Saturday, February 3, 2024

Savor a mid-winter break in Bayonne

A view across the Nive River is seen from the Musée Basque in Bayonne. 

Just after New Year's, we decided to break up the winter blahs with a trip to Bayonne. This beautiful city is located in the Basque region of southwest France, a 40-minute drive from the Spanish border. Our travels have taken us to the Spanish Basque region several times, but this is our first visit to France's Basque Country. There are notable differences; most prominent to us is the lack of a robust pintxo culture. 

In Spain's Basque cities, early evening is all about finding a bar (or several bars) and enjoying a selection of small snacks, called pinxtos (or pinchos), known elsewhere as tapas. Since we usually have a substantial lunch when we're traveling, these small plates are more than adequate for our evening meal. Unfortunately, there are only a few pinxto bars open during our trip as many places are closed in January. Don't worry: We eat more than enough good food while here.

Salt-cured hams hang in the atelier of Pierre Ibaialde in Bayonne.

Bayonne's most famous delicacies are ham and chocolate. On the rainier day of our visit, we reserve a tour of Pierre Ibaialde's famous Jambon de Bayonne atelier. The lecture (in French) lasts nearly an hour, ample time to hear how Jambon de Bayonne is created and what makes it special. In brief, it's where the pigs are raised, what they eat, and what curing salt is used. All elements are local. Our guide escorts us upstairs to the top floor where we see hundreds of hams in process of being salt-cured. Then, just as I think I can't see or smell any more Jambon de Bayonne, we are offered a plate of samples. Although not for everyone, I would recommend a visit to Pierre Ibaialde's place to those seeking a true ham-laden Bayonne experience.

Hot chocolate is a perfect mid-morning treat while
waiting for the rain to stop in Bayonne.

Conscious of how many sweets we ate during the holidays, we wisely avoid a tour of The Bayonne Chocolate Workshop. I'm not sure I would have had enough willpower. But we do treat ourselves to a yummy cup of hot chocolate while waiting for the rain to let up. 

I'm dazzled by the interior of Bayonne's Cathédrale Sainte-Marie.

With its vividly adorned walls and ceilings, and beautiful stained-glass windows, Bayonne's Gothic-style Cathédrale Sainte-Marie is a delightful site. The original church was damaged by fire, so the cathedral was rebuilt between 1258 and 1450. The two spires were added in the late 19th century, and there's a large cloister adjacent. Both the cathedral and the cloister are free to visit. 

Another notable stop during our trip is the DIDAM gallery. This free exposition space is located alongside the Adour River in the Saint-Esprit quarter. On show during our visit is an exhibit of war photography with bios supplied by cartoons. There are no explanations in English, but the pictures tell a compelling story. Judging by how few visitors are here, I'd call DIDAM a hidden gem.

Visitors aren't allowed at Bayonne's Château Vieux. Built to house
the city's governors, it is now a regimental officer's mess.

As the sun sets, Bayonne shines, as seen across the Adour river.

Ancient artifacts are housed at the Basque Museum in Bayonne.
The museum provides an excellent English guidebook.

The cultural highlight of our time in Bayonne is the Musée Basque et de l'Histoire de Bayonne, considered to be the Basque Country's most important cultural museum. We spend several hours here looking at examples of Basque life and exploring the history of Bayonne and its port.

Authentic furnishings are featured at Bayonne's Basque Museum.
This loom is on display at the Basque Museum in Bayonne.

As we wander around, we wonder why it took us so long
to come to the charming city of Bayonne.