-ville), La Navette de Bayonne, is free and operates Monday-Saturday, running every 10 minutes between 7:30 am to 7:30 pm. It also operates on Sundays in December.
Bayonne celebrates a Chocolate Festival May 10 - 22, a Cider Festival May 29, a Ham Festival three days before Easter, a mid-July Jazz on the Remparts Festival and their famous Fêtes de Bayonne, riotous five-day celebration from July 25-29, 20218, with Basque brute strength sports, jai-alai matches, music, fireworks, parades of giants, bull running and bullfights, when the entire city dresses in red and white, ala Pamplona’s San Fermín. If you’re in Bayonne in early July, all the store windows will be decorated in red and white, in anticipation of the festival.
Bayonne has a few major tourist attractions besides the culinary ones of Bayonne ham, chocolates, honey and Basque liqueurs, that prove to be time very well spent. Stroll along the pedestrian rue Port-Neuf, Grand Bayonne’s major thoroughfare, where you’ll find Bayonne’s most famous purveyors of fine chocolates. Bayonne in fact introduced chocolates to France and at one time had more chocolate artisans than all of Switzerland-and seven of the original chocolate artisan shops remain.
While there are far better known chocolate cities in Europe, Bayonne is the “unsung capital of cacao”. After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the edict of Nantes allowed Jews in France to worship freely, and because Bayonne was a port city, the Spanish Jews, after taking refuge in Portugal, took refuge here, bringing their chocolate making skills and imported cacao from the New World, and began the chocolate industry in 1496, settling in St. Etienne, in the St. Esprit quarter, across the River Ardour, where a small synagogue still exists on #33 rue Maubec as well as a Jewish cemetery.
If driving, you should park in the municipal parking lot off Place de Charles de Gaulle, near the Mairie de Bayonne, and walk back across the bridge, Pont Mayou, to visit Petit Bayonne. Another option is to use Parking Porte d’Espagne or Parking Lautrec. Paid parking is between 8:30 am and 7:00 pm. All of the parking areas have a free shuttle to take you to the city center.
The city’s fine arts museum, originally a gift from Leon Bonnat, a Bayonne-born 19th-century artist, was closed in 2011 due to extensive water damage, but is now scheduled to reopen in 2019 after a complete renovation designed by Bordeaux architects Brochet/Lajus/Pueyo, that will more than double its space to 5000 sq meters. As part of it’s permanent collection of more than 7000 works, you’ll find paintings by Bonnat himself, Botticelli, Degas, Dūrer, Murillo, El Greco, Rubens, Goya, da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Delacroix, Géricault and Ingres. This collection is among the richest in France.
One of the finest and largest ethnographic museums in all of Europe, the Basque and History of Bayonne Museum, at 37, quai des Corsaires, will educate you in the history, culture, religion and general way of life of the Basque people, explain how Basque society is organized and the role of the port of Bayonne in the 19th-century. Originally la Maison Dagourette, a bourgeois home built in the 17th-century for a wealthy merchant, this is a truly fascinating museum. Printed tour guides are available in English, German and Japanese. In July and August it’s open everyday from 10:00 am to 6:30 pm and until 8:30 pm on Thursdays. Closed on Mondays and public holidays the rest of the year. Entry is 2,50€, and free if under 18. Free the first Sunday of the month from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm. Accessible for those with reduced mobility.
Bayonne’s third monument of note is its twin towered Gothic Cathedral of Saint Mary, Our Lady of Bayonne, with its enormous cloisters, considered the largest in France (great photo op from here) and beautiful stained glass windows, and the area immediately surrounding it, the small but atmospheric place Louis Pasteur. Originally built between the 12th and the 15th centuries, Bayonne’s whalers funded its construction, as the bishops demanded from them one tenth of their profits. The towers were added in the 19th-century when the cathedral was restored. A UNESCO World Heritage site, you may see modern day pilgrims here, as Bayonne’s cathedral is a staging area for the trek down to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to begin the long Road of Saint James to Santiago de Compostela. The view of the illuminated cathedral at night from the bridge to the St. Esprit quarter is lovely. The cathedral is normally open Monday-Saturday from 8:00 am to 12:45 pm and in the afternoon from 3:00 to 6:30 pm, and on Sundays from 8:00 am to noon and 4:00 pm to 8:00 pm.
If you need a break after visiting the Cathédral, a few minutes walk away, at at 6 Rue Port de Castets, is Kitchen DADA, where you can have a coffee and snack, or a simple lunch with a gastronomic touch like a sautéed pork with mustard and homemade mashed potatoes, mushrooms with walnut oil and a vanilla crème brûlée.
Built in the 12th-century near the cathedra, was once the official residence of the governors of the city, belongs to the military and is not open to the public.
The Jardin botanique des Remparts, located at the Avenue du 11 Novembre and Allée de Tarride, near the city hall, is only open from April 17 to October 13 in 2018.
Sitting on the right bank of the Adour River, this citadel-fortress overlooking place Paul Bert and Petit Bayonne, was built by Vauban as part of the reorganization of the defensive system along the Spanish border. Part of the Basque Museum (in Petit Bayonne), it can only be visited on special occasions, like the National Day of Patrimony, he third weekend of September.
Inside the Grand Bayonne one can still see the oldest structures in the city, the so called “tower of the old meat shop”, the only remaining part of the Roman defensive wall, dating from the 4th-century. In the 12th-century the wall, which extended to the river Nive, was covered in native yellow stone, and in the 16th-century became part of the work undertaken by Vauban to improve the cities defenses.
Like its counterparts in Biarritz and Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Bayonne’s covered market at 2, Quai du Commandant Roquebert, opened in 1994, is the center of activity. Sitting on the banks of the Nive River, it’s 22 shops offer fresh produce and regional products, and are open daily until 1:30 pm. It’s also where you will find our favorite breakfast stop when staying in Grand Bayonne, Chez Pantxo Le Bistrot des Halles.
The outdoor farmers’ market day at Les Halles is Saturday. Other public markets in Bayonne are Place de la République, Place du Marquisat Blvd Jean d’Amou and Place du Polo (Fridays), Place des Gascons (Wednesdays and Fridays) and Rue Sainte Catherine (Sundays).
You can cross the Adour River from Petit Bayonne using the Pont Saint-Esprit to this neighborhood that was once part of Gascony. Here you will find the 19th-century Beaux-Arts style train station, Gare de Bayonne. The 16th-century Citadel de Bayonne, considered a Vauban masterpiece, sits behind the rail station, but is not open to the public. Nearby is L’Atelier du Chocolate workshop (see below). The St-Esprit quarter became the Sephardic Jewish ghetto because Grand Bayonne was, at that time, off-limits for residence by non-Catholics.
For traditional Basque handicrafts, linens, hand painted ceramic dish ware, music, bèrets, you’ll find them all under one roof at Atmosphere Basques, at 21 Rue de Luc, which intersects rue d’Espagne.
Monsieur Léoncini is one of the remaining three artisans who still hand make the famed makhilas, the Basque walking stick with concealed dagger. His shop can be found in the old quarter of Grand Bayonne at No. 37 rue Vielle-Boucherie, near Place Montaut, the street found at the top of the rue d’Espagne. If these walking sticks strike your fancy, and you’d like to make a purchase, you can do so online from the other famed makhila maker, the Atelier Ainciart-Bergara in the village of Larressore.
For unique scents for both men and women: perfumes, lotions, soaps unique to this area, see Parfums et Senteurs du Pays Basque at 4 rue de la Salie (between Pont Marengo and Pont Pannecau). Their wares make nice gifts. There is another branch in Espelette and headquarters in La Bastide Clairence. Open Tuesday-Saturday from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm.
The famous chocolate factory, L’Atelier du Chocolate with its workshop, is at 7 Allée de Gibéléou in St-Esprit, a 20-minute walk from the train station, or about 5 minutes by taxi. Tours to the facility last 1-1/2 hours. They also have a boutique store in at 37 Rue Port Neuf. The Cazenave, founded in 1854, and next-door Daranatz chocolate shops, under the archways on rue Port Neuf, Grand Bayonne, are world famous for their chocolate creations. The former will tempt you with their famous hot chocolate, mousseux de chocolat, made by beating the chocolate with fresh farm milk, and served along with thickly buttered toast, in Limoges china decorated with tiny pink roses. The latter is known for its chocolate bonbons filled with Cointreau, Cavados and Grand Marnier. The Creole is a dark chocolate filled with rum and ganache (mixture of cream and chocolate), and the Moctezuma, is flavored with Mexican spices and orange flowers. And at 1 Rue Argenterie, you’ll find Chocolaterie Puyodebat.
Chocolate was first introduced in Bayonne by the Sephardic Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition at the beginning of the 16th-century and was an important contribution to the city. Most of the chocolate in Bayonne now comes from South America, whereas Belgian chocolate is imported from Africa. Bayonne celebrates Les Journées de Chocolate, the Chocolate Days festival, over two days in May.
You’ll find one of the best Bayonne artisan hams at the L'Atelier Pierre Ibaïalde workshop at 41 Rue des Cordeliers in Petit Bayonne. Pierre gives a demonstration then a tour of the drying room, ending with a sample of his delicious wares. Tours are free, reservations not required. The Ibaïona hams come from year old pigs fed only cereal and the ham is coated with a mixture of sea salt, garlic and ground red Espelette pepper powder before being hung to dry. As you make your way from the cathedral to rue d’Espagne to see the food shops, is the Pays Basque’s leading charcuterie, and our personal favorite, Pierre Oteiza, at 70 Rue d'Espagne, where you’ll find the finest in gourmet items (hams, cheeses, black cherry jams) plus Irouléguy wines. Open from Monday to Saturday from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm. And the charcuterie Maison Montauzer, at 17 rue de la Salie, is yet another purveyor of fine Bayonne ham.
The “petit prince” of scrumptious Basque pastries and chocolates, and European pastry champion, Thierry Bamas, has a shop, Pâtisserie BAMAS, at 83 rue d’Espagne, next to the Bar Du Palais. Other stores can be found in Anglet and Biarritz. Open Tuesday-Saturday from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm and in the afternoon from 3:00 to 7:00 pm.
There’s also a branch here of Biarritz’s Pariès at 14, rue du Port-Neuf, which is famous for its kanouga, a chocolate caramel created for the visiting Russian dukes in 1905, flavored with coffee, vanilla and hazelnut.
Before leaving Petit Bayonne, you’ll also want to stop at 52 Quai des Corsaires, next to the Basque Museum, for a sample at the Loreztia confiture shop, selling the best black cherry jams and honey in the Pays Basque. Tours are available (free) and last 45 minutes to 1 hour. Open Tuesday-Saturday from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm and again from 2:30 until 6:30 pm, and in July and August from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm.