48 hours in ... Bayonne and Biarritz

For a double dose of French charm twinned with a lingering Basque flavour, Cathy Packe has the perfect Pyrenean destination
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The Independent Culture
Why go now?

Like anywhere with attractions for holidaymakers, these twin towns in southwestern France are inundated with tourists during the high summer. In winter, you can appreciate the huge amount they have to offer. There can be some beautifully warm days later on in the season and in early spring.

Beam down

British Airways (0345 222111) flies three times a day from Gatwick to Bordeaux. The cheapest fare is pounds 111, but if you go out on Friday and return on Sunday it goes up to pounds 121. From Bordeaux airport, take the regular bus to the railway station and catch the train down to Bayonne; it's on the main rail line between Paris and the Spanish border, so there are regular departures, and the journey takes about two hours. Bayonne is a cheaper, and more manageable, place to stay than Biarritz, which is only a short bus ride away.

Get your bearings

Bayonne is built on a T-junction where the river Adour meets the Nive. The railway station and a few hotels are on the northern bank of the Adour, in the district known as St Esprit; the main part of the town straddles the Nive, with Grand Bayonne to the west, and Petit Bayonne to the east.

Check in

The Hotel des Basses-Pyrenees, on the Rue Tour de Sault (00 335 59 59 15 53), is a quiet spot, with en-suite rooms from 280FF a night; prices start at 150FF if you don't mind the bathroom being down the corridor. The Hotel Frantour, in the Place de la Republique in St Esprit (00 335 59 55 08 08), is also a good choice, particularly if you have a view of the river. Rooms start at 390FF for a single, and 420FF for a double.

Take a hike

Bayonne is built for wandering around, and it is small enough that there is no danger of getting lost. The houses are tall and thin, and painted in the Basque national colours of blue, dark green and reddish brown. The gabling invariably looks wobbly, but somehow the buildings manage to stay upright. Flags and slogans painted on the walls mark some areas out as the former haunts of Basque nationalists: Rue des Visitandines still has some of its old graffiti.

Lunch on the run

There are several local dishes which are ideal as a light snack. Go to the Bar du Theatre, or its neighbour, the Cafe du Theatre, where the choice will include the local pate, Basque omelettes and jambon de Bayonne, as well as piperade, a delicious mixture of tomatoes and red peppers stirred into scrambled eggs.

Cultural afternoon

Like other towns in the area, Bayonne is Basque before it is French, and displays its heritage proudly. The Basque Museum is currently being rebuilt, but part of its contents have been moved temporarily to the Chateau Neuf, in Petit Bayonne. One of the exhibitions explains the game of pelota, played in various forms for several centuries and still popular all over the region with participants and spectators alike. Played either with a long bat or a basket on a stick, it is neither squash, nor real tennis, but a unique combination of the two. If you prefer to see the real thing, the Trinquet St Andre, where many of the local matches are played, is at the end of the Rue du Jeu de Paume, a little alley near St Andre's church.

Window shopping

Save your money for a splurge in Biarritz, or wander through the wide, low-ceilinged arcades of Grand Bayonne. Both Cazenave and Daranatz in the Rue du Port Neuf sell home-made chocolates, should you find yourself in need of a snack or a small gift to take home.

An aperitif

The local drink is izarra, a herby concoction allegedly made from 100 Pyrenean flowers. You can visit the distillery on the Quai Bergeret for a free tasting, or pay for a glass at the Victor Hugo bar at the junction of the Rue Victor Hugo and the Quai Dubourdieu. An alternative drink might be the more Spanish sangria, which is popular in the region.

Demure dinner

There are several fancy restaurants in Bayonne, which serve classic French and Basque dishes. But as long as you don't insist on white table cloths, you could have more fun at the Restaurant La Cueva, a tiny place with room for a couple of dozen people on the Quai des Corsaires. There are hams and strings of garlic hanging up, and jugs of sangria on the bar; the menu has a choice of Basque specialities; and the wine is all local.

Sunday morning: take a ride

Take a trip to Biarritz, where you can combine religion, history and culture with a gust of sea air. Bus No 4 leaves regularly from the Place de la Liberte in Bayonne, and takes you along the coast as far as the Biarritz casino. Don't be tempted to get off too early: even when you reach the lighthouse, there is still a long way to go!

Go to church

Unfortunately, the anglican church of St Andrew, in the Rue Broquedis, and now used as a local history museum, is closed on Sundays. But the Russian church of Alexander Nevsky, on the Avenue de l'Imperatrice, originally built for the aristocracy who holidayed here before the revolution, is worth a look, and has a service every Sunday morning.

Bracing brunch

There are several places to eat (and drink) in the Place Ste Eugenie, the nicest being the Baleine Bleue. Below you is the old port, one of the few parts of Biarritz which might still be described as quaint. If you want to be closer to the water, go down to Le Corsaire, a tapas bar which overlooks the beach as well as the port.

A walk in Biarritz

The town of Biarritz is a modern jumble, the centre of which consists of nothing but hotels, designer shops and real estate agents. It is redeemed by its stunning natural position and the splendour of the old clifftop villas, built in the days when bathing had only just become fashionable, and you were more likely to spread your towel out next to an emperor than a package tourist. Walk from the old port, which sticks out into the Bay of Biscay, and continue round the Plage de la Cote des Basques, now a mecca for surfers and those who want to avoid the crowds. If you go along far enough the path starts to zigzag upwards to rejoin the town.

The icing on the cake

If you really want to spoil yourself, check out the Hotel du Palais, now a deluxe hotel but originally a family home, and the birthplace of the Empress Eugenie. If you aren't sure how to pay for it, you could always try your luck at the Casino, which is just along the seafront.