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Castles and Chateaux of Old Navarre and the Basque Provinces
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OF THE HISTORY AND TOPOGRAPHY OF BÉARN
THE old Vicomté de Béarn lay snug within the embrace of the Pyrenees between Foix, Comminges and Basse Navarre. It was further divided into various small districts whose entities were later swallowed by the parent state, and still later by the royal domain under the rule of Henry IV.
There is one of these divisions, which not every traveller through the smiling valleys of the Pyrenees knows either by name or history. It is the Pays de Bidache, formerly the principality of Bidache, a tiny kingdom whose sovereign belonged to the house of Grammont. This little principality was analogous to that of Liechtenstein, lying between Switzerland and Austria. Nothing remains but the title, and the Grammonts, who figure in the noblesse of France to-day, are still by right Princes de Bidache, the eldest of the family being also Duo de Guiche. The château of the Grammonts at Bidache, which is a town of eight or nine hundred inhabitants, sits high on the bill overlooking the town. It is in ruins, but, nevertheless, there are some very considerable vestiges remaining of the glories that it possessed in the times of Henri IV when the house of Grammont was at its greatest height.
In the little village church are the tombs of the Sires de Grammont, notably that of the Maréchal Antoine III, who died in 1678.
Bidache was made a duché-pairie for the family De Grammont, who, by virtue of their letters patent, were absolute sovereigns. The Princes de Bidache, up to the Revolution, exercised all the rights of a chief of state, a curious latter day survival of feudal powers.
Tradition plays no small part even to-day in the affairs of the De Grammonts, and the old walls of the family château could tell much that outsiders would hardly suspect. One fact has leaked out and is on public record. The sons born in the family are usually named Agenor, and the daughters Corisande, names illustrious in the golden days of Béarnais history.
Throughout all this ancient principality of Bidache the spirit of feudality has been effaced in these later Republican days, a thing the kings of France and Navarre and the parlément de Pau could not accomplish. As in other parts of Béarn and the Basque provinces, it is now entirely swallowed by "la nationalité française."
The Duc de Grammont still possesses the Château de Guiche, and the non-forfeitable titles of his ancestors; but, virtually, he is no more than any other citizen.
Just north from Bidache, set whimsically on a hillside above the Adour, is the feudal village of Hastingues. It was an English creation, founded by John of Hastings towards 1300, for Edward I. It is crowded to the very walls with curious old houses in which its inhabitants live with much more tranquillity than in feudal times. The fourteenth-century fortifications are still much in evidence.
Up the river from Hastingues is Peyrehorade, or in the old Béarnais tongue Pérorade, literally roche-percée. It is the metropolis of the region, and has a population of twenty-five hundred simple folk who live tight little lives, and not more than once in a generation get fifty miles away from their home.
The Vicomtes d'Orthe fortified the city in olden times, and the ruined château-fort of Aspremont on the hillside overlooking the river valley and the town tells the story of feudal combat far better than the restored and made over edifices of a contemporary period. Its pentagonal donjon of the sixteenth century is as grim and imposing a tower of its class as may be conceived.
Below, along the river bank, is the sixteenth-century château of Montréal, its walls still standing flanked with grim, heavy, uncoiffed towers. It is all sadly disfigured, like its fellow on the heights; but the very sadness of it all makes it the more emphatic as a historical monument of the past.
In the villages round about the dominant industry appears to be sabot-making, as in the Basque country it is the making of espadrilles. Each is a species of shoe-making which knows not automatic machinery, nor ever will.
Lying between Basse Navarre and Béarn was the Pays de Soule, with Mauléon and Tardets as its chief centres of population. The district has a bit of feudal history which is interesting. It was a region of mediocre extent — not more than thirty leagues square — but with a political administration more complex than any Gerrymandering administration has dared to conceive since.
The district was divided into three Messageries, Haute Soule, Basse Soule and Arbailles. Each of these divisions had at its head a functionary called a Messager, and each was in turn divided again into smaller parcels of territory called Vics, each of which had a sort of beadle as an official head, called a Degan.
Popular election put all these officials in power, but the Courts of Justice were administered by the king of France, as heir to the kings of Navarre.
Mauléon takes its name from the old château which in the local tongue was known as Malo-Leone. Mainly it is of the fifteenth century. The interior court has been made over into a sort of formal garden, quite out of keeping with its former purpose, and by far the most impressive suggestions are received from the exterior. There are the usual underground prisons, or cachots, which the guardian takes pleasure in showing.
From the chemin de ronde, encircling the central tower, one has a wide-spread panorama of the Gave de Mauléon as it rushes down from its cradle near the crest of the Pyrenees. Mauléon is the centre for the manufacture of the local Pyrenean variety of footwear called espadrilles, a sort of a cross between a sandal and a moccasin, with a rope sole. The population who work at this trade are mostly Spaniards from Ronça, Pamplona and in fact all Aragon. This accounts largely for Mauléon's recent increase in population, whilst most other neighbouring small towns have reduced their ranks. For this reason Mauléon is a phenomenon. Paris and the great provincial capitals, like Marseilles, Bordeaux and Rouen, constantly increase in numbers, but most of the small towns of France either stand still, or more likely fall off in numbers Here at this little Pyrenean centre the population has doubled since the Franco-Prussian war.
The historical monuments of Mauléon are not many, but the whole ensemble is warm in its unassuming appeal to the lover of new sensations. The lower town is simply laid out, has the conventional tree-bordered promenade of a small French town, its fronton de pelote (the national game of these parts), a fine old Renaissance house called the Hôtel d'Andurrian, and a cross-surmounted column which looks ancient, and is certainly picturesque.
Dumas laid the scene of one of his celebrated sword and cloak romances here at Mauléon, but as the critics say, he so often distorted facts, and built châteaux that never existed, the scene might as well have been somewhere else. This is not saying that they were not romances which have been seldom, if ever, equalled.
They were indeed the peers of their class. Let travellers in France read and re-read such romances as the D'Artagnan series, or even Monte Cristo, and they will fall far more readily into the spirit of things in feudal times than they will by attempting to digest Carlylean rant and guide-book literature made in the British Museum. Dumas, at any rate, had the genuine spirit of the French, and with it well-seasoned everything he wrote. The story of Agenor de Mauléon, a real chevalier of romance and fable, is very nearly as good as his best.
Leaving Tardets by the Route d'Oloron, one makes his way by a veritable mountain road. Its rises and falls are not sharp, but they are frequent, and on each side rear small, rocky peaks and great mamelons of stone, as in the Val d'Enfer of Dante.
Montory is the first considerable village en route, and if French is to-day the national language, one would not think it from anything heard here offhand, for the inhabitants speak mostly Basque. In spite of this, the inhabitants, by reason of being under the domination of Oloron, consider themselves Béarnais.
Montory, and the Barétous near-by, have intimate relations with Spain. All Aragon and Navarre, at least all those who trade horses and mules, come through here to the markets of Gascogne and Poitou. Frequently they don't get any farther than Oloron, having sold their stock to the Béarnais traders at this point. The Béarnais horse-dealers are the worthy rivals of the Maquignons of Brittany.
The next village of the Barétous is Lanne, huddled close beneath the flanks of a thousand-metre peak, called the Basse-Blanc. Lanne possesses a diminutive château — called a gentilhommière in olden times, a name which explains itself. The edifice is not a very grand or imposing structure, and one takes it to be more of a country-house than a stronghold, much the same sort of a habitation as one imagines the paternal roof of D'Artagnan, comrade of the Mousquetaires, to have been.
Aramits, near by, furnished, with but little evolution, one of the heroic names of the D'Artagnan romances, it may be remarked. If one cares to linger in a historic, romantic literary shrine, he could do worse than stay at Aramits' Hôtel Loubeu. As for the inner man, nothing more excellent and simple can be found than the fare of this little country inn of a practically unknown corner of the Pyrenees. A diligence runs out from Oloron, fourteen kilometres, so the place is not wholly inaccessible.
Lanne's humble château, nothing more than a residence of a poor, but proud seigneur of Gascogne, is an attractive enough monument to awaken vivid memories of what may have gone on within its walls in the past, and in connection with the neighbouring venerable church and cemetery suggests a romance as well as any dumb thing can.
Aramits is bereft of historical monuments save the Mairie of to-day, which was formerly the chamber of the syndics who exercised judiciary functions here (and in the five neighbouring villages) under the orders of the États de Béarn.
Another delightful and but little known corner of Béarn is the valley of the Aspe, leading directly south from Oloron into the high valley of the Pyrenees. The Pas d'Aspe is at an elevation of seventeen hundred metres. Majestic peaks close in the valley and its half a dozen curious little towns; and, if one asks a native of anything so far away as Pau or Mauléon, perhaps fifty miles as the crow flies, he says simply: "Je ne sais pas! Je ne peux pas savoir, moi, je passe tous mes jours dans la vallée d'Aspe." Even when you ask the route over the mountain, that you may make your way back again by the Val d'Ossau, it is the same thing; they have never been that way themselves and are honest enough, luckily, not to give you directions that might put you off the road.
Directly before one is the Pic d'Anie, the king mountain of the chain of the Pyrenees between the Aspe and the sea to the westward.
Urdos is the last settlement of size as one mounts the valley. Above, the carriage road continues fairly good to the frontier, but the side roads are mere mule paths and trails. One of these zigzags its way craftily up to the Fort d'Urdos or Portalet. Here the grim walls, with their machicolations and bastions and redoubts cut out from the rock itself, give one an uncanny feeling as if some danger portended; but every one assures you that nothing of the sort will ever take place between France and Spain. This fortification is a very recent work, and formidable for its mere size, if not for the thickness of its walls. It was built in 1838-1848, at the time when Lyons, Paris and other important French cities were fortified anew.
War may not be imminent or even probable, but the best safeguard against it is protection, and so the Spaniards themselves have taken pattern of the French and erected an equally imposing fortress just over the border at the Col de Lladrones, in the valley of the Aragon, and still other batteries at Canfranc.
One of the topographic and scenic wonders of the world which belongs to Béarn is the Cirque de Gavarnie, that rock-surrounded amphitheatre of waterfalls, icy pools and caverns.
Of the Cirque de Gavarnie, Victor Hugo wrote: —
"Quel cyclope savant de l'âge évanoui,
Quel âtre monstrueux, plus grand que les idées,
A pris un compas haut de cent mille coudées
Et, le tournant d'un doigt prodigieux et sûr,
A tracé ce grand cercle au niveau de l'azur?"
Just below the "Cirque" is the little village of Gavarnie, which before the Revolution was a property of the Maltese Order, it having previously belonged to the Templars. Vestiges of their former presbytère and of their lodgings may be seen. A gruesome relic was formerly kept in the church, but it has fortunately been removed to-day. It was no less than a dozen bleached skulls of a band of unfortunate chevaliers who had been decapitated on the spot in some classic encounter the record of which has been lost to history.
Above Gavarnie, on the frontier crest of the Pyrenees, is the famous Brèche de Roland. One remembers here, if ever, his schoolboy days, and the "Song of Roland" rings ever in his ears.
"High are the hills and huge and dim with cloud;
Down in the deeps and living streams are loud."
The Brèche de Roland, with the Col de Ronçevaux, shares the fame of being the most celebrated pass of the Pyrenees. It is a vast rock fissure, at least three hundred feet in height. As a strategic point of defence against an invading army or a band of smugglers ten men could hold it against a hundred and a hundred against a thousand. At each side rises an un-scalable rock wall with a height of from three to six hundred feet.
The legend of this famous Brèche is this: Roland mounted on his charger would have passed the Pyrenees, so giving a swift clean cut of his famous sword he clave the granite wall fair in halves, and for this reason the mountaineers have ever called it the Brèche de Roland. The Tours de Marboré were built in the old days to further defend the passage, a sort of a trap, or barbican, being a further defence on French soil.
The aspect roundabout is as of a desert, except that it is mountainous, and the gray sterile juts of rock and the snows of winter — here at least five months of the year — might well lead one to imagine it were a pass in the Himalayas.
Bordering upon Béarn on the north is the ancient Comté d'Armagnac, a detached corner of the Duché de Gascogne, which dates its history from the tenth century. It passed to Henri d'Albret, king of Navarre, in 1525, and by reason of belonging to the crown of Navarre came to France in due course.
The ancient family of Armagnac had many famous names on its roll: the first Comte Bernard, the founder; Bernard II, who founded the Abbey of Saint Pé; Gerard II, successor of the preceding and a warrior as well; Bernard III, canon of Sainte-Marie d'Auch; Gerard III, who united the Comté de Fezensac with Armagnac; Bernard V, who, in league with the Comtes de Toulouse, went up against Saint Louis; Gerard V, who became an ally of the English king; Bernard VI, who warred all his life with Roger-Bernard, Comte de Foix, on the subject of the succession of the Vicomté de Béarn, to which he pretended; Jean II, who terminated the quarrel with the house of Foix; Bernard VI, the most famous warrior of his race, whose name is written in letters of blood in the chronicles of the wars of the Armagnacs and Jean IV, who was called "Comte par la grace de Dieu."