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Castles and Chateaux of Old Navarre and the Basque Provinces
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THE GAVE D'OSSAU
ON ascending the Gave d'Ossau, all the way to Laruns and beyond, one is impressed by the beauty of the snow-crested peaks before them, unless by chance an exceptionally warm spell of weather has melted the snow, which is quite unlikely.
You can name every one of the peaks of the Pyrenees with the maps and plans of Joanne's Guide, but you will glean little specific information from the peasants en route, especially the women.
"Attendez, monsieur, je vais demander à mon mari," said a buxom, lively-looking peasant woman when questioned at Laruns. Her "mari" came to the rescue as well as he was able. "Ma foi, je ne sais pas trop," he replied, "mais peut être ...;" there was no use going any further; all he knew was that the mountains were the Pyrenees, and were the peaks high or low, to him they were always "les Pyrénées" or "la montagne."
Not far from Pau, on mounting the Gave d'Ossau, is Gan, one of the thirteen ancient cities of Béarn. In a modest castle flanked by a tiny pepper-box tower Pierre de Marca, the historian of Béarn, first saw the light, some years after the birth of Henri IV.
A little further on, but hemmed in among the high mountains between the valley of the Ossau and the Pau, is a tiny bourg bearing the incongruous name of Bruges.
It is not a simple coincidence in name, with the well-known Belgium port, because the records show that this old feudal bastide was originally peopled by exiled Flemings, who gave to it the name of one of their most glorious cities. The details of this foreign implantation are not very precise. The little bourg enjoyed some special privileges, in the way of being immune from certain taxes, up to the Revolution. There are no architectural monuments of splendour to remark at Bruges, and its sole industries are the manufacture of espadrilles, or rope-soled shoes, and chapelets, the construction of these latter "objects of piety" being wholly in the hands of the women-folk.
Like many a little town of the Pyrenees, Laruns, in the Val d'Ossau, is a reminder of similar towns in the Savoian Alps-Barcelonnette, for instance. They all have a certain grace and beauty, and are yet possessed of a hardy character which gives that distinction to a mountain town which one lying in the lowlands entirely lacks. Here the houses are trim and well-kept, even dainty, and the church spire and all the dependencies of the simple life of the inhabitants speak volumes for their health and freedom from the annoyances and cares of the big towns.
Laruns merits all this, and is moreover more gay and active than one might at first suppose of a little town of scarce fifteen hundred inhabitants. This is because it is a centre for the tourist traffic of Eaux-Bonnes and Eaux-Chaudes, not greatly higher up in the valley.
There are many quaint old Gothic houses with arched windows and doorways, and occasionally a curious old buttress, but all is so admirably kept and preserved that the whole looks like a newly furbished stage-setting. For a contrast there are some Renaissance house fronts of a later period, with here and there a statue-filled niche in the walls, and a lamp bracket which would be worth appropriating if that were the right thing to do.
There is a picturesqueness of costume among the women-folk of Laruns, too. They wear a sort of white cap or bonnet, covered with a black embroidered fichu, and a coloured shawl and apron which gives them a holiday air every day in the week. When it comes Sunday or a fête-day they do the thing in a still more startling fashion. The coiffes and costumes of France are fast disappearing, but in the Pyrenees, and in Brittany, and in just a few places along some parts of the coast line bordering upon the Bay of Biscay, they may still be found in all their pristine quaintness.
The Fête Dieu procession (the Thursday after Trinity) at Laruns is an exceedingly picturesque and imposing celebration. Here in the pious cortège one sees more frequent exhibitions of the local costumes of the country than at any other time or place. The tiny girls and the older unmarried girls have all the picturesque colouring that brilliant neckerchiefs, fichus and foulards can give, with long braided tresses like those of Marguerite, except that here they are never golden, but always sable. The matrons are not far behind, but are more sedately clothed. The men have, to a large extent, abandoned the ancient costume of their forefathers, save the béret and a high-cut pantaloon, which replaces the vest. But for these two details one finds among the men a certain family resemblance to a carpenter or a boiler maker of Paris out at Courbevoie for a happy Sunday.
The procession at the Fête Dieu at Laruns is very calm and dignified, but once it is dispersed, all thoughts of religion and devoutness are gone to the winds. Then commences the invariable dance, and they don't wait for night to begin. Most likely this is the first Bal d'Été, though usually this comes with Easter in France. The dance is the passion of the people of the Pays d'Ossau, but this occasion is purely a town affair, and you will not see a peasant or a herder from the countryside among all the throng of dancers. Their great day in town comes at quite another season of the year, in the autumn, in the summer of Saint Martin, which in America we know as the Indian summer.
On the highroad, not far from Laruns, is a great oak known locally as the "Arbre de l'Ours" because on more than one occasion in the past a bear or a whole family of them has treed many an unfortunate peasant travelling by this route. This may have been a danger once, but the bears have now all retreated further into the mountains. They are not by any means impossible to find, and not long since one read in the local journal that three were killed, practically on the same spot, not far above Laruns, and that a sporting Russian prince had killed two within a week.
In the high valley of the Ossau the bear is still the national quadruped, and the arms of the district represent a cow struggling with a bear and the motto VIVA LA TACHA, which in French means simply VIVE LA VACHE.
Near Laruns is the little village of Louvie-Soubiron which takes its name from an ancient seigneurie of the neighbourhood. It has no artistic embellishments worthy of remark, but on this spot was quarried the stone from which were carved the symbolical statues of the great cities of France surrounding the Place de la Concorde at Paris.
The ancient capital of Ossau was Bielle, and up to the Revolution the assemblies of the ancient government were held here. It hardly looks its part to-day. The population is but seven hundred, and it is not even of the rank of a market-town. Traditions still persist, however, and delegates from all over the Pays d'Ossau meet here at least once a year to discuss such common interests as the safeguarding of forests and pastures. In a small chamber attached to the little parish church is preserved the ancient coffer, or strong box, of the old Republic of Ossau. It is still fastened by three locks, the keys being in the possession of the mayors of Bielle, of Laruns, and of Saint Colome.
Ten kilometres from Laruns is Eaux-Bonnes. Their virtues have been known for ages. The Béarnais who so well played their parts at the ill-fated battle of Pavia were transported thither that they might benefit from these "waters of the arquebusade," as the generic name is known. A further development came under the leadership of a certain Comte de Castellane, préfet of the department under the great Napoleon. He indeed was the real exploiter, applying some of the ideas which had been put into practice in the German spas. He set to with a will and beautified the little town, laid out broad tree-lined avenues, and made a veritable little paradise of this rocky gorge. The little bourg is therefore to-day what the French describe as "amiable," and nothing else describes it better. The town itself is dainty and charming enough, but mostly its architectural characteristics are of the villa order. The church is modern and everybody is "on the make."
It is not that the population are swindlers, — far from it; but they have discovered that by exploiting tourists and "malades imaginaires" for three months in the year they can make as ample a living as by working at old-fashioned occupations for a twelvemonth. A sign on one house front tells you that a "Guide-Chasseur" lives there, and that he will take you on a bear hunt — prix à forfait; which means that if you don't get your bear you pay nothing to your guide; but you have given him a fine ten-days' excursion in the mountains, at your expense for his food and lodging nevertheless, beside which he has had the spending of your money for the camp equipment and supplies. He really would make a very good thing, even if you did not have to pay him a bonus for every bear sighted, not shot, mind you, for all the guide undertakes to do is to point out the bear, if he can.
Another very business-like sign may be seen at Eaux-Bonnes, — that of a transatlantic steamship company. They gather traffic, the steamship agents, even here in the fastnesses of the Pyrenees, and Amerique du Sud especially is still depopulating southern France.
Eaux-Chaudes is another neighbouring thermal station. As its name implies, it is a source of hot water, and was already famous in the reign of Henri IV. The little community points out with pride that the archives record the fact that this monarch "took the waters here with much benefit."
The little Pyrenean village of Gabas lies high up the valley under the shelter of the Pic du Midi d'Ossau. It is not greatly known to fame; it is what the French call a hamlet with but a few chimneys. A late census gave it twenty-three inhabitants, but probably the most of these have departed in the last year or so to become femmes de chambre and garçons de café in the big towns.
The place is, however, very ancient, and was the outgrowth of a little settlement which surrounded a chapel built as early as 1121, and a sort of resting-house or hospital for pilgrims who passed this way in mediæval times. This establishment was known as Santa-Christina, and was consecrated to the pilgrims going and coming from Saint Jacques de Compostelle.
Plastered up recently on the wall of the mayor's office in the little village was a placard addressed to the "Messieurs d'Ossau," by the Conseiller d'Arrondissement. This singular form of address is a survival of the ancient constitution of this little village, which, in times past, when everything else round about was feudal or monarchial, was sort of demi-republican. The "Messieurs d'Ossau" recognized no superior save the Prince of Béarn, and considered him only as a sort of a titular dignitary with no powers over them worth speaking of.
Here in the communes of Laruns and Arudy the peasants have certain rights of free pasture for their flocks and herds, a legacy which came originally through the generosity of Henri IV, and which no later rule of monarchy or republic has ever been able to assail. The "Messieurs d'Ossau" also had the ancient right of gathering about the same council table with the Vicomtes of Béarn when any discussion of the lands included in the territorial limits of Béarn was concerned.