The Gascon Language
I’ve often referred to Bayonne as a Basque city, but that’s really only half true – it is officially a trilingual city, where French, Basque and Gascon (the western-most dialect that makes up he Occitan continuum) coexist. In practice, French is the overwhelmingly dominant language. Everyone speaks its, and it can be used pretty much everywhere and anywhere. In the past, Basque and Gascon coexisted in the city – Gascony traditionally lies to the north of the city, while Euskadi is to the south. For various reasons, Basque is sort of the dominant force in terms of regional cultures and revivals, and this is most noticeable during the fêtes de Bayonne, when everyone gets done-up in red, white and green, the traditional colours of the Basque flag. It’s not just thanks to the tourist industry that Basque has more of an advantage over Gascon; after all, Basque culture and language can be distinguished from French with much greater ease than Gascon. More than that, Basque culture in the city benefits from the movements to the south, where there are 24-hour Basque language TV stations, profitable publishing houses, standardized curricula and massive political machines all designed to revive Basque as a viable language of day-to-day usage. Gascon doesn’t have the same sort of advantages, but it is slowly being recognized and fostered in the city. You can see Gascon on various municipal signs, in the Musée Basque and in a few plaques commemorating famous residents of the city who used the language. Still, if you’re looking for actual materials to slate your thirst for learning more about this language, you’ll have to go out towards Pau or Bordeaux, as they are few and far between in Bayonne.
Le Château Vieux
If you wander about Grande Bayonne, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that the town was once quite an important military and trading outpost, likely because of its proximity to Spain and also because it was at the foothills of the Pyrénées, an area that long defied official attempts at quashing smuggling. There are still some military installations in use by the French army, but most of them have been converted into parks and monuments for the enjoyment of the population. The Château Vieux is, unfortunately, one of those buildings that has been retained by the military, so you cannot simply look around the building or see its interior. You'll notice the warning signs at the gate. Still, you can enjoy the architecture of this Mediaeval fort and the atmosphere it lends to the surrounding park. It was constructed in the 12th century, when Bayonne was entering its golden age fuelled by commerce, and was in fact erected on the site of an old Roman castle - obviously, the military genius of the Romans was something that the Mediaeval Gascon were not willing to dispute. Various modifications were obviously made throughout the ages, and the fort has had important roles to play, including during the Napoleonic Wars which saw the French invasion of Spain in the early 1800s and the responding expulsion of Napoleonic forces, likely in part through Bayonne, by combined British, Spanish and Portuguese troops.
The Église Saint-André might very well be considered something that is off the beaten track, except that it is right below the massive Château Neuf in Petite Bayonne and so pretty hard to miss if you were attracted to that site. I arrived at it because I was wandering around Petite Bayonne looking for an internet café (there appear to be absolutely none in Bayonne). The church was built in the 1850s and 1860s, when neo-Gothic churches were all the rage, especially those modelled on the famous Notre-Dame de Paris. Saint-André has the feeling of a modern place of worship that is not of great historical significance, and it generally isn't, except that it contains a very large organ, commissioned by Napoleon III, and also that it has a scene by Léon Bonnat. Some of the stained glass inside the church is pretty, but on the whole I would really only suggest that you visit this church as part of a general walking tour of Petite Bayonne, and not seek to go to it specifically.
The Nive is the second, smaller river that runs through Bayonne and that splits Petit Bayonne off from Grand Bayonne. In fact, Bayonne is where the Nive ceases to be a separate river, as the city is at the confluence of this river and the Adour. The Nive is an entirely Basque river: it originates above Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (Donebane Garazi) and flows down to Bayonne, passing thround Nafarroa Behera and Lapurdi. In Bayonne, the quays along the Nive provide a picturesque setting for restaurants (some of which are quite good, others not so much) as well as some shops and the Musée Basque. The Pont Marengo crosses the Nive to connect the two parts of Bayonne.
In the heart of the Cote Basque
I like Bayonne! It is not as ritzy and glamorous as Biarritz, or has a nice sandy beach like St. Jean du luz. I can take a stroll along the two rivers, or in one of the many gardens. The town has a lot of characters. Do not forget to try out the chocolate and ham. There are a lot of restaurants and pastry shops all over town. Every August, they even have bullfights (do they kill the bulls in France?).