The Other Side of Basque Country

The Other Side of Basque CountryIt’s midnight and I’m standing on a bridge that runs across the wide Adour River in southwestern France. In front of me, thousands of screaming people, clad mostly in white, are crammed into a large, irregularly shaped square. They’ve taken off their red scarves and, with both hands, are displaying them toward the second story balcony of an arcaded town hall where an overstuffed effigy of a king (not unlike the kind you might see traipsing through an amusement park) sits on a gold throne. “Bayonne, the party has been great,” mouths the bulbous king whose raspy, purring voice is similar to a clichéd French cartoon character. “I’ll see you next year. Merci, Bayonne,” he says, like a rock star ending his final encore. And with that, the king disappears behind a yellow and purple striped curtain.

I’d been in Bayonne, a small town in French Basque country, for almost a week, taking part in the annual Fetes de Bayonne, a five-day street party that turns this ordinarily sleepy, two-cathedral town into one raucous miasma of nonstop sangria-inspired insanity. The highlight of the fete, which takes place at the end of July, is the Course de Vache, which is often mistaken as a “running of the bulls.” Unlike Pamplona, however, Bayonne uses bovines instead of bulls and, as I was told, it’s often the people who do the charging and not the other way around. But I was equally curious about this part of France. This is Basque territory, but the side of the border that gets less press than its Spanish counterpart. Basque France seemed overshadowed and off the radar of most tourists. I figured the best way to experience it would be to cannonball myself in via the five-day fete.

* * *

When the Paris-to-Madrid train speeds by Bayonne halfway through its journey, few travelers crane to witness the cathedral of Sainte Marie’s skeletal twin gothic spires lurking over the town’s ancient red-tiled roofs. With the exception of military historians who know that the bayonet was invented here in the 17th century, and residents of Bayonne, New Jersey and Daytona Beach, Florida, who share sister city status with this diminutive town near the Spanish border, few people outside Europe have heard of Bayonne.

Ernest Hemmingway had. At least enough to say it was a nice town with one river flowing through it. He was sort of right. There are actually two rivers that slice through this one-time Roman outpost, separating the town of 42,000 into three parts. The Adour River hugs the more haggard neighborhood of St. Esprit on one side and Bayonne proper on the other. Its smaller tributary, the quaint Nive River, creates a Grand Canal-like intimacy as it separates the flat and more Basque Petit Bayonne and the hilly medieval Grand Bayonne. On both sides of the Nive sit Basque-style houses, marked by red, white and green shutters.

Despite so much “charm,” there appeared to be few non-locals in Bayonne for the Fetes. And those who came wisely disguised themselves as natives by slipping on the Basque-style gear: white shirt, white pants, white sneakers, a red handkerchief around the neck, and a red scarf tied around the waist (red beret is optional). I was ambivalent about wearing the costume. Would it be disrespectful if I didn’t, or would wearing it be too intrusive on a culture to which I didn’t belong? After much contemplation, I chose to wade through the red and white sea of Basque revelers in my usual darkly hued clothes.

It didn’t take long for me to wonder if I’d made the wrong decision. “Les touristes, les touristes,” chanted an indistinguishable glob of partiers as I crossed the Pont Morengo over the Nive to Petit Bayonne, the so-called wild side of town where bank windows had been boarded up and cash machines shut down. Banners stretched across Petit Bayonne’s straight, narrow streets proclaiming “Amnistia!” for an independent Basque state. Young people, mostly males in their late-teens and early-twenties, crowded around ad hoc outdoor bars, sucking down everything from sangria to beer to Izarra–a robust, locally produced liqueur that is supposedly made from “100 flowers of the Pyrenees.” A DJ, set up just inside a second floor window, spun Cuban tunes as a curb-to-curb crowd of dancing partiers, drinks in hand, flailed their limbs below. Five houses down, another impromptu dance party was underway, this time with Eurotrash techno. The song, “It’s Raining Men” played somewhere in the distance.

A large procession of horn tooters marched down a side street, adding to the cacophony. Men stood on the river banks–legs confidently spread apart, leaning back–urinating into the slow moving water. A girl stumbled by, using her boyfriend’s red scarf-cum-belt as a leash.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Nive, in Grand Bayonne, the decidedly tamer opening ceremonies of the Fetes were taking place at the town hall. After a speech by the mayor, in which throngs of people chanted “Pays Basque” (Basque country) in unison, a 15-minute fireworks display followed. It was near 11 o’clock in the evening, but the first night was far from over. The official conclusion of a Fetes day ends at three in the morning.

But as I quickly found out, endings and beginnings are just a formality in Bayonne. While walking to a café the next morning, I noticed small groups of people were still dancing in the streets as music blared from bars. Marching bands still wandered noisily. Lone, tired-looking drunks staggered across the long bridge over the Adour, hoping to find refuge. There were still four days to go.

* * *

When the Fetes de Bayonne began in 1932, no one could have predicted it would turn out like this. Originally, it was a locals-only affair with singing and dancing and one Course de Vache on the agenda. But the city has changed its stance, now marketing the Fetes as a party for everyone–evidenced by the hundreds of flags of countries from around the world which adorned the Saint Esprit Bridge over the Adour–and by the extension of the Course, the Fetes’ most popular event, to four.

But according to the friendly middle-aged couple who owns the hotel where I stayed, the Fetes is about one thing: money. “The bars sell more alcohol during these five days than during the entire rest of the year,” said the husband-owner in a moment of frankness. “It’s now a part of the economy and is unfortunately necessary.”

Necessity or not, city leaders seem to be having as much fun as anyone during the Fetes. At least it seemed that way when I stopped by city hall where, in a posh, mirrored back room, a party–billed as a reception for international journalists–was taking place. I was the only non-French person there and was treated as somewhat of a novelty when introduced to people. One of those people was Jean-Louis Dulas, the deputy-mayor. Clad in the typical Fetes outfit, the fifty-something Dulas sipped from a long stemmed wine glass as he talked to me. “It’s just easier,” he said, when I asked about the red and white outfit everyone was wearing. “When you spill wine or sangria on your shirt, you can bleach it that night and be ready to party again the following day.”

Point taken. But, according to the Fetes’ president, Henri Lauque, who was mingling through the reception, there’s a deeper historical tradition involved. Saint Leon, Bayonne’s patron saint, was beheaded by Norman invaders in the year 892. Partygoers wear a red scarf to symbolize the saint’s bloody end, and a white shirt and pants for his piety.

Which raises an interesting question: so then who is King Leon, the plus-sized, blond-haired mascot-like monarch that looks like it wandered off the set of H.R. Pufnstuff and ended up in French Basque Country? “We invented him,” Lauque said, nodding in the direction of the balcony where the faux monarch sat. “We needed a party mascot, so, three years ago, we created King Leon. He is now king of the people here. But he only makes appearances during the Fetes.” I waited for the irony to appear on Lauque’s face. It never came. Instead, he handed me a free pass to participate in that evening’s Course de Vache.

* * *

Translated, the Course de Vache means “running of the cow,” but it’s much less a run than a frantic stampede around a half-football-field-sized enclosed ring, while thousands of spectators in bleachers cheer drunken young men trying to prove their bravery. I was among them, standing in the center of the ring (actually a town square). I giggled nervously as the “cow runners” formed two lines stretching out from the door where the beast would be released. They locked arms and swayed, singing Basque songs, creating a kind of human red carpet for the cow’s grand entrance. Meanwhile, concessionaires walked up and down the bleachers selling peanuts and popcorn.

Earlier that day at city hall when I had asked Deputy Mayor Dulas what to expect when the cow was released, he simply laughed. “You have nothing to worry about. Yes, occasionally we have injuries, but that’s just from people stumbling as they run. This isn’t Pamplona.”

“Here comes the little cutie,” the announcer screamed into the mic, using the French word mignon. When I finally caught a glimpse of the animal, it was neither little nor cute. This was a wild, bucking, so-enraged-with-fury-that-slobber-was-dribbling-from-its-mouth type of beast with ten-inch horns.

Across the ring, I could see people jumping up on the metal fences trying to avoid the mad bovine. In the center, handfuls of people began lying down side by side. A minute later, the cow stumbled upon them. It nudged curiously until a man jumped on its back. The cow twirled around and reared back, as the rider took off his red scarf and waved it over his head like an urban cowboy. The crowd roared.

By the time he jumped off, about twenty people had created a human tower by standing on one another’s shoulders. When it was three people high, the cow came charging, toppling everyone. The crowd roared again.

About fifteen minutes later, the animal was clearly getting tired as young boys ran after it, poking it. Finally, the door to its stable was opened and it nearly limped out of the ring. A few minutes later, the second cow was released. It was just as wild as the first had been in the beginning

* * *

During my routine early morning stroll on the Fetes’ fifth and final day, I had a flashback to when I checked into my hotel five days earlier. I’d been surprised when the owner, handing me the room key, announced that he despised the party. After all, his hotel was booked solid for five days straight. “There’s too much revelry,” he said. “You’ll see what I mean.”

That I did. Now, on this final morning, the town looked like it was suffering from a collective hangover. The streets, plastered with confetti and foul with the sour stench of urine, were littered with drunks, weaving through town, babbling incoherently to themselves. A young man, his Fetes outfit in need of a good bleaching, sat on a park bench, his face buried in his hands. Plastic sangria bottles floated down the river.

A three-person marching band paraded past me. I’d been seeing bands like this all week, though this one seemed particularly loud. The drummer had a snare drum belted to his side and the two horn players tooted instruments that looked suspiciously like kazoos. Their high-pitched music echoed through the town’s canyon-like streets, as they slowly roamed the cobblestones like a military band trying to rouse its troops back to life. The sangria-stained soldiers didn’t move.

After five days in a liquor-induced frenzy, fending off wild bucking beasts, sleeping on the streets, and trying not into fall in the river while urinating into it, the Bayonnese could now go back to their jobs or studies; the town would eventually be cleaned and get back to normal, my hotel owner would be happy, and all the cows in Bayonne could rest peacefully for another year.