Overview of Bayonne, France
Located at the northernmost point of the French Basque Country where the Nive and Adour Rivers meet, is the urban center of Bayonne (“Baiona” in Basque). Although the city is not very large, it comprises part of the overall BAB cosmopolitan area which consists of neighboring Anglet and the beach resort town of Biarritz (8 km away). All together the BAB area is home to almost 200,000 inhabitants.
Even though Bayonne is technically a city, it is void of the stress normally associated with cities and feels more like a large town. A stroll along the Nive River which separates the two main neighborhoods of the city, Grand Bayonne & Petit Bayonne, is both beautiful and relaxing. The buildings are decorated in a lovely mixture of Basque and French architecture, each adorned with colorful wooden shutters. Both sides along the water 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 has been well positioned for commerce. The city grew with help from the whaling and cod industries, as well as Basque sailors who returned with spices and riches from far off lands. This influx of money helped finance many of the city’s building, including the massive gothic cathedral.
Because of Bayonne’s commercial importance and its close proximity to Spain (aprox. 30 km away), the city features many fortified structures. Most of the original wall that surrounded the city is gone but it is 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.
Bayonne's Top Things to Do & See
Grand Bayonne is the more commercial part of town but also the ancient heart. There, you will find the Saint Marie Cathedral, which dominates the city’s skyline. The construction of this gothic cathedral started in 1213 and wasn’t finished until the 17th century (with exception of the north tower, finished in the 19th century). Alongside the cathedral is the cloister, which dates back to 1240 and features a flamboyant gothic style. The cloister is one of the largest in all of France.
Not far from the cathedral, you will find the Château-Vieux (“Old Castle”). Built in the 12th century by the Viscounts of Labourd, this was originally the official residence of the governors of the city (including Edward, the black prince). Today it still belongs to the military and is therefore not open to the public.
The impressive Town Hall of Bayonne (“La Mairie” or “L’Hôtel de Ville” in French) 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 in the roof represent the economic and artistic activities of the city. Today, 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.
By the Nive River you will find the covered market of Bayonne called “Les Halles”. This is the perfect place for discovering all the local produce that Bayonne has to offer. You will find meat, fish and a couple of bakeries, where you can try the tasty gâteau Basque (“Basque cake”). The market and its surroundings are especially busy on Saturday mornings, when local producers and clothing traders gather there for an open-air market.
Bayonne also has a botanical garden, called Jardin Botanique, which occupies an extension of 3000 m2 and is located at the Avenue du 11 Novembre (next to the tourism 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 neighborhood and enjoying its architecture, in Petit Bayonne, you can visit the Basque Museum (Musée basque et de l’histoire de Bayonne). Founded in 1922, it contains a nice collection of Basque and local French history. It is located in a small palace from the 16th century called “maison Dagourette.”
Another interesting museum located in this same neighborhood is the Bonnat Museum. It is named after the local realist painter, Léon Bonnat, whose own work makes up most of the main collection. There are however, other paintings from famous artists such as Botticelly, Rafael and Rembrandt. Due to renovations, the museum closed in April 2011 and is planning to reopen in 2014.
Sitting in the highest point of Petit Bayonne you will find the Château-Neuf (“new castle”) built in the 15th century by Charles IV. This massive building now belongs to the university and is 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 that had escaped from the Spanish Inquisition during the beginning of the 17th century. The Jews contributed much to Bayonne’s growth. One of the most important of these contributions was the introduction of Chocolate. It 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 that can be visited. For more information, see the section below about “Local Products.”
In the 17th century, Vauban, who was the chief military engineer under Louis XIV, ordered the construction of the citadel and further fortifications. The citadel is a large square with four bastions. While still intact today, it belongs to the French Army and is not open to the public. It can be best viewed from the bridge called Pont Saint-Esprit.
Fetes de Bayonne & Bullfighting
Bayonne is well known for having one of the longest traditions of bull fighting in France. The bull fighting season runs from July to September with the biggest events taking place during the city’s local festival, called the Fêtes de Bayonne. Fêtes de Bayonne is the French version of Pamplona’s San Fermin (think Running of the Bulls and Hemingway) and attracts more then one million visitors annually, making it the largest festival in all of France.
Local Products from Bayonne
Chocolate was originally brought by the Sephardi Jews who fled Spain during the Spanish Inquisition and it still enjoys a strong presence. If you just want to sample some of the chocolate, you will find multiple stores around town (especially in the street called Rue Port-Neuf). Nevertheless, if you are really into chocolate, you may be interested into visiting “L’atelier du Chocolat” located on the outskirts of the St. Esprit neighborhood (you need a car or taxi to get there). Besides being able to sample the chocolate, you can also learn about the history of chocolate and discover a collection of antique machinery.
Every year, during the Feast of Ascension holiday weekend, Bayonne celebrates its Chocolate Days (“Les Journées du Chocolat”). On 2014 this celebration will take place the 30th and 31st of May.
Bayonne ham is a cured ham seasoned with peppers from the nearby town of Espelette. You will be able to try it at any bar or restaurant in town. It is also possible to visit the ham producer Pierre Ibaialde (tours only in French) located in the heart of Petit Bayonne.
During the Eastern holiday weekend, Bayonne also celebrates the Ham Fair (“Foire au Jambon” in French) in the market of the city.
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Get In & Around
While Bayonne is a small place and all touristic attractions can be reached by foot, there are some bus lines in the city operated by STAB.
Arriving to Bayonne
PLANE – The airport of Biarritz is 7 kilometers away. There is one bus (Chronoplus line C) every half an hour connecting the airport with Bayonne (less often on Sundays and public holidays). The trip takes about 30 minutes.
CAR – Bayonne is located close to the intersection of the A63 (Bordeaux - Spanish border) and A64 (Bayonne - Tolouse) highways.
BUS – The bus station of Bayonne is located in the Rue de l'Escanet, right next to the train station. Eurolines is the main company with buses departing from the bus station. However, be aware that some bus companies leave from different locations such as the train station itself or the Place des Basques.
There are several day connections to Biarritz, Anglet and other nearby locations. The main bus companies are ATCRB and Chronoplus.
TRAIN – The train station of Bayonne is located in the Saint-Esprit neighborhood, right next to the bridge. The high-speed line (TGV) between Paris and Hendaye stops in Bayonne, taking around 5 h. There are also regional train services along the Basque coast and through Labourd and Lower Navarre to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
If you are going to or coming from Spain, you will probably have to change trains in Hendaye.