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Why go now?
The capital of the French Basque country is an intriguing place, part-French, part-Spanish, but with a distinctive atmosphere of its own
Over the next few weeks the city will be at its summer best, without the crowds who flock in for the peak season. But if you hang on until July you can choose from more flights, and enjoy the Bayonne Festival (29 July-2 August), where one of the events – bull racing through the streets – mirrors the San Fermin festivities south of the border in Pamplona.
The local airport is officially known as Biarritz, but is located only five miles west of Bayonne. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com ) flies daily from Stansted, and three times a week from Birmingham; easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com ) flies weekly from Bristol, and from 6 July to 13 September the airline will also fly four times a week from Gatwick.
Bus 6 (or, on Sundays, bus C) connects the airport with the centre of Bayonne. Buy your €1.50 ticket from the driver. At the moment the bus ends its journey at the Town Hall (1); when the main bridge, damaged when the river broke its banks in February, is repaired, it will continue as far as the railway station (2).
A combination of Eurostar and TGV will get you from London St Pancras to Bayonne, with a change in Paris, in about nine hours. The lowest fare is £109, but these are hard to find; a more typical return fare is about £200 through agencies such as Rail Europe (08448 484 064; raileurope.co.uk ).
Get your bearings
The centre of Bayonne consists of three main areas, with a regional boundary dividing two of them from the other. The old centre, or Grand Bayonne, is separated from the more traditionally Basque quarter, Petit Bayonne by the river Nive. Both are part of France's Basque region, and are separated from the Saint-Esprit district – technically part of Gascony – by the river Adour. The districts are connected by a number of bridges, and the whole town is dominated by the Cathedral of Notre-Dame (3), located at the highest point in the city and visible from everywhere in Bayonne.
The moderately unhelpful tourist office (4) is in the Place des Basques (00 33 8 20 42 64 64; bayonne-tourisme.com ). It opens 9am-6.30pm from Monday to Friday, 10am-6pm on Saturdays.
For a fascinating stay, book into one of the two spacious cabins on the Peniche Djebelle (5), a pleasantly appointed barge moored on the Saint-Esprit side of the Adour river on Quai Lesseps (00 33 5 59 25 77 18; djebelle.com ). Each cabin is a double with its own facilities, and costs €140 including breakfast.
The best of a limited bunch of mainland accommodation is the Hotel Loustau (6) – a long-established, if slightly faded, establishment in an excellent location beside the Adour at 1 Place de la Republique (00 33 5 59 55 08 08; hotel-loustau.com ), close to the railway station and with excellent views of the cathedral. Doubles are available from €100, singles from €93; breakfast is €12 per person.
The Grand Hotel (7) occupies a central location at 21 rue Thiers (00 33 5 59 59 62 00; legrandhotelbayonne.com ). When it first opened its doors in 1830 it was a hotel for women only; that rule has long since been abandoned. Double rooms are available from €75, singles from €69; breakfast is €13.
Take a hike
Begin an exploration of Grand Bayonne at Porte d'Espagne (8), an important entry point to the town in medieval times. Opposite, look out for the remains of the walls built to protect Lapurdun, as the Roman settlement was known. Head down Rue d'Espagne, the main Roman road, taking a detour to the right to admire the Place la Plachotte (9), a glorious mixture of architecture from several centuries, and the place where the restoration of Bayonne began. The trio of Basque houses on the north side, with their half-timbered façades and paintwork in the traditional colours of red, green and blue, are a symbol of the town
Further on, the Place Pasteur (10) was the site of the town's gallows. Take a detour up to the old castle (11), built by the English in the 12th century on the site of the old Roman castrum. Then head down the Rue Port-Neuf with its attractive arcades; this street was once a canal.
The neo-classical building at the bottom serves as both the Town Hall (1) and the theatre; when it was built in the 19th century it was also the customs house.
Lunch on the run
La Verbena (12) (00 33 5 59 25 58 33) is a pretty spot in the corner of Les Halles, Bayonne's covered market place. It has a terrace on the waterfront, with a pleasant room inside if the weather is chilly. The plat du jour costs €8.
Bayonne's biggest store is Galeries Lafayette (13) at 28-30 Rue Thiers, which opens 9.30am-7.30pm daily except Sunday. For an interesting selection of boutiques, selling everything from crafts to clothing, wander down Rue d'Espagne, where 20 new shops have opened since the street was pedestrianised recently.
Chocolate is a local fav-ourite; it was introduced by the Jews who came to Bayonne from Spain and Portugal during the 16th century and has been a mainstay of the local economy ever since. Look out for local chocolatiers such as Daranatz, Paries and Cazenave.
A walk in the park
A charming botanic garden (14) has been created in part of Bayonne's 17th-century fortifications between the postern gate and Avenue de Pampelune. Among its features are a bright red Japanese-style bridge over a pool stocked with fish and turtles; all the plants are clearly labelled. The garden opens 9.30am-noon and 2-6pm Tuesday to Saturday from mid-April to mid-October.
Tapas bars, so popular over on the Spanish side of the border, are beginning to filter into France. The oldest of Bayonne's bodegas – cellars – is Ibaia (15) at 45 Quai Jaureguiberry (00 33 5 59 59 86 66), where a choice of local wines is accompanied by an imaginative and reasonably-priced selection of snacks. Txotx, the bar next door (00 33 5 59 59 16 80; cheztxotxsidreria.com ), is also worth checking out.
Dining with the locals
The hottest dinner ticket in town is at Talaia (16), a barge moored at Quai Pedros (00 33 5 59 44 08 84; talaia.fr ). Since the restaurant opened in the spring, the locally sourced, seasonal food and contemporary décor have proved so popular that reservations are essential at weekends. The menu is creative, some dishes traditional but given a modern interpretation. And with main courses priced at €15-18, a memorable meal need not break the bank.
Sunday morning: Go to church
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame (3) was built from the 13th century, on the site of an earlier building destroyed by fire. It opens 7.45am-6.45pm daily (closed 12.30-2pm on Saturdays). The Gothic cloister attached is one of the largest in France. Its origins are unclear, but it was once a focal point for the town, serving as a meeting place for the council as well as for merchants and ordinary citizens.
Out to Brunch
The residents of Bayonne don't tend to go out to eat until lunchtime, although the Bar du Théâtre (17) at 1 Place de la Liberté (00 33 5 59 25 57 42) will serve you juice, coffee and a croissant for €5.50 any time after 7am. For a more serious meal, wait until noon then go to Ttipia (18), a cider restaurant at 27 rue des Cordeliers (00 33 5 59 46 13 31; ttipia.364.fr ). Sit at one of the long wooden tables and choose from dishes with typical Basque ingredients such as cod and sheep's cheese, washed down with a choice of cider: fruity from the French side of the border, drier from Spain.
Stay in Petit Bayonne and continue an exploration of the true Basque culture. The Musée Basque (19) at 37 Quai des Corsaires (00 33 5 59 59 08 98; musee-basque.com ) is located in an old Basque house, and contains some fascinating exhibits on the customs of the region: agricultural tools, costumes and reconstructions of Basque life are all part of the displays. The museum opens 10am-6.30pm daily except Monday (and every day in July and August); €5.50, with free admission on the first Sunday in each month.
The game of pelota is an obsession among Basques on both sides of the border, and there are often opportunities to see the game being played on the pelota court (20) at 1 rue du Jeu de Paume. Courts always have a bar and cafe attached – in this case the Brasserie du Trinquet Saint-Andre (00 33 5 59 25 76 81; brasserie-saint-andre.fr ). Even if no one is playing, ask at the bar if you can take a look at the court.
Write a postcard
Select a card from those on sale at the Musée Bonnat (21) – perhaps the portrait by Degas of the museum's founder, Leon Bonnat. This fine-art gallery occupies an attractive building, purpose-built in the late 19th century, at 5 rue Jacques Laffitte (00 33 5 59 59 08 52; museebonnat.bayonne.fr )
Bonnat was a local artist who received a grant from the town to help with his studies; he showed his gratitude by donating his collection to Bayonne. It contains works by Dürer, Ingres and others, but the highlight is a room of sketches by Rubens towards the end of his career. The museum opens 10am-6.30pm daily from May to October, 10am-12.30pm and 2-6pm daily except Tuesday during the rest of the year; admission €5.50.Reuse content