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Castles and Chateaux of Old Navarre and the Basque Provinces
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ST. LIZIER AND THE COUSERANS
LE PAYS DE COUSERANS lies in the valley of the Salat, in the mid-Pyrenees, hemmed in by Foix, Comminges and Spain. Its name is derived from the Euskarans, an Iberian tribe who were here on the spot in the dark ages.
The history of the Couserans is not known to anything like the extent of its neighbouring states, and is, accordingly, very little travelled by strangers from afar, save long-bearded antiquarians who come to study St. Lizier, and regret that they were not obliged to come on donkey-back as of old, instead of by rail or automobile. The trouble with antiquarianism, as a profession, or a passion, is that it leads one to fall into a sleepy unprogressiveness which comports little with the modern means at hand for doing things. A photographic plate of a curious Roman inscription is far more truthful and convincing than the most painstaking Ruskinese pencil drawing ever limned, and a good "process cut" of the broad strokes of some facile modern artist's brush is more typical of the characteristics of a landscape than the finest wood or steel engraving our grandfathers ever knew.
If you like grand mountains, here in Couserans is Mont Vanier, a superb giant of the central chain of the Pyrenees. If it is sweet sloping valleys that you prefer, here they are in all their unspoiled wildness, for the railway actually does stop at St. Girons. If an ice-cold mountain stream would please your fancy, there is the Salat and its tributaries, flowing down by St. Girons and St. Lizier into the Garonne. And, finally, if you wish to roll back the curtain of time you will see in old St. Lizier a stage set with the accessories the reminiscent. splendours of which will be scarcely equalled by any other feudal bourg of France.
There is no region in the Pyrenees of which less is known historically than the Valley of the Salat. A vicomte reigned here in the sixteenth century, but the seigneury was divided among different branches of the family soon after; and, if they had an archivist among them, he failed to preserve his documents along with the written history of the greater affairs of Toulouse and Foix. Soon religions and civil troubles began to press and much of Couserans gave allegiance to neighbouring feudalities, with the result that from the times of Henri IV to those of the Revolution, not an historical event of note has been chronicled.
As one approaches St. Girons, the metropolis of the Couserans, by road from Foix, he passes through the Grotto of the Mas d'Azil, a great underground cave, through which runs a splendid carriage road. It is a work unique among the masterpieces f the road builders of France. This subterranean roadway has, perhaps, a length of half a kilometre and a width of from ten to thirty metres. It is not a stupendous work nor an artistic one, but a most curious one. This Grotte de Mas d'Azil with its great domed gallery can only be likened to a Byzantine cupola. This much is natural; but a roadway beneath this noble roof and a parapet alongside are the work of man.
It gave shelter to two thousand persons under its damp vault during the wars of religion, in 1625, when the neighbouring Calvinists here defended themselves successfully against the Catholic army of invaders. The cavern was practically a fortress, then, and an old atlas of the time shows its precise position as being directly behind a little fortified or walled town, the same which exists to-day. The roadway on this old map was marked, as now on the maps of the État-Major, as running directly through the "Roch du Mas," and an engraved foot-note to the plate states that the "rivière passe dessoubs ceste montagne."
When Richelieu triumphed against the Protestants he razed the fortifications of Mas d'Azil, as he did others elsewhere. The little town is really delightfully disposed to-day, and has a quaint, old domed church and a fine shaded promenade which would make an admirable stage-setting for a medieval costume play.
At Montjoie, on the road to Foix, is a curious relic of the past. In the fourteenth century it was a famous walled town of considerable pretensions; but, to-day, a population of a hundred find it hard work to earn a livelihood. The square, battlemented walls of the little bourg are still in evidence, flanked with four tourelles at the corners and pierced with two gates. Architecturally it is a mélange of Romanesque and Gothic.
Castelnau-Durban lies midway between St. Girons and Foix, and possesses still, with some semblance to its former magnificence though it be a ruin, an old thirteenth-century château. At Rimont, near by, is an ancient bastide royale, a sort of kingly rest-house or hunting lodge of olden days. The bastide and the cabanon are varieties of small country-houses, one or the other of which may be found scattered everywhere through the south of France, from the Pyrenees to the Alps. They are low-built, square, red-tiled, little houses, a sort of abbreviated Italian villa, though their architecture is more Spanish than Italian. They are the punctuating notes of every southern French landscape.
One cannot improve on an unknown French poet's description of the bastide: —
"Monuments fastueux d'orgueil ou de puissance,
Hôtels, palais, chateaux, votre magnificence
N'éblouit pas mes yeux, n'inspire pas mes chants.
Je ne veux célébrer que la maison des champs,
La riante bastide ..."
St. Girons has a particularly advantageous and attractive site at the junction of two rivers, the Lez and the Salat, and of four great transversal roadways. The traffic with the Spanish Pyrenean provinces has always been very great, particularly in cattle, as St. Girons is the nearest large town in France to the Spanish frontier.
A century ago a traveller described St. Girons as a "dull crumbling town," but he died too soon, this none too acute observer. It was near-by St. Lizier that had begun to crumble, while St. Girons itself was already prospering anew. To-day it has arrived. Its definitive position has been established. Its affairs augment continually; and it is one of the few towns in these parts which has added fifty per cent to its population in the last fifty years.
St. Girons is without any remarkably interesting monuments, though the town is delightfully situated and laid out and there is real character and picturesqueness in its tree-lined promenade along the banks of the Salat. Originally St. Girons was known as Bourg-sous-Ville, being but a dependency of St. Lizier. To-day the state of things is exactly reversed. In the twelfth century it came to have a name of its own, after that of the Apostle Geronius. In the Quartier Villefranche, at St. Girons, on the left bank of the Salat, is the Palais de Justice, once the old château of the seigneurs, which architecturally ranks second to the old Église de St. Vanier with its great Romanesque doorway and its crenelated tower like that of a donjon.
St. Lizier, just out of St. Girons on the St. Gauden's road, is one of the medieval glories which exist to-day only in their historic past. Its château, its cathedral and its old stone bridge are unfortunately so weather-worn as to be all but crumbled away; but they still point plainly to the magnificent record that once was theirs. Once St. Lizier was the principal city of Couserans, a region which included all that country lying between the basins of the Ariège and the Garonne. In Roman days it was an important strategic point and bore the imposing name of Lugdunum Consoranorum. Later it became a bishopric and preserved all its prerogatives up to the Revolution.
The cloister of the twelfth and fourteenth-century cathedral has been classed as one of those Monuments Historiques over which the French Minister of Beaux Arts has a loving care. The château of other days was used also as an episcopal palace, but has undergone today the desecration of serving as a madhouse. .
At each step, as one strolls through St. Lizier, he comes upon relics of the past, posterior even to the coming of Christianity. On the height of the hill were four pagan temples, one each to the honour of Minerva, Mars, Jupiter and Janus. Only a simple souvenir of the latter remains to complete the story of their former existence as set forth in the chronicles. There is a two-visaged "Janus-head," discovered in 1771, which is now in the old cathedral.
To the north of St. Lizier, a dozen kilometres or so, is the Château de Noailhan, dating from the fifteenth century, which is admirable from an architectural point of view.
Above St. Girons, in the valley of the Salat, is the quaint little city of Seix. It is delightful because it has not been exploited; and if you do not mind a twenty-kilometre diligence ride from St. Girons, if travelling by rail, it will give you a practical demonstration of a "rest-cure." The ruins of the Châteaux de Mirabel and La Garde, close to the Pont de la Saule, recall the fact that Charlemagne confided the guarding of these upper valleys of the Couserans to the inhabitants of Seix, and gave it the dignity of being called a "Ville Royale."
In the Vallée d'Ustou one may see a real novelty in industry which the mountaineers have developed, and a monopoly at that. Think of that, ye who talk of the uncommercialism of effete Europe!
It is the trade in dancing bears which the montagnards of Uston control. Not great, overbearing, ugly, unwholesome-looking animals like grizzlies, nor sleek pale polar bears, but spicy-looking, cinnamon-coloured little bears, as gentle apparently as a shaggy Newfoundland, and frequently not much bigger. When one does grow out of his class, and rises head and shoulders above his fellows as he stands on his hind legs, he is a moth-eaten, crotchety specimen whose only usefulness is as a "come-on," or a preceptor, for the younger ones.
TRAINED BEARS OF THE VALLÉE D'USTOU
There's nothing difficult about teaching a bear to dance. At least one so judges from watching the process here; but one needs patience, a will, and must not know fear, for even a dancing bear has wicked teeth and claws; and, his strength, if dormant, is dangerous if he once suspects he is master and not slave. Above all the teeth are a great and valuable asset to a dancing bear. A bear who simply struts around and holds his muzzle in air is put in the very rear row of the chorus and called a sal cochon, but one who grins and shows his teeth has possibilities in his profession that the other will never dream of. The bears of the country fairs of France are all descended from the best families of Ustou; and, whatever their lack of grace may be in the dance, certainly "personne est plus amoureux dans la société."
All through Couserans, particularly along the river valleys, are piquant little villages and smiling peasant folk, ever willing to pass the time of day with the stranger, or discuss the good old days before the railroad came to St. Girons, and when St. Lizier was looked upon as being a possible religious capital of the world.
In the high valleys, above St. Girons, in Beth-male in particular, one finds still a reminiscence of the past in the picturesque costumes of the peasants not yet fallen before the advance of Paris modes. The men wear short red or blue breeches, embroidered with arabesques down the sides, and, on fête-days, a big broad-brimmed hat, and a vest of embroidered velours, with great turned-up sabots, something like those of the Ariège.
The women have a sort of red bonnet coiffe, held tight around the head by a kind of diadem of ribbon, and a great white-winged cap tumbling to the shoulders. The skirt is short with very many pleats, and there is also the traditional sabot. This is the best description the author, a mere man, can give.
High up in this same valley is the little village of Biert, once the civil capital of the region, as was St. Lizier the religious capital. To-day there are between three and four thousand people here. Just above is the Col de Port, 1,249 metres high, leading into the watershed of the Ariège and the Comté de Foix.