The Atlantic coast: Bayonne & Saint-Jean-de-Luz

Hidden in the sprawling conurbation of holiday homes, campsites and beach communities surrounding Biarritz is the medieval gem of Gascony, Bayonne.

This incredibly pretty port town has the river Nives as its main street which separates the two similar areas of Grand and Petit Bayonne.

Cathédrale Sainte-Marie rises high above the city

Tall half-timbered and colourful houses line the river on both sides and the narrow twisting streets are home to boutiques, restaurants and the gothic cathedral in Grande Bayonne and alley after alley of tiny neighbourhood bars and eateries in Petit Bayonne.

The Vidauban designed town walls are fully intact and butt up to the wide river Adour, on which modern Bayonne port is busy.

Market stalls line the river walls and bridges

The town is famous for whaling (introduced by the Basque community and highly lucrative in the Middle Ages), armaments (giving the world the name ‘bayonet’) and chocolate (originally produced in the Jewish ghetto by refugees fleeing persecution in Spain in the 1600s).

A sampling was called for so we chose a chocolaterie staffed by a charming girl who would happily have allowed us to try everything in the shop before eventually settling on a slab of dark chocolate with ginger and caramel.

Atelier du chocolat

Armed with our market produce, we found our bus back to the aire at Biarritz, where we feasted on garlic steamed clams in a crème fraiche and cheese sauce, served with the hunk of fresh bread we had lugged back from the market.

Our dozen or so Basque neighbours were cooking the fish they had caught during the day on open fire barbecues, something ignored by the local police as they came to check the pay and display tickets. The few remaining French people on the aire kept their distance from the group and only ventured past to cock a snook.

Meanwhile, young Basque girls were dressed up and had bleached their hair blonde for Saturday night. We lit a candle, gave up reading and enjoyed their traditional folk music, played on pipes, guitars and anything that resembled a drum. 

Enjoying the sunshine on La Grande Plage, Saint-Jean-de-Luz

Moving towards the border with Spain we planned a short visit to Saint-Jean-de-Luz. This gorgeous white Basque town has a wide sandy beach and a colourful port and quay. It was the site of the wedding of Louis XIV to the Spanish Infanta Maria Teresa and the town built a grand house for each of them together with the touching Cathedral of St Jean Baptiste.

Inside its roof in the style of the hull of a ship and its carved three storey wooden balconies made us think of the seafaring churches further up the Atlantic coast at Honfleur. We peered at the magnificently gloomy altarpiece until someone switched the lights on and a gorgeous baroque display of gold and cherubs and saints came to life against a sea of blue.

Le port de Saint-Jean-de-Luz

It was lovely to see the town busy with French Dad’s being spoilt by their sons and daughters. We found a telephone box in the heart of the old town to call home to wish our old boys a Happy Father’s Day.

It was just after 6pm and there was still heat in the sun as we cycled uphill back to the campsite, La Ferme Erromardie, a gem at just €14 a night.

Before we had left for the day we had done our weekly wash and had left our clothes drying in the hot sun. What looked like a derelict beach restaurant directly in front of Bertha was now in full swing, belching oily fishy smells our way!

We created some cooking aromas of our own and grilled up some Iberico ham, Merguez and Basque chicken and chomped the local treats with crushed garlic potatoes.

Bertha in Saint-Jean-de-Luz

Thankfully, we saw Saint-Jean-de-Luz in the sunshine before heavy rain and wind poured themselves off the sea and onto us for three days.

It was time to batten down and take stock of our trip, so nearly ended. The bonus of wifi meant we could finally do some writing and update the blog.

Sunset over the Atlantic…before the storms came in!