Confession time! We are travelling again but nothing exotic planned. No dodgy former Soviet republics or (hopefully) suicidal taxi drivers. For the next few months it’s all about food, wine, walking.
First stop: Bayonne.
Situated at the confluence of the Nive and Adour Rivers near France’s south Atlantic Coast, Bayonne has a lovely historical heart firmly reflective of its mixed Basque/French history.
Grande Bayonne is the commercial centre of the historical area, with the Town Hall, former castle (closed to the public) and shops.
From the 12th to the 14th century, French pilgrims heading to the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, Spain’s famous pilgrim route, diverted through Bayonne as the established coastal route was under attack from Vikings.
The pilgrimage honours St James, who was martyred by be-heading, so a fresco in Sainte Marie Cathedral reminds pilgrims of his noble demise.
Across the river, the Petite Bayonne neighbourhood is filled with small bars and restaurants lining the quai and scattered through the back streets.
And further along, slender Basque style houses remain.
Bayonne doesn’t have iconic tourist draws. Aside from the general ambience of its old town, the real reason to come here is the food. Bayonne is famous for two things – chocolate and ham.
The Spanish conquistadors introduced the cocoa bean to Europe in the 1500s. A mania for drinking chocolate, and then chocolate bars, took hold. Recognising its commercial potential, the Spanish tried to keep chocolate production methods secret. So secret that when English pirates raided a Spanish merchant ship half a century later, they jettisoned its cargo of cocoa beans, thinking it was dried sheep poo.
Inevitably, the truth got out. And in the 1700s, Sephardic Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition settled in Bayonne, bringing cocoa beans with them and establishing one of the first major chocolate producing centres outside Spain. At one time, there were more chocolate producers in Bayonne than in the whole of Switzerland.
There are still at least three chocolatiers in Bayonne who’ve been in business for more than 200 years, still using essentially the original techniques. Delicious chocolate, sold in shops which are more like salons from a long past era.
As for the ham, it allegedly all started with Gaston Febus, Count of Foix in the 14th century, whom history describes as an “enlightened despot” who “had a passion for hunting and owned a thousand hunting dogs”. According to local legend, on one such expedition he shot a pig, which ran off wounded. Clearly the thousand hunting dogs weren’t enough, since the pig could not be found. A year later, it was discovered in a nearby salt water pool, perfectly preserved. Thus locals discovered the luscious taste of, and technique to produce, Bayonne ham. Unlikely, but a good story.
Ham hangs in charcuteries all through the old town.
It’s sometimes called French prosciutto, although the Italians would probably protest. It’s drier and milder in flavour than it’s closest geographical cousin, Spanish jamon iberico. Pairs perfectly with a few mild chillies and a glass of cider.
As part of the French Basque region, cider is front and centre in Bayonne. A visit to a traditional cidrerie was mandatory. Here you will be served the traditional meal – salt cod omelette, fish, steak, and a hard goat cheese with fruit jam and fresh walnuts to finish. Its accompanied by unlimited cider which diners serve themselves from enormous cider vats.
The cider is meant to be aerated on its journey from tap to glass. In the Basque language it’s called txox, apparently the sound made when the vat is tapped. Experts – and those with very long arms – can turn on the tap at the top of the barrel and capture the stream of cider in a glass in their other hand down as close as possible to the copper pot on the floor.
Here’s a photo we found on the internet of someone doing it the correct way.
Non-experts attempting this are liable to wear more cider than they catch in their glass. A Basque in-joke at the expense of outsiders, perhaps? But absolutely a fun night out.
Regular readers will know how much Julie loves to try any wacky local liquor, regardless of how despicable it may turn out to be. In The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway’s protagonist, Jake, is persuaded by a barman in Bayonne to try a local liqueur, Izarra. He is unimpressed. “It looked like hair oil and smelled like Italian Strega” [a herbal liqueur based on mint, fennel and saffron].
We decided to hunt some out. Invented in 1906 just south of here, it may have been all the rage in Hemingway’s time, but nowadays it’s difficult to find. John was not surprised, commenting that with a write-up like that, most likely no local in their right mind still drinks it.
Turns out it’s a distillate of 17 plants including nutmeg, coriander seeds and leaves, fennel, angelica seeds and root, celery, balsam, elderflower, black caraway, wild thyme, cardamom, green aniseed, wormwood, lemon balm, peppermint and cinnamon. In other words, whatever the creator found while out strolling in the countryside. Once distilled, it’s blended with a mixture of walnut husks and prunes which have themselves been macerated for several months in pure spirit.
Sounds dreadful, but actually it was quite drinkable and not a hint of hair oil about it!
With all that eating and drinking, we needed to get some exercise so we caught a bus to the coast where the Sentier Littoral (quite literally, the Coastal Path) runs for 25km from north of the town of Bidart south to Hendaye near the Spanish border.
The sea was a magnificent blue and the path passed a memorial to those lost in WWII in the form of traditional Basque headstones.
Then through the village of Guethary.
From here, what was once a series of small coastal villages has become a continuous strip of holiday homes and apartments with camping grounds behind and little seafood cafes in front.
After about 12km we reached our destination for the day, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a fishing town at the mouth of the Nivelle River. Its historical claim to fame is as the town in which King Louis XIV married Marie-Therese of Spain in 1660 thus ending the 24 year long Franco-Spanish War. It wasn’t a love match – they’d not even met – but it brought peace for a while.
It is said that Louis only bathed twice in his life, having been advised by his physicians that bathing was bad for his health. The smell was apparently atrocious. Nevertheless, Marie-Therese bore him six children, although one of them was black, so maybe there’s another story there.
Saint-Jean-de-Luz treasures that history, with both the church and the house where Marie-Therese stayed before the wedding preserved as national monuments.
But in modern times Saint-Jean is more famous as a resort town known for its “architecture, sandy bay, the quality of the light and its cuisine”.
The town beach is a fine 3km sweep of sand, sheltered and perfect for families.
Whilst the beachfront is lined with modern apartments, the historic centre behind is still charming.
We returned next day to walk the remainder of the Coastal Path, from Saint-Jean to Hendaye. It’s festival season in the south. Bayonne was gearing up for its annual Fetes de Bayonne, a week long street party culminating in a running of the bulls and weekend of bullfighting. In Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a cultural festival was also in progress.
There’s still a small fishing fleet based at the tiny harbour here.
Across the river, the twin town of Cibourne is another popular beach resort.
South of Cibourne, the path has been diverted away from the cliffs, which are now considered unstable due to erosion, through a forested natural reserve.
It was very pleasant and walkers get a close up view of Chateau Abbadia which was built in the 1860s by Antoine Abbadia, an eccentric Irish-born French explorer, astronomer, geographer and linguist who spoke eight languages and was famous – in France – for his travels in Ethiopia.
His father was Basque and despite his eclectic studies and extensive travels, he considered himself a Basque at heart. On his death in 1897, he bequeathed the chateau to the Academy of Science on condition they produce a catalogue of half a million stars within fifty years, with the work to be carried out by members of religious orders.
The Academy still owns it, so we guess they managed to find enough astrologically inclined monks and nuns with time on their hands to complete the task.
The path continues on past the chateau and ends at Hendaye.
To architecture buffs, Hendaye is known as the birthplace of Neo-Basque, a modern style of housing referencing the Basque tradition of white houses with coloured half timbering.
And also for the Old Croiserie Casino. Built in 1884, it is the only building of its era in the region constructed in Arabic style.
For everyone else, Hendaye is best known as another Basque seaside town loved by sun-seeking Parisiennes in the summer. It is indeed a fine sand beach.
At one end, two rock formations rise incongruously from the sea. According to local folklore, a basajuan (a Bigfoot-like creature which lives in the Pyrenees) attempted to throw a huge rock from the mountains to destroy the town of Bayonne. Instead, he tripped and dropped the rock, which split in two and landed in the bay at Hendaye.
Lucky for Bayonne!
As for us, next stop is over the Spanish border to San Sebastián.