A Tale of Two Cities

Growing up in the 1950s, we knew of Bayonne, France, but thought it was a place on the other side of the world that we would never see, sort of an alternate reality. Now, having visited the “other” Bayonne, I can report that it is a charming and picturesque city.

While the two Bayonnes are not London and Paris, there are enough interesting similarities and differences to make it the best of times to take a trip to Bayonne, France. It’s also a short, two-hour drive to Lourdes, so you can use Bayonne as a base and make a day trip to Lourdes.

Local lore would have it that our Bayonne was named after the French one. Sorry. I can’t picture the Dutch burgers who settled here deciding to name their town after an obscure Basque village in the Pyrenees. More likely, the water bodies surrounding the two places gave rise to their common name.

It was the confluence of the rivers Nive and Ardur that caused the Romans to build a fort or castrum in Bayonne. Parts of their walls are still standing near the Cathedral of Sainte Marie de Bayonne, built between the 12th and 16th centuries on the site of an old Roman church. There is still a 6 p.m. Mass on Saturday night in the sturdy, Gothic cathedral, but sadly attendance is down, as it is in the churches of our Bayonne.

Just as the newly arriving Polish, Irish, Hispanics, and Italians enriched our city, the other Bayonne served as a crossroads or bridge between Europe and the Iberian Peninsula. Many cultures thrived there. The English ruled during the Middle Ages. The Chateau Vieux, base of the Black Prince, still stands. Bayonne later served as a refuge for the Jewish fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. France took over the city peacefully in 1451 after a local bishop reportedly saw a cross in the sky. The city has been French since then and, like the rest of France, lost many, many men in World War I and suffered from the deportation of Jews in World War II. There are prominent memorials to both in the city.


Contemporary Town


Today, Bayonne is a vibrant river port with a population of about 45,000 and the hub of a Basque metropolitan area of close to 300,000. It retains many medieval-like streets too narrow for cars, lined with small shops, sidewalk cafes, and 18th century wood buildings. Like our Bayonne, the French Bayonne is a port city for oil, gas, and chemical products. A major difference is the use of the waterfront and adjoining properties. Bayonne, France, has numerous waterside restaurants, bars, and cafes that draw people to the river, which basically splits the city.

Our Bayonne has plans to develop its waterfront with bike paths, cafes, shops, a hotel, ferry slip, and residential buildings.

It seems as if every French city is renowned for one food item. For Bayonne, it is jambon or ham. Throughout a good part of Europe, you will see “Bayonne ham” on the menu. The jambon bought at Charcuterie Rubard tastes a little earthier and more pungent than the ham bought at our 22nd Street Meat Market. It was a great appetizer at La Grange, a four-star riverside restaurant where dinner for three with French wine cost about $110. The city is 3.7 miles from the ocean; there are many excellent restaurants throughout the city serving seafood and French and Basque cuisine.


Shared Challenges


The two Bayonnes face similar issues. Housing costs are rising. Bayonne is a typical French city with many more apartments than single-family homes. A one-bedroom apartment of about 420 square feet rents for about $625 a month and would sell for about $130,000 or so. Due to the narrow streets and many buildings with apartments, parking is also an issue. Residents must purchase a pass to park on the streets near their homes, but spots are limited. There are numerous pay parking garages and lots throughout the city.

Both cities are in the process of assimilating newcomers. In our Bayonne, we are getting used to having two Egyptian grocery stores on Broadway. The wine-loving French are adjusting to having an Irish pub, Katie Daly’s, across the square from the Ville de Cité. The residents of both cities share a pride in their city and a resiliency that will get them through these changes.

Despite or maybe because of the similarities and differences, I plan to return to Bayonne, France. All in all, it reminds me of home.–BLP


Photo by Lucas Martinez Farra, Creative Commons license, Wikimedia Commons




Pat Bonner with his wife Maureen




Photo by Pat Bonner


Photo by Pat Bonner


Alexander Demyanenko/Shutterstock.com


Photo by Pat Bonner


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