www.bayonne-tourisme.com. For visitors heading south, this is the first real contact with Basque country. Some 5 km inland from the Golfe de Gascogne, Bayonne is the capital of the Pays Basques clustered around the confluence of the Rivers Ardour and Nive, with a deep-water port and attractive small-town atmosphere.
Bayonne’s history begins with the Roman settlement of Lapurdam. In the 12thC, the city transferred to English hands under the terms of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s dowry on her marriage to Henry II, and prospered under English rule, developing into a successful centre of the wine trade. Harshly treated when the French regained control in 1451, the city’s fortunes rose again in the 18thC on the strength of its locally-produced bayonets. Today, aircraft parts and concrete are the main local industries.
The narrow, shady streets of the town centre are pleasantly tourist-free. On the west bank of the Nive, Grand Bayonne is the central shopping area leading up to the Cathédrale de Sainte-Marie. Built in the 13th-16thC in the northern-Gothic style (the twin towers that rise above the town were not completed until the l9thC), the well-worn building has some lovely 16thC glass, French and English coats-of-arms in the nave, and a peaceful grassy cloister.
Cross the Nive by one of the connecting bridges to Petit Bayonne for the museum and restaurant quarter with its tall, Basque-style half-timbered facades and picturesque frontispiece of arcaded houses on the quayside. The Musée Basque, rue Marengo, www.musee-basque.com, makes a fascinating introduction to local crafts and folklore (currently closed for renovations). For an unexpected treat, stop off at the Musée Bonnat, rue Jacques-Lafitte, built around native l9thC society artist Léon Bonnat’s fine personal collection. Bonnat had a say in designing the interior, and you start at the top with some marvellous Italian Primitives and Renaissance works, Rubens sketches, and a smooth Spanish Baigneuse by Ingres. Among the bronzes and Géricault’s equine studies, look out for Bonnat’s Self-Portrait, and his carefully observed portraits on the ground floor.
Midweek and Saturday markets take place on tine quays. To sample a pelota game, head for the Trinquet Saint-André on Thursdays (4 pm). There are bullfights in August and September; and a jazz festival in July.
See also The Basque Coast.