Basque Country: discovering the Bayonne Festivals

France, its deep-rooted regional traditions, its festivals and… among the most emblematic: the Fêtes de Bayonne, in the southwest of France.

This annual event at the end of July is one of the most festive in the country. Five days, five nights and several thousand « festayres » descend on the city.

It’s easy to remember the date: the Bayonne Fêtes take place every year, starting on the Wednesday before the first weekend in August. They close on Sunday, leaving the city and its inhabitants ever prouder and the night owls more than satisfied.

Generation Voyage takes you on a journey to the crazy, friendly and crazy rhythm of the Fêtes de Bayonne.

A brief history of the Fêtes de Bayonne

Bayonne

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Since their creation in 1932, the Fêtes de Bayonne have gone from strength to strength. Yet the tradition was humbly initiated by the festival committee of the time, inspired by the mythical festivals of Pamplona, Dax and Mont-de-Marsan. In fact, the tradition of the white and red dress, to which we’ll return below, originated with the Spanish festivities.

The initial program of the Fêtes de Bayonne may have evolved, but some events have simply become unmissable.

You’ll discover traditional cow races, Basque gastronomy through farmers’ markets and culinary competitions, demonstrations of folk dances and music, and fierce Basque pelota fights. You’ll also be treated to fireworks, balls, concerts and parades by King Léon. Every year, King Léon, the iconic puppet of the Bayonne region, stands on the balcony of the Town Hall to watch over his flock…

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Over the years, other major figures of the Bayonne Fêtes have entered the arena: the famous Peñas, associations of friends built around the strong values of conviviality and mutual social support, and the Bandas, those playful musicians who merrily take to the streets and carry off their wild audiences.

In short, forget the clichés. It would be sad to think of the Fêtes de Bayonne as just a bunch of drinking and partying. Above all, they’re incredible gatherings of Basque traditions, good cheer and intergenerational reunions.

Some (unlikely) figures on the Fêtes de Bayonne

Stats Bayonne

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At the end of the Fêtes de Bayonne, no less than 300 tons of waste are collected by 200 dedicated cleaners.

Including the Police, Gendarmerie and Customs forces, over 500 security agents are deployed during the Bayonne festivities.

For five days (and nights), 22 kilometers of roadways are literally flooded with 1 million festival-goers.

In all, 25,000 square kilometers are dedicated to partying, dancing and drinking.

Every year, no fewer than 150,000 campers arrive with their tents and caravans to celebrate.

On average, by the end of the festivities, participants had consumed 1 liter of Jacqueline, 1.5 liters of Sangria and 2 liters of beer each. This brings the total number of eco-cups distributed during the Fêtes de Bayonne to… 1,250,000!

On the food front, no fewer than 6,000 burgers are gobbled up in 5 days.

A day in the life of a Bayonnais at the end of July

Bayonne3

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During the Fêtes de Bayonne, each day has its own theme: Wednesday is opening day, Thursday is children’s day, Friday is associations’ day, Saturday is traditions’ day and Sunday is the day in honor of Pamplona. If you want to enjoy these five days of madness to the full, you’ll have to hang on and take a few days off the following week. Here’s a closer look at the Fêtes de Bayonne program.

As you’ll soon realize, the festivities are marked by a number of inescapable highlights. These include the opening ceremony on Wednesday evening, when the keys to the city are handed over. On this occasion, bombs explode in flurries and King Léon gives his first show. At 10 p.m., what Bayonnais call the Mascleta sounds, and revelers tie on their scarves, which they keep around their necks until Sunday.

From Wednesday to Sunday, from 8 a.m. onwards, the streets are alive with music. Before you know it, brass bands are taking over the town. Sleepyheads, you’re in for a rough ride. The musical program features Basque Gaiteros and Txistularis, as well as jazz bands and military cliques.

Photo credit: Shutterstock – Dreuf

Every day, just before noon, the papier-mâché giants parade through the city streets, making their way through the white and red tide. At 12 o’clock, the sun reaches its zenith. It’s hot, people are jubilant and impatient: time for an aperitif. Aperitif concerts and public dances take over Bayonne.

It’s also the hour when the walls of the Town Hall shake: the Bandas make a great racket to wake up the King of Festivals, our dear Léon. From 10 p.m. to 3 a.m., it’s back to the town hall, the carreau des Halles and the esplanade Roland-Barthes. In the meantime, all kinds of Basque and Gascon folklore events are being organized. Your participation will probably depend on how tired you are.

If the city is on fire for five days, don’t think that children have been left out. Every afternoon, at snack time, they are welcomed in the public gardens for tamborradas. In fact, Thursday’s program is entirely devoted to them. The day unfolds with Txikis encierros (small encierros) in which children challenge fake cardboard bulls, pushed by adults.

At 5:30 p.m., the Landes cows set off from Place Saint-André or Place Paul-Bert, beckoning novice and experienced raseteurs alike, as well as daredevil (or slightly soaked) tourists in search of thrills and spills.

At 7 p.m., a traditional Dantzazpi takes place in Place Jacques-Porte. Hundreds of people dance to the rhythms of Fandangos and Basque leaps.

Fêtes de Bayonne

Photo credit: Flickr – Etienne Macquet

On Wednesdays and Sundays, don’t miss the picturesque games of bare-handed pelota at the Trinquet moderne. Here, these big tournaments are like a national sport and, as you’ll soon discover, this discipline is both demanding and painful. Strength, skill, agility, a keen eye and special instruments are all required to play this ancient game.

On Friday evenings, the traditional Singles’ Night raises the temperature. The men feast with each other, the women go out with each other, then finally meet.

On Saturday, at 6 p.m., the grand Corrida on horseback takes place, followed in the evening by the illuminated Corso. This magical moment is characterized by a parade of floats through the heart of the crowd and before a jury charged with electing the most beautiful and surprising among them.

On Sundays, pagan traditions take over again with the Bandas mass at 11am. Believers and non-believers alike, visitors and locals alike flock to the church of Saint-André. At 6 p.m., the second Corrida des Fêtes de Bayonne takes place.

Then the festivities come to a climactic close with fireworks preceding the scarf-raising ceremony. Like the hats of American graduates, red cloth rises above the Place de la Liberté. Fest-goers proudly brandish their scarves, vowing to tie them again the following year.

The 5 must-do things to do during the Bayonne Festivals

Dancing with the Bandas

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For five days, more than thirty Bandas take on the task of immersing the whole of Bayonne in festive music, from dawn to dusk without respite. These groups of musicians, armed with their trumpets, drums, trombones, tubas and saxophones, exert a magnetic aura over the delirious crowd.

To dance with the Bandas, all you have to do is lend an ear or follow the dancing silhouettes to the cadenced rhythms. In exchange for a warm smile or a cold beer, you may even be treated to a contemporary or traditional song of your choice!

Admire traditional parades

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The Fêtes de Bayonne are punctuated by three major parades, a veritable ode to Basque culture. The most majestic is the light parade on Saturday evening. This enchanting moment captivates young and old alike, and suspends, for a few moments, the shouts and songs in the streets. The theme of this parade of decorated and illuminated floats, set to vibrant music played by the Bandas, changes every year. But one thing’s for sure: it’s always grandiose.

And don’t miss King Leon’s Court Parade. Every day, the six Giants of the King’s Court gather to fetch the King in front of the Town Hall. A convivial moment, hand in hand with the locals.

Finally, it’s impossible to miss the official holiday parade. This takes place after Sunday Mass. It’s a huge gathering of musicians of all ages who parade through the town in traditional Basque costumes.

Taking part in sporting events

Fêtes de Bayonne

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Several sports tournaments punctuate the Fêtes de Bayonne, from the most eccentric to the most serious. The sport of pelota is, of course, a must at the Master’s, where champions gather for the occasion.

On the banks of the Nive, dugout canoe races and rowing regattas make for an outstanding nautical show.

The Triath’drôle, a series of comedy competitions in which teams face off in a laugh-out-loud contest, will keep your zygomatic muscles firing. It’s also an opportunity to take part in the world championship of chilli omelette or espadrille throwing.

One of the signals marking the start of the festivities is the famous Festayres race. The course stretches for almost fifteen kilometers and attracts several thousand runners every year. The streets of Biarritz, Anglet and Bayonne are invaded by a white and red swarm, followed by the foulée Txiki and its young aficionados aged 8 to 12.

Honor the cows

Photo credit: Flickr – Marc Hanauer

Ah… the cow races in the arenas are great moments. Mind you, we do mean cows. No bulls in the streets of Bayonne. But make no mistake, these less dangerous beasts are just as capable of putting on a show and offering exhilarating moments to the cheering crowds. Thrills guaranteed for spectators and riders alike!

However, minors and the elderly are not allowed in the arena. If you’re not really used to it, we’d advise you to sit back and cheer on the adrenalin-seeking daredevils!

Dress in red and white

Fêtes de Bayonne

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It’s a veritable Dress Code! The origins of this attire date back to 1969, when Luis Mariano threw down the gauntlet all dressed in white and red. This color code was eventually adopted to such an extent that the Fêtes de Bayonne are associated with a veritable tide of white and red throughout the Basque country.

If you don’t have the right outfit and accessories, don’t worry – every shop in town will sell you the complete outfit. So start by putting on a T-shirt and white shorts. But make no mistake: your immaculate outfit will end up… black.

Then tie a red belt (knot on the left) on your hips and the famous scarf around your neck (not before Wednesday, 10 p.m. sharp). Despite the temptation of the « total look », forget sandals or espadrilles and opt for old sneakers. Otherwise, to keep things practical and in keeping with the theme, we recommend a red fanny pack around your waist.

Where to stay during the Fêtes de Bayonne

Of course, you don’t come to the Fêtes de Bayonne for a sleep cure. Nevertheless, to keep up with the pace of these five days of pure madness and joviality, you’ll still need to get a few hours’ sleep. There are several options available for this.

Airbnb or hotel

Fêtes de Bayonne

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A good, economical option is to book an Airbnb or hotel in the surrounding villages. Anglet, St Jean de Luz, Biarritz, Hendaye, Bidart or even in the Landes: all these towns are served by buses that will get you to the party in just a few minutes.

The party buses offer an incomparable atmosphere! A word of advice: buy your return ticket direct to avoid the hassle of shopping at 4am.

If you’re on a budget, book an Airbnb directly in Bayonne.

During the festivities, the Greater Bayonne area is more popular with the over-30s and native Bayonnais. Petit Bayonne is more for the younger crowd. The choice is yours! Although it’s best to move from one district to the next and enjoy all the different atmospheres.

Campsite

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If you’re in a more adventurous mood, camping is also an option. To do so, head for the 1500-space Mousserole campsite. A two-person tent costs €35 per weekend. The rate for six nights is €75. If more than two people sleep in a tent, you’ll pay an extra €12 per night per person.

Finally, the Mousserole area offers access to showers for €2. On the other hand, wild camping and overnight stays on a traffic circle are not permitted and will be severely punished.

Practical info

Fêtes de Bayonne

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Rates

Access to the Fêtes de Bayonne is charged from Friday lunchtime to Sunday evening. The entry fee is €8. However, Bayonne residents are exempt from payment. The Pass Fête is on sale from mid-July and throughout the festivities at Tourist Offices and Keolis retailers, then directly at the cash desks at the entrance to the perimeter.

Access

If you’ve come a long way to attend the Fêtes de Bayonne (and you won’t regret it), the nearest airport is Biarritz-Anglet-Bayonne. Located in Anglet, it is ideally situated. Flights from Paris and other French cities are daily. To find the best flight deals, we recommend you consult a flight comparator.

You’ll have no trouble getting to the town by car. Departmental roads and freeways from Spain, Toulouse, Pau, Bordeaux and Paris are the main routes. However, park far away and walk to the party and your neighborhoods. Not only are parking spaces scarce around the perimeter, but rear-view mirrors are all too often the victims of staggering festival-goers…

Alternatively, why not try soft mobility with the holiday train? TER Aquitaine offers a single pass for €12, giving access to Bayonne and its many surrounding towns.