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Castles and Chateaux of Old Navarre and the Basque Provinces
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OLORON AND THE VAL D'ASPE
OLORON, at the confluence of the Gave d'Ossau and the Gave d'Aspe, has existed since Roman times, when it was known as Iluro, finally changing to Oloro and Olero. It was sacked by the Saracens in 732, and later entirely ruined by the Normans. Centulle, Vicomte de Béarn, reestablished the city, and for a time made it his residence.
The roads and lanes and paths of the neighbourhood of Oloron offer some of the most charming promenades of the region, but one must go on foot or on donkey-back (the latter at a cost of five francs a day) to discover all their beauties. The highroads of the Pyrenees are a speedy and a short means of communication between two points, but the delicate charm of the region is only discovered by following the by-roads, quite away from the beaten track.
Oloron will some day be an artists' resort, but it hasn't been exploited as such yet. It sits delightfully on the banks of the two Gaves, and has all the picturesqueness that old tumble-down Gothic and Renaissance houses and bridges can suggest, the whole surrounded with a verdure and a rocky setting which is "all things to all (painter) men."
In reality Oloron is a triple city, each quite distinct from one another: Sainte-Marie, the episcopal city, with the cathedral and the bishop's palace; Sainte-Croix, the old feudal bourg; and the Quartier Neuve, the quarter of the railway station, the warehouses and all the smug commercialism which has spoiled many a fair landscape elsewhere.
The feudal Sainte-Croix has character; the episcopal Sainte-Marie dignity. In Sainte-Croix the houses rise up from the surface of the Gave in the most entrancing, damp picturesqueness imaginable as the waters flow swiftly down towards Orthez. Back from the river, the houses are mounted on tortuous hillsides, with narrow, silent streets, as if they and their inhabitants all lived in the past. On the very crest of the hill is the Église Sainte-Croix, founded in the ninth century by one of the Vicomtes de Béarn, a monument every whit as interesting as the great cathedral lower down.
The diocese of Saint-Marie d 'Oloron was the least wealthy of any of mediæval France. Its government allowance was but thirteen thousand francs, and this sum had to be divided with the Bishop of Lescar. On the other hand, the city of Oloron itself was important and wealthy in its own right.
In the Faubourg of Sainte-Croix one remarks as real a mediævalism as exists anywhere in France to-day. Its streets are narrow and silent, and therein are found many examples of domestic habitations dating back to Roman times. These are very rare to-day, even in southern Gaul, where the hand of progress is supposed to be weak. Interspersed with these Romanesque houses are admirable works of the Gothic and Renaissance periods. There is very little that is modern.
Of the old city walls but little evidence remains. A kind of rampart is seen here and there built into other structures, and one, at least, of the watch-towers is left, of the dozen or more that once existed. Sainte-Croix still has, however, an archaic aspect which bids fair not to change within the lives of the present generation.
The chief industries of Oloron are the making of espadrilles, and the weaving of "toile du Béarn," a species of linen with which housewives all over these parts stock their linen closets once in a lifetime, and which lasts till they die, or perhaps longer, and is handed down to their daughters and granddaughters.
Another echo of Protestantism in Béarn still reverberates at Oloron. A one-time Bishop of Oloron, a protégé of Marguerite de Navarre, became a disciple of Martin Luther. He was named Roussel, and had been a professor of philosophy in the University of Paris. He had travelled in Germany, had met Luther, and had all but accepted his religion, when, returning to Béarn, he came into favour with the learned Marguerite, who nominated him Bishop of Oloron. He hesitated between the two religions, knowing not which to take. Meantime he professed both one and the other; in the morning he was for Rome, and in the evening for Luther; and preaching thus in the churches and temples he became a natural enemy of both parties. One day he was summarily despatched by a blow with a hatchet which one of his parishioners had concealed upon his person as he came to church. For this act the murderer was, in the reign of Henri IV, made Bishop of Oloron in the unworthy Roussel's place.
Six kilometres from Oloron, at Eysus, a tiny hamlet too small to be noted in most guide books, is an old Château de Plaisance of the Vicomtes de Béarn. Folks had the habit, even in the old days, of living around wherever fancy willed — the same as some of us do to-day. It has some advantages and not many disadvantages.
Back of Oloron, towards the foot-hills of the Pyrenees, is another of those little kingdoms which were scattered all over France, and which only geographers and antiquarians know sufficiently well to be able to place offhand. This is the Barétous, and very curious it is with the survival of its old customs and costumes. Up to Aramits the routes are much frequented, but as one penetrates further into the fastnesses of the mountains, there is an immense sadness that is as entrancing as the most vivid gaiety. Pushing through to the Spanish frontier, fifty kilometres or more beyond Aramits, a whole kaleidoscope of mountain charms unrolls itself at every step.
At the Spanish frontier limit, a quaint and curious ceremony is held on the thirteenth of July in each year by the Baretains and their Spanish neighbours. The Baretains, by an ancient right, pasture their flocks up in the high valleys of the Ronçal, and, to recognize the right of the Ronçalois to keep them out of their pasturage if they so chose, the Baretains pay them homage. The ceremony is carried out before a notary, seven jurats being the representatives of the Baretains, each armed with a pike, as are the representatives of Ronçal. The first lay down their pikes before the latter, and, in a second layer, their points turned towards the Béarnais capital, are placed those of the Ronçalois. Then a shout of acclamation goes up and rends the air: "Patz abantz! Patz abantz! Patz abantz! — Peace for the future!" This is the signal for a general rejoicing, and a merry-making of dancing and eating and drinking, not far different from other fêtes. It is the setting that makes it so remarkable, and the quaint costumes and customs of the men and women of two nations mingling in a common fête.
This Franco-Espagnol ceremony is accomplished with much éclat on a little square of ground set off on the maps of the État Major as "Champ de Foire Français et Espagnol." Tradition demands that three cows be given or offered to the Spanish by the French for the privilege of pasturage over the border in the Spanish valleys. The cows are loosed on the Champ de Foire, and if they remain for half an hour without crossing the line into France again they belong to the Spanish. If, on the other hand, one or more cross back into France they remain the property of the French.
Formerly three horses were used for this part of the function, but as they were bound to have a white star on the forehead, and as that variety of beast is rare in these parts, a compromise was made to carry out the pact with the cows.
The most historic spot in the Gave d'Aspe is unquestionably Sarrance. Notre Dame de Sarrance is a venerable and supposedly miraculous statue. Numbers of pilgrims have visited the shrine in times past, among them the none too constant Louis XI, who, if he was devoted to Our Lady of Cléry and Notre Dame de Embrun, was ready to bow down before any whom he thought might do him a good turn.
Certainly Sarrance's most favourite memory is that of the celebrated Marguerite de Navarre. If she did not write, she at least conceived the idea of her "Heptameron" here, if history is to be believed.
The title page of this immortal work reads as follows,
"des nouvelles de très illustré et très excellente princesse, Marguerite de Valois, Reine de Navarre."
The history of the inception of these tales is often inexactly recounted at this late day, but in the main the facts seem to be as follows: —
In September (1549?), when the queen and her followers were journeying from Cauterets to Tarbes, the waters of the Gave overflowed their banks and destroyed the bridge of Sarrance. The party stopped first at the Abbaye de Saint Savin, and again at the Monastère de Notre Dame de Sarrance. Ten days were necessary to repair the bridge which had been carried away, and time apparently hung heavy on the hands of every one. To break the ennui of their sojourn in the company of these austere monks of Sarrance, the royal party sought what amusements they might.
In the morning all met with the Dame Oysille, the eldest of the company, when they had an hour's reading of the Scriptures. After this there was a mass; then at ten o'clock they dined; finally each retired to his room — "pour ses affaires particulières," says the old record — presumably to sleep, though it was early in the day for that. In the afternoon ("depuis midi jusques à quatres heures," ran the old chronicle) they all assembled in the meadow by the river's bank beneath the trees, and each, seated at his ease, recounted such salacious satires and tales as would have added to the fame of Boccaccio. This procedure went on until the tellers of tales were interrupted by the coming of the prior who called them to vespers.
These tales or "contes," or "petites histoires," or whatever one chooses to call them, free of speech and of incident as was the custom of the time, were afterwards mothered by the queen of Navarre, and given to the world as the product of her fertile mind. Judging from their popularity at that time, and since, the fair lady must have been a wonderful storyteller.
The gentle slopes of a prairie along the banks of the Gave near by is the reputed spot where these tales were told, — a spot "where the sun could not pierce the thick foliage," certainly romantically and picturesquely endowed. The site is charming, and one can picture the scene all out again for himself if he is possessed of the least bit of imaginative sense.
Still following the valley of the Aspe upward, one comes next to Bedous, really a pretentious little city, but unheard of by conventional travellers. Everything begins to take on a Spanish hue, and the church, dating from 1631, is more Spanish than French in its architecture and all its appointments. All the commercial life of the valley centres here, and a mixed Franco-Espagnol traffic goes on. It is principally the trading of cattle, sheep and wool, with an occasional porker or a donkey sold, or bargained for, on the side. Bedous has been marked out as being the terminus of a railway line yet to be built. Until the times shall be propitious for pushing the railway on into Spain the town will remain simply what it has been for centuries. When that day comes, much of the charm of the region will be gone. The automobile is no such desecrator as the railway, let scoffers say what they will.
In the valley of the Aspe, with snow-capped mountains in full view, there is a surprising softness of climate all through the year. In this valley was the last refuge of Protestantism in the days of the religious wars, and the little village of Bedous still possesses a "temple" and a "pastor."
Above Bedous, towards the crest of the Pyrenees, is Accous, and as one progresses things become more and more Spanish, until the sign "Posada" is as frequent as "Auberge."
Accous offers no curiosities to visitors, but it was here that Victor Hugo gave the last glimpses of Jean Valjean when the police were close upon his trail; "at the place called the Grange de Doumec, near the hamlet of Chavilles," ran the romance.
From this point the valley of the Aspe opens almost perpendicularly into the heart of the rock wall of the Pyrenees; it is a veritable chasm in its upper reaches; and in this rocky defile was once a tiny feudality, absorbed and later wiped into oblivion by the Revolution.
Beyond Sarrance are Urdos and Somport and the fortress of Portalet. The route was known to the ancients as that through which the Saracens came from Spain to over-run southern Gaul. Somport was the Summus Pyreneus of the old-time historians of the Romans.