Ok, I don't want to anger or upset anyone with this tip, so I won't be too detailed, but I do think that it is worth explaining some of the aspects of nationalist politics in the Basque Country. This is especially true for the northern Basque Country (i.e. Bayonne), since any information about Basque nationalist politics in the English language media is generally about the situation in the south, and specifically within the autonomous region of Euskadi. Even if there has been a resurgence in nationalist identity over the last few years in Bayonne, the same can't really be said of nationalist parties. Unlike in Donostia or Bilbao, nationalist politicians don't really give those from the national French parties a run for their money in Bayonne, and the desire for independence is largely absent from the graffiti and posters on the streets of Grande and Petite Bayonne. There are a few political organizations, like the one in the picture, but these are quite small compared to the organizations like the PNB, EA and EHAK. The one party that exclusively focuses on the north si Abertzale Batasuna, the Union of Patriots. For the most part, however, Basque identity is cultural rather than political, and the sort of street protests and violence that are frequently highlighted in the south are absent from the north.
If you're staying in Bayonne you should definitely visit nearby Biarritz. This luxurios seaside town started of as a whaling port back in the 12th century. The rich and famous started to swarm to Biarritz in the 19th century when Queen Eugenie began to come to Biarritz regularily.
Apart from enjoying the beach and the sea, you can also visit a couple of museums, like the musée de la mer.
The Synagogue of Bayonne is not a tourist attraction, and thus it is not officially open to the public. Nevertheless, Jews played a very important role in the city's history, and so it would be mistaken not to include it somehow in a review of the city's attractions. Jews from Spain and Portugal began arriving in Bayonne after the Inquisition, and with them they brought something that would make Bayonne and France world famous: chocolate. Yes, given that it was first used by the native peoples of the Americas, chocolate first entered Europe through the Iberian Peninsula and as a result of the order of expulsion by the Catholic kings and the Portuguese monarchy, it was further exported to the rest of Europe. Together with chocolate and their traditional inclination to commerce, the Sephardic Jews integrated into Bayonne, which was a thriving commercial centre, and became part of the city's social fabric. A synagogue still stands in the Saint-Esprit quarter, which is near the train station and across the Adour from Grand and Petit Bayonne. It was designed and built in 1837 by Capdeville, and across from it is a hospice for elderly Jews founded by two bankers, Rodrigues and Salazar, in 1861. You can snap a few pictures through the gate, but I would imagine that to actual see the building itself you will need to make an appointment.
"From the Mediterranean to the Atlantic"
The first time I was in Bayonne was in 1998, when I came to France/Spain with my dad and we visited the city during it's festival season, which is the beginning of August. So, when I went off on my tour of southern France and northern Spain, prompted by a slightly insane incident in Barcelona, I decided to relive the time when I was 15 and had more hair on my head and less on my chest. I was even more excited when, in Toulouse, I checked the website of the Bayonne Tourist Board and saw, I though, that I would be arriving at the start of the fêtes. Of course, either I was extremely confused or the website lied, but I ended up arriving the day after the end of the festival. This was probably quite lucky, as I wouldn't have been able to find accomodation in the extremely humid city centre, and would have been forced into some horribly gawdy beach complex in Anglet or Biarritz.
"Memories are never quite what they seem"
Like all the cities that I visited on my first vagabonding session, Bayonne was remarkably what I had remembered it to be, and then slowed revealed itself to have changed considerably - or, more likely, I discovered what I had missed the first time around. At first glance, it was still a city in which Basque heritage and language were nothing more than tourist gimmicks, and that everything was put on display in a Disney-like atmosphere to attract tourists and the curious who wanted to do something other than spend time on the beach. Over the two days that I spent in the city, however, I came to realize that, likely because of the same changes that had encouraged renewed interest in local culture elsewhere in the EU, people were genuinely interested in Basqueness, from displays of separatist politics to the large Elkar Liburudenda (bookshop) in Petit Bayonne - despite the fact that censuses during the 1990s showed only something like 10% of the population had a knowledge of the Basque language.
"Tourism trumps all"
Despite the renaissance of northern Basque culture and the political machinations that highlighted a newly aggressive autonomist movement in the North, tourism is still the mainstay of the economy here and it was extremely hard to avoid it. Bayonne left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth thanks to the plethora of tourist joints. It is rather odd that in one of the few countries where I could pass as a local thanks to my knowledge of the language, I should be forced to eat at expensive tourist trap restaurants. Granted, the food was not necessarily bad or tasteless, but when you are trying to travel on a budget it's never pleasant to find that your request for "cider" results in the waiter bringing a 10 euro bottle to the table for one. Not to mention the outrageous demand for 4 euros an hour for internet access. Despite the hassle, I will always remember Bayonne for the picturesque houses lining the quay, and conveniently repress any recollection of the Disney feel for as long as humanly possible.
For a Day Trip
This small picturesque port town is a gem for a stroll on a lazy afternoon. Free of the glitzy bustle of Biarritz, this Basque town is worth visiting if you have a day to spare. Go on a sunny day so you can really take your time wandering around the cobblestone streets of Bayonne, and take your camera! There will be plenty of photo opportunities waiting... the unique Basque houses that line the streets are what make this city so precious. If you like sunbathing, take a swimsuit too -- there's a small but nice beach that you can lay out in if you're in the mood for a little nap.