Port of Bayonne
Review and History

The Port of Bayonne lies in southeastern France’s Basque Country just eight kilometers inland from the mouth of the Adour where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. The port is just 22 kilometers north of France’s border with Spain. The urban area includes the popular Atlantic resort of Biarritz. In 2005, about 44 thousand people called the Port of Bayonne home, but almost 180 thousand people lived in the urban agglomerate of the Port of Bayonne, Anglet, Biarritz, and Saint-Jean-de-Luz.

The Port of Bayonne has been famous for the fine chocolates produced there for 500 years. It is also well-known for cured hams, and the locally-made Izarra liquor. Some claim that it is also the birthplace of mayonnaise and that the word is a form of “Bayonnaise.” The Port of Bayonne is home to craft industries that create traditional Basque walking sticks (called makilas) and the bats that are used in the Basque sport of pelota. The Port of Bayonne has a relatively high level of unemployment, but its local economy depends on metallurgy, tanning, pottery, ship-building, and natural gas by-products.

Port History

The Port of Bayonne was called Lapurdum by the Roman military. The Roman settlement was an important administrative center for Rome, and it became a link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.

The Port of Bayonne was well-established and busy by the 12th Century. It was part of Aquitaine and, from 1151 to 1452, an important commercial center for the Kingdom of England.

From the 12th to 16th Centuries, the Port of Bayonne became a true seaport, with trade relations with England, Flanders, Navarre, and the hanseatic cities. The port’s shipyards were highly respected. After the Adour River changed course in the 15th Century, a major building project and canal created an artificial estuary and allowed port operations to resume.

French King Charles VII captured the city as the Hundred Years’ War ended. The Adour River course changed, moving away from the city and leaving the Port of Bayonne without access to the Atlantic. Realizing its important strategic position, the French dug a canal that rerouted the river through the city once again.

The Spanish Inquisition forced Jewish refugees to the Port of Bayonne in the 16th Century, bringing with them new trades, including the now-famous chocolate-making of Bayonne.

By the 17th Century, the Port of Bayonne was busy with sea-borne trade and commerce, and port expansions were undertaken. In 1784, it received status as a free trade port exempt from regulation by police.

Until 1814, the Port of Bayonne suffered many sieges. The Marquis de Vauban constructed fortifications to protect the city that proved effective in slowing the Duke of Wellington as he took the city during the Napoleonic Wars.

Located within Basque Country and near Spain’s border, the Port of Bayonne held a strong commercial position. Basque sailors brought cinnamon and other treasures won through piracy. The word “bayonet” came from the armaments industry that developed there.

During the 19th Century, after a period of decline, the port became an industrial port serving the forges of Adour. Raw materials (coal and iron ore) were imported from Wales, England, and Bilbao. By the late 1800s, the Port of Bayonne experienced a commercial revival, and cargo traffic increased from a mere 129 thousand tons in 1875 to a million tons in 1913.

Several events contributed to a decline in the Port of Bayonne’s influence: the French Revolution of 1789, bombardment by the Duke of Wellington in the early 1800s, and centralization of French power in Paris. But in 1854, railways linked the Port of Bayonne with Paris, and tourism to the nearby resort of Biarritz attracted development and industrialization.

During the 20th Century, Spanish refugees escaped repression from Francisco Franco, finding peace in the Port of Bayonne, which is still a center for Basque nationalism.

During the 20th Century, the Port of Bayonne achieved significant growth in traffic. In the 1990s, cargo through the port reached four million tons. Much of the port’s growth was due to sulfur from Lacq, corn from the southwestern agricultural area, chemicals, hydrocarbons, and steel scrap for the steelworks of the Arcelor group. In the mid 1900s, improvements were made to the entry channels and new facilities were constructed. New dams were added in 1977 and 2000 to allow vessels up to 20 thousand DWT.

Today, the Port of Bayonne is well-known for chocolate, salt, and hams. Much of the traffic in the Port of Bayonne is related to exporting regional agricultural produce and sulfur produced at the Lacq natural gas works. The town is first a regional commercial and administrative center, but it has also become home of electronics, metallurgy, and telecommunications industries. It is also a popular tourist destination with visitors who come to see the old town and the many historic buildings.

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