If you are going on a cruise that calls in Bayonne, there are two things worth remembering: Try the ham, and don’t forget to sample the chocolate.
That’s not to say that you need to be an epicurean to visit this French city on the Atlantic coast, but if there are two things that this destination is famous for it is Jambon de Bayonne and chocolate. Chocolates have been manufactured here for 500 years, and the salted and dried ham is the outcome of a craftsmanship that is more than 1,000 years old, according to local producers.
To put things into perspective, this means that the production of the world-famous ham started only 100 years or so after a Viking army launched an attack against the town. The intention of the Vikings was to establish a port that would become a key destination on their trade- and war expeditions to southern countries.
The Vikings left, eventually, but the city would have to endure more belligerent times over the following centuries. The citadel and the impressive fortifications, built in the 17th century, still stand to tell visitors about times gone by. In fact, you will find traces from as far back in history as Roman times: Bayonne was once a Roman military camp – a castrum – known under the name Lapurdum.
The city sits at the confluence of the Nive and Adour rivers, divided by the Nive into Grand Bayonne and Petit Bayonne. Five bridges connect the two neighborhoods.
While the city itself is not situated by the sea, one of the closest neighbours is Biarritz – a true paradise for holidaymakers from around the world.
The economic and commercial capital of the Basque part of France, Bayonne is part of ‘BAB’ (Bayonne-Anglet-Biarritz) – a metropolitan area of almost 200,000 people.
Cruise ships dock close to the city center, allowing for easy access for cruise passengers who wish to experience the city on their own.
- The Cathédrale Sainte-Marie (the Cathedral of Saint Mary) overlooks the Adour and Nive rivers from the top of a hill at the heart of the Old Town. The construction of the present Cathedral was started in the mid-thirteenth century and ended in the early 16th century, after fires had destroyed two earlier churches built on the same spot (in 1258 and 1310).
- From the Château Vieux, or the Old Castle, the city’s governors could transport themselves quite conveniently to the city’s Cathedral. One of the more famous rulers was England’s Edward of Woodstock, commonly known as the Black Prince. He governed Bayonne in the mid-1300s.
- Founded in 1922, the Musée Basque is quite unique. There is no other museum in France that is dedicated to Basque culture. The museum with its more than 2 000 individual artifacts is an indispensable experience for anyone who wants to get close to this region of France.
- The Musée Bonnat was built in 1901 with the purpose to host the art collection once belonging to Léon Bonnat, a French painter who was predominantly active during the 19th century. It is now considered one of the most interesting museums in France, featuring paintings by masters such as Rubens, Le Gréco, Murillo and Goya. A part of the museum is dedicated to archaeology.
- Other cities are perhaps more well-known for their chocolates, but there are those who place Bayonne at the very top when it comes to pralines. Many of the city’s chocolatiers serve chocolate the way it used to be served two or three centuries ago: hot and homemade. It was Portuguese Jews fleeing from the inquisition who transformed the city into France’s chocolate capital. Find out more at the Chocolate Workshop.
- Consider taking a tour on the Adour River for a fascinating view of the Basque countryside
- Bayonne has its own bullring, proving that it’s not only the Spanish who are amused by spectacles like these.
- Situated atop a bastion, the city’s botanical garden is worth a visit.
- Coach tours can include both Bayonne itself and one or several of the small towns that surround the city, such as Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Ainhoa or, quite naturally, Biarritz.
- On the other side of the Spanish border, virtually, you will find San Sebástian – a city that many European potentates have chosen for their summer holidays.
- Another possibility on shore excursions from Bayonne is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.
Paris, the capital of France, is situated some 480 miles/770 kilometers from Bayonne. The high-speed train (TGV) connection to and from southernmost France, on the Spanish border, calls at Bayonne. Madrid, is closer: the distance to Spain’s capital is 310 miles/500 kilometers.