We loved our family holiday in France’s Pays Basque region – on France’s southwestern Atlantic coast. While there, we explored many interesting Basque cities and towns – and Bayonne was a great place to wander for a day during our travels.
Bayonne, slightly north and inland from Biarritz , is worth a visit when you’re in then region. At the edge of the Adour River and straddling the smaller Nive River, Bayonne’s wealth grew alongside its importance as a shipping and trade port, one which neighbored Spain.
Its culture benefited from numerous influences. It was a British stronghold, until becoming part of France in 1451. Many Jewish refugees settled here during the Spanish Inquisition, and helped develop trade in the town as it grew increasingly important as a port city for goods coming to Europe from the New World.
Until the 17th century, Bayonne was criss-crossed by canals, but these were filled in during the 1600s, transforming into the winding streets we enjoyed wandering during our visit.
The Nive Embankment, with its colorful houses that used to store goods arriving from the Americas or fish from nearby fishing fleets, is now a lively area with restaurants and cafes. There is also a impressive covered market alongside the embankment.
The 14th century Gothic Saint Marie cathedral also merits a visit. Its twin spires are the town’s most familiar landmark – and a useful point of reference. Like many churches in the area, Saint Marie was an important stopping point along the pilgrimage to Spain’s Santiago de Compostela.
I had wanted to visit Bayonne’s impressive Bonnat Museum, which includes some works by Degas, Rubens, Goya, El Greco and other Masters, most of which were collected by the town’s native son, the artist Leon Bonnat (1822-1922). The collection includes many of Bonnat’s paintings and society portraits.
Sadly, I discovered then museum was closed for renovations, though, truth be told, the rest of the family was not as devastated by this misfortune as I was. At the very least, it provides me with a great excuse to get back.
We enjoyed our day in charming Bayonne, and those elegant buildings and streets reminding us of its heyday as an important port city.