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Enduring Pyrenees – National Geographic – 1974

By Robert Laxalt

Photographer: Edwin Stuart Grosvenor

The National Geographic Magazine

December 1974 Volume 146 – number 6

Published by the National Geographic Society

He must have been tall in his youth. One could see that in the sweep of shoulders beneath his high-collared mountain jacket and the long-boned hands that clasped the rustic shepherd’s staff. Age and hard work had shrunk him in body, but there was enduring strength in his weathered face. In a low-lying part of Gascony they had warned me against the Aragonese shepherds who roam the high Pyrenees, saying they were a hostile lot. But I have found that mountain folk are much the same everywhere —and that flatland people are prone to confuse reticence with hostility. Leaving our car in the valley, my wife, Joyce, and I had hiked up to a grassy knoll to picnic on cheese, bread, and wine. A breath of wind had brought to us the faint tinkle of bells, and we followed the sound, clambering up hillsides and over moss-covered rock. The mountain where we met him lay almost astride the meandering Pyrenean frontier dividing France and Spain. It was a green mountain sprinkled with the golden buttercups of June and gashed along its flank by a torrent of frothing water. Peaks jagged as primitive spearpoints surrounded us, and a profusion of waterfalls dropped in white plumes to the valley floor. This is the wild heart of the Pyrenees, the mountain chain that stretches for 270 miles from the Bay of Biscay on the Atlantic side to the Mediterranean Sea. Raised by shifting landmasses and shaped by Ice Age glaciers, the Pyrenees encompass about 21,000 square miles and boast 40 peaks exceeding 10,000 feet. Thrusting out of the Maldives massif, the 11,168-foot Pico de Aneto towers over all.

“Up here, at last,” the shepherd said, “it’s beautiful country. But I’m not so sure about what’s happening down there,” His arm swung out in the unconfined gesture of a mountain man, sweeping over the valley beneath us.

Long and narrow, the Vallée d’sure in the central French Pyrenees testifies to the breakdown of the centuries-old isolation of the mountains. The shepherd’s gesture took in brightly painted new chalets and resort hotels. These stood on the outskirts of medieval hamlets with gray stone houses, guarded by the turrets of fortified churches. Ski lifts soared to the high peaks. Gigantic water pipes, two abreast, plummeted down the hillsides to a hydroelectric station. Once-secluded meadows bloomed with the blue and yellow and red tents of campers.

Money once lured the young away. . . 

Though Aragonese Spanish was his native tongue, the shepherd spoke in meticulous but distinctly accented French. “ Before the tourist came, we were tranquil and content here. But our children saw their shiny cars and fancy clothes, and they imagined that everybody outside of our valley lived that way. They told us our life was one of hard work and poverty and little joy.” He shook his head, and I knew then what caused the sadness in his gray eyes. “I lost my two sons in progress,” he said. “ They went away to the big cities for money.” The shepherd turned away from us to follow his sheep. “Times are changing,” he said over his shoulder. “ But I don’t know why they should.” As Joyce and I descended the mountain, a ragged fringe of clouds began to obscure the sharp peaks, singling an approaching storm. We passed rude stone farmhouses and newly mown fields. Men and women hurried to gather hay before it was soaked by rain. A black-shawled grandmother, perched atop a wagon with wooden wheels, speed the hay that others pitched up to her. Urging us toward the car, rain lashed our faces and thunder and lightning bounced among those tight mountains in a deafening cannonade. Then I realised what was missing in the hayfields: the presence of sons.

…But now it keeps them home

I spoke of the shepherds’s sadness with Maurice Jeannel, a montagnard with alert, hazel eyes and strong hands. Historian and author, he has the reputation of knowing the fastnesses of the Pyrenees better perhaps than any other living man. We talked on a street in the nearby village of St. Lary —a street thronged with vacationists, trout fishermen, and city children whose faces were flushed by the fresh mountain air. “Until a few years ago,” Jeannel said, “that shepherd’s lament could be heard in villages from one end of the Pyrenees to the other. But the exodus of out young in St. Lary has begun to reverse itself. The ones who are now growing up now rarely leave.” He pointed to the street, crowded with visitors. “All these people need accommodation. Our young may not choose to work on the farms, but they find good jobs in hotels and restaurants, as carpenters in construction, as alpinists and hiking guides in the summer, and as ski instructors in the winter.” He shrugged philosophically, “Progress works changes, but it has its benefits, too. There is prosperity here now.”

Because the peaks intercepts storms from the north, the Pyrenean slopes facing France are drenched with moisture, while the Spanish uplands are arid. Another division of this region is political: the boundary between France and Spain.

Yet Jeannel spoke of the Pyrenees as if they were one region. “The Treaty of the Pyrenees that France and Spain signed in 1659 created the frontier,” he said. “Illogically it divided ancient peoples of common stock and language who share both sides of these mountains. In this part of the Pyrenees, as an example, we belong politically to France but have cultural ties with Aragon. After centuries of isolation, a recent thing like a boundary means very little. Even the advent of modernism will simply add another layer of civilisation without erasing our old essence.”

Historic corridor to conquest

My own ancestral race, the Basques of the western Pyrenees, was divided by that arbitrary frontier. Yet these oldest and purest of Pyreneans, whose language and blood type hint at an ancestry totally different from that of other European peoples, were bound by ties no boundary could divide. The same holds true for the more numerous Catalans, at least 6 million, who spend across a generous third of the chain from northeast Spain through the tiny principality of Andorra and over the mountains into France.

Of the local languages of the Pyrenees, Basque is a unique tongue whose roots still mystify philologists, while Catalan stems from Latin. Both languages have incorporated influences of Spanish and French, which, even though the use of Catalan increases, are becoming the common means of communication throughout the Pyrenees. Despite their forbidding aspect, the Pyrenees have seen the great surges of European history. They were a passageway for the Celts, for the conquering armies of Hannibal and Ceasar, and, in the dark days of the Roman Empire, for the invading hordes of Vandals and Visigoths. After these intruders came the Arabs, who swept out of North Africa early eighth century, conquering most of Spain and penetrating as far north into France as Poitiers, where they were checked in 732. This massive invasion occupied only a few years, but nearly eight centuries passed before the Moors were defeated in Spain by Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1492. The long-lasting Moors laid their imprint only lightly on the remote mountain valleys of the Pyrenees, so that very little physical evidence remains of their presence. After crossing the old invasion routes and the new passes over the mountains, I wondered if the modern rush to the Pyrenees was not changing the life of these mountains more swiftly that all that had gone before.

One of the places where changes are particutary evident is aristocratic old Biarritz on the Bay of Biscay, at the western extreme of the Pyrenean chain. The gnarled trees by the sea still bend to the westerly breezes there, and the long combers still crash white against the monstrous rocks in the bay, filling crusted pockets that gush as if bleeding from a hundred wounds. Lovers watch the sea from protected hollows in those rocks. But while standing aloof from the restless turmoil of the sea, Biarritz on the land attests to a collision between the traditional and the modern. Vividly coloured hotels and apartment houses brashly intrude beside the staid facades of the grand old hotels that witnessed the comings and goings of Empress Eugénie, Napoleon III, Bismarck, and Queen Victoria. The famous hotel Victoria appears abandoned, its ornate balconies empty, its gabled windows shuttered.

Villagers unfazed by innovations

At the other end of the Pyrenean chain, in Gerona Province, the leisurely tempo of old Spain still holds sway. All along the route from La Molina in the region of Catalonia to the Province of Huesca in Aragon, villages of brown-walled houses with roofs of red tile like lie like caps over hilltops that command the valleys below. They seem to wait for invasions that will come no more. Women hang out their washing on balconies in the hot, dry sun. Shepherds graze sheep and goats on hillsides of little forage, and nut-brown children with sunny smiles drive mule carts on dusty roads. They seem oblivious to furious activity near La Molina, in the pine-forested mountains above them. I went to see the manifestations of all that activity: a growing cluster of hotels and, on the slopes above La Molina, 80 miles of ski runs and lifts. One of the prime movers in this development is former Spanish Olympic skier Felipe Rigat Tortorici. In his late thirties, he seems young to be an entrepreneur. But his athletic frame cannot contain a Catalan enthusiasm for what he and his associates have wrought. “We Catalans initiate almost everything of importance in Spain,” he says proudly. “In three years we hope to have facilities to accommodate 20,000 people winter and summer.” He guided us through the luxurious rooms and gourmet restaurant of his Rigat Palace Hotel. They had a Catalan flavour of burnished wood and gleaning tile. “Have you ever seen such elegance in tourist resorts anywhere?” He did not seek an Aswer.

Bucolic road leads to Bedlam

La Molina has some way to go to equal the changes that have been wrought in nearby Andorra. Nowhere has development so altered the old character of the Pyrenees as in that fabled principality that embraces fewer than 190 square miles. The Approach to Andorra, howerer, is deceiving. From the drab French valley rising beyond Foix, we mounted toward Port d’ Envalira, coming upon rough stone villages and enjoying the fragrance of fresh-cut hay. At the edge of the sinuous road, precipitous drop-offs were hidden in thick mist. When there was a rent in this curtain, one could glimpse green mountains and horses grazing near early-summer snowbanks. At the top of the 7,904-foot pass we came upon a flock of sheep and a young Andorran shepherd, who turned to look at us with startled eyes. With his blade face, long wooden stocking cap, and draping leather cape, he seemed a figure from the past. In an instant the mist that had enveloped everything gave way to brilliant sunlight, and far below us a valley was shimmering with dew and veined with a silver stream. As we descended along the road, stone walls laced the hillsides, enclosing solitary farmhouses. Scattered villages huddled under their rooftops. It was as if we had come upon a story-book kingdom. Then our route led down to the valley floor. Here the roads were clogged with diesel trucks belching black fumes. Steam shovels and graders gouged the meadow grass. Bulldozers toppled old stone buildings. Finally reaching the capital, Andorra la Vella, we found a traffic jam of monumental proportions. A lone policeman with curling mustachios tried vainly to cope.

“Andorra is fully involved with progress,” said Casimir Arajol Duro, a gentle white-haired Catalan who is president of the local tourist office. “The population has more than doubled in ten years to 25,000 people, and it will probably double again in less time. There are already 215 hotels in Andorra, and three of four new hotels and dozens of new businesses come into existence each year. Andorra is poor no more.” He paused, then added hesitantly, “Perhaps we have gone too fast in this business of change. But we are moving now to preserve our old villages.” Many Frenchmen and Spaniards, as well as tourists from everywhere, travel to Andorra to shop at bargain prices; Andorra imposes only modest duties. Stores bulge with radios and cameras from Japan, cigars from Brazil, peasant skirts from Afghanistan, and liquors from all points of the compass. Actually a principality, under the protection of the Bishop of Seo de Urgel in Spain and the President of France, Andorra employs but 25 policemen and has no army, since it has never had war. Catalan is the official language. Political campaigns for membership on the ruling General Council are unknown. A candidate who files for office is simply assessed by the citizenry in casual cafe conversations.

Andorra captivated Europe’s conqueror

A short drive from the capital took us to the village of Santa Coloma and its 12th century

View over Escaldes-Engordany and Andorra la Vela in South-West direction- Towards Spain 1974

Romanesque chapel. A shy, dark boy, whose family was entrusted with the key, led us into the sanctuary, which held a rare primitive statuette of the Virgin. Child-size, of carved wood, and about as old as the little chapel, it is one of only a handful of such pieces that still exist. I asked our young guide if we could go up into the tower, an Andorran landmark. “It’s a little dangerous, “ he said, “All right, I will show yuo.” We inched around a spiral stairway, brushing aside veils of cobwebs, and climbed up rotting wooden rungs, some of which gave way beneath our feet. From the belly I looked out upon the old Andorra that Napoleon is sits to have found so incredible he wanted it preserved as a museum piece. In the distance rose an encircling ring of mountains under snow. At lower elevations were deep forests, tobacco fields in young growth, and, along the Valira River, stately poplars. At our feet was revealed an intimate view of Santa Coloma, a view that had been denied us by the high courtyard walls that shouldered the winding streets. Through open doorways we could see women in their kitchens. Children laughed at play, men worked in little vegetable gardens, and chickens and pigs wandered at will.

That view leaped unexpectedly into my consciousness in another village. But this time the experience was painful. Situated on a high knoll in the dry Spanish badlands of Aragon, medieval Terms has seen the passing of a hundred generations. Once its women paused to visit at the fountain and men conversed there after returning from the fields below at the end of the day. Today weeds sprout in the streets. Houses stand empty with broken windows. Leaning in dark entranceways are straw brooms no housewife will ever wield again. The church that was the core of life totters in neglect. Of Tiermas’s 800 inhabitants, only a handful remain. At the fountain in the square, I talked to an old man in tattered garments, and with pathetic remnants of shoes on his feet. “Do you see that reservoir down there?” he asked. “ Seventeen years ago it was a fertile valley. It was where we raised the crops that were our existence. Then the government decided they needed a reservoir there to irrigate the dry plains beyond. They bought our farmland and paid our people for their houses, and then located them somewhere else.” “There must have been sadness when the people of Tiermas had to go away,” I said. “Yes’” he answered. “But for the young, money managed to change that. In my case, I am very poor, and also very old, It is much too late for me to think of leaving.” I turned to watch a crippled man prodding a burro with a stick. The man continued: “We are all that’s left—the old who don’t want to leave their homes and the crippled who are afraid to go out into the world.” I left him standing alone by the fountain.

Animals take over a village at dawn

Joyce and I went down the rocky road and took the highway past the man-made lakes that provide precious water to the parched lower regions. We had seen a classic confrontation between the old and new — but one that was, in all times, inevitable.

Days later, in the central French Pyrenees, our road climbed a river-cut chasm towards Gavernie, famed for its awesome bowl-like cirque, carved by a glacier long melted. It was evening when our car pulled into the village of Gavernie, which seemed almost as quiet as deserted Tiermas. Our room in the inn held an iron bed with a feather quilt. Dinner was a feast of trout fresh from a local stream, roast lamb, and the robust wine of the house. Afterwards we explored the silent streets. I was awakened at dawn by a commotion outside and threw open the shutters to a sight I shall never forget. The village was still locked in the shadow of the peaks, but the streets were filled with horses and donkeys trotting to hitching posts, where they would be hired by sightseers bound for the Cirque de Gavernie or into the mountains. Fully 300 animals clip-clopped along without guides. All seemed to know where they were going, except a young gray donkey that was turning in circles. A girl darted out of the shadows, caught him by the head, whacked him resoundingly on the rump, and sent him in the right direction.

Home of the eagle and the izard

When the sun cleared the peaks, we rented two little short-coupled horses. Crossing a low bridge and following a swift stream, we tool the climbing path toward the cirque, which is in France’s National Park of the Pyrenees— 142,000 acres along the frontier. A few miles across the border lay Spain’s National Park of Ordesa. The parks shelter rare flowers, birds, and such animals as the izard, the goat like antelope also known as the chamois.

The immense amphitheatre of the Cirque de Gavernie burst into your view, and I understood why Victor Hugo called it “ the Colosseum of nature.” Only nature could have shaped this two-mile wide-bowl.

The brutal rock wall reared a mile above the floor. On the upper reaches, snowy patches reflected the morning sun in blinding shafts of light. Standing beneath that overpowering mass, I knew what it was to feel diminished to the size of an ant.

Several years ago, on a trip to the Basque region in the west, my wife and I climbed above the timberline and saw shaggy ponies running free on the high plateaus. Called Pottokak by the Basques, these animals are believed to be descendants of certain races of prehistoric horses painted on the walls of caves such as Lascaux in France. When I first saw the pottokak, their numbers had been reduced to 4,500 by hunters, who killed them for meat to be used in salami. Then Paul Dutournier, the honorary Mayor of Sae in the Basque Provice of Labourd, waged a successful campaign to provide the ponies with refuge. The mountain of La Rhune, looming ghostlike behind the old fishing port of St. Jean de Luz on the French side of the frontier, is today one of the principal pottakak reserves. From the Col de St. Ignace we mounted La Rhune on a funicular that passed over tangled forests of beech and oak. On the soft green plateaus above, we now saw colts gamboling through purple lupine while their slate coloured mothers browsed. In the span of a few years, the herd has grown almost tame; no longer do they flee at man’s approach. I like to think it a proper coincidence that descendants of prehistoric horses should find a home on La Rhune, a mountain that perhaps played a role in the ancient history of the Basques. Here their warriors ancestors hay have engaged in pagan worship and fertility dances; isolated, fiercely resisting change, they were belated converts to Christianity. In 1609 their tenacious hold on primitive beliefs brought about one of the bloodiest chapters in Basque history.

Hatred of Basques led to burnings

From La Rhune’s summit we looked down upon St. Pée our Nivelle, where Pierre de Lancre conducted sorcery trials. “De Lancre was a fanatical man, driven by a hatred of all things Basque,” historian Eugène Goyheneche told me in nearby Ustaritz. “Appointed by Henry IV of France to investigate sorcery, de Lancre convinced the king that the Basques practised devil’s rites on La Rhune. By torture and bribery, he turned neighbour into informer against neighbour. Before his reign of terror was done, he had burned hundreds of men, women, and children at the stake— thus adding to the large numbers of victims of the sorcery trials that swept through Europe.” On the outskirts of St. Pée our Nivelle stands the crumbling chateau where Pierre de Lancre stayed during the trials. We wandered through its dark interior, where the very walls seem to shriek of agonies suffered there. A lizard of mottled green and black scurried up a wall and watched us from a ledge, sending a chill up my spine. When we quit that sanctuary of evil, sunshine had seldom been so welcome.

Pagan monuments survive in the mountains

In some remote mountain villages of the Basque country, Catholic masses on certain feast days still are celebrated to the accompaniment of ceremonial dances from pagan times. Pagan monuments have been found throughout the region. Our search for one of the pagan ritual sites took us on a tortuous pilgrimage up a hill that rises in the old Basque Province of Soule. Through mist so thick the way was almost invisible, we went to road’s end by car, then continued afoot. At the top stood the chapel of the Madeleine. Recently reconstructed, the chapel enshrines a Christian altar. But it also contains an almost undecipherable stone marker inscribed in Latin and cloaked in time-dimmed mystery. The most likely explanation: it was dedicated to Heraus, “goddess of the red dust,” and was part of a pagan sanctuary maintained by the Romans on the hill of Madelaine two thousand years ago. It is strange to find such relics only sixty miles by road from one of Christendom’s most venerated shrines.

In spring and summer the streets of Lourdes are jammed. Priests, nuns in habits of black, blue, or white, and monks in sandals mingle with tourists from far corners of the world. The air is alive with many tongues. It was at the grotto of Massabielle in 1858 that young Bernadette Soubirous, of an impoverished family, saw visions of the blessed virgin, Bernadette said the Virgin had caused a spring to flow from the cave, and wished processions to be made there.

Today pilgrims stand patiently in line before fountains whose water, many testify, have helped to work cures. Old women in black scarves sit on stone benches, clutching rosaries. But the most moving spectacle at Lourdes is of hundreds of sick and crippled people on stretchers and in wheelchairs. They look with beseeching eyes at the white-robed statue of the Virgin in her rock niche, and the sound of prayers is like the rustle of autumn leaves in the wind.

From the tower of the Chateau of Lourdes we witnessed a candlelight procession. Legend tells that from an earlier tower at this site, Moors looked out upon the besieging soldiers of Charlemagne in 778. Within the battlements of the present fortress, staircases and sentry walkways, now deeply worn, knew the tread of other armies that surged across the Pyrenees. Today the castle houses the Pyrenean Museum, whose collections—furniture, costumes, and examples of architectural styles— are unmatched elsewhere in the mountain realm. Many of the old styles have changed, of course, and some have disappeared. But other Pyrenean manifestations endure. One is the character of the people. The Aragonese are often described as stubborn. Catalans speak of their pragmatism. In the region of Béarn, hotelier Jean Touyarot, who guided us through the sprawling chateau in Pau where Henry IV was born, told me the Béarnais are romantics with a positive outlook. “ Our old dictum stills applies.” he said. “ A man who cannot at least promise to do something for a friend is a very poor man indeed.”

Secrecy an inviolable tradition

Among the Basques, restraint and the guarding of village secrets are living traditions. The code of silence was demonstrated in 1970 during the trial of young Basque revolutionaries in Spain. Two days before the trial began, a West German consul accredited to Spain was kidnapped in San Sebastian. The consul was spirited over the mountains by other revolutionaries to a French Basque village, and held hostage against the chance that the youths would be sentenced to death. One of the villagers told me: “Many of us in the village knew he was here— even the location of the house where he was held prisoner. We were disturbed, but the revolutionaries promised they would not kill him. That satisfied us, so we ignored the whole affair. In time, they drove the consul to Germany and released him unharmed.” The man shrugged. “ It never occurred to us in the village that our secret was anybody else’s business, or particularly the government’s.” Even now my informant is not pleased that I am telling this four-year-old tale; the code of silence still holds.

Such an attitude towards government has long made it easy for smugglers to operate between Spain and France. As a result of a simple courtesy —giving a man a ride— I learned much about this vintage enterprise. We had taken the road to Roncesvalles, one of the great pilgrimage routes to the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. At Puerto de Ibañeta a footpath led us down to the narrow defile where, according to legend, Charlemagne’s rear guard, commanded by the heroic Roland, was massacred in 778. The battle inspired the French epic poem, the song of Roland, which alleges that Saracens did the deed. But most accounts of the engagement agree that Basques, not Saracens, were actually the attackers.

Strict code guides contrabandistas

Along the road we noticed a man on foot and offered him a ride. Upon reaching his village, he insisted that he reciprocate with coffee and brandy. He took us to a bar of whitewashed walls and bare tables, around which men were talking in conspiratorial tones. Our companion explained casually that they, like he, were smugglers of such traditional Pyrenean contraband as livestock and Spanish lace. Two Spanish policemen in green uniforms and black leather belts were drinking by a window. As I glanced at them apprehensively, our companion explained, “ They police villagers, not the frontier, so the business of contraband is not their concern.” The contrabandista took no offence at my curiosity after he learned I was of Basque blood, and therefore, as he put it, could be trusted to protect his name. “To be a good smuggler,” he said, “one must have these characteristics: strong legs and sound wind, the eyes and ears of a cat, and, of course, an elastic conscience.” I asked how a smuggling operation worked. He bend over his drink and said: “It is really very simple. Say that I and my comrades want to smuggle 50 Spanish mules, which because of their strength are much in demand in France, across the frontier. Knowing that the frontier guards are unhappy about going out in storms, we naturally wait until a stormy night. We dress in dark clothes and choose the most difficult route over the mountains. One man goes ahead about 400 yards to keep an alert for the guards. The rest follow at intervals of 30 paces, each leading three or four mules. If all goes well, we make 16 miles by midnight to a rendezvous with our counterparts on the French frontier. It is all very simple.” He grinned. “But what if the frontier guards see you?” His grin faded. “ Well, now, that part is not so simple.” He bent forward again and said, “ You must understand that after all these years, we have had to reach an understanding with the law. It is this: If a frontier guard sights us, he shoots his pistol once into the air. That is our signal to leave the mules and run. The guards confiscate the mules, which is all they really care about anyway.” “What if you try to fight them for possession of the contraband?” He waged his finger at me. “ That is bad, very bad. One hothead beat a guard nearly to death with his walking stick. We could not protect him because he had broken the accord. The guards had the right to shoot him.” He added laconically, “Which they did.” When I asked if the smugglers dealt in narcotics, he replied heatedly, “Never! No business of little packages for us. If one were to try it, we would ensure his arrest ourselves.”

Once a year Pamplona goes wild

By design my wife and I arrived in Pamplona, the capital of Navarra, when the gay ten-day Fiesta de San Fermín was officially over. For most of the year this old walled city is a place of reserved demeanour. But during the fiesta in July, Pamplona honours its patron saint by throwing off restraint like a winter coat and immersing itself in wild abandon. Twice before I had participated in the dancing, singing, and running of the bulls. Now I simply wanted quiet. But the sidewalk cafes were filled. Around the bandstand in the park people danced alternately to rock music and the fandango. A weary man in a wine-spattered shirt explained that the fiesta was indeed over: “But you must understand that a week is required for the excitement to run itself out.” Formerly a time of mingling for the people of the Basque country, the July fiesta in Pamplona now draws visitors from half of Europe. Not nearly so well known, but to my mind far more representative of festivals in the Pyrenees, is the spirited Bastille Day celebration at St.Jean Pied de Port in the French Province of Base Navarra. We reached the town on the eve of July 14, and with good fortune found a room in the Central Hotel. Typically Nasque, the little inn was immaculately clean. The windows sparkled and the wide oak boards of the floor, hand-rubbed with beeswax, gave off a soft, warm glow. Our dinner was Basque too, beginning with the pork pâté of the hotel, followed by pipérade, an omelette with tomatoes, mild peppers, and crisp slices of bacon. The main course was a Basque delicacy, milk-fed lamb, with meat so tender that it flaked away from the bone. A bottle of Irouléguy, the vin rosé of the region, was one of the most delightful wines we had ever tasted.

Explosion heralds a holiday

Next morning Bastille Day began literally with a bang. In the hotel I was leaning against the open window, my eyes casually sweeping rooftops where pigeons dozed in the gentle run. An explosion of firecrackers in the town square shattered the stillness. The pigeons flew straight up. The day was filled with contest between villages in jai alai and handball, tugs-of-war between veritable brutes of mountain men, and harrowing woodchopping with the axmen balanced on logs. Most spectacular of all was the somersaulting of young men over the horns of charging wild cows. Some ran forward to meet the animal, leaping at the last possible instant. Others stood stock-still, then sprang high as the cow passed beneath them. A miscalculation of a split second and the daring somersaulted could have been mortally battered by the impact. The evening throbbed with contests between troubadours, the vibrant singing and staccato dancing of the Aragonese, intricate steps of the Catalans, and stylised ritual dances of the Basques. Then participants and spectators alike swarmed to the main square for dancing and revelry that continued until first light of dawn. My ears rang with the sound of music and the piercing Basque battle cries that Roman legions and barbarian invaders had heard in these mountains more than a thousand years ago.

My historian friend Maurice Jeannel had been right. Progress may alter the face of the Pyrenees, but it will be a long time before it erases the essence of its peoples.