While the Côte d’Azur flashes glamour, the Aquitaine coast is more genteel.
But then no-one likes a show-off do they?
And to miss Aquitaine’s huddle of seaside towns would be a crime.
The “BAB” towns of Bayonne, Anglet and Biarritz have culture, history and plenty of old-fashioned style.
They sell themselves in beautiful beaches, great seafood, and more, but they also have something the Côte d’Azur doesn’t – Basque culture. It’s actually unique across France – just 239,000 of the country’s 66 million people declared themselves Basque in the last census.
And this is the area of Aquitaine, with all that history and culture, that drew us near in a recent visit.
Cultural overload in Bayonne
Bayonne’s ancient architecture alone makes it a must see. Buildings in its old town lean like old men creaking under the weight of their mediaeval history.
Wooden beams painted in red, blue and green – traditional colours that have their history in the natural dyes available in the 12th century – pattern across the facades, while metal doors hide courtyards, and we’re sure plenty of centuries old secrets.
But Bayonne isn’t just a well-preserved mediaeval town – it’s a melting pot of many major architectural styles flowing from century to century between its two rivers, the Adour and La Nive.
The twin-spired Gothic cathedral of St Mary de Bayonne is an outstanding example of the town’s cultural heritage. Construction began in the 13th century and to stroll its interior is to step back in history, while its ancient cloisters were particularly impressive.
Bayonne’s bustling heart is a rich shopping experience down cobblestone streets, with a mix of Basque specialties including local linen and crafts, tasty cured ham, and cheeses for shoppers.
We came upon a wonderful example of Bayonne’s Basqueness at the small workshop of Gérard Léoncini. The Léoncini family have been hand-making the makhila, a traditional Basque walking stick, with a concealed dagger since 1928, and today Gérard continues the family business.
The makhila is more than a walking stick or even a defensive weapon, it reflects a Basque philosophy and way of life. And as Gérard spoke with passion about its meaning, and how he lovingly crafts each makhila over a period of six months to create a beautifully decorative and distinctive masterpiece, the deep importance of this cultural implement was clear.
But while the makhila remains a specialist purchase, Bayonne’s other famed product is popular around the world. The town is also highly regarded for the quality of its chocolate and the Cazenave Chocolate shop founded in Bayonne in 1854, has been one of its most popular destinations with chocaholics for years. We stopped by to sample a few chocolatey delights.
Firstly we had a house specialty the frothy Le Chocolat a Boire Mousse a la Main, followed by a rich thick pure chocolate drink flavoured with cinnamon. It had more depth than a Turkish coffee, and nearly as much of a kick, but our first experience of real chocolate (it was traditionally served as a drink by all of Europe’s early chocolatiers) was a tasty one.
It was enhanced further by the exquisite surrounds of Cazenave, which revels in Art Nouveau and has a lovely stained glass window on the back wall.
While in Bayonne we stayed at the brand new four-star Hotel des Basses Pyrenees. It was a lovely modern hotel, tastefully furnished with a restaurant serving delicious food and wine. On one side it looks out over the old city walls and has a tower set to be transformed into honeymoon suites. From the other side of the hotel it merged into the ancient buildings of the old town for an extra historic mystique.
Angling for beach time in Anglet
The central town of the BAB conurbation, Anglet, just five minutes from Bayonne has an array of lovely beaches alongside its near five kilometre coastline. Beach life is what Anglet is known for and it’s definitely the place if you want to do nothing more for the day than feel the sand between your toes.
But in addition to the great quality of its golden sands, there is surfing amongst its Atlantic breakers and plenty of water and other sports available at nearby golf clubs and more.
While in Anglet we paused for lunch at Le Comptoir de La Plage, a restaurant nestled next to the beach, that could have been like any unremarkable seaside snack bar. But it was far from unremarkable.
The food was typically French in its quality and creative in its nature. Dining on cod beignets, with humous, and a grapefruit salad, a dish of seared tuna with petit legumes, and dessert of caramelised pineapple with homemade ice-cream, we soaked up good wine (did we mention the Aquitaine coast is just a few miles from Bordeaux?) and plenty of sunshine. Convivial staff and surroundings all helped to make Le Comptoir de La Plage a very pleasant place to dine.
Biarritz, seaside glamour in south-west France
The drive from Bayonne to Biarritz was a short 10 minute journey taking us through Anglet, before arriving on the busy Biarritz seafront.
Reputedly, surfing in Europe is said to have begun here in Biarritz in 1957, today it is a mecca for those that love to ride the waves.
Our visit was more sedate as we preferred to gaze out over the kilometre after kilometre of golden sandy beaches that Biarritz is famous for. We also took a walk around its iconic lighthouse, set amid relaxing gardens, the trees and shrubs helping to shade us from the already fierce mid-morning sun.
Away from the seafront Biarritz chic unveiled itself. The architecture of the town speaks of a prestigious past when the great and the good ventured here. The famous Hotel du Palais, with its ageless charm reinforces that reputation, I think it was my favourite building as we toured the town, but there’s also plenty of Art Deco mansions, a Russian Orthodox church (a relic from its popularity with Russians before the Soviet Revolution) and a neo-Gothic church to catch the eye of any architecture fan. And if you wish to see Biarritz at a leisurely pace there is a tour of the town aboard a replica 1850’s train.
But the town’s architectural mish-mash (including some of the less favourable buildings of the 1970s) and views beyond it of the mountains of Spanish Basque Country, provide a great panorama from the footbridge to Rocher de la Vierge, named after its white statue of the virgin and child.
The whole Aquitaine region in south-west France was a revelation to us and proved to be a great visit. The BAB towns of Bayonne, Anglet and Biarritz provided an array of history and architecture, Basque culture, delicious dining, and glorious beaches. Being so close to the Spanish border and the shared Basque mentality, makes Aquitaine a little different to the rest of France. However, this uniqueness and strong cultural identity is all part of the attraction to this timeless area.
We discovered this corner of south-west France as part of a project with Atout France and you can read more stories about various parts of the country to put together your own “Tour de France” on the Rendezvous en France blog. All opinions and fondness for all things French, especially of the Aquitaine variety, are my own.