Wednesday, 2 September 2009

4. Bayonne

I should have mentioned at the outset that we did drag ourselves around countless estate agents and went through the long-winded process of explaining our situation and what we wanted with each and every one. Needless to say, we didn't receive a single call back or a referral from any of them. However, in fairness to the estate agents (and it's not often you read that is it?), it's a sellers market and there are more buyers than properties available so it's the buyer who must do the work.

What were we looking for? We wanted to live on or near the coast in a town because, when confronted with a bijou house down a lane deep in the countryside, Madame would inevitably ask “Yes, but where do you buy your baguette..?” Neither of us wanted to live somewhere where we’d need the car each time we wanted a biro, for example. Plus - ever practical - she convinced me that we needed to live somewhere with a good hospital. It sounds pessimistic but we are both in our 60s.. Say no more.

I made a list of all the features that we wanted: a small town house orientated east/west (for the sun); with a good-sized sitting room with a fireplace and a walk-through to a dining room; a breakfast kitchen; all rooms to have high ceilings with either parquet or wooden floors; 2/3 bedrooms; a utility room; a cellar; a terrace; a garden front & back and a garage. In an ideal world, we wanted the house to have belonged to an old person and thus likely to be in need of redecoration from top to bottom including renovating the kitchen and bathroom (to discourage other buyers). Finally, we wanted the house to be on a quiet road within 10 minutes walk of the centre including all the shops. No problem with that list, surely? (dreamer!)
Bayonne looking west down the Adour
After a week of pounding pavements in the warm September sunshine in what turned out to be a fruitless search in St Jean and Biarritz, we decided to open up our search to the north to include Bayonne, a short 10 minute drive from Biarritz.
 Narrow streets of Bayonne
Bayonne, an historic town of some 44,000 inhabitants, is situated about 5km inland at the confluence of the Rivers Adour and the Nive. In fact, it forms part of what is known locally as the Biarritz-Anglet–Bayonne - or BAB - agglomeration. Bayonne has been heavily shaped by its past because it lies behind extensive city walls, massive stone ramparts and fortifications, as it was fortified on an heroic scale in the 16th century by Vauban, France’s military fortification genius.
In former times, therefore, there was no possibility for town planners and builders to spread out and so the only direction new building could expand was upwards - and the limit, imposed by Vauban's fortifications on the outward expansion of the old town, is clearly visible below:
The streets of the old town are correspondingly narrow with 4-5 storied buildings being the norm. This has the advantage that the streets remain cool and in shadow, even on the hottest of days. This lends a very Spanish feel to it. Modern Bayonne, however, has spread out beyond the original city walls and ramparts and now there’s no discernible break between Biarritz, Anglet or Bayonne.
Bayonne Old Town Centre
Bayonne (centre left) and the Pyrenees
Prices here reflect the fact that it's not on the coast and so the price/sq m is correspondingly lower. It works out at about half that of St Jean de Luz. This was more our territory!
During the first week of August, Bayonne is “en fête”. Sheer madness reigns as well over 1m people (yes, a million) descend on the town for five days and five nights of prodigious eating, drinking, music, drums, folklore, funfairs, mass fandango dancing in the streets, fireworks and more. The inventiveness and parking skills of Basque drivers is stretched to the limit as conventional parking spaces are quickly taken, never to be relinquished for the 5 days. To take part in the Fête, you must be dressed all in white with a red scarf or a red beret. The town also has an active bull-ring; however, this is one facility that we definitely won't be taking advantage of.
Les Arènes (Bull ring)

But I’m getting ahead of myself here..

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