(The giants of the Fêtes de Bayonne. Photo: AFP)
A bullfighter and a crowd at this year's festival. Photo: AFP
Around one million people visit the Bayonne Festival in southern France – it is an event which features everything from live music and parades to games for children and fireworks.
The festival kicked off on Wednesday and although this year people are being charged for the first time to enter – a small fee of €8 – hundreds of thousands of revellers will head to Bayonne to enjoy what is dubbed France's wildest party.
Each day will be jam packed with activities including parades of illuminated floats, traditional songs and dances, food and drink stalls in every direction and music concerts.
At nights, festival goers are known to dance, spin, and often stumble from peñas to peñas (neighbourhood clubs) in a sea of sound and movement that lasts until the early hours of the morning.
But the festival also features one activity that means many will never set foot in Bayonne during the event.
At the weekend, bullfighting is a prominent part of the festival.
Some of The Local's readers have previously expressed strong opinions about Bayonne with some calling the festival “shameful”, “tragic” and “disgraceful”.
“It's not a 'party' – it's a shameful display of animal abuse,” said Sam Goff.
“Because there is bullfighting and terrified animals running around I will never go to this,” said Sophie Eibrand.
“Let's face it, this festival is all about bullfighting,” said another reader.
Stopping 'perverse' bullfights
But it's not just The Local's readers who are against the festival's bullfighting, or “La Corrida” as it's called in French.
The French group CRAC Europe (The Radical Committee Against Corrida) is among the leading voices against bullfighting, however the group would not support a boycott of Bayonne festival, just the corrida.
“Bullfighting in general is perverse, it's sadism, and it's incredible that in the 21st century there is still entertainment based on stabbing animals to death,” the group's vice president, Roger Lahana, told The Local previously.
“In Bayonne they have nice parties, and we have nothing against people who want to have fun, drink, dance, and listen to music. But festivals don't need bullfights,” he said.
CRAC's Lahana points out that at a festival in Mont-de-Marsan there were 100,000 people on the street partying while just 7,000 attended the bullfight.
“You can do the maths, people will still go to festivals without bullfights, and festivals are going to continue even if bullfights were to disappear,” he said.
Lahana says in France, most people have no idea that there is bullfighting, most likely because it only happens in a small corner of the south, in only 65 of France's 40,000 towns.
A bullfighter at a previous Bayonne festival. Photo: AFP
Bullfighting crowd 'small but devoted'
Xabi Belain of Bayonne's tourist office told The Local that people who wanted to come to the festival shouldn't let the bullfights stop them.
“Bullfighting is a tradition in France,” he said.
“We understand that it is complicated for some people, but this is a strong tradition, especially in Bayonne which was the first place in France to host bullfighting.”
“But the bullfighting is one of the smallest parts of the festival. One million people come for a whole host of activities – it's a huge party – and the bullfighting arena only fits 10,000 people.”
He said that those who come for the bullfights are a “small but devoted” group, many of whom come to see some of the world's best bullfighters perform.
And for those who are against the bullfighting, he had a simple message:
“For those people who don't want to see the bullfighting – we understand – but you don't need to boycott the festival,” he said.
He added that it was no secret that the festival itself was “extremely important” for the town's economy.
The Bayonne Festival – a sea of red and white. Photo: AFP
What else can I actually do there?
The five-day programme (only available in French) is overflowing with activities on offer, with every hour of the day seemingly filled with something to do.
The event, which sees participants dressed in a sea of red and white, has been described as one of the biggest and wildest parties in all of Europe.
And there's never a dull moment. For example, Thursday's programme alone promises children's events throughout the day, a morning yoga class, a street hip hop performance, traditional music shows, a pétanque tournament, and a night-time ball that runs from 10 pm until 3 am.
The weekend will see even bigger and presumably better events including concerts and fireworks.
There are plenty of traditions on hand too, one that sees King Leon, a huge papier mache figure, watching over other huge inflatable giants that are paraded through the streets.
(The giants of the Fêtes de Bayonne. Photo: AFP)
These represent the king's court – including the jester, the marshall, the chocolatier, the housekeeper and the doctor (see above). They are all said to represent values expected from the crowd during the festival, like fun, good health, and good behaviour.
Ship crews take part in the traditional “joutes languedociennes” on the Nive river in Bayonne. Photo: AFP
While it's a safe bet that the bullfighting will draw a crowd over the next few days in Bayonne, this might not be the case in the future.
The anti-bullfighting group CRAC Europe scored a major legal victory on Wednesday after France's highest administrative body, the Conseil d'Etat, upheld a ban on the practice from the national list of cultural heritage.
Perhaps a total ban isn't too far away.
Men cook as they take part in the traditional “championnat d'omelette aux piments” in Bayonne: Photo: AFP
So, are you keen to join the festivities? Here's how to get there. The town is located to the east of Biarritz in south-western France, not far from the Spanish border.
It's served by the Biarritz-Anglet-Bayonne Airport which operates daily flights within France and abroad.
If you're taking the train, Bayonne has a TGV station. Motorists can access the town from highways D 810, RN 117, A63, and A64.