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Castles and Chateaux of Old Navarre and the Basque Provinces
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THE PYRENEES -- THEIR HISTORY AND PEOPLES
IT may be a question as to who discovered the Pyrenees, but Louis XIV was the first exploiter thereof — writing in a literal sense — when he made the famous remark "Il y a des Pyrénées." Before that, and to a certain extent even to-day, they may well be called the "Pyrénées inconnues," a terra incognita, as the old maps marked the great desert wastes of mid-Africa. The population of the entire region known as the Pyrénées Françaises is as varied as any conglomerate population to be found elsewhere in France in an area of something less than six hundred kilometres.
The Pyrenees were ever a frontier battleground. At the commencement of the eleventh century things began to shape themselves north of the mountain chain, and modern France, through the féodalité, began to grow into a well-defined entity.
Charles Martel it was, as much as any other, who made all this possible, and indeed he began it when he broke the Saracen power which had over-run all Spain and penetrated via the Pyrenean gateways into Gaul.
The Iberians who flooded southern Gaul, and even went so far afield as Ireland, came from the southwestern peninsula through the passes of the Pyrenees. They were of a southern race, in marked distinction to the Franks and Gauls. Settling south of the Garonne they became known in succeeding generations as Aquitains and spoke a local patois, different even from that of the Basques whom they somewhat resembled. The Vascons, or Gascons, were descendants of this same race, though perhaps developed through a mixture of other races.
Amidst the succession of diverse dominations, one race alone came through the mill whole, unscathed and independent. These were the Basques who occupied that region best defined to-day as lying around either side of the extreme western frontier of France and Spain.
A French savant's opinion of the status of this unique province and its people tells the story better than any improvisation that can be made. A certain M. Garet wrote in the mid-nineteenth century as follows:
"Well sheltered in the gorges of the Pyrenees, where the Gauls, the Francs and the Saracens had never attacked their liberties, the Basques have escaped any profound judgments of that race of historians and philosophers which have dissected most of the other peoples of Europe. Rome even dared not attempt to throttle the Basques and merge them into her absorbing civilization. All around them their neighbours have changed twenty times their speech, their customs and their laws, but the Basques still show their original characters and physiognomies, scarcely dimmed by the progress of the ages."
THE BASQUES OF THE MOUNTAINS
Certainly they are as proud and noble a race as one remarks in a round of European travel.
A Basque will always tell you if you ask him as to whether he is French or Spanish: "Je ne suis pas Français, je suis Basque; je ne suis Espagnol, je suis Basque; ou, — tout simplement, je suis homme."
This is as one would expect to find it, but it is possible to come across an alien even in the country of the Basque. On interrogating a smiling peasant driving a yoke of cream-coloured oxen, he replied: "Mais je ne suis pas Basque; je suis Périgourdin — born at Badefols, just by the old château of Bertrand de Born the troubadour."
One may be pardoned for a reference to the cagots of the Basque country, a despised race of people not unlike the cretins of the Alps. As Littré defines them they are distinctly a "people of the Pyrenees." The race, as a numerous body, practically is extinct to-day. They lived in poor, mean cabins, far from the towns and under the protection of a seigneurial château or abbey. All intercourse with their neighbours was forbidden, and at church they occupied a space apart, had a special holy water font, and when served with blessed bread it was thrown at them as if they were dogs, and not offered graciously.
This may have been uncharitable and unchristianlike, but the placing of separate holy water-basins in the churches was simply carrying out the principle of no intercourse between the Basques and the cagots, not even between those who had become, or professed to be Christians. "The loyal hand of a Basque should touch nothing that had previously been touched by a cagot."
From the Basque country, through the heart of the Pyrenees, circling Béarn, Navarre and Foix, to Roussillon is a far cry, and a vast change in speech and manners.
Life in a Pyrenean village for a round of the seasons would probably cure most of the ills that flesh is heir to. It may be doubtful as to who was the real inventor of the simple life — unless it was Adam — but Jean Jacques Rousseau was astonished that people did not live more in the open air as a remedy against the too liberal taking of medicine.
"Gouter la liberté sur la montagne immense!" This was the dream of the poet, but it may become the reality of any who choose to try it. One remarks a certain indifference among the mountaineers of the Pyrenees for the conventions of life.
mountaineer of the Pyrenees would rather ride a donkey than a pure
bred Arab or drive an automobile. He has no use for the proverb: —
"Honourable is the riding of a horse to the rider,
But the mule is a dishonour and a donkey a disgrace."
When one recalls the fact that there are comparatively few of the bovine race in the south of France, more particularly in Languedoc and Provence, he understands why it is that one finds the cuisine à l'huile d'olive — and sometimes huile d'arachide, which is made from peanuts, and not bad at that, at least not unhealthful.
In the Pyrenees proper, where the pasturage is rich, cattle are more numerous, and nowhere, not even in the Allier or Poitou in mid-France, will one find finer cows or oxen. Little, sure-footed donkeys, with white-gray muzzles and crosses down their backs, and great cream-coloured oxen seem to do all the work that elsewhere is done by horses. There are ponies, too, — short-haired, tiny beasts, — in the Pyrenees, and in the summer months one sees a Basque or a Béarnais horse-dealer driving his live stock (ponies only) on the hoof all over France, and making sales by the way.
The Mediterranean terminus of the Pyrenees has quite different characteristics from that of the west. Here the mountains end in a great promontory which plunges precipitately into the Mediterranean between the Spanish province of Figueras and the rich garden-spot of Roussillon, in France.
French and Spanish manners, customs and speech are here much intermingled. On one side of the frontier they are very like those on the other; only the uniforms of the officialdom made up of douaniers, carabineros, gendarmes and soldiers differ. The type of face and figure is the same; the usual speech is the same; and dress varies but little, if at all. "Voilà! la fraternité Franco-Espagnole."
IN A PYRENEAN HERMITAGE
One ever-present reminder of two alien peoples throughout all Roussillon is the presence of the châteaux-forts, the walled towns, the watch-towers, and defences of this mountain frontier.
The chief characteristics of Roussillon, from the seacoast plain up the mountain valleys to the passes, are the château ruins, towers and moss-grown hermitages, all relics of a day of vigorous, able workmen, who built, if not for eternity, at least for centuries. In the Pyrénées-Orientales alone there are reckoned thirty-five abandoned hermitages, any one of which will awaken memories in the mind of a romantic novelist which will supply him with more background material than he can use up in a dozen medieval romances. And if he takes one or more of these hallowed spots of the Pyrenees for a setting he will have something quite as worthy as the overdone Italian hilltop hermitage, and a good deal fresher in a colour sense.
The strategic Pyrenean frontier, nearly six hundred kilometres, following the various twistings and turnings, has not varied in any particular since the treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659. From Cap Cerbère on the Mediterranean it runs, via the crests of the Monts Albères, up to Perthus, and then by the crests of the Pyrénées-Orientales, properly called, up to Puigmal; and traversing the Sègre, crosses the Col de la Perche and passes the Pic Nègre, separating France from the Val d'Andorre, crosses the Garonne to attain the peaks of the Pyrénées-Occidentales, and so, via the Forêt d'Iraty, and through the Pays Basque, finally comes to the banks of the Bidassoa, between Hendaye and Iran-Feuntarrabia.
The Treaty of Verdun gave the territory of France as extending up to the Pyrenees and beyond (to include the Comté de Barcelone), but this limit in time was rearranged to stop at the mountain barrier. The graft didn't work! Roussillon remained for long in the possession of the house of Aragon, and its people were, in the main, closely related with the Catalans over the border, but the Treaty of the Pyrenees, in 1659, definitely acquired this fine wine-growing province for the French.
The frontier of the Pyrenees is much better defended by natural means than that of the Alps. For four hundred kilometres of its length — quite two-thirds of its entirety — the passages and breaches are inaccessible to an army, or even to a carriage.
From the times of Hannibal and Charlemagne up to the wars of the Empire only the extremities have been crossed for the invasion of alien territory. It is in these situations that one finds the frontier fortresses of to-day; at Figueras and Gerona in Spain; in France at Bellegarde (Col de Perthus), Prats-de-Mollo, Mont Louis, Villefranche and Perpignan, in the east; and at Portalet, Navarrino, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (guarding the Col de Ronçevaux) and Bayonne in the west. Bayonne and Perpignan guard the only easily practicable routes (Paris-Madrid and Paris-Barcelona).
Hannibal and Charlemagne are the two great names of early history identified with the Pyrenees. Hannibal exploited more than one popular scenic touring ground of to-day, and for a man who is judged only by his deeds — not by his personality, for no authentic portrait of him exists, even in words — he certainly was endowed with a profound foresight. Charlemagne, warrior, lawgiver and patron of letters, predominant figure of a gloomy age, met the greatest defeat of his career in the Pyrenees, at Ronçevaux, when he advanced on Spain in 778.
Close by the Cap Cerbère, where French and Spanish territory join, is the little town and pass of Banyuls. This Col de Banyuls was, in 1793, the witness of a supreme act of patriotism. The Spaniards were biding their time to invade France via Roussillon, and made overtures to the people of the little village of Banyuls — famous to-day for its vins de liqueur and not much else, but at that time numbering less than a thousand souls — to join them and make the road easy. The procureur du roi replied simply: "Les habitants de Banyuls étant français devaient tous mourir pour l'honneur et l'indépendance de la France."
Three thousand Spaniards thereupon attacked the entire forces of the little commune — men, women and children — but finding their efforts futile were forced to retire. This ended the "Battle of Banyuls," one of the "little wars" that historians have usually neglected, or overlooked, in favour of something more spectacular.
On the old "Route Royale" from Paris to Barcelona, via Perpignan, are two chefs-d'oeuvre of the medieval bridge-builder, made before the days of steel rails and wire ropes and all their attendant ugliness. These are the Pont de Perpignan over the Basse, and the Pont de Céret on the Tech, each of them spanning the stream by one single, graceful arch. The latter dates from 1336, and it is doubtful if the modern stone-mason could do his work as well as he who was responsible for this architectural treasure.
One finds a bit of superstitious ignorance once and again, even in enlightened France of to-day. It was not far from here, on the road to the Col de Banyuls, that we were asked by a peasant from what country we came. He was told by way of a joke that we were Chinese. "Est-ce loin?", he asked. "Deux cents lieues!" "Diable! c'est une bonne distance!" One suspects that he knew more than he was given credit for, and perhaps it was he that was doing the joking, for he said by way of parting: "Ma foi, c'est bien triste d'être si loin de votre mère."
What a little land of contrasts the region of the Pyrenees is! It is all things to all men. From the low-lying valleys and sea-coast plains, as one ascends into the upper regions, it is as if one went at once into another country. Certainly no greater contrast is marked in all France than that between the Hautes-Pyrénées and the Landes for instance.
The Hautes-Pyrénées of to-day was formerly made up of Bigorre, Armagnac and the extreme southerly portion of Gascogne. Cæsar called the people Tarbelli, Bigerriones and Flussates, and Visigoths, Franks and Gascons prevailed over their destinies in turn.
In the early feudal epoch Bigorre, "the country of the four valleys," had its own counts, but was united with Béarn in 1252, becoming a part of the patrimony which Henri Quatre brought ultimately to the crown of France.
Antiquities before the middle ages are rare in these parts, in spite of the memories remaining from Roman times. Perhaps the greatest of these are the baths and springs at Cauterets, one of them being known as the Bains des Espagnoles and the other as the Bains de Cesar. These unquestionably were developed in Roman times.
The chief architectural glory of the region is the ancient city of St. Bertrand the capital of Comminges, the ancient Lugdunum Convenarum of Strabon and Pliny. Its fortifications and its remarkable cathedral place it in the ranks with Carcassonne, Aigues-Mortes and Béziers.
A MOUNTAINEER OF THE PYRENEES
The manners and customs of the Bigordans of the towns (not to be confounded with the Bigoudens of Brittany) have succumbed somewhat to the importation of outside ideas by the masses who throng their baths and springs, but nevertheless their main characteristics stand out plainly.
Quite different from the Béarnais are the Bigordans, and, somewhat uncharitably, the latter have a proverb which given in their own tongue is as follows: — "Béarnès faus et courtès." Neighbourly jealousy accounts for this. The Béarnais are morose, steady and commercial, the Bigordans lively, bright and active, and their sociability is famed afar.
In the open country throughout the Pyrenees, there are three classes of inhabitants, those of the mountains and high valleys, those of the slopes, and those of the plains. The first are hard-working and active, but often ignorant and superstitious; the second are more gay, less frugal and better livers than the mountaineers; and those of the plains are often downright lazy and indolent. The mendicant race, of which old writers told, has apparently disappeared. There are practically no beggars in France except gypsies, and there is no mistaking a gypsy for any other species.
In general one can say that the inhabitants of the high Pyrenees are a simple, good and generous people, and far less given to excess than many others of the heterogeneous mass which make up the population of modern France.
Simple and commodious and made of the wool of the country are the general characteristics of the costumes of these parts, as indeed they are of most mountain regions. But the distinctive feature, with the men as with the women, is the topknot coiffure. In the plains, the men wear the Paucake-like béret, and in the high valleys a sort of a woollen bonnet — something like a Phrygian cap. With the women it is a sort of a hood of red woollen stuff, black-bordered and exceedingly picturesque. "C'est un joli cadre pour le visage d'une jolie femme," said a fat commercial traveller, with an eye for pretty women, whom the writer met at a Tarbes table d'hôte.
A writer of another century, presumably untravelled, in describing the folk of the Pyrenees remarked: "The Highlanders of the Pyrenees put one in mind of Scotland; they have round, flat caps and loose breeches." Never mind the breeches, but the béret of the Basque is no more like the tam-o'-shanter of the Scot than is an anchovy like a herring.
An English traveller once remarked on the peculiar manner of transport in these parts in emphatic fashion. "With more sense than John Bull, the Pyrenean carter knows how to build and load his wagon to the best advantage," he said. He referred to the great carts for transporting wine casks and barrels, built with the hind wheels much higher than the front ones. It's a simple mechanical exposition of the principle that a wagon so built goes up-hill much easier.
Here in the Hautes-Pyrénées they speak the speech of Languedoc, with variations, idioms and bizarre interpolations, which may be Spanish, but sound like Arabic. At any rate it's a beautiful, lisping patois, not at all like the speech of Paris, "twanged through the nose," as the men of the Midi said of it when they went up to the capital in Revolutionary times "to help capture the king's castle."
The great literary light of the region was Despourrins, a poet of the eighteenth century, whose verses have found a permanent place in French literature, and whose rhymes were chanted as were those of the troubadours of centuries before.
To just how great an extent the patois differs from the French tongue the following verse of Despourrins will show: —
"Aci, debat aqueste peyre,
Repaüse lou plus gran de touts Iou médecin,
Qui de pod d'està chena besis,
En a remplit Iou cimetyre.
"Ici, sous cette pierre,
Repose le plus grand de tous lea médicins,
Qui de peur d'être sans voisins
En a rempli le cimetière."
A humourist also was this great poet!
Throughout the Pyrenean provinces, and along the shores of the Mediterranean, from Catalonia to the Bouches-du-Rhône are found the Gitanos, or the French Gypsies, who do not differ greatly from others of their tribe wherever found. This perhaps is accounted for by the fact that the shrines of their patron saint — Sara, the servant of the "Three Maries" exiled from Judea, and who settled at Les Saintes Maries-de-la-Mer — was located near the mouth of the Rhône. This same shrine is a place of pilgrimage for the gypsies of all the world, and on the twenty-fourth of May one may see sights here such as can be equalled nowhere else. Not many travellers' itineraries have ever included a visit to this humble and lonesome little fishing village of the Bouches-du-Rhône, judging from the infrequency with which one meets written accounts.
Gypsy bands are numerous all through the Départements of the south of France, especially in Hérault and the Pyrénées-Orientales. Like most of their kind they are usually horse-traders, and perhaps horse-stealers, for their ideas of honesty and probity are not those of other men. They sometimes practise as sort of quack horse-doctors and horse and dog clippers, etc., and the women either make baskets, or, more frequently, simply beg, or "tire les cartes" and tell fortunes. They sing and dance and do many other things honest and dishonest to make a livelihood. Their world's belongings are few and their wants are not great. For the most part their possessions consist only of their personal belongings, a horse, a donkey or a mule, their caravan, or roulotte, and a gold or silver chain or two, earrings in their ears, and a knife — of course a knife, for the vagabond gypsy doesn't fight with fire-arms.
The further one goes into the French valleys of the Pyrenees the more one sees the real Gitanos of Spain, or at least of Spanish ancestry. Like all gypsy folk, they have no fixed abode, but roam and roam and roam, though never far away from their accustomed haunts. They multiply, but are seldom cross-bred out of their race.
an idyllic life that the Gitano and the Romany-Chiel leads, or at
least the poet would have us think so.
"Upon the road to Romany
It's stay, friend, stay!
There's lots o' love and lots o' time
To linger on the way;
Poppies for the twilight,
Roses for the noon,
It's happy goes as lucky goes
To Romany in June."
But as the Frenchman puts it, "look to the other side of the coin."
Brigandage is the original profession of the gypsy, though to-day the only stealing which they do is done stealthily, and not in the plain hold-up fashion. They profess a profound regard for the Catholic religion, but they practise other rites in secret, and form what one versed in French Catholicism would call a "culte particulière." It is known that they baptize their newly-born children as often as possible — of course each time in a different place — in order that they may solicit alms in each case. Downright begging is forbidden in France, but for such a purpose the law is lenient.
GITANOS FROM SPAIN
They are gross feeders, the Gitanos, and a fowl "a little high" has no terrors for them; they have even been known to eat sea-gulls, which no white man has ever had the temerity to taste. It has been said that they will eat cats and dogs and even rats, but this is doubtless another version of the Chinese fable. At any rate a mere heating of their viands in a saucePau — not by any stretch of the imagination can it be called cooking — is enough for them, and what their dishes lack in cooking is made up by liberal additions of salt, pepper, piment (which is tobacco or something like it), and saffron.
As to type, the French Gitanos are of that olive-brown complexion, with the glossy black hair, usually associated with the stage gypsy, rather small in stature, but well set up, strong and robust, fine eyes and features and, with respect to the young women and girls (who marry young), often of an astonishing beauty. In the course of a very few years the beauty of the women pales considerably, owing, no doubt, to their hard life, but among the men their fine physique and lively emotional features endure until well past the half-century.
gypsies are supposedly a joyful, amiable race; sometimes
they are and sometimes they are not; but looking at them all round it
is not difficult to apply the verses of Béranger,
"Sorciers, bateleurs ou filous
D'un ancien monde
Gais Bohémiens, d'où venez-vous."
One other class of residents in the Pyrenees must be mentioned here, and that is the family of Ursus and their descendants.
The bears of the Pyrenees are of two sorts; the dignified Ours des Pyrénées is a versatile and accomplished creature. Sometimes he is a carnivorous beast, and sometimes he is a vegetarian pure and simple — one of the kind which will not even eat eggs. The latter species is more mischievous than his terrible brother, for he forages stealthily in the night and eats wheat, buckwheat, maize, and any other break-fast-food, prepared or semi-prepared, he finds handy.
The carnivorous breed wage war against cattle and sheep, or did when they were more numerous, so that all live stock were obliged to be enclosed at night. Curiously enough, both species are fattest in winter, when conditions of life are supposed to be the hardest. There are wolves, too, in the Pyrenees, but they are not frequently met with. A bear will not attack a wolf, but a number of wolves together will attack a bear.