Basking in Basque Country

We live between a river and a canal and we can easily walk to either one but our house doesn’t have a water view. When we go out of town, therefore, we like to stay in a vacation rental or hotel that gives us that vista we are missing at home. Since the city of Bayonne is located at the confluence of the Nive and Adour rivers and if you follow that latter one a little further to the west you’ll reach the Atlantic Ocean where the beaches of Biarritz sit a few kilometers south, it was going to be easy enough to find a suitable view. That was especially true for this trip since going to a summer resort in the winter meant that there was little competition for space. Because it offered better train connections we chose Bayonne from where we were able to take day trips and still get back each evening to peer out at the passing boats below.

Chateau Vieux

When I first looked at a map of the city that would be our homebase for a few days, the place names seemed to offer a lot of contrasts: Big, Little, Old Castle, New Castle, Port Street (without a port) and the Gate of Spain in this French town. Since the Tourist Office walking tour suggested starting at the Chateau Vieux (Old Castle), that was a logical spot to begin our first day. Given that 2000 years ago the Romans had extensive outposts all over this country it was no surprise to find that the fortress we were standing in front of had been built in the 12th century upon 1000-year-old foundations. What we found even more interesting was the list of dignitaries who had been entertained there starting in 1193 with Richard the Lionhearted, followed by Catherine de Médicis, King Louis XIV, and then Napoleon in 1808. Like so many military buildings in France that have stood for centuries, this one is still in use so we could only admire it from the outside. That was also true with the younger Chateau Neuf (New Castle) built initially in 1462 by English King Edward I and later expanded by French King Charles VII after this country’s victory in the Hundred Year’s War.

Rue Port Neuf

To get from one castle to the other we had to cross over rue Port Neuf (New Port Street) called that because it sits upon a filled-in canal that did indeed lead to the port. In the arcades that line the route are several chocolate shops including the workshop L’Atelier du Chocolat where we learned how Jewish artisans fleeing the Inquisition in Portugal and Spain brought their skills here to France in 1609. 


Walking further down this former canal we arrived at the Cathedral of Notre Dame where reconstruction was begun in 1258 after a fire damaged the much earlier building. The attached cloisters are impressive, being one of the largest in the country. 

Port d’Espagne

As the French say, it was only “two steps” from there to the ramparts that have been in place since Roman times with some of their towers and walls still standing. These fortifications were reinforced over the centuries, beginning in the Middle Ages, because of being so close to the Spanish border. That proximity explains the name of our next stop: Porte d’Espagne (Gate of Spain). This was the fortified entrance to the ramparts that gives access to rue d’Espagne that the Romans incorporated in their roadway to Spain. Today it’s a pedestrian shopping and dining street.

Nive riverside

The designations of Grand et Petit (Big and Little) Bayonne seem to have evolved simply to distinguish the older part of town from the newer with the Old and New Castles discussed above being one example. To get a classic view of Basque architecture we walked along both sides of the Nive River to see the narrow, stone and half-timbered facades of both Grand and Petit Bayonne. 

Villa Belza

In nearby Biarritz, about 30 minutes by Tram’bus, it’s all about the beaches as you might expect at this Atlantic Ocean resort that was once just a small fishing port. It is said that Napoleon came here in 1808 to “take the waters” to be followed by the rich and famous including Victor Hugo and Emperice Beatrice, wife of Napoleon III, who spent many summers there in the palace that now is a grand hotel. Other frequent visitors whose names we recognized included Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, and Coco Chanel who had both a boutique and home there in 1915. Although Bill and I didn’t notice any celebrities we still enjoyed walking along the seafront and strolling the elegant boulevards and squares, some of which you can see in the second gallery photos below.

If you go: Although Biarritz has a train station, it’s located about a 45-minute walk from the beach and town center. Instead, we bought a 24-hour pass for the area’s mass transit system for 2.20 € and rode the Tram’bus from downtown Bayonne to within a block of the sea.

For the curious: The city of Bayonne, New Jersey apparently was not named for its French cousin that we just visited but was a real estate promotional description of its location being “on two bays”, according to Royden Page Whitcomb’s book, “First History of Bayonne, New Jersey”.

5 thoughts on “Basking in Basque Country

  1. We have friends who go to Biarritz every year for a small break. They always recommend it highly. Almost anywhere by the ocean is fine with me! Some great photos here. Thanks for sharing, as always. Another place to tick off the ever-expanding list.

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