The Béarn

Friday 29th January 2010, Salies de Béarn, Aquitaine
Yesterday we moved on from the Languedoc, to Aquitaine, at the western end of the Pyrenees on the very edge of the Basque region. We are staying for a few days with a work colleague of Ian from his days working at the Guildhall Library in the City of London.

Twice before we have called in briefly here in passing. On both occasions it rained continuously and this visit is no different. So far it hasn't mattered much but the lady in the baker's shop warns us to expect ten days of it.

Our Michelin road atlas cheerfully states the normal travelling time between Narbonne and Pau, the nearest approximations to our own route, to be around three hours. It took us about eight! We though, avoided the motorways and stopped for coffee, lunch and a nap for me. I always start to feel incredibly sleepy at 3pm on a long journey. Nevertheless, our journey was almost 300 miles so the atlas guidelines were way out.

Our route took us along the French side of the snow-covered massif of the Pyrenees which were continuously with us from Foix until we turned off towards Tarbes, bypassing the route through Lourdes which we took back in 2005. Much of our journey was through the heartland of the region of the Cathars but this time we needed to reach our destination in one day rather than the three it took us last time. We have though, written about the spectacular strongholds of the Cathars and about Lourdes as well as Salies de Bearn and its surroundings at Wholly snug on the holy trail

We reached Salies around 6pm. Meanwhile Ralph had flown from London to Biarritz to arrive here just ten minutes after us. We were soon installed in the house which has been unoccupied for several months. With the heating turned up high and our huge box of Berlou wine we spent a very pleasant evening over a leisurely supper.

This morning we woke to a cold dark house. The electricity had failed during the night and we were quite unable to find the fault to set it going. Eventually, with the help of a neighbour, we found an electrician who promptly had the lights back on and the radiators working. Even he though couldn't find whatever was causing the problem. He ensured everything was safe and then refused payment because, he said, apart from testing the appliances he'd not needed to do any work!! I think you'd have to go a long way in England to find an electrician prepared to come out as an emergency and then not expect payment!

During the day we went our separate ways, Ralph to visit friends while we explored this pretty little spa town with its parks, thermal baths, elegant houses and the bustling narrow streets of the old town through which runs the turbulent little river Saleys, swollen with the constantly falling rain. (Please see our 2005 blog mentioned above where Salies has been described in full.) It is a charming place though appears to have been discovered by the English in a big way. But then, we did once own this region of France. The British were not finally pushed out of Aquitaine until 1451.

Swollen river through the centre of Salies de Béarn

Sunday 31st January 2010, Salies de Béarn, Aquitaine
Yesterday it was still raining pretty well constantly, frequently bursting into violent downpours. Most of the roads were under a sheet of water as the rain fell faster than it could possibly drain away and the river Saleys in the town centre had risen several feet and was flowing in whirling torrents, brown with mud and topped with white horses.

Leaving Ralph to join one of his resident English friends for lunch we drove to Orthez, our nearest reasonably sized town. We were in search of dry shoes for both of us, having discovered our hiking boots were the only ones capable of withstanding the Béarnais weather. The ubiquitous French "zone commercial" on the outskirts of Orthez provided everything we needed including warmth and shelter on such a horrible day. The cafeteria of the Leclerc supermarket may lack the sophistication of a French country restaurant but then it also lacks the price tag. We joined the shoppers for an excellent lunch of duck in a red wine sauce so rich it was almost black, along with egg mayonnaise, lemon tart and coffee. The lot cost about £13.50 for the two of us.

Next we raided Leclerc's footwear department and triumphantly made our way to the check-out with a couple of pairs of cheap but comfortable water-tight shoes. Ian's were marked at 15 euros but we discovered certain items were on 70% reduction for one day only and he ended up paying four euros only! Next we treated Modestine to some cheap diesel, also on a one day only offer of 1 euro a litre rather than the 1.13euros generally charged. After her long drive from Ambre she drank deeply.

In the centre of Orthez we braved the weather to explore something of the old part of the town with its streets of typical Béarnais houses with their high red roofs looking like witches' hats. Mainly dating from the 18th century they are very pretty buildings in complete contrast to the heavy, crumbling, untidy houses in the towns of the Languedoc. Attractive and fresh as the streets and countryside around this area undoubtedly are, pavements here are just as bad as we've found in the Midi.

Back in Salies the rain was still falling unabated but Ralph was back with a bottle of Béarnais wine. By the time it was empty it was also time to walk the hundred metres to the local concert hall for a music recital for violin and piano. We listened in comfortable surroundings to the music of Tchaikovsky and Brahms beautifully played by a couple of lady musicians. It was well attended and a very pleasurable experience. It was intended to accompany a film taking place later, "le Concert" but tickets for that were already sold out. In the interval between the two there was of course the usual verre d'amitié provided by one of the hospitable local wine producers. It was one of the richest, roundest, reddest wines we have ever tasted. What a shame he wasn't selling bottles to take away. It was accompanied by huge platters of savoury gateaux, quiche, pizzas, olives, dried sausages and large bowls of chocolate sweets. As people drifted away to the cinema performance our glasses were being topped up by the vintner anxious not to be left with too many half used bottles, while our plates were filled by the catering staff anxious not to be left with too many bits and pieces. We did our best to help but there is only so much we could consume if we hoped to reach the safety of home on the far side of the bridge without tumbling off into the flooding river. It has to count as the best value concert we've ever attended.

Thursday 4th February 2010, Salies de Béarn, Aquitaine
Over the past few days we have been rather pre-occupied exploring the Béarn and the surroundings of this charming little spa town.

The Bérnaise area is one of undulating countryside, bright and clean with extensive areas of mixed woodland. It is at the centre of the duck and foie gras producing area with huge commercial farms where hundreds of ducks and geese can be seen scrabbling together in muddy fields. Every restaurant serves the local specialities of confit and terrine de canard, goose liver and duck pâté. Maize is grown widely. It is partly used as food for the geese and ducks, in particular for force-feeding them in order to produce the delicious but ethically dubious foie gras. Sheep are reared and ewe's milk cheese is a speciality of the Béarn. Wine is produced, in particular the sweet white wine of Jurançon near Pau, ideal as an aperitif. It is an area of fruit production, particularly kiwis, and cider is produced from the many apple orchards.

The main towns of the Béarn are Orthez, Sauveterre, Navarrenx, Saint Palais and Pau, capital of the region - and of course Salies. With the exception of Pau they are all quite small and each is undeniably attractive in its own way.

Salies is a spa town with its casino, a couple of smart hotels, attractive public gardens, a network of quaint 17th and 18th century cottages and a salt water spa. It has been discovered by the British in a big way and it seems quite possible for people to live here for years without actually picking up the language! They are a very different kind of expat though than you would find in Southern Spain and they seem to co-exist very happily with their French neighbours. They in turn seem very willing to accept the English and go out of their way to help them feel at home.

There are some lovely large 19th century detached houses standing in their own pretty gardens while the town houses and cottages are built in the traditional Béarnaise style, three floors high with wooden shutters and a wooden balcony to the top floor. The roofs are steep and pointed, delightfully dressed in old, rounded red tiles. As everywhere in the area there are strict regulations as to the colours permitted for doors, shutters and woodwork. This is usually dark green, rusty red, a soft blue or brown. In some communes certain shades of pale green are also permitted. Walls are usually white rendered. Sometimes an ancient building may have been constructed on wooden legs extending out over the fast-flowing little river that passes through the centre of Salies.

Orthez is much larger and rather dirty with an extensive modern area surrounding the heart of the old town. It has a 13th century bridge, some very attractive buildings, including the house where Jeanne d'Albret (mother of Henry III of Navarre and Béarn, later Henry IV of France) once lived, when Orthez was the capital of the Béarn. She converted to Protestantism, forcing her subjects to do likewise, closing the Catholic churches or turning them into Protestant temples. There are a few remains of the castle that once protected the town.

House of Jeanne d'Albret, Orthez

Castle ruins, Orthez

St. Palais is a spotlessly clean and very pleasant little town with no great claims to anything that we have discovered but delightfully located within sight of the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees.

River Bidouze at St. Palais

Fronton for playing the Basque game of Pelote, St. Palais

Pyrenees seen from the edge of St. Palais

Navarrenx is an interesting little town set inside a walled fortress. It started as a 13th century bastide town but was fortified in the 16th century according to an Italian design, and turned into a garrison town. It continued as such into the 19th century. The streets are laid out in a grid pattern as was normal for a bastide town, while they are surrounded by strong fortifications with gateways into the city. From the battlements there are pretty views down onto the green waters of the Gave (river) d'Oléron with its mediaeval bridge and out across the Béarnaise countryside. Within the town the most impressive building is the arsenal constructed in 1680 on three sides of an attractive square where guns and weapons were stored, and well away from it, the powder store, a handsome building isolated from immediate surroundings.

Ramparts, Navarrenx

Fortified gateway, Navarrenx

Bérnaise countryside and the Gave d'Oléron seen from the ramparts, Navarrenx

Arsenal, Navarrenx

Powder store, Navarrenx

When we visited it there was an agricultural fair and vide grenier in full swing. The streets were crowded with farming machinery for sale with dozens of tractors, silage making equipment and dumper trucks lined up in the square outside the mairie. Beyond the battlements a livestock show was in progress with delightful Pyrenean donkeys on display. There were cages of chickens ranging from the colourful and vicious Spanish fighting cocks to demure and dowdy little hens. There were rabbits, large as dogs sometimes, with great floppy ears.; and there were cattle lined up in stalls with numbers scribbled on their backsides if they'd won prizes. It was a great day for the local people and the streets were crowded with families enjoying themselves despite the icy weather.

Pyrenean donkey and foal, Navarrenx

Chicken fanciers, Navarrenx

Rump steak in waiting, Navarrenx

Sale of farming equipment, Navarrenx

Sauveterre is a tiny mediaeval town or village overlooking the Gave d'Oléron. The church has a wonderful tympanum showing Christ in majesty. From nearby there are extensive views towards the peaks of the Pyrenees while down below there is a tiny island in the river reached by a picturesque old bridge.

Sauveterre seen from the river below the church and castle keep

Pau is a smart, sophisticated, wonderfully clean city, its magnificent chateau towering above the river. It is the capital of the Béarn and rose to prominence during the 15th century. Prior to 1464 the capital had been in Lescaux where the cathedral is to be found - now it's a suburb of Pau. (We failed to reach Lescaux when the exit sign at the roundabout omitted to inform us our route passed beneath a railway bridge just 2.2 metres high. Modestine was 2.3 metres and it's little short of a miracle that she still is! It's a horrid experience discovering just in time that you are not going to make it, while there is a queue of vehicles waiting impatiently behind you and no easy way of turning round!)

Pau seen from across the river

The castle at Pau is where Henry IV of France, son of Jeanne d'Albret (see above) was born. It looks very like one of the chateaux of the Loire with its gothic and renaissance windows, white stone walls and towering roof. Much of it though dates from the time of Napoleon III in the late 19th century. It has been very sympathetically done and it looked magnificent in the warm sunshine yesterday as we walked through the beautifully designed formal gardens at its base, looking down onto the shining river and across at the white, snowy peaks of the Pyrenees several kilometres away.

Château with mediaeval keep and Tour de la Monnaye, Pau

19th century portico, Château de Pau

Renaissance façade, Château de Pau

Formal gardens of the Château, Château de Pau

From the castle the Boulevard des Pyrenees leads up to the Casino. This is a charming and impressive place to stroll, looking across to the Pic du Midi and the magnificent mountain range stretching away into the distance in either direction with some 80 kilometres of gleaming white peaks visible.

Boulevard des Pyrenees, Pau

Pic du Midi seen from the Boulevard des Pyrenees, Pau

Back into the town there are esplanades of smart stores and countless restaurants and coffee shops. When we visited it was so warm the terraces were crowded with customers soaking up the sun, drinking beers and even enjoying ices! We made our own coffee stop at the casino where we sat on the sun terrace gazing across the grassy parkland towards the Pyrenees.

Bandstand, Pau

Casino, Pau

For us the greatest curiosity of Pau was the Musée Bernadotte. In a modest 18th century house in the town Jean Baptiste Bernadotte was born in 1763 to a middle class family. When his father died he entered the army at the age of seventeen as an ordinary soldier. As a result of the French Revolution commoners were able to receive commissions and his military career took off as he gained promotion in Napoleon's army. By a strange series of twists of fate that included him marrying Désirée Clary, the woman Napoleon really wished to marry (rather than the Empress Josephine), he somehow ended up being elected Prince Regent of Sweden, ultimately becoming king! The present head of the Swedish royal family, Carl XVI Gustav, is directly descended from this ordinary French soldier!

Birthplace of Jean Baptiste Bernadotte who became king of Sweden, Pau

So it is apparent that we have not been idle since we arrived here. We have visited all of these towns and in addition have explored something of the Basque country and made our way northwards into Les Landes as far as Dax which we visited on 1st February.

Dax did not seem a particularly picturesque town as we approached it, with the usual sprawl of commercial areas on the outskirts and many more modern buildings towards the centre, but it proved to have many points of interest. The first feature to draw our attention was the circuit of Roman walls with sturdy round bastions surrounded by drastically pollarded trees in pleasant parkland. Apparently they are the best preserved Roman town walls in France.

Roman walls, Dax

It was the Romans who established the fame of Dax as a spa when a legionnaire threw his rheumatic dog into the river Adour before leaving on campaign. On his return the dog came bounding up to him completely cured and there is a statue in the square beside the Cathedral of the soldier undeservedly being slavered over by the forgiving creature.

Roman soldier with his Daxhund, Dax

Even in Roman times it was renowned as a spa and now there are hot thermes at every turn and an impressive columned fountain on the supposed site of the original baths which spews out 2,400,000 litres of water each day at a temperature of 64 degrees Celsius. The steam hung in the chill winter air as we cautiously tasted it. It tasted - of water, no nauseous chemicals and with great potential for free district heating.

Hot springs, Dax

Nearby is the most impressive manifestation of the modern spa, the Splendid Hotel, a grandiose art deco creation dating from the 1930s by André Granet and Roger Henri Expert. The stairway, a blaze of light from its geometric mirrors and lamps recalls the ocean liner Normandie on which the designers also worked. There are several other art deco buildings in the town, including the Atrium, built as a casino and theatre by the same architects. Unfortunately we could only peep through at some of the sumptuous gilt interior as it was closed.

Interior of the Splendid Hotel, Dax

The local hero is Jean-Charles de Borda whose statue stands in a garden by the Splendid Hotel. Born in Dax in 1733 he was a physician, navigator and mathematician who invented a number of navigational instruments and helped to devise the metric system. The town museum is named after him.

Jean-Charles de Borda, Dax

In the Parc Théodor Denis, which lies between the ramparts and the river Adour, is the bullring, constructed in 1913 and much better maintained than the one in Béziers, an attractive building for a disagreeable spectacle, although the bullfight in this area is not as lethal to the bull as is the Spanish counterpart. The bulls though seem to be quite formidable creatures.

Bull ring, Dax

Ian discovers he's better at bibliography than bull bating, Dax

Perhaps that is why so many of the locals engage in the rather safer sport of cow fighting, which seem to be a speciality of the Landes, the flat sandy area of pine forests that stretches seemly forever northward from Dax. In a statue in the park an “écarteur” as the human participant is known, is seen deftly avoiding Fédérale, one of the champion cows of the Landes during the 20th century.

Even cow bating looks risky! Dax

Yet another work by the ubiquitous Vauban is to be found in Dax, not a fortress but a cathedral, although it looks a larger version of some of the chapels to be found in his military sites. It was started in the later 17th century after the gothic cathedral had collapsed in 1646. It was not completed until the late 19th century, by which time local conservationists had successfully managed to save the only surviving piece of the gothic structure, the magnificent apostles’ doorway dating from the 14th century, squeezed rather incongruously into the north transept of the baroque building - usually it's the other way around with baroque twiddly bits imposed onto gothic buildings. There are also some amusing misericords dating from the early16th century which also survived the collapse.

Cathedral, Dax

Apostles' doorway, Dax Cathedral

Misericord in the Cathedral, Dax

The cathedral also has a stained glass window, a portrait and other references to
Saint Vincent de Paul who was born just north of Dax in 1581. We had come across his name in Ireland in connection with charitable institutions. In the 1930s the destitute mother of Frank McCourt in Limerick would beg cast-off clothing and food for her family from the Society of St Vincent de Paul which was reluctantly handed out with a bad grace. We decided to hunt down the individual who had originally inspired the work of this charity.

Window depicting St. Vincent de Paul in the Cathedral, Dax

Painting of St. Vincent de Paul, Cathedral, Dax

It proved to be a longer pilgrimage than we had expected. We headed for the village of Saint-Vincent de Paul where we naively hoped to find his birthplace. Eventually, after negotiating a series of cul-de-sacs and roundabouts and crossing a four-lane highway we stumbled across it, apparently the only pilgrims to do so that day, as it was completely deserted. The birthplace was largely a reconstruction but it was possible to look round inside. The oak tree was largely concrete and the neo-byzantine basilica was closed for repairs, but there was a small exhibition which showed him to be a far more benevolent person than the dour ladies dispensing charity that were described in Angela’s ashes. He was above all a practical saint, believing that things got done by hard work in this world rather than by prayer and contemplation alone. Born into a poor family “I am the son of a labourer who minded pigs and cows” he studied theology at Toulouse and became tutor and chaplain to various notable people. He remained acutely aware of the effects of poverty and established a series of confraternities of charity, working particularly to help foundlings. He became chaplain to the galleys and sent missionaries to Algiers and Tunis to ransom Christian slaves. He was a tireless lobbyer, working with Richelieu and Mazarin to obtain peace and helping in areas devastated by war. We returned home feeling that we had got to know someone who had made an immense practical contribution to the welfare of many people, the legacy of his work still helping those in need across the world in the 21st century.

Reconstruction of the birthplace of St. Vincent de Paul on the original site, Pouy, near Dax

Ancient oak and basilica beside the house of St. Vincent de Paul, Pouy, near Dax

A few days back the weather was so warm and bright we decided to really basque in the sunshine so made our way to St. Jean Pied de Port in the foothills of the Pyrenees. This pretty little mediaeval town is well into the Basque country. Beyond lies the steep ascent into the mountains with Spain just twenty six kilometres away.

It is at St. Jean Pied de Port that the various pilgrim routes across France, leading to Compostella converge. There are four routes, coming from Vezeley, Arles, Puys and Tours. Over the last few years we have visited all of these cities and travelled almost all of the routes, though from the comfort of Modestine and only as an incidental to our other travels. On the Spanish side we have also followed most of the pilgrim route, visiting Compostella twice, from different directions. We have even travelled much of the Portuguese pilgrim's route as well.

Main pilgrim routes to Compostella converging at St. Jean Pied de Port

Only last April we found ourselves at the top of the pass leading up from the tiny Spanish village of Roncesvalles, - near the spot where Charlemagne fought the Saracens and Roland met his death back in 778 - and at the top of the gruelling climb from St. Jean Pied de Port. It had been icy cold that day as we sat snug with our picnic lunch in Modestine watching the pilgrims struggle over the rise, soaked to the skin but offering triumphant cries of jubilation as they realised they'd finally reached the summit. Our hearts went out to them, having just crossed the boring Spanish plain in the opposite direction, where the pilgrim route runs along beside the main highway. With nearly another 800 kilometres to walk to Compostella, little did they realise just how many more hardships awaited them.

That day we had seen St. Jean Pied de Port marked on our map, across the border in France and had almost been tempted to come down from our icy eerie just to say we'd travelled the entire pilgrim route. Then though, we were on a different mission, travelling east along the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, our hearts set on adding Andorra to Modestine's long list of European countries visited.

So we promised ourselves then that one day we'd visit St. Jean Pied de Port and that day had arrived. So early in the year there was not a pilgrim in sight and the hostels that have traditionally welcomed them, right back to the 14th century, were busy refurbishing, ready for those who would soon be streaming in through the rounded stone gateway at the top of the village, weary but elated, eager for a hot soak and a comfortable bed. We are impressed at just how well organised everything along the pilgrim routes is to assist these modern day adventurers, very few of whom are walking with any real religious purpose, seeing it more as a challenge and a way of escaping for a while from the demands of modern life.

Pilgrims' route into St. Jean Pied de Port

The main street of the old town leads steeply up to the castle on the summit of the hill with panoramic views all around, taking in the long sweep of the Pyrenees. Nowadays the castle is used as a school with the games pitches in the dry moat where we watched the children playing handball. Every street is like a picture postcard, spotless and picturesque with plants at the windows and tiny Basque restaurants serving regional dishes. Strings of dried red pimentos, a traditional ingredient in Basque cooking, hung in doorways. There was not a dog or a plastic water bottle to be seen. How very different from the villages on the pilgrim routes further east across France! Above the lintels to the houses were carved the names of the original families with the date of construction and the trades carried out. Sometimes the present occupants have the same name and profession, such as the saddler and leather maker and the locksmith. The same family business has been conducted on the same premises for many generations!

St. Jean Pied de Port seen from the castle walls

Castle, St. Jean Pied de Port

Main street, St. Jean Pied de Port

Lintel giving information on the history of the house, St. Jean Pied de Port

At the bottom of the main street we passed through the town gate where the walls are protected by the pretty river Nive winding past. From here we could look up at the houses built into the town walls with the sunlight shining on their balconies, not dissimilar to those we'd seen in Northern Spain last year.

Gate at the bottom of the town, St. Jean Pied de Port

River Nive showing houses built into the town walls, St. Jean Pied de Port

Bridge and town gate, St. Jean Pied de Port

Time passed all too quickly and it was a considerable journey back to Salies if we were to arrive before dark. With great reluctance we renounced our desire to drive the extra twenty-six kilometres up to Roncesvalles. So Modestine has not managed to stand again on the very same spot at the head of the pass, knowing she has finally closed the circle and covered all the pilgrim routes across Western Europe. Maybe one day we should walk that little bit ourselves as our personal pilgrimage!

Landscape around St. Jean Pied de Port

We have written about Roncesvalles, the pilgrims, Charlemagne and the song of Roland on 2nd May 2009 when we were travelling the Spanish Pyrenees.

Friday 5th February 2010, Salies de Bearn, Aquitaine
Now though, we are nearing the end of our stay in Sallies. Ralph returned to England yesterday leaving us to catch up on our travel account and lock up the house when we leave. We have discovered the rather smart local casino and hotel offers free wifi to guests. So we have been making a couple of beers last an amazingly long time as we sit in the lounge area between the restaurant and the gaming tables, catching up on emails and blogs.

We did eventually get to see the film we missed after the Tchaikovsky concert. It was shown again the following evening. Called Le Concert, it was a French film, partly in French and partly in Russian with French sub-titles. It told the hardship of Russian musicians victimised by Brezhnev back in the 1970s, robbed of their livelihood and their passion for music, forced to work as cleaners if they were lucky, exiled if they were of Jewish origin. Somehow music survived in their souls as they played imaginary instruments, hearing the music in their heads. Many years later, by a bizarre series of events they were mistaken for the Bolshoi orchestra and invited to perform Tchaikovsky's music in Paris. Despite the odds and many unlikely but heartwarming happenings along the way they eventually found themselves on stage at Le Châtelet with real instruments in their hands. After an awful second or two their skills returned and they played to standing ovations and a secure future as musicians in the West.

Finally, a couple of photos of the Thursday market held here in Salies where we bought paella for a quick lunch with Ralph before he left for England. Thank you Ralph for your hospitality and company, permitting us to enjoy this pretty area in more detail than would otherwise have been possible.

Market place, Salies de Béarn

Market place, Salies de Béarn