Starting the year in Bayonne with the discovery of the Collection Gramont, newly repatriated in the reserves of Musée Basque was a true emotion. The curator, Olivier Ribeton, President of Société des Amis de la Collection Gramont, and Sabine Cazenave director of the Musée Basque et de l’Histoire de Bayonne, have worked jointly for this resurrection of the collection which should hopefully soon be published in a book. And this was the occasion for little excursions around the arrière pays of Labourd, where Jaques Bidart toured us around Bardos and Labastide-Clairence, and Etienne Rousseau Plotto, organist of the church of St André in Bayonne, gave me an organ recital and showed me around Ciboure where composer Maurice Ravel was born in 1875, and Socoa, with its fort by Vauban and a delightful lunch at Pantxua. After an excellent night at trendy Hotel Regina et du Golf, near the lighthouse of Biarritz and a little shopping at Laffargue in St Jean de Luz, my year started on a beautiful note.
Driving around the arrière pays of Bayonne with Jacques Bidart who studied the village of Bardos ( 1072-1751) for many years was a treat. The village is at the confluence of Navarre, Béarn and the Landes. In search of “Mottes féodales”, these little hills on which the first forts were built to defend the villages against invaders, whether English or French, we met a number of shepherds and local inhabitants who have the most beautiful views from their houses. As always, the weather was changing and the Pyrénées could be seen only intermittently in the background of the lush landscape. I discovered the curious tombs of Labastide-Clairence which surround the church protected by a roof and walked around this perfect village, with arches and shops, which was built as a “development” in the 16 th and 17 th century. The Jeu de Paume built in 1513 is one of the oldest still in activity, and a Jewish cemetery with 62 tombs dates from 1610, when Bayonne and its surrounding towns welcomed the Jews from Spain.
We then met with curator Sabine Cazenave who is working endlessly on the renovation of Musée Bonnat-Helleu which will reopen in the summer of 2025. The city of Bayonne was a large commercial harbor between the 16 th and 19 th centuries, trading with Spain and Great Britain but also with Latin America and its historical past has not been fully developed yet in its museums. At Musée Basque et de l’Histoire de Bayonne, you can see excellent local painters who are very sought after and discover some of the traditions of this very unique province. The Société des Amis de la Collection Gramont, which counts a number of university professors and writers, is working hard with the curator on future exhibition projects.
Professor Eric Mension Rigau is a member of the board and he has just published an interesting study on “Rester Noble dans le monde des Affaires ” which describes sociologically a number of successful French businessmen with aristocratic origins. I was surprised by the number of families I had never heard of, who had built companies in fashion or in technology, always outside Paris. He analyses in depth the particularities of members of the corporate world who are noble and comes out with very interesting interviews including the problems encountered by young aristocrats taking their exams after May 1968, who were not particularly favored… There are many funny anecdotes like the one about a young man who arrived to lunch late and was scorned by his father. The next day in the paper, a story was reporting his act of bravery for saving from drowning someone who had jumped in the Seine…
Another member is Etienne Rousseau-Plotto, a history teacher, who has written a number of books on Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel and Léon Bonnat, all local celebrities. His Russian origins led him towards researching the Biarritz white Russian community and his talent as an organist makes him very popular. He is an endless source of information on Ciboure and St Jean de Luz. The lunch we shared at Pantxua in the harbor of Ciboure was excellent with fresh fish and mushroom raviolis. The collection of Basque paintings hanging on the walls is remarkable. This is the third generation of the same owners and the daughters of the chef are already lined up to run the place one day.
Yet, Olivier Ribeton is the true scientist behind the collection, one of the most important family portraits collection in France, which he has been exhibiting relentlessly over the years. And there will hopefully be more shows in the near future.
I ended this short but glorious visit at Hotel Regina where I used to go as a little girl to play golf with my father. It was much trendier than before and the warm welcome won me over. With a stopover at Chocolaterie Henriet for lemon tart and baba au rhum in the center of town, my stay was perfect.
Train to Bayonne is 4 h from Gare Montparnasse. Bayonne, Biarritz, St Jean de Luz are all worth visiting. But driving around the countryside is the real treat.
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