BAYONNE stands back some 5km from the Atlantic, a position that until recently protected it from any real touristic exploitation. Although purists dispute whether it's truly a Basque rather than a Gascon city (indeed street-signage is trilingual in Gascon, Euskera and French), Bayonne is effectively the economic and political capital of the Pays Basque. To the lay person, at least, its Basque flavour predominates, with tall half-timbered dwellings and woodwork painted in the traditional green and red. Here, too, Basques in flight from Franco's Spain came without hesitation to seek refuge among their own. For many years the Petit Bayonne quarter on the Nive's right bank was a hotbed of violent Basque nationalism, until the French government clamped down on such dangerous tendencies.
These issues don't immediately impinge on the visitor, however, and first impressions are likely to be favourable. Despite forming, with Biarritz and Anglet, a conurbation of about 200,000 people, Bayonne is a small-scale, easily manageable city, at the hub of all major road and rail routes from the north and east. Although there are no great sights, it's a pleasure to walk the narrow streets of the old town, bisected by the River Nive and still wrapped in the fortifications of Sébastien le Preste de Vauban, Louis XIV's military engineer.
Bayonne's biggest annual festival is the Fêtes de Bayonne, which usually starts on the last Wednesday in July and consists of five days and nights of continuous boozing and entertainment. There are corridas (bullfights) the last two days, plus a few more in the run-up to August 15. A well-established, three-day jazz festival, La Ruée au Jazz (Web: www.larueeaujazz.com ), takes place in mid-July.