For four days and five nights every summer, the cobblestone streets of Bayonne come to life with a riotous street party that puts Mardi Gras to shame. This is the heart and soul of French Basque country, where whitewashed houses are decked with green and red shutters, and the famous festival – the biggest in France and the fourth largest worldwide – is the ultimate celebration of Basque culture and heritage. More than a million revellers surge through the city, all donning the traditional red and white colours. Even toddlers and pooches sport the requisite foulard rouge (red kerchief) tied around the neck. The city’s narrow lanes are flooded with free-flowing food and kalimotxos (red wine mixed with Coca Cola).
To kick off the merrymaking, the Roi Léon, a giant 12 foot-high marionette, emerges on the balcony of the Hôtel de Ville with a famous personage (such as, in 1960, pop icon Johnny Hallyday) to turn over the mayor’s keys to the city (or rather, hurl them into the street.) Inspired by a comic-book hero and historic Basque figure, Léon Dachary, the marionette keeps watch over his ‘kingdom’ for the duration of the festivities. On the program are hundreds of concerts, dances, bullfights, cow-jumping contests, pelote matches, and parades which are guaranteed to delight young and old alike. Officially, during the festival, 80 music groups give performances but impromptu music-making occurs in the packed streets, with bandas of tamborada (drummers), trikitilari (accordion players), and txistulari (Basque flute players) providing the soundtrack. Elderly gents, seated at long wooden tables in the shade, sporadically break into song as they feast for hours. Night owls who are members of a ‘peña’ a distinctive Basque association formed by a group of friends, are privy to their own private bar which serves as a meeting point amid the mayhem.
The eating and drinking would make Bacchus proud. Nosh on Basque specialties like piperade, mushroom-studded omelettes, and sliced charcuterie and jambon de Bayonne served in paper cones (easier for sharing). There’s even artisanal sheep’s milk ice cream. For the first time in 2013, a ‘village gourmand’ was set up by local producers at the Mail Chaho-Pelletier, to showcase the best of Basque agriculture. This Comptoir Paysan served hot plates, such as lamb stew, tuna caught by fishermen in nearby Saint-Jean-de-Luz and burgers made with local beef with Basque tomatoes and in buns made from home-grown wheat flour. All washed down with local Akerbeltz beer and Irouléguy wine. First started in 1932, the Fêtes de Bayonne has evolved over the years. In 2010, a flash mob arrived on the scene, performing a choreographed dance in the streets, and 2013 was witness to an inter-generational dance-off to the song ‘Happy’ by French electronic group C2C. Beyond the raucous merrymaking, large-scale yoga sessions take place every morning in the Place de la Liberté.
The festival concludes with a spectacular fireworks display, and the departure of the Roi Léon from his balcony perch. Looking to partake in the fun and games? There are no bystanders in Bayonne, so best to sport your best white and red threads and get ready to tear it up.