Gently sloping from the Pyrenees’ western foothills into the deep sapphire-blue Bay of Biscay, the Basque Country is an unspoiled part of the world. Straddling both France and Spain, the French Basques have their ‘capital’ in Bayonne, the region’s cultural and economic powerhouse. Its authentically preserved old town is a marvel – bisected by bridges arching over its confluence of rivers. Bayonne is both a fascinating destination in its own right and the ideal base from which to explore the lush green valleys of the Cote Basque.
The Basque Country boasts a remarkable history – recent DNA testing has shown that the Basque people have inhabited the region for at least 30,000 years. The only people in Europe to have remained in the area for so long. According to linguists, their language and culture are utterly fascinating – according to linguists, Euskara, the Basque language, is unrelated to any other tongue on earth. It is spoken by over 1 million people in France and Spain today, a testament to the high esteem in which the Basques hold their culture and traditions.
However, the early history of the region is shrouded in mystery. Although Roman sources mention a tribe called the Vascones living in the area, it is suggested that the Basques took over what is now southwestern France in the 6th century. The Romans conquered France in the 1st century AD, yet they never managed to subjugate the area fully and the Basques were able to shelter in the mountains and continue to survive by fishing in the ocean. Meanwhile, France remained under Roman control until the 5th century – during the collapse of the western empire, the Franks and the Alemanni invaded and eventually overran the country from the east.
The Frankish Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties ruled France from the 5th to the 10th centuries, with the Carolingians wielding power from Laon in northern France. It was a tumultuous period in French history, and relatively little is known about Bayonne during this period. The Frankish tradition, by which the King was succeeded by all of his sons, led to massive power struggles and the eventual disintegration of the kingdom into small feudal states. Bayonne’s salvation came in 1152, when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry of Anjou, bringing a third of France – including Bayonne – under English control. As a port of growing importance, Bayonne was granted considerable commercial privileges, and the burgeoning city prospered from the trade-in Bordeaux wines and products such as ham from which Bayonne is now massively famous. It became a major center for shipbuilding and trade with England, and northern Europe flourished – a golden age indeed.
During the Hundred Years War between French and English forces (allied with the Dukes of Burgundy), Jean de Dunois, a former ally of Joan of Arc, captured Bayonne in 1451 and annexed it for the French Crown. After that successive kings of France added fortifications to the city to protect it from incursions from the Spanish border.
The 16th century was a time of great religious and social upheaval for the citizens of France. At the beginning of the century, the plague arrived in the Basque Country; by 1518, cases were being recorded in nearby St-Jean de Luz, and the Bayonne council forbade any contact with citizens of the neighboring town. Subsequently, in 1519 the city council moved out of the city to avoid infection. Yet compared to most of Europe, the impact of the plague was minimal, and far more people died in northern France, particularly in Paris, for example.
Meanwhile, the Reformation was sweeping through Europe. The ideas of John Calvin strengthened it in France; following the Edict of Jan (1562), which afforded the Protestants certain rights, the Wars of Religion broke out between the Huguenots (French Protestants) and the Catholic League and Monarchy. Yet Bayonne seemed relatively untroubled by the conflict and continued to prosper as a major fishing and trading port.
Social and economic crises marked the 18th century, yet for the citizens of Bayonne, this was generally a prosperous era. The city’s wealth was fuelled by Basque privateers, who landed cargoes much more valuable and sweeter scented than the tonnes of cod caught off the coast of Newfoundland by the substantial Basque fishing fleet. Yet France was rife with political tensions and conflict, culminating in the declaration of the First Republic in 1792 and the abolition of the Monarchy. Louis XVI was publicly guillotined in January 1793 on Paris’ Place de la Concorde, and the head of his queen, the vilified Marie-Antoinette, rolled several months later.
However, the First Republic was not to last. In 1799, a dashing young Corsican general named Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the government and declared himself consul of the First Empire. To consolidate and legitimize his authority, Napoleon waged several wars in Europe, the most damaging to Bayonne being the Peninsula War (1807-1814). After invading Portugal in alliance with the Spanish, Napoleon turned on his former ally and fought against UK and Portugal for the control of the peninsula. The invasion destroyed the Spanish government of the time and caused much bloodshed, not to mention economic upheaval. Bayonne, as a significant trading partner with Spain, suffered greatly and was the setting for the Siege of Bayonne, which marked the end of the period with the surrender of Napoleon’s troops under the control of Marshal Jean de Die Soult, who was defeated by Wellington in 1814.
The second half of the 19th century saw prosperity return to the citizens of Bayonne. In 1854 French railways connected the Basque region to Paris, and tourists poured into the glamorous resort of Biarritz. Yet Bayonne never enjoyed the same renown, instead of focusing its energy on developing a lucrative steel industry. At the same time, in 1856, The Treaty of Bayonne finally settled disputes over the Spanish/French border.
The 20th century would be marked by the horrors of the 1st and 2nd World Wars. Over 700 of Bayonne’s citizens perished in the trenches of northeastern France. Subsequently, the naming of Adolf Hitler as Germany’s chancellor in 1933 signaled the end of a decade of compromise between France and Germany. Initially, the French tried to appease Hitler, but two days after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, France joined Britain in declaring war on Germany. By June 1940, France had capitulated, and the country was divided between Nazi-occupied Northern France and the puppet state called Vichy France. During the war, Bayonne was occupied by a Nazi Panzer division, finally defeated in 1944. It was a dark period for France – the Vichy regime was notoriously anti-semitic, and local police proved very helpful to the Nazis in rounding up French Jews and others for deportation to Auschwitz and other death camps.
Yet Bayonne has emerged from the horrors of the 2nd World War and is today a fitting symbol of Basque pride and culture. Of course, it lacks the sheen and glamour of Biarritz, but then Bayonne has never been interested in making a scene. Its charms lie in its authenticity, atmosphere, and the wonderfully preserved historic center; until 1907, it was forbidden to build outside of the city’s fortifications, resulting in the narrow, curved streets of Petit Bayonne, with riverside buildings adorned with red and green shutters and shoals of riverside restaurants. And although you can cross the architecturally preserved center on foot in 15 minutes, it is far better to spend hours discovering its hidden laneways and remnants of a fascinating past. For a dose of excitement, Basque culture, and high-class gastronomy, this lively university town is hard to beat.
Gastronomy & Wine
There are many reasons to visit l’Hexagone, as this six-sided nation calls itself, but food and drink must surely be the best one. The Basque Country has long been renowned for its contribution to high-end gastronomy. In essence, there is even a museum dedicated to the culinary arts in the village of Llodio in Spain, and gastronomic societies abound across the region. There are substantial differences between the French and Spanish Basque culinary traditions; txakoli, the crisp dry white that is ubiquitous in Bilbao’s tapas bars, is rarely seen in France, while Gateau Basque is definitely a Cote Basque institution.
But what unites Basques on both sides of the border is a love of seafood and only the freshest, seasonal ingredients. An abundance of delicious fish and seafood awaits the discerning gastronome in Bayonne, including oysters, mussels, spider crab, hake, baby squid, octopus, sea bass, sea bream – the possibilities are endless. Among the essential ingredients of Basque cooking are the deep-red chilies that add an extra bite to many of the region’s dishes, including the dusting on the locally prepared Bayonne ham. The French Basques are very proud of their signature ham, and with good reason – it is among the finest in Europe. The meat must come from one of the eight clearly defined breeds of pig reared in the region, and the production methods are strictly controlled. After slaughter, the meat must be cured and aged for a minimum of 7 months, with most top examples being aged for up to 10 months before sale. The result is utterly exquisite: Bayonne ham is typically slightly sweet, with a very subtle flavor and aroma that is a match made in heaven with a glass of Champagne. Cheese lovers will also want to search out Ossau-Iraty, a wonderfully creamy and pungent cheese produced in the Irati forest from sheep’s milk.
Aficionados of all things sweet are also catered for in Bayonne; Basques love cakes and patisserie, the most popular being Gateau Basque, a layer cake filled with cream or cherry jam. However, it is artisan chocolate that makes Bayonne a special destination for confectionary lovers. Indeed, the city played a decisive role in spreading the cocoa confection through Europe, thanks to its proximity to Spain, where Spanish conquistadors first brought cacao beans upon their return from the Americas. The chocolatier business was started by Jews fleeing persecution in Spain and Portugal, who turned Bayonne into one of the chocolate capitals of Europe. Rue Port Neuf, the pedestrian “chocolate street” where many of the town’s oldest chocolate makers have their shops, is, therefore, an essential part of your itinerary.
The only thing the Cote Basque ‘lacks’ to an extent is wine – there are no major areas to rival the prestige of Bordeaux and Burgundy. However, the region of Irouléguy is increasingly celebrated for its aromatic whites and robust reds. Tannat and Madiran are widely planted, while Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng form the backbone of the whites. Of course, any decent restaurant in Bayonne will have a list covering the whole of France, from St-Emilion to Champagne.
The city’s 17th-century fortifications are now covered with grass and dotted with trees, enveloping Bayonne’s center in a tranquil green belt that begs to be explored. Visitors should also walk the stretches of the old ramparts that rise above boulevard Rempart Lachepaillet and rue Tour de Sault.
The twin towers of Bayonne’s Gothic Cathedral are magnificent, soaring above the city with an imposing grace and presence. Construction began in the 13th century, and was completed in 1451; the mismatched materials almost resemble Lego blocks. The stained-glass windows are particularly beautiful and date back to the mid-16th century.
One of Bayonne’s most excellent museums, the Bonnat, is crammed with treasures including canvases by El Greco, Goya, Ingres and Degas, and a roomful of works by Rubens.
If you’re searching for the quintessential Basque seaside town with atmospheric narrow streets and an abundance of excellent restaurants, then look no further. St-Jean de Luz is uniquely stylish, proud, and fun-loving, a testament to the considerable allure of the beautiful Cote Basque.