Are you tempted by the waft of warm butter croissants? Do the mellow tannins of fine Bordeaux appeal to your sensibilities?
Are you the sort of complex and unique individual that would savour these delights AND simultaneously be thrilled by such experiences as cow chases, bull running and a crazy five days of summer revelry?
Well, if you ARE… you’ll find yourself in good company. There are almost one million people per year who attend the largest festival in France: Fetes de Bayonne.
The festival kicks off each year at the end of July. It’s a festival of traditions that honours the town of Bayonne, in the Basque region of France.
Is this the world’s biggest flash mob?
Bring your espadrilles and wear the classic red and white that honours the history of the festival. Paying homage to several characters and townspeople and their symbolic meaning, the Fetes de Bayonne was first celebrated in 1932. Its modern flavour developed in 1969 when the keys to the city were thrown from City Hall’s balcony by singer Luis Mariano who wore a white shirt and red scarf to honour the holiday colours of Pamploma.
The great thing about the Fetes de Bayonne is the unique marriage of rich culture and hedonistic festivity.
The French summer nights are outlandish and exhilarating. There is live music, dancing and florid balls – lasting long into the early morning hours.
In the day you can sample the local beverages in “bodegas” (street stalls and also underground cellars). You CAN’T miss the illuminated parades and floats, referred to as the “Corso”. Also, you’ll experience the “Karrikaldi” – the traditional songs and dances, as well as “Bandas” – the groups of street musicians.
There are flash mobs, sports and the chasing of cows. The Fetes de Bayonne is a massive hodgepodge of rampant culture unique to the town and region. You have to see it to believe it.
Indeed, you’ll never find yourself with any down time during the five glorious days of French frivolity. To the very last minute the Fetes de Bayonne gives its all. The last night sees a massive elaborate fireworks display and many a heartfelt outpouring of tears from revellers mourning its end.
At the heart of the Fetes de Bayonne is the idea of friendship, camaraderie and shared passion. The concept was imported from Spain by a group of friends returning from the San Fermin festival who suggested it at Bayonne’s local rugby club. And, year after year it has never failed to deliver a feisty French fanfare to make the people proud.
As a visitor you may want to book accommodation on site or nearby so you can soak it all up.
You may also want to hold onto your beret and try not to choke on your “sandwich au jambon” as you flee from a stampede of riled up bovines. Yes… this festival is also about the French version of the running of the bulls and bullfights.
If this does not tickle your fancy there is still much to offer for the refined or sensitive traveller. You may wish to attend the “mega picnic”. And, for families you will appreciate that Thursdays are solely devoted to the entertainment of the “enfants” – if you don’t speak French, I refer here to those mini partygoers who are likely to remember the brilliant spectacle that is the Fetes de Bayonne for the rest of their lives.
Also, if you are a foodie you’re bound to adore the festival. Do you love omelettes? Do you love bell peppers? Well… who doesn’t? Clearly bell pepper omelettes are a staple – I know I eat them for breakfast, lunch and tea. So, OF COURSE you’d like to see chefs battle it out at the world bell pepper omelette championships! Who wouldn’t attend for that alone? The Fetes de Bayonne is nothing if startling random.
The main attraction of the festival is King Leon (a character based on a comic book character), who opens the event on the Wednesday night in the traditional key throwing ceremony. He is woken up each day by children and roams the streets along with performing giants. It’s a court of traditional townsfolk characters that comprise the spectacle. You will see the “Fool” the “Marshall” the “Chocolatier” the “Housekeeper” and the “Doctor” and the “Favourite”. They each represent a different aspect of the history of Bayonne and the Basque region. It’s fun to watch and wonder.
Almost a million people attend this festival
It’s as if Alice in Wonderland fell down the French provincial rabbit hole and found masses of croissant/wine/omelette loving, bull fighting, cow chasing, red and white wearing, singing dancing and parading party animals.
Sufficed to say, Fetes de Bayonne presents a travel experience like no other. If you speak French you might like to visit the official Fetes de Bayonne site.
By Patricia Higgins, Australian journalist, copywriter and model/actor.