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André Gide : A journal of Andorra – 1910

Andorra over a  hundred years ago

André Gide : A journal of Andorra

Translated by James Kirkup.

Ax-les-Thermes (August 1910)

Arrived here at ten in the evening. No room at the Hotel Sicre; at this time of the year, it’s an insult to Monsieur Sicre to suppose that there will be vacancies. The hotel porter dragged us along the road up to Spain as far as one of the last houses in the village, where lodgers are accepted. The lady of the house is already in bed; a long, gloomy wait in a dusty little parlour invaded by flying ants, under the moronic gaze of the family portraits.
To reach what is supposed to be my bedroom, I am instructed to go through the kitchen, then a sort of unlighted lean-to; as I pass through it I can just make out, by the light of my candle, a bundle of washing, but not the arms of the wheelbarrow on which it lies, and which I stumble against and send everything flying: my night things, my candle and myself, flat on my face. In the absence of an audience, I was obliged to laugh at myself, in the darkness, as I rubbed my bruised limbs.

Friday
Up too early; my companions are not yet ready and the car doesn’t come to pick us up until 6 o’clock. Outside, the heavens are alive with joyous life; the air tastes as sharp and fresh as a sorbet. How bright it is! Out in the yard they’re slaughtering a pig amid loud screeching. A horse is splashing around in the torrent; the first shops are opening, where I buy chocolate, biscuits and insect powder. By quarter past six, we’re off.

Merens – 8 o’clock in the morning:

A bowl of milk coffee; Roquefort cheese instead of butter, not too bad, either. A wild sort of happiness rushed rolling down from the mountain tops; foam embroiders gorges with silver depths. Looking high up, how I love, the greyish-green of well-nibbled pastures on the fringes of the sky! At the end of the valley, on slightly higher peaks, the last snow lingers regretfully. Little plots of cereals invade the slopes, stop half way up; the breaks between them get patchier; rocks come to the surface. The road gradually rises, follows the trout-coloured torrent. Only a few less well-known plants; a few frail white toadflaxes —if that’s the right name. Brilliant mulleins, their entire stalks covered with flowers. Very tall-stemmed statices which from a distance look like scabies, cousins of the cliff top thrift that border the walks in my garden. A little higher up, delicate pinks, excessively frilly, almost colourless, but with a delicious scent.

A horse-drawn caravan at the entrance to the village has been camped for three days at Merens. In the yard of the hotel I am shown the gifted nanny goat which, in the evenings, mounted on an inn table, tells fortunes by stamping her hoof on a certain pre-arranged card.

L’Hospitalet Près l’Andorre – 10 o’clock in the morning:

We arrive at L’Hospitalet in an appalling heat; with a seven hour walk to the next halt, we decide to have some lunch straight away. We meet the old guide we had hired, but it’s his youngest son, a well-built, good-looking young stripling, who is to show us the way.

Little by little, the statuces are intermingled with blue pompoms that I think are jasiones. Higher up, big acaulous thistles, spread flat on the ground, like brooches. Over the field a pale mauve eupharias (eyebright) flutters a Parnassius Apollo; I remember my joy when as a child I saw for the first time, in the Jura, this superb butterfly that I had thought inhabited only the Alps. We are climbing up the watercourse that separates Andorra from France;  we have already been some time now in Andorra.

My burning feet slide about in my over-large sandals; I was ashamed of feeling so tired. Just before arriving on the col, we sat for a moment beside a mere trickle of a pleasant little spring. It filtered ice-cold through the layers of plaques of schist; thinking we would just splash our faces, we couldn’t resist drinking from it. My companions! If I’d been alone, I would have stopped there, reclining beside the spring; I’d have drunk more than one glassful, then gradually made my way back to Le Hospitalet – but we set off again.

It was haymaking time; the peasants carry haycocks on their heads. Crossing the pass, herds of cows and bulls; a troop of wild horses.

Dead snows before we arrive at the summit; bordering the snow patches, gentians. The vegetation doesn’t appear much different from that of the Alps; but sturdy little fir trees instead of the more common larch and pine.

The only advantage these mountains have is being a little less high than the Alps, and a little further to the South; therefore bathed in a light that is a little less crude. Nevertheless, the ancient Greeks and Romans would have enjoyed the same sense of the “horrid” in their chaos. “The country that God created to be horrible”, as Montesquieu would have declared.

On the Spanish slope, dark blue aconites; lower down, porcelain-blue Xyphoid irises –  our surprise at finding them here, growing wild.

Soldeu – about 6 0’clock in the late afternoon:

Incapable of pushing any further than Soldeu (which they pronounce “Sol-day-you”), a mean little village, but one where we can find beds. For a long time now I’ve been able to think of nothing but a good bath. As soon as we have fixed up accommodation at the inn, we make our way down to the river. Not far off, we reached a foaming cascade pounding enormous slippery boulders; the water, in this more exposed place, felt less cold; one by one, we treated ourselves to its pounding douche, deep in a dense confusion of branches through which the sun was darting its dying rays.

Rosada: I recall the meal on the roofed terrace. The voice of the torrent seemed to sound louder in the twilight. As I write this, a flickering candle lights the table where we finished dining. The full moon appears above the mountain exactly at that point of the col where we passed earlier. Shall I ever forget those fried eggs, the home-cured ham, so very tasty, the grilled hazelnuts we crunched with unrefined salt, a robust red wine, its bouquet with tang of tar; and above all, as we came out of our bath, the glasses of iced water laced with anisette?…. As the only prospect was sleep, we gave ourselves up to quenching our thirst; I felt like a bag of sand.

Excessive fatigue gave me fevered dreams. Yet it was a good bed, free of fleas and bugs. A friend occupies a bed in the same room, beside the wide-open window, that the moon shines through all night long.

Woken at half-past four, we are to start at five; the cordiality of our hosts warmed our hearts. In the kitchen were hiding the three little children, who the evening before had chased one another barefoot through all the bedrooms.

We are able to hire a horse, that I bestrode at the start, for I hardly felt very nimble. Further along the valley, below the path, there are still flocks of sheep.

Canillo:

At Canillo, on the first floor of a little ale-house, we are served bread, flat slices of sausage full of hot pepper, goat cheese, eggs fried in rather nauseating oil; a harsh blackish wine.

Escaldes:

Thermal baths; we are dreaming of pools like those at Alet, with water to our liking, hot and cold …. All we found was a mediocre hotel built half-way across the road; the baths they offered us did not tempt us at all.. .. As soon as we had ordered dinner, we set off up the torrential river we had just come down, seeking a sheltered spot to bathe.

This abominable inn! While I’m writing this, a phonograph is barking in the sitting room, where we are going to eat soon. Six priests arrive and are at once made to feel at home. We wanted to lunch at eleven, and then leave in order to be able to spent the night at La Seu d’Urgell.

They made us wait for the regular meal time. “You’re in no hurry”, the inn keeper informed us. “How do you know?” “Oh, you’re not the first foreigners I’ve had to serve.” What a meal! Though we have a good appetite by now, we skip certain unmentionable dishes; but all though the meal, the inn keeper takes care to fan his guests with an enormous fly-switch made of multicoloured stripes of cloth.

Andorra la Vella:

At Andorra la Vella one can see: a goose with one wing growing backwards right to its beak; a duck without a beak; a hen with a wooden leg; on the way out of the village, a mule with a broken leg that it flings out sideways as it walks, like locomotors ataxia. That’s all.

The rock faces reverberate with the heat. The road is bordered by box and hellebore.

Sant Julia de Loria:

Arrived in Sant Julia de Loria towards four o’clock in the afternoon. Our chief desire was to get to La Seu as quickly as possible, but I felt exhausted, and besides, this evening we cannot find a mule to carry our baggage into Spain. They unload the one we hired at L’Hospitalet and which is not allowed to pass the Spanish frontier. The ropes have kept tied on its back a mountain of coats, blankets and the big sack of brown cloth in which are bundled together our clothes and provisions. After some days of co-habitation in this sack, the most disparate objects have found themselves in intimate contact with one another; tins have split open and poured out their contents; everything is stuck together and transformed into a conglomerate of nameless mess. My umbrella has come out of it best – an umbrella I didn’t know what to do with as I couldn’t pack it in a suitcase nor leave anywhere to be picked up later, and that the muleteer handed back to me bent almost double, having taken on a surprisingly metal stem, but as soon as I attempted to open it, the whole thing, worn by the rubbing of the ropes, let its alpaca  fall to pieces.

Day’s end by the riverside; children are setting the nets that they will go and pull in at dawn next morning.

The heat on the terrace where we are dining, lit by an acetylene lamp. Heat in the bedrooms; bugs. J is convinced that they are descended from Saint Joseph, a benevolent saint, whose smile is suspended over his bed; (above mine is Saint Ignatius). Can it be true that its half-unstuck portrait is harbouring them? Between the brass bedstead with its decorative medallion and the cheap colour print he liberally sprays insect powder, which makes him sneeze a lot, without at all scaring away the bedbugs.

Sunday:

Four o’clock in the morning; first sounds from the square; a cat mewing with hunger in the corridor; I can hear the eldest of the last night’s fisher children getting ready to go down to the river, the owner’s son; already two others are waiting for him; I get up and lean over the balcony; the square is grey with ash. The children recognise me and call to me. They have donned the soaking clothes they wore the night before. The summits of the mountains tremble and grow paler, but all colours are still asleep; an old woman leading scraggy horses… I’ve hardly closed my eyes all night. The air is filled with a vinous odour. I go back to bed for a few moments.

Five o’clock; I start off, leading the way, meeting briefly the young fisher boys who wave to me from the other bank; they’re complaining that someone has raised their nets, and they’ve caught one fish, only one! There they are all soaking wet again, but still laughing.

The extraordinary narrowness of this valley; here we are, without realizing it, in Spain. The river is getting deeper; a canal runs along beside it, which we follow, leaving the road where from afar we see our horses raising the dust.

As soon as we are through the customs,  we find an inn where they serve us black sausage and miserable goat cheese. At the back of the room that the outside brightness makes dark, there is a staircase with steps made from slate; a little girl, naked, is sitting on the bottom step. She is watching a lamb being gutted; the innkeeper is hanging up the innards under the low ceiling; a little later suddenly standing up, I banged my forehead against them. Our guide, seated beside us, seasons a tomato with greyish salt. On the table, escaping from the cheese comes crawling a skinny, lively maggot. The old innkeeper’s wife weighs the sausage to judge how much of it we’ve been eaten.

André Gide,  August 1910

Translated by James Kirkup,
Published in two Intercomm magazine Autumn / Winter  2002

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