France: The Fêtes de Bayonne

Fetes de Bayonne

Running From Bulls in Southwest France

The Fêtes de Bayonne: A Beloved French Festival

By Luke Dowley

The idea of running from a 2000-pound bull in a confined area has never been very appealing to me. Setting aside my concerns about the mistreatment of these powerful and beautiful beasts, I’ve always imagined that participating in such an event could negatively effect life expectancy in a drastic way.

However, in early August I found myself in this very situation, dust swirling around me in a sea of revelers, a blur of red and white, chanting, cheering, and running. This was not the Festival of San Fermin, commonly known as the “running of the bulls” in Pamplona, it was something else, in Bayonne, France.

I had not crossed the Pyrenees into Spain and the scene before me did not end in injury or disaster. I was in Bayonne, a city located in southwestern France known for its traditional Northern Basque culture, architecture and cuisine.

Revelers in the streets celebrate the Fetes de Bayonne in France.
Revelers in the streets celebrate the Fetes de Bayonne in France.

Old buildings with painted shutters line the cobblestone streets, which wind through dense corridors of small shops and restaurants. Several ornate stone bridges reach across the Nive River slowly flowing through the center of Bayonne and into the Atlantic Ocean via the Adour River. The whole city has the feel of old traditions preserved amidst modern day-to-day life.

On this radiant summer day in early august I had taken the train up from Pau, a small city in France that I had called home for the past month, for the final day of the Fêtes de Bayonne. Every year a million people of all ages travel here to attend France’s largest festival, it starts on the Wednesday before the first Sunday in August.

Five Days of Partying

For five days and nights Bayonne is filled with exuberant singing and dancing, parades and sports competitions, and boisterous revelry. Traditional bands with accordions and tamborines, salsa and jazz musicians perform on multiple stages.

Toward evening bandas and folk ballads cross fade into pop music and rock bands. For the past 30 years it has been the custom to wear the regional Basque colors at the festival: all white clothing with a red sash and a bandana tied around the neck.

In the spirit of the day I changed into the costume du jour, bought for 20 euros at one of the local markets.

That afternoon I had joined my companions in the chaos of the bull ring. As the bull charged past us we retreated, truly alarmed, towards the large metal grating of the surrounding fence. A thousand people were inside, many more filled the temporary staging and spilled into the street.

The bull skirting past us inside the ring
The bull skirting past us inside the ring.

Cheers, taunts and applause erupted with every gallant leap by a runner over the confused and disorientated animal. Eventually, the bull was corralled and the crowd dispersed into the much larger flow around us. It was over, and I was unscathed.

Far beyond the dramatic and perhaps absurd acrobatics of chasing bulls, the Fêtes de Bayonne is an unparalleled experience. I recommend the festival for anyone with a love of music, dancing and pageantry.

The five-day span accommodates those with an interest in and an appreciation of this vibrant culture as well as those looking for a wild immersion in Basque style celebration. Speaking French, Spanish or Basque is helpful but certainly not essential.

There are many available campgrounds set up around the city; I advise making reservations far in advance.

As my excursion to Bayonne was a last minute opportunity it was impossible to find a place to stay. But as light began to creep back across the sky, I happily joined many others at the train station still in awe of the 15 hour spectacle.

Much more to do in Bayonne

Although I highly recommend attending this celebration of music and culture, there is much to do when visiting Bayonne during the other 51 weeks in the year.

If you want to dive into the Basque culture without droves of people crowding the streets and running bulls, a visit to the Musee Basque (Basque Museum) is an excellent alternative.

If you don’t speak any of the languages mentioned earlier, you can easily pick up an English guide at the front desk to lead you through the many interesting facets of basque history.

A more relaxing stop is the Jardin Botanique, A small botanical garden near the cathedral that is the perfect place to sit and relax with picnic aperitif. There are many Japanese-style bridges crossing the small stream that cuts through the center, and a walk through will definitely be a nice break from the city streets surrounding it.

Some of the meatier french cuisine to be found
Some of the meatier french cuisine to be found.

If you get a chance be sure to stop by Le Square Gormand, a small restaurant/bar that will serve you some great French cuisine at a very reasonable price. It is easy to tell that all of their meat (and bread of course) is from the surrounding area and very fresh.

Next time you find yourself in Southwestern France, be sure to make Bayonne a stop on your adventure. Hopefully, if you’re timing is right, you’ll experience one of the greatest week long festivals Europe has to offer.

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