After leaving Paris and stopping over in Tours for an aimless wander around, we camped over in the town of Dax. From there we took a 40 minute drive south to check out Bayonne. This is pretty much Basque Country. I had been to Bayonne years before and remembered it as being a cool place. It feels really open near the main city bridge, Saint-Esprit and the city also has some lovely narrow lanes to explore in contrast.
If you’re travelling north to south, you’ll immediately notice that buildings are different here. To signal that you’ve entered Basque Country, there are plenty of shutters, mostly painted red. In fact, throughout the town, you’ll spot the national colours of red and green. Buildings are built less with grey stone (as in Bordeaux) and are more simple: plastered and painted in pastel tones. The half-timbered houses add to the atmosphere. Bayonne is a popular destination because of its location. It is quite close to the Pyrenees and close to the coast at the same time. But that’s not all, Bayonne is also well-known throughout France for a variety of delicious food.
Getting to Bayonne
The city of Bayonne is very well connected and the train station is quite central. Apparently there are free bicycles on loan and I think the city offers a free shuttle service as well. You’ll be surprised to know that Bayonne even has its own airport. If you like to get to the beach while you’re nearby, Biarritz is a short drive away.
I think we drove in to Bayonne through the A63 and found a parking garage near the station. Sometimes paying for parking in a garage is just quicker and easier (although then you do have to navigate the garage and find the elusive pay stations etc.). If you’re coming into Bayonne from a northerly direction or from the train station, you’ll most likely walk over the beautiful Saint-Esprit bridge that spans the Ardour River and is decorated with lots of different flags.
From the bridge you could continue straight a for a while and then turn left towards the cathedral (you’ll see the 2 steeples sticking out over the rest of the city). Sainte-Marie Cathedral is free to visit, like most churches in France. It was constructed in about the 12th century but the towers were only completed in the 19th century. It’s definitely worth a visit, especially to see the cloisters.
On to the food! Jambon du Bayonne is well known throughout France as the best ham ever. Perhaps that’s just proudly nationalistic (I confess, I am a Francophile), but you should definitely give it taste. I’ll let you in on a secret though: You’ll find the ham all over supermarkets in France so you don’t need to travel to Bayonne just to get it.
The ham is similar to prosciutto crudo in that it’s also a dry cured ham, but it has a unique flavour. During the curing process, some Piment d’Espelette paste is rubbed into the skin. Piment d’Espelette is a very delicious and popular pepper grown in this part of France (more on that in another post!). The leg of ham is cured for at least ten months before being sold. By the time it reaches you and I, it is often already cut into very thin, almost-transparent slices.
If you’re a big foodie, you might want to check out the annual ham festival, Foire au Jambon which has been held every holy Thursday for the last 550 years (usually at the end of March)!
The best chocolate
Another thing to put on your tasting list is chocolate! Back in the times of the Spanish Inquisition, Jews fleeing from Spain and Portugal formed a small community in Bayonne. They brought their chocolate-making know-how with them and started making delicious chocolate in Bayonne. The area has been known for great chocolate ever since. One place to treat your taste-buds is the gourmet chocolate shop, Atelier du Chocolate. It is a chain that you’ll find in Bordeau and small towns like Saint-Jean-de-Luz. If it’s a cold and rainy day, be sure to try their amazing hot chocolate.
Other things to do
If you’d like to know more about the ham, you can check out the free 45 minute tour at Pierre Ibaialde, Artisan du Jambon. The tour starts at 14:15 everyday except for Saturday and Sunday. The city also has a botanical garden and a Basque Museum (which was closed when I was there).
A Walking Tour
I made a small walking tour for you which starts at the train station, heads by Atelier du Chocolat, Cathédrale Sainte-Marie du Bayonne and then onto Pierre Ibaialde. See it on Google maps here.