Built around a Sunday religious celebration and the organization of bullfights (which, however, are no longer systematically organized as part of the holidays), the first “great summer festivals” in Bayonne, as they were called in their beginnings, took place for the first time in 1932, on the initiative of a group of friends rugby players of Aviron Bayonnais who used to go to San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain. The festival committee of the time and its president, Benjamin Gomez, then decided on a program inspired by the Spanish holidays, to accompany the celebrations of the National Day of July 14. The mayor, Joseph Garat, and his municipal council validate the concept and entrust the organization to the initiators.
On July 13, 1932, aubades, street crossings, concerts, Basque pelota games but above all cow races in the streets of Petit-Bayonne follow one another. This day is also marked by a corso of flowered cars and a car elegance contest on the Paulmy alleys. The Bayonnaises and the Bayonnais also attend the first outing of the Giants, developed by Benjamin Gomez.
Despite capricious weather, the success of these first festivities was immediate. And he will not be denied. Now listed on UNESCO’s inventory of intangible cultural heritage, the Bayonne festivals have since celebrated the cultures of the Basque Country and Gascony for five days. They take place from the last Wednesday of July to the following Sunday. In 90 years of existence, they will have known only two periods of interruption: during the Second World War, of course, from 1940 to 1946, then in 2020 and 2021, due to the Covid-19 epidemic.
Some of their original traditions have disappeared over time, like the Verbena, which took place in the halls and gave craftsmen and traders the opportunity to decorate their stalls with ever more refinement. The same goes for the sailing regattas on the Adour, the Agricultural Shows, Place Saint-André, lyrical performances given at the theater, harnessed horse races at Saint-Esprit, confetti battles…
Rouge et blanc, bands, vachettes, pelote, Karrikaldi, “chocolatier paquito”…
But most of them have endured, sometimes even evolving. So in 1932 there was only one banda. Errobiko Erroskilak, formed by young rugby players from Aviron Bayonnais. The second, the Batsarrous, was founded two decades later by Jacques Simonet, known as “Coco”. This mischievous café owner on rue Port-de-Castets had, among other things, the idea of bringing together the beautiful Bayonne youth who frequented his establishment… and a few others, in a banda. the Batsarous. Today, the bandas are much more numerous, but there will never be enough of them.
Originally, the traditional colors of the dress of the festayres were blue and white. The blue, which came from the overalls of the workers, was then replaced by red, following the example of the festivals of Pamplona, where red and white are the official colors. Today, blue has almost disappeared in favor of “red and white”, but some purists still prefer to wear the original “blue and white”, the color of the local rugby club, Aviron Bayonnais.
The famous cow races, the Basque strength festival and pelota, thanks to the renowned champions who came to play epic games at the Trinquet Moderne, have also been part of the history of the festivities since the beginning. The 90s saw the emergence of the phenomenon of associations, the famous “Peñas”, when the Karrikaldi, the event that celebrates Basque traditions, has had thousands of festayres sing and dance since 2005.
And then there is the unmissable “paquito chocolatero”. In 2005, a world record was broken with a 1,400 meter long “paquito chocolatero” and 4,000 people. It was beaten the following year with 5,100 participants for a length of 1,700 meters, then, in 2007, with 6,000 people for a length of 2,000 meters, and again in 2008, with 7,764 people for a length of 2,588 meters.
The Keys to the City and His Majesty, King Leon
Two “capital letters” traditions without which the Bayonne Festival would certainly not be the Festival, have survived the years with incredible success. The first is the throwing of the keys to the city on the crowd of partygoers, which takes place from the top of the balcony of the town hall, on the crowd of partygoers and which officially opens the Holidays. The honor is entrusted each year to a different guest of honor. For a time, the tradition disappeared: people tended to think that from the moment they had the keys to the city, they could do anything…
But the three keys, like Grand Bayonne, Petit and Saint-Esprit rive droite, returned with the creation of King Léon in 1987. Bayonne counts, among others: Luis Mariano, Johnny Haliday in 1960, and nowadays, Zazie, Jean-Jacques Goldman, Francis Cabrel, Hélène Ségara, Patrick Bruel, Bernard Lavillier, Manu Chao or Yannick Noah have taken over. In 2012, Vincent Cassel was one of the star guests. The keys have also evolved. Initially made of wood, they are now made of polystyrene… It hurts less if you hit them on the head!
“Ah Léon, Léon, Léon, King of Bayonne, King of Bayonne…”
Second must-see, King Léon, famous giant puppet and patron saint of the holidays, who watches over his faithful subjects from the balcony of the town hall, during the time of the festivities. Inspired by a real figure from Bayonne life, the late Léon Dachary (see box below) renowned at the time for his escapades, it was designed by the comic book artist Jean Duverdier. His court and his family grew over time with new giant puppets.
The fleuri course
Sunday is the day of the bandas mass in the Saint-André church (another mass being celebrated in the cathedral as well as in the Saint-Esprit collegiate church). A parade of municipal councilors accompanied by representatives of the city of Pamplona, to which Bayonne and its festivals have been twinned since 1960, is then organized up to the town hall. In the evening, a flower parade sees the competition for different floats decorated by associations of the city. Then comes the closing ceremony on the town hall square, the last great rite of the holidays, during which each of the thousands of festayres who have come to live with passion and respect these five days and five nights of celebration, removes their red scarf… Until the ‘next year.