Guest: Sarah Zwick - Be My Guest Immersions
Other Loulabelles links:
Recently I shrugged off the COVID vibes and took to the skies to get back to the place that holds my heart, France!
In the planning for l’été français I made arrangements to stay with ma belle amie Sarah Zwick from Be My Guest Immersions about 10 minutes from Bayonne in southwest France. Bayonne is a medieval city not far from the more glitzy Biarritz close to the Atlantic coast, with a population normally in the tens of thousands. However for one weekend of the year the whole place explodes with over a million visitors descending on the area. The Fêtes de Bayonne is an experience like no other. It was pure coincidence that I was going to be there at the time of the festival so to prepare myself, I checked it out on line before leaving Australia. The first thing I noticed was a kind of uniform that was being worn. Every attendee was decked out in white with a red sash or cinta and scarf, so I ensured I had a variety of white clothes packed to get me through the days of the festival while I was there. When I arrived I asked Sarah’s family what this event was like and what to expect apart from what I could see online. Her dad Jean Paul simply shrugged his shoulders in the wonderful French way and told me there are no words to describe the festival. One must just feel it. “You need to just live it and feel it”, he said. After my first Fêtes, I now completely agree. The Basque spirit is contagious!
The Fêtes de Bayonne has been held since 1932 (I know this as I bought a t-shirt with “90e année” on it!) and started because the local rugby team wanted a grand event to celebrate Bayonne similar to the festival held in Pamplona, Spain. The Fêtes de Bayonne was born and has grown in popularity ever since. If you’re travelling in the Pays Basque region of southwest France in the summer, it is well worth making a detour for Bayonne and experiencing this spectacle for yourself.
Festival goers or Festayres of all ages mingle together with traditional and modern music enjoyed by everyone young and … not-so-young! When I say all ages, I’m not being flippant either! There were little kids (even a baby sleeping through the cacaphony) as well as some old enough to be grandparents. There are special events during the day for kids as well as a parade, the Corso, with floats. There are bands on stages scattered across the city, playing various genres, music played by DJs in some tight Bayonne streets, performances by choirs, and dancing in the squares. I was amazed at the traditional Basque dances that the whole crowd would start in unison when a particular familiar track came on. At first I thought it was just the older (mainly) women, but on closer inspection I noticed loads of the young ones were joining in and knew the dances as well. According to those I spoke to at the festival, the young people of Bayonne are immensely proud of the traditions of the Fêtes and ensure they follow them closely! I loved this feeling of dancing as one with everyone around me! The locals were encouraging and so wanted to share their culture with me. I stepped on the toes of those around me, bumped into people and made a massacre of the dance, but still they beamed smiles at me for joining in. Basque people are just so kind, jovial and it seems after the way I danced, very forgiving!
As well as music and dancing, there is cow racing or les vaches which is a little like the running of the bulls without any bovines getting hurt. Crazy antics aren’t kept for animals though, there are special event games at the Fêtes to compete in such as wood chopping, tug o’ war, long log throwing… Lots of ways to have fun across the 5 days!
Held in July, the day light lasts until late, with the warm evenings perfect for the Bayonne-style sangria as well as a local fruit juice punch, both sold by the litre bottle. There is also a cup system at the Fêtes where locals bring their plastic cups from festivals of the past to use and swap and recycle throughout the days of festivities. I was so fortunate to be with locals to help me with all the nuances of the Fêtes. It saved me a lot of time and money! The locals also helped me navigate the bus system as driving to the festival is not recommended. Special buses bring Festayres in from outlying areas all around Bayonne.
Omelette de piment d’Espelette
Staying with Sarah’s family I was so privileged to be included in a more personal tradition celebrated by them every year after the first night of the festival. On returning home sometime after midnight, we went out to the potager and picked some courgettes, tomatoes, herbs and collected some eggs from the chickens. We then went inside and made an omelette avec legumes et piment d’Espelette. I don’t know if the simple omelette tasted like the best meal I’d ever had because it was the middle of the night and I was eating fresh produce after a long day of making lifetime memories: singing, dancing and partaking of the local punch! Or perhaps it was just being included and sharing this very personal tradition with “my French family”. The recipe changes depending on what is in the garden, except for the one essential ingredient for loads of Basquaise dishes, piment d’Espelette.
My husband Paul and I were following our friends in a long line through the crowds, holding onto the cinta in front so as not to get lost! The crowd all started singing a familiar tune and dancing, but the words were not as I remembered. They were all singing a French version of Frankie Valli’s December 1963! I loved it so much I have it on high rotation on the Loulabelle’s FrancoFiles Spotify playlist!