Bayonne is located in the department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques in the region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine. This is in the French part of the Basque Country at the confluence of the rivers Adour and Nive. With about 52,000 inhabitants, Bayonne is the second largest city in the department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques behind Pau.
The city is best known for its Basque culture and architecture. Bayonne's most picturesque neighborhood stretches along the Nive River, where one is occasionally reminded of a Basque Amsterdam. Bayonne is also the home of chocolatiers and the famous Bayonne ham.
The city center of Bayonne, "Baiona" in Basque language, is located at the northernmost point of the French Basque Country, where the Nive and Adour rivers meet. The city itself is not particularly large, but together with neighboring Anglet and the seaside resort of Biarritz, 8 km away, it forms the BAB community with a population of around 200,000.
Bayonne is officially a city. We have not noticed anything of metropolitan stress and feel more like in a (big) village. We take a first walk along the Nive, which separates the two main quarters of the city, Grand Bayonne and Petit Bayonne. This little walk is as beautiful as it is relaxing for us. The houses are a mix of Basque and French architecture and all decorated with colorful wooden beams. On both sides of the river, bars and restaurants line up, inviting you to linger and enjoy.
Due to the Adour, which flows into the Bay of Biscay, Bayonne gained great importance as a trading and transshipment center. The whaling and cod industries based here allowed the city to grow. Basque sailors returned to Bayonne with rare spices and other expensive goods from distant lands. The influx of money financed the construction of most of the city's buildings and that of the massive Gothic cathedral.
Many Jews fled to Bayonne to escape the Spanish Inquisition and also contributed to the growth of the city. The importation of cocoa, which was used to make chocolate that would later be found throughout France, added another important contribution to the city's economic growth. Today there are still many chocolatiers in Bayonne, some of which we plan to visit on our next trip.
The important position in trade and the proximity to Spain (about 30 km) are the reason for the many fortifications of the city. Most of the original city wall has disappeared today, but you can still find some remains of it here and there when wandering through the streets of Bayonne. Other examples of the city's defensive structures include the Porte d’Espagne, the Château-Neuf, the Château-Vieux and the Citadel. Unfortunately, most of the fortifications are closed to visitors, but you can admire them from the outside and we will try to maybe get a little peek "behind the scenes" on our next trip.
Besides walking through the streets of this beautiful neighborhood and enjoying its excellent architecture, you can visit the Basque Museum (Musée basque et de l'histoire de Bayonne). Founded in 1922, it contains a beautiful collection of Basque and local French history. It is located in a small 16th century town palace, the "Maison Dagourette".
Another interesting museum is located in the same neighborhood: the Bonnat Museum. It bears the name of the local realist painter Léon Bonnat, whose work makes up the main part of the collection. However, there are also other paintings by such famous masters as Botticelli, Raphael and Rembrandt. Due to renovation, the museum is closed since April 2011.
At the highest point of Petit Bayonne you will find the Château-Neuf (the New Castle), built in the 15th century by Charles IV. The massive castle is now owned by the university and unfortunately closed to visitors.
Grand Bayonne is the busier part of the city, with the old town center. There we find Saint Marie Cathedral, which dominates the skyline of the city and served us like a leeward tower for orientation. Construction of the Gothic cathedral began in 1213 and was not completed until the 17th century, with the north tower even being completed in the 19th century. Next to the cathedral is the monastery, whose history dates back to 1240, built in the Gothic Flamboyant style and is one of the largest in France.
Not far from the cathedral we come across the Château-Vieux (the Old Castle). Built in the 12th century by the Vicomtes of Labourd, it was originally the official residence of the governor in the city. Today it still belongs to the military and is therefore closed to visitors.
The impressive Bayonne City Hall ("La Mairie" or "L'Hôtel de Ville") is located at the confluence of the Nive and Adour rivers. The building was built in 1843 in neoclassical style and originally housed the customs office. The six statues on the roof embody the economic and artistic ventures of the city. Today, in addition to the town hall, the building houses a theater and a café with a pretty terrace in the town hall square.
On the banks of the Nive we find "Les Halles". This is the perfect place to discover all the regional specialties that Bayonne offers. Meat, fish and some bakeries can be found here, and especially the delicious Basque cake, the "Gâteau Basque", always generates a bad conscience. The market and its immediate surroundings are very busy, especially on weekends. Then the regional manufacturers and clothing dealers also come together in the open air.
Two products are typical of Bayonne and both have been produced in the city since the Middle Ages: Bayonne ham and chocolate.
Bayonne ham is cured, air-dried and seasoned with pepper. It comes from the nearby town of Espelette. You can find it in every bar and restaurant in town. You can also visit the ham maker Pierre Ibaialde in the heart of Petit Bayonne.
During Easter celebrations, Bayonne also hosts a ham fair, the "Foire au Jambon," in the city's marketplace.
The second specialty of Bayonne is chocolate, which originally came to the city through Sephardic Jews. To taste chocolate, there are chocolateries on almost every corner of the city - especially in the Rue Port-Neuf. If you're really interested in chocolate, you should visit the "Atelier du Chocolat", which is located in the St. Esprit district (and which we have on our "to-do" list for the next trip). Besides a chocolate tasting, there's a lot about the history of chocolate, as well as a collection of old tools and machines.
Every year during the Ascension Day holiday weekend, Bayonne celebrates its Chocolate Days ("Les Journées du Chocolat").