17-18 October 2019
It is a pleasant, slightly misty, train ride through southwestern France. We arrive in Bayonne, a smallish city situated where the rivers Nive from the south and the wider Adour from the Atlantic meet. Just above the train station are the remains of the historic citadel, our hotel is just across the street. We have entered Basque country and look forward to local cuisine.
Having lived in Bakersfield, California many years, I am familiar with Basque. The Basque, with their own unique language and culture, came from a region straddling the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain. They emigrated to the Old Kern/Sumner Street area of Bakersfield, some as early as 1893. The men were sheep herders, hand ball (pelote) players, and, thankfully, great cooks. Several Basque restaurants were opened and continue to thrive: Wool Growers, Pyrenees Café, Chalet Basque, and Noriega’s who still serve dinner in the traditional family style. I don’t miss Bakersfield, but I do miss Basque restaurants.
To sit at a Basque table meant a lot of food and camaraderie. Starters were delicious vegetable soup topped with beans and salsa; terrific green salad; tomato salad; spaghetti; pickled tongue and bread. Chicken, lamb chops or oxtail stew were my favorite entrees. Basque are generous with the garlic and a table red wine which, I am sure, comes from a big barrel in back. The second glass is always much tastier. One ends dinner with blue cheese or sherbet. My mouth waters just thinking about these gastronomic delights.
Bayonne is a medieval city of narrow streets and many half-timber houses, ornate iron balconies and colorful wooden shutters. This is French Basque country. For our introduction, we walk to the Musée Basque in the Petit Bayonne district along the Nive.
The Musée Basque focuses on the Basque culture, their arts, architecture and language. Both sides of the Pyrenees are represented – Spanish and French. The museum and its collections are housed in an early 17th century mansion, one of the oldest in the city. Paintings, crafts, descriptions of domestic life, and regional history are shown but explanations are not in English. A booklet guide is not much help. There are thousands of objects on display and several paintings and sculptures from such masters as Goya, El Greco and Degas. Artist Etcheverry is also featured and is a common name for the Basque who moved to Bakersfield.
Bayonne was the capital of this region as early as 1023. By the 12th century, its first bridge was built and the city grew beyond the Nive to encompass the land north of the Adour. The English took over in 1152 as Eleanor of Aquitaine became the queen consort of France and England when she married Henry II of England. (She had to wait until her annulment to Louis VII of France before she could marry Henry, her 3rd cousin and 11 years younger.) Eleanor was quite a “cougar” in her time and was recognized as one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in western Europe.
The city became both militarily and commercially important thanks to maritime trade. Eleanor’s son Richard the Lion Heart dominated the scene by 1177. By 1451 the city was taken back into the royal control of France after the Hundred Years’ War. Yes, these conflicts did last over 100 years, from 1337 to 1453 to be exact. The war between the dynasties of England and France marked the height of chivalrous knighthood and what must have been endless lifelong arguments between the two countries.
Bayonne has seen many conflicts through the years. Some brought prosperity. When the Jews were expelled from Spain by the Catholic Monarchs (Isabella and Ferdinand) they brought with them their chocolate, now a staple of those who visit. In 1814, Napoleon’s troops battled troops of the Duke of Wellington but I can’t say “Napoleon slept here” as he was further north and ready to abdicate. It was about 14 months later that Napoleon met the Duke at Waterloo.
The ramparts of Bayonne remain, as does the citadel above the city. Narrow streets meander among shops, landmark towers, cafes and stores. The architecture and half-timbered houses add charm to the mostly pedestrian streets. Not only wine shops, but a bunch of butcher shops can be visited. Bayonne is known for jambon (cured ham), which is boneless, mild and tender.
Streets also lead to the wonderful Sainte-Marie or Bayonne Cathedral which was begun in the 13th century with construction continuing into the 17th century. The two ornate spires are from the 19th century. There is an unusual knocker on the door, called the “ring of asylum” which supposedly gave asylum to any criminal who could reach the ring.
Medieval cloisters, stained-glass windows and the colorful interior is stunning. Several chapels behind the apse have restored paintings, brightly colored columns and ceilings in their original green, red and gold patterns. The relics of Saint Leo, a 9th century Bishop of Bayonne, are in the cathedral’s crypt. Also, the gothic cathedral stands on the famous Pilgrimage Way of Santiago de Compostela and has been included on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
But women cannot live by cathedrals and museums alone. We search for traditional Basque food. We choose to dine at the Restaurant Talotegi, a small family operated restaurant on Rue des Tonneliers. It is a short menu written on a small chalkboard. The presentation and cuisine are simple – meat or fish. We choose a beef steak and “boudin noir” which turns out to be a tasty blood pudding and baked apples. Both are quite good as is the accompanying glasses of Rioja wine.
The jet-set, surfer-dude seaside city of Biarritz is but five miles west.
Though misty and cloudy, we take the all-electric Black bus to the coastal town of Biarritz. (The train station is not as centrally located; more energetic people than I could walk the five miles.) Biarritz, other than hosting a recent G7 Summit, is known for its ancient port and sea walls, views, balmy weather and cafes. We could visit a city museum or another old church, but instead we choose a kickback day.
Biarritz is an old whaling port. Napoleon III’s wife, the Empress Eugénie, fell in love with the area and view and convinced her hubby to build a summer home overlooking the Atlantic and its fantastic sunsets. More recently, an American screenwriter (Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”) was visiting in the 1950’s, fell in love with the surf, had his California surfboard shipped over and took to the waves. Both people obviously appreciated the views, sunsets, surf and sand. And left lasting marks on the town.
One probably should visit La Chapelle Impériale built in 1864 for the Empress Eugenia. The chapel shows a Spanish-Moorish influence with beautiful ceramic tiles and mosaics. Its wooden blue and gold ceiling shine. The chapel is dedicated to the Mexican black Virgin, Our Lady of Guadalupe. Unfortunately, visiting days are very limited.
A small but sheltered beach, the Plage du Port Vieux, is to the south; rough and tumble waves are to the north. Low sea walls shelter a modest harbor for small boats for the use of the local fishermen was ordered by Eugenia’s hubby Napoleon III. The shoreline is dotted with rocks. Early whalers and fisherman must have had a rough time reaching this safe haven. The old fishermen cottages now harbor restaurants. And in between are the beautiful, expansive sands of La Grande Plage.
A wooden bridge, also ordered by Napoleon III, reaches the Rocher de la Vierge, a rocky outcrop extending into the Bay of Biarritz and from which one can have a wonderful view up and down the coast. Today, the walkway is closed. Atop the rock is a statue of the Virgin Mary. I can see a faint outline of the Pyrenees Mountains far to the south. A tall lighthouse dominates the opposite point of the bay.
The large church Notre-Dame-du Rocher-Sainte-Eugénie stands atop the highest point in Biarritz probably commanding the best view of the surrounding coast. It is not named for Empress Eugenia but for her namesake. The interior chapels are quite nice. An odd little sailing ship hangs from its ceiling and a tall surf board leans in a corner.
The surf board is a memento from the 2019 Biarritz Quiksilver Maïder Arosteguy, a longboard pro-surfing competition held here in April. It was created in 1984, making it the oldest surfing competition in Europe. At least 250 surfers from across Europe compete on the Grande Plage’s waves in Biarritz.
There is over 4 miles of coastline one can walk before being halted at the mouth of the River Adour. This is a gorgeous, warm, restful, but windy shoreline dotted with shops, cafes and a few brave souls still enjoying the sands and waves in mid-October. There is a plethora of cafes and restaurants from which to choose. Casinos, grand hotels, shopping, golf courses can be seen. Wine flows. Food abounds.
We choose the Grande Plage Café, kick back, order some Champagne, and celebrate the view.
Life is good.