Wholly snug on the holy trail

Monday 21st November 2005, Foix
Today we left our village retreat to visit friends in the Pays Basque over between Pau and Bayonne. Our journey skirts the Pyrenees to the north.

As we wanted to visit places with Cathar links on the way we headed first for Rennes-le-Château. This little hilltop village has nothing to do directly with the Albigensian crusade but is a site of great interest because of stories surrounding the Cathars, the Knights Templar and hidden treasure. The priest of this insignificant place back in the 1880s, Father Saunière, suddenly seemed to have a great deal of money to spend on his church but refused to say where or how he came by his sudden wealth. He altered the church greatly and built a new and impressive presbytery nearby. Certainly the church decoration is rather macabre, with a demon inside the door and a Latin inscription over the porch stating “This place is terrible”. The grounds are filled with gothic grottoes and eccentric masonry. Nobody ever discovered where or how Saunière came by his sudden wealth and he died without ever making it known. Of such stuff are legends born and rumours abound that he found the supposedly vast wealth of the Cathars or Templars hidden somewhere inside his church. Many people still believe this and that there is much more hidden away in the village. So there are official street signs stating that it is illegal for visitors to dig up the roads or carry out excavations.

The church at Rennes-le-Château

The Presbytery built by Father Saunière at Rennes-le-Château

Rennes-le-Château, with only forty permanent inhabitants, does not need legends of Cathar treasure to justify a visit. It is magnificently set at the top of a 4.5km steeply twisting road on an inaccessible hill top with views across to the snow-capped mountains of the Pyrenees. (As the owner of our retreat at Ambre will verify having cycled to the top in his younger days!) Today the sun was bright and warm as we wandered around the village with its well-stocked bookshop of material about the Cathars, the Holy Grail and the occult. There is a café, and a restaurant as well as the Church and the museum housed in the presbytery. Unfortunately all were closed at this time in the year but we picnicked in the sunshine, with frost white on the northern slopes of nearby hills, looking across to the Pyrenees. It was really peaceful and we could have lingered far longer. Retirement is not for such idleness however (though we risk being made homeless for such a statement as it is completely against the philosophy of our friend from Ambre)

The Pyrenees as seen from Rennes-le-Château

The castle at Rennes-le-Château

We continued to Montségur, the last stronghold of the Cathars. It is well named – Secure Mountain. Here they held out against Simon de Montfort and the army of the King of France for ten months that covered a particularly harsh winter. When finally captured 220 so-called heretics were burned at the stake and the Cathar movement effectively ended.

Cathar stronghold at Montségur

We parked Modestine at the base and clambered up steep, rocky, dangerous paths to the summit. The sun was hot as we climbed but the surrounding mountaintops were snow covered with thick white frost on nearby slopes. The views from the top were stupendous but the castle itself was no more than a romantic ruin. From the top it was possible to imagine the Cathars in this stronghold - there were 600 all told - but impossible to understand the mentality of people prepared to live there in such terrible conditions and then choose to die in such a dreadful manner rather than renounce their beliefs. They could have given in at any stage, renounced their beliefs and lived.

Monument commemorating the spot where 220 Cathars were martyred

Within the castle walls

View from the castle of Montségur

The Pyrenees through the castle gateway

A young couple on a motorbike were intrigued by Modestine and stopped us to ask for details of the Romahome website. They departed, determined to commission a left-hand drive version. We seem to have become the company’s unofficial emissaries in Europe!

We found a campsite still open at Foix. We are almost the only ones here. There is a thick frost tonight and we are grateful to have an electric hook-up to run our fan heater and kettle. The gas canister ran out during supper so we finished our cooking on a portable halogen stove.

Tuesday 22nd November 2005, Lourdes
Yesterday we woke from a warm comfortable night’s sleep to a campsite white with frost. Hot showers soon had us active and ready to face the ordeal of changing the gas canister. In fact it was no problem and we found a replacement easily during the day.

We made our way into the town of Foix, which is very pleasant. Warm in the sunshine it was icy cold in the shade. The castle is in the centre of the town with steep streets and steps up to it.

The castle at Foix

We continued towards Lourdes, our route running parallel to and in sight of the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees, all icy and gleaming white against the bright blue sky. The Pic du Midi, at 2,865 metres towers above its neighbours. It is one of the highest mountains in France outside the Alps. On the top is an astronomical observatory where at this time of year, scientists work in polar-like conditions.

The Pic du Midi

The immediate scenery was very pretty and amazingly colourful with many leaves still on the trees. The countryside was of fresh, bright meadows of healthy cattle and clean tidy villages.

Autumn colours near Lourdes

We reached Lourdes about 3.30pm and located a small all year campsite with views to the mountains, just above the religious complex.

As pilgrims rarely come to Lourdes in the winter the vast processional area was almost deserted and covered in a slippery film of candle wax. A large statue of Notre Dame de Lourdes dominated the top of this plain. There were still hundreds of votive candles burning at the grotto of St. Bernadette and a small procession of people filing past. There were people saying prayers and reading bibles, many in wheelchairs and the silent atmosphere seemed charged with anxiety and hope. Regardless of personal beliefs, such an experience concentrated one’s thoughts on all relatives and friends afflicted in some way by illness and we could but hope that these thoughts would in some way help them.

Statue of Notre Dame de Lourdes at the top of the processional area

At St. Bernadette’s grotto

Votive candles

Above the grotto is the Basilique de l’Immaculée-Conception built in 1876. We were amused to hear the chimes on the clock playing Ave Maria on the hour. Inside it is smaller than expected and the walls are completely covered in small marble plaques thanking Our Lady of Lourdes for interceding to help friends and relatives. There were of course lots of nuns and everywhere was spotlessly clean.

Basilique de l’Immaculée-Conception

Basilique de l’Immaculée-Conception

Nearby stands the huge hotel-like complex where the sick are welcomed when they arrive on pilgrimage, designed to accommodate the disabled and handicapped with nurses and wheelchairs to take people to the waters and the grotto. So far our impression has been favourable, but it is not the season for pilgrimages. It does not seem tacky around this complex but may be different back in the town.

Accommodation for sick pilgrims

Wednesday 23rd November 2005, Salies-de Béarn
Last night on the campsite it was bitterly cold but we were actually quite snug with fan heaters, hot water bottles and an insulated windscreen. It was rather chilly to cross the frozen field with bare feet and flip-flops to the shower block late at night though! This morning the sun was bright and warm with the sky brilliantly blue again. The ice melted from Modestine’s window and it was time to continue our exploration of Lourdes.

It was bitingly cold down in the town. This morning there were even fewer pilgrims but there were hordes of noisy, happy school children accompanied by their poor shivering teachers.

Today we discovered a massive underground concrete church, rather like a subterranean car park. Hanging around the sides are massive posters of saints and holy people, including Pope Jean Paul 23rd and St. Boniface of Crediton in Devon, with their histories. Nearby outside is a charming statue of St. Bernadette with her sheep and there is also a diorama recording the history of her life in tiny models.

St. Boniface of Crediton

St. Bernadette watching over her sheep

The Basilica of the Rosary was closed for restoration so we were unable to visit but we filled a bottle with water from the spring at the holy grotto. Most of the pipes that channel this water were frozen up so there were queues of people with plastic containers at those taps still working. Unfortunately we later got our various water bottles confused and drank the holy water by mistake!

Basilica of the Rosary

Around the town we visited locations connected with her life, including what was supposed to be a really poor place where her family lived in total poverty. Actually it looked a little like the place we currently think of as “home” in Ambre which we find really delightful. It would be about the same date – c1860 and would in fact have been quite new when St. Bernadette lived there.

St. Bernadette’s birthplace

The “hovel” where Bernadette lived with her impoverished family

Guest houses in the town cater for all kinds of pilgrims. There was even one specialising in Sri Lankan food! The names of the guest houses are frequently named after saints with their statues at the front. We saw one such house with its own parking place. The sign amused us.

Private parking for St.Thomas Aquinus

All tastes catered for!

The town is really very pleasant but it was freezing in the narrow dark streets. There were views up to the chateau fort through gaps in the buildings. Everywhere seemed eerily deserted until lunchtime when people suddenly appeared to drive home and the streets became congested for a few minutes before falling completely silent again. There seemed nobody around in the town. There were lots of souvenir shops selling religious artefacts, but absolutely no customers.

The castle above the town of Lourdes

Just before the shops shut for lunch we found a place to buy replacement soles for Jill’s cheap Arbois market shoes which have become cold and uncomfortable. Lourdes seemed an appropriate place to acquire new soles.

We left Lourdes and continued along very pleasant D routes. Gradually the nearby mountains receded. We joined the ring road around Pau, passing through neat little towns and villages that were pretty and well kept.

We stopped at Orthez to see the 13th century bridge with its towered gateway. This formed one of the town’s defences against Wellington in 1814. (It was unsuccessful as far as the French were concerned.) The bridge spans the Gave de Pau which is rocky here and very picturesque. The town is attractive with tree-lined streets. Jeanne d’Albret, known as La Rude because it was said the only feminine thing about her was her sex, came from Orthez, and her home in the town is now the museum. She was the mother of Henry IV de Bourbon and queen of Navarre.

The bridge at Orthez

Home of Jeanne d’Albret at Orthez

We continued to Salies-de-Béarn, parking near the thermal baths intending to search the town on foot to find where Ruth and Ralph lived. In the event, Ralph was on his way to post some letters and recognised Modestine from her picture on the internet.

We all returned “home” together and after catching up on news Ralph drove us all to a country restaurant for an excellent meal in a charming atmosphere. There was thick frost on the windscreen when we left after the meal. It was a very bitter night.

Thursday 24th November 2005, Salies-de-Béarn
This morning we all went together for a walk around the little Basque town of Salies. It is a really lovely place which takes much pride in itself. Its former wealth was based, like Salins-les-Bains in the Jura, on the salt water that lies beneath the town. Today this is used in the thermal baths where all sorts of cures, treatments and therapies are offered. The town is also a place for summer visitors with public gardens, a bandstand, restaurants and a lively casino reputed to have been frequented by Proust. There are large, beautiful houses of the belle époque and generally Salies is one of the nicest little French towns we have visited. It is located on the edge of the Basque region in south west France, not far from Spain. To the north lie les Landes which stretch right up to Bordeaux 200 kilometres away. The town is rumoured to be the headquarters of the French division of ETA, the Basque separatist movement.

Typical Basque houses in Salies-de-Béarn

Pointed “witches hat” roofs and wooden balconies typical of Salies-de-Béarn

One of the streets in Salies-de-Béarn

The river at Salies-de-Béarn

Another view of the river at Salies-de-Béarn

Typical old house in Salies-de-Béarn

The Grand Hotel at Salies-de-Béarn

Today it was market day and there was a lovely atmosphere. Ruth decided we would buy a monk fish for dinner on Saturday and a selection of oriental foods for supper tonight. We then joined a group of Ralph’s English friends at the market café for coffee. Apparently it is a regular meeting place for British residents in Salies. They all seemed very happy with their new lives in this pretty little town but most have trouble with the language.

Thursday market in Salies-de-Béarn

We were invited by an artist friend of Ralph’s to see a panorama of Gibraltar he was in the process of painting, in a circular building on the grassy esplanade, loaned to him by the local council. Why Gibraltar is as much of a mystery as the one of Bordeaux he did previously which is rolled up outside his studio as he cannot persuade the city of Bordeaux to purchase it. It’s a pity as they are both very good, representing an enormous amount of work.

The town has a great sense of civic pride. An entire team of council employees were busy blowing the fallen leaves into heaps and sucking them up in a huge vacuum cleaner. Others were working to keep the town clean, smart and tidy.

Clearing up in Salies-de-Béarn

We went for lunch to the sunny yellow dining room of the casino before continuing our exploration of the town in the icy cold. Most of the properties in the old town date from the 1650s with timber frames, wooden balconies and witches hat roofs. Doorways are stone framed with 17th century dates on the lintels. Our friends’ house is built in this style on three floors. It was a former salt house where water was evaporated off in heated troughs beneath the house. It has a steep uneven staircase, exposed timber beams and sloping floors.

Public gardens and thermal baths in Salies-de-Béarn

Ian, Ruth and Ralph on the steps of the casino

Friday 25th November 2005, Salies-de Béarn
It rained during the night. Indeed it poured. This morning it felt much warmer. The rain continued all day. The river level was very high and fast flowing - very different picture than the small tumbling stream of yesterday.

The river in full spate at Salies-de-Béarn

Another view of the river in flood

Ruth and I prepared lunch while Ian and Ralph swapped notes about map sellers, printers and publishers. The large monk fish we had purchased yesterday demanded attention. Fortunately, as is commonly the case when purchasing meat or fish in the market, we had been given explicit instructions on exactly how to cook it. We baked it with garlic, olive oil, and parsley, serving it with green beans, carrots and rice. We served it with a local, béarnaise wine and followed it with a Basque cherry pie complete with the Basque cross on the top. It was an excellent way to spend a wet day together.

In the afternoon we left our hosts in peace for a while and took Modestine for a pretty local drive recommended by Ralph. The countryside seems as neat and tidy as the towns and villages. It had an English appearance with hedgerows – a rarity in France, deciduous woodland, sheep, cattle, horses and chickens. Maize is grown and stored in silos in the fields as cattle fodder. We saw farms with thousands of ducks and geese out in the fields enjoying the rain and splodging in muddy puddles. Presumably their wings have been clipped. Duck and goose seem to be extremely popular local food, usually wrapped in thick layers of white fat and known as comfit de canard.

We followed the river Gave de Pau until it joined the Gave d’Oloron in a vast expanse of water to become the Gaves Réunis. This area would be idyllic in summer with many lovely farmsteads and villages. On the river banks are numerous orchards of kiwi fruits – a recent introduction to the area. All the fruits had been cropped before the first frosts arrived.

We returned to Salies, still under torrential skies. Whole woodlands beside the road were waterlogged with picnic tables bobbing around in the water.

Back in Salies we bought pâté, cheeses and wine for supper before rejoining Ralph and Ruth for a pleasant evening around the table of their lovely old house in a street of close-packed, picturesque similar properties.

We discovered a book here we’d be interested to purchase – “A writer’s year in the Béarn” by Celia Brayfield.

Saturday 26th November 2005, Urrugne, near St. Jean de Luc
We left Salies in pouring, freezing rain at 9.30am. Ruth had a doctor’s appointment and it seemed sensible to leave beforehand. Through icy rain and beneath black threatening skies we made our way through very pretty countryside, surprisingly similar to the Devon landscape, to Sauveterre. This looked a lovely place and on a sunny day would have been perfect with the remains of its old bridge standing out with its gateway into the river and the pretty little houses of this Basque area with their tall pointed roofs. Even the churches are roofed in this style, their higher hats forming the steeple. Inside, Basque churches have a unique style of a central nave with wooden balconies, several stories high lining the walls. It seems that the congregation is segregated in these churches with the women occupying the nave and the men climbing to the galleries. From the church porch there were awesome views up to the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees.

Church porch at Sauveterre

Remains of the old bridge at Sauveterre

Basque houses with their high roofs at Sauveterre

From Sauveterre we continued through countryside that became more like Devon and Dartmoor at every twist in the road with bracken covered hills, and red schisty soil. Road signs here are written in Basque as well as French. The language bears absolutely no resemblance to French which makes it difficult to follow a route when the Basque separatists obliterate the French names, as happens quite frequently. Our next stop was at Cambo-les-Bains, another attractive spa town, beautifully maintained with wide tree-lined streets, very attractive looking hotels, dating from the late 19th century and lovely gardens. From the upper town there were views across the countryside and down onto the lower town where the houses are reputed to be much older. It was too cold and wet to verify this with a walk down, particularly as we both seem to be incubating unpleasant colds – hardly surprising given the constant cold and wet. We parked Modestine and ran through heavy sleet and hail to the nearest bar where we revived ourselves with hot coffee and discovered that Cambo’s claim to fame is that Edmond Rostand, author of Cyrano de Bergerac lived in the town. As we sat there, lightening flashed and thunder crashed over head.

The church at Cambo-les-Bains

From Cambo we continued, still through driving sleet that slithered down the windscreen or clung to the wiper blades, along lovely twisting roads, the white peaks of the Pyrenees frequently visible, towards the coast, Biarritz and St. Jean de Luz. The scenery continued to remind us of Devon but rather than dry stone walls, fields were enclosed by huge dark slabs of schist each about the size of a tombstone. They lined the roadsides like a row of teeth.

We were heading for Urrugne which has one of the few all year campsites in the region. This proved to be a very pleasant little town but as it never stopped teaming down we saw no more than was visible from Modestine plus a quick dash into the lovely galleried church. Here we are in deep Basque country, only a few miles from the Spanish border. It really is a lovely area, clean and cared for with lovely Pyrenean houses and farmsteads all painted white with immaculate dark red shutters, doors and timbers. Occasionally green is used as an alternative but in all cases the colours are of an identical shade. It gives a wonderful coordinated appearance to the region. The houses here in the Pyrenees are similar in shape to those of the Alps - large with wide low roofs to shed the winter snows.

A brief lull in the rain after we had located our campsite encouraged us to drive up to a pretty little chapel above the town of Urrugne set amidst a few pine trees and overlooking the west coast of France – the Bay of Biscay. Our glee at having pushed at yet another of France’s frontiers was short-lived however when we saw a tornado rushing in across the sea, seemingly straight towards us! “Ian, what shall we do?” Jill cried in panic. “Photograph it!” replied Ian gleefully! A quick snap later and we ran back to Modestine, descending from the summit as fast as we could. In the event the waterspout, or whatever it was, probably collapsed on reaching land, but it was pretty exciting at the time!

Water spout approaching land over the Bay of Biscay

Deciding there was little we could do in such weather we bought a bottle of wine and provisions for supper, returned to the campsite, connected up to the electricity and got out the fan heater and computer where we spent the rest of the evening downloading photos and updating the blog.