A tale of two cities: Biarritz and Bayonne

Only eight kilometres apart and proudly individual, the cities of Biarritz and Bayonne revel in their rivalry

So close and yet a world apart. Biarritz, on the dramatic Atlantic coast of southern Aquitaine, is a former whaling village that became a gracious resort and more recently also morphed into a cool surfing centre. Bayonne, just 8km inland, is an intriguing little cathedral city of wobbly old timber-frame houses and extraordinary topography, set on the confluence of two rivers: the Adour and Nive. It takes under 15 minutes to drive from the centre of one town to the other – a remarkably short journey for a striking change in atmosphere and outlook.

The residents of these cities revel in their differences – and their rivalry. All of which adds to the appeal of a visit here. It’s rugby, they’ll tell you, that most neatly illustrates their contrasts. Any Bayonne resident will admit wistfully that their team is struggling, but will add with a big smile that it has a passionately strong following. Biarritz people, on the other hand, acknowledge with some sang froid that they are much less supportive of their players, although their team is far more successful.

What the locals do share is an enormous pride in being Basque. For you’re in the heart of France’s small Pays Basque here. Its rich heritage is reflected in restaurant menus; in the language, Euskara, that is fairly widely spoken; in the fast-moving games of pelota; and in the traditionally styled houses dotted around both towns. It was this time-honoured architecture that enchanted Victor Hugo when he visited Biarritz in 1843; then a cute little harbour village. Hugo remarked that Biarritz was bound to become fashionable soon. And it did, big time.

Napoleon III famously put Biarritz on the map when, in 1855, he built his wife Eugénie a summer residence on the seafront. Constructed in the shape of an E, the lavish palace remains an iconic landmark. It became a hotel in 1893 and, complete with marble-pillared lobby and chandeliers in the lifts, Hotel du Palais still exudes an imperial air.

The best way to survey the palace and the wonderfully low-rise town around it is to head for the 1834 lighthouse, unmanned but still in service, on Pointe St-Martin, which marks the northern extremity of town – for a €2 entrance fee you can climb the tower from 2pm every afternoon. Southwards, your view extends to Rocher de la Vierge, a dramatically craggy rock offshore, linked to the town by a footbridge and adorned with a statue of the Virgin Mary. Behind it is the colourful harbour of Port des Pêcheurs from where whaling boats once set sail. It is still used by local fishermen, their nets drying beside a couple of chic restaurants that have been established at this picturesque point. Adjacent is Port Vieux, a small sandy bay where the whales were brought ashore. Come rain, frost, or throngs of summer tourists, a local group meets here every day of the year to go swimming.

There are plenty of other beach options, from little Plage Marbella, a haunt of families, in the south, to Plage Miramar in the north. Best for people watching, though, are Grande Plage off the centre of town and Côte des Basques slightly further south. For these are where you’ll see most surfing action. It was back in 1957 that Biarritz became a surfing centre: Peter Viertel, Hollywood scriptwriter and husband of Deborah Kerr, arrived then to shoot a film and brought with him surf boards from Hawaii. With its big waves, Biarritz proved ideal for the sport – and an entirely new culture developed here.

But the town is now not only France’s capital of surfing: since the late 1970s, Biarritz has also become its foremost centre for thalassotherapy, with two large institutes each catering for up to 400 people a day and offering a range of seawater therapies.

All of which is, of course, a far cry – if a short drive – from pretty Bayonne. This fascinating old port city is the capital of the French Basque people. And it is the oldest bullfighting town in the country, with its arena north of the historic centre becoming action-packed every August and September. But there’s much more besides. Bayonne is charming and quirky in equal measure: you can, for example, stay on a barge-hotel on one side of the Adour river, and eat in a barge-restaurant on the other.

Bayonne is effectively three cities in one, each part divided by water. On the right bank of the river Adour is the Saint-Esprit district. Historically part of Gascony it is culturally very different from the rest of Bayonne. It was in this area that Jews escaping the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal were allowed to settle in the early 17th century. They brought with them cocoa beans and subsequently developed a thriving business of chocolate making, for which Bayonne is still renowned.

Opposite, on a peninsula formed by the Adour and Nive rivers, is Petit Bayonne, traditionally the Basque quarter. It has latterly become Bayonne’s cultural district, and offers two outstanding museums. Set in a wonderful old Basque house, Musée Basque offers an absorbing insight into local life and history, its beautiful displays ranging from Celtic looking tombstones to rural crafts and a large section on Basque sports. One street away is a little known art treasure: the Musée Bonnat. Housed in a striking |19th-century building, it contains the amazing collection of 19th-century painter Léon Bonnat, including works by El Greco, Delacroix, Gericault and Degas.

On the other side of the Nive river is Grand Bayonne, the ancient heart of the city, which is dominated by a gracious Gothic cathedral. It is set on hill above a warren of narrow, medieval streets lined with colourful little shops. Head to Port Neuf for an appealing combination of fabulous old properties – and enticing window displays of chocolate.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

FootballGerman sparks three goals in four minutes at favourite No 10 role
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Radamel Falcao was forced to withdraw from the World Cup after undergoing surgery
premier leagueExclusive: Reds have agreement with Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Life and Style
Children at the Leytonstone branch of the Homeless Children's Aid and Adoption Society tuck into their harvest festival gifts, in October 1936
food + drinkThe harvest festival is back, but forget cans of tuna and packets of instant mash
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
New Articles
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam