Recently I went on another trip to one of my favourite places, Biarritz in the South West of France. Whilst there, we realised there was a big festival on in the neighbouring town of Bayonne. (I’d only ever known Bayonne for its ham before!) What we didn’t realise was that this is in fact the third biggest festival in the world (after Rio Carnival and the Pamplona Festival) with around a million visitors. The Bayonne Festival has become known as France’s wildest party! How had I never heard about this event?
Les fêtes de Bayonne runs for 5 days at the end of July (Weds-Sun) and is a celebration of all things Basque. It is opened by and presided over by Rio Léon who starts the festival at midday each day. We couldn’t be this close to such an event and not go so we decided to spend an afternoon there. Everybody at the Bayonne Festival dresses in the traditional Basque colours of red and white. We found scarves and belts (sold in all the gift shops in Biarritz for a few euros) and entered into the spirit in our outfits!
We got the direct bus from Biarritz for €1 and the journey lasted approximately 20 minutes. The bus dropped us right outside the entrance and we headed into the ticket office to purchase our wristbands. The festival used to be free to attend but for the first time, they’ve started charging this year. For €8 you get a wristband to enter the festival but this lasts all 5 days so you can come and go as your please throughout the duration.
We walked in through the gates and were immediately hit with all the sights and sounds of Les Fêtes de Bayonne. There was a funfair, musicians, marching bands and street performances. And so many people…everywhere you looked people were enjoying themselves outside in the sunshine and filling the streets.
We wandered through the small cobbled streets of Bayonne soaking up the festival atmosphere. The town is picturesque and Dan and I both agreed that we’d love to return when the Bayonne festival isn’t on, to explore and appreciate it fully.
All of the bars and restaurants had set up tables on the streets outside and were offering special festival deals and set menus. We headed to a bar and bought ourselves a glass for €1 – you can then take this to any bar and have it filled with whatever drink you buy which stops littering/wastage etc. Sangria, or beer or g&ts and everything was about €3 a drink. We also decided to try the famous Bayonne ham which was delicious and just melted in our mouths.
There are so many things going on during the festival, from a huge picnic on ‘Children’s Day’ to firework displays and Pelota games (a traditional Basque sport), that whatever day you come on there is sure to be plenty to see and do. The big event of the day when we were there was ‘Les courses de vaches‘ or ‘the bull run.’
Bayonne is twinned with Pamplona and while we were there we got to experience the Bayonne version of running with the bulls. We bought a ticket €4 and headed into the main square which had barriers erected all around it for the event. There’s a spectator only bit where you can watch from an elevated position and see the whole extravaganza. We decided instead to get a bit closer to the action.
I’m not known for my daring so I think I even shocked myself when I headed through the gates. Passing the sign indicating that anyone going any further did so entirely at their own risk I felt a bit of apprehension. To some this may seem stupid, but this is no Pamplona. I felt a bit relieved knowing it was only ever one bull in the arena. It was a young one too and the tips of their horns had been taped up so they were not as sharp.
Bull fighting is definitely not something I condone but this event was different. The Bulls are really respected at this festival. One bull at a time was let loose in the arena with the run of the whole area. The people could chase them but there were stewards on hand to see that nobody mistreated it. They were wandering around with sticks which we thought were to keep the bulls under control. It turns out it was to keep the crowd under control! If anyone tried to grab the bull or its horns they got a sharp smack from the stick. These are still wild animals though and definitely not to be messed with. I stood well back away from all the action but some who got too close ended up being tossed into the air or trampled.
Bayonne has a long history of French bullfighting and while it may seem a barbaric event to us, to them it is tradition and theatre. After ten minutes, the bull was taken away and another one replaced it so as not to distress any individual bull too much! NO BULLS WERE HARMED AT THIS EVENT!
After the ‘running with the bulls’ or ‘watching the calf from very far away’ (as I did) we rejoined the rest of the festival and headed along the riverside. Bayonne grew up at the merging point of the river Nive and the Adour and there are 5 beautiful bridges over the river.
The Nive divides Bayonne into Grand Bayonne and Petit Bayonne and the houses lining the river are beautiful examples of Basque architecture. The festival is spread all through the town including every tiny cobbled street but on the banks of the river is where it is most widely celebrated. We joined in drinking and dancing with the locals but returned to Biarritz for dinner. The Bayonne festival was still in full swing when we left and people party well into the night and the next morning.
I’m so thrilled we found out just in time that the festival was happening and that we got the chance to experience it for ourselves. If you fancy next year’s you can find out more information on the official website here or an overview in English here.