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Castles and Chateaux of Old Navarre and the Basque Provinces
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THE VALLEY OF THE NIVE
THERE is no more gracious little river valley in all France than that of the Nive, as it flows from fabled Ronçevaux by Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, Bidarray and Cambo, to the Gulf of Gascony, down through the fertile Pyrenean slopes. Ronsard sang of the Loir at Vendome and his rhymes have become classic; but much of the phrasing might apply here. All about is a profound verdure, a majesty, and a magnificence of colour which will ravish the heart of an artist, be he realist or impressionist. From the very first, the Nive flows between banks wide and sinuous, and in its lower reaches, between Cambo and the sea, takes on an amplitude that many longer and more pretentious streams lack utterly. By a rock-cut way, the Nive passes from French Navarre into the Pays de Labourd, an ancient fief of feudal times, between Cambo and the Pas de Roland.
The legend which has perpetuated the death of Roland and so many of the rear-guard of Charlemagne's army gives an extraordinary interest to this otherwise striking region. Here the Nive narrows its banks and tumbles itself about in a veritable fury of foam, and whether the sword stroke of the Paladin Roland made the passage possible, as it did in the famous "Brèche," or not has little to do with one of the strikingly sentimental episodes of legendary history. If it took place anywhere likely enough it happened here also.
Between the Pas de Roland and Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port one passes Bidarray and a curious donkey-back bridge, and the famous Bassin de Bidarray, famous only because it is a cavern underground, for it does not differ greatly in appearance from others of its family. Above Bidarray is the superb cone of Mondarrain, crowned with the ruins of a feudal castle.
The following legend of a dragon who once lived in a cavern on the banks of the Nive is worthy of preserving in print; at any rate it sounds plausible, as told the writer by an old dealer in bérets and sabots. He had an eye for the picturesque, though, and if his facts are correct he would make a very good historian.
A young Bayonnais went out one day to attack this fabled monster whom no one yet had been able to kill. By name he was Gaston Armand de Belzunc, and his father was governor of Bayonne in 1372.
After a day and a half of journeying, the young Tartarin of other days came upon his quarry. The beast, furious, jumped upon the cavalier and threw him to the ground, but his lance pierced the scaly neck and so weakened the monster that man and beast grappled together. The two died, and Gaston's companions, who had ungallantly fled precipitately at the first encounter, found them later laced in each other's embrace.
To perpetuate the memory of this act of bravery, the king of Navarre granted the family De Belzunc the privilege of adding a dragon to its arms. Up to the Revolution there existed a fund in behalf of the clergy of a Bayonne church to pray for the repose of the soul of this gallant young knight of the Middle Ages.
High above the banks of the upper reaches of the Nive are the grim ruins of the Château de Laustan. Practically it was, in its palmy days, a fortress-château. It was built by the Seigneur de Laustan, who possessed great privileges in the neighbourhood, to turn the tide of aggression of his jealous neighbours, and of the Spaniards. It was constructed of a sort of red sandstone, with walls of great thickness, as evidences show to-day, and must have been a very successful feudal habitation of its class. The family De Laustan was one of the most celebrated in Basse-Navarre. It gave three archbishops to Spain, and its archives are now kept in the royal library at Madrid.
Cambo, in the mid-valley of the Nive, is as delightful a spot of its class as is marked on any map, far more so than many pretentious resorts where bridge, baccarat and the bumptious pretence of its habitués are the chief characteristics.
Cambo is simple, but pleasant, and besides its quiet, peaceful delights it has two historical institutions which are as un-French as they are really and truly Basque. First: its remarkable church, with its golden rétable and its galleries surrounding the nave, is something distinctively local, as is also its churchyard. The other feature is the court or fronton where is played the jeu de paume, or, to give it its Basque nomenclature, pelota. Here meet from time to time, all through the year, the most famous players of the French Basque country and of Guipuzcoa, the chief Spanish centre, across the border.
This game of pelota is the passion of the Basques, but as the habitant says, "the game plays out the player, and in four or five years his suppleness disappears, his muscles become hardened, and he is superannuated."
Still one cannot get away from the fact that Cambo's present-day vogue is wholly due to the coming of Edmond Rostand. It was famous before, among a select few, but the craze is on, and the land-boomer and the resort-exploiter have already marked its acres for their own.
Rostand's country home "Arnaga" is something like a palace of an Arabian Nights tale. The walls of the apartments, whose windows look out over the crests of the Pyrenees, are covered with paintings by some of the most celebrated French artists. One room has a decorated frieze taken from the ever-delightful tales immortalized by Andersen and the Grimm brothers, and the gem of this poet's dwelling is Madame Rostand's boudoir. Familiar stories of "Cinderella" and the "Beauty and the Beast" are told again, with a wealth of colour and fantasy, by that whimsical artist Jean Weber.
This artistic retreat is a happy combination of Byzantine palace and Basque chalet. Here Rostand lives part of the year, with his wife and son, in a retirement only broken to receive a friend, who is supposed never to speak of the strenuous life. To escape from the continual excitement of city life and the feverish fashionable resorts, and also to be able to devote himself entirely to work, the creator of "Cyrano" fled to this spot eight years ago. Arnaga is not constructed along the conventional lines of the French château, but looks rather like a Moorish palace as it stands on a high hill, surrounded by parks and terraces, and the wonderful Basque landscape. On one side the castle or palace, or château, or whatever you choose to call it, overlooks a verdant plain sprinkled with semi-tropical blossoms and watered by the winding stream of the Nive. On the other rise the majestic Pyrenees, which, in the glory of the southern sunset, flush to a deep crimson and then pale to a sombre purple.
Surely it is an ideal spot and will be till the. madding crowd comes and sets this ideal litterateurs' and artists' retreat in an uproar, as it did Étretat and St. Raphael in the days of Alphonse Karr.
Rostand's earnings as a dramatist might not suffice to keep up such a pretentious establishment, but since he is married to the daughter of a Paris banker the thing seems simpler.
"The fame of Cambo is only just coming to be widespread. This is due to the fact that the great poet and playwright whose fame rests upon having invented a papier-maché nose for his chief creation has made it so." This was the rather unkindly criticism of a brother professional (a French playwright) jealous, presumably, of Rostand's fame, and must not be taken seriously.
Rostand's house is one of the sights of Cambo, but as a Frenchman wrote: "M. Rostand n'est pas toujours à sa fenêtre." Still the house is there and those who would worship at the shrine from without may do so.
To get in and out of Cambo one passes over a tiny bridge, so narrow that one conveyance must wait while another crosses. As the same observant Frenchman said: "No wonder M. Rostand does not quit Cambo if he has to cross a bridge like this!" Automobiles especially have an annoying time of it, and the new "automobile corne quadruple" as it whistles out the famous air: "Je suis le pâtre des montagnes," will not turn a Basque peasant and his donkey aside once the latter has set his forefoot on the curious old bridge.
At Cambo the bathing establishment is in a half-hidden, tree-grown corner on the banks of the transparent Nive.
Cambo, in spite of having "arrived" to a position of affluence and popularity, is but a commune of the canton of Espelette, whose market-town itself has but a population of fifteen hundred souls, though it draws half as many again to its bosom each hi-weekly market day, mostly Basques from Spain. Espelette is full of curious old Basque houses, and its manners and customs are quaint and queer; in short it is most interesting, though if you stop for lunch at any one of its four or five little inns you will most likely want to get back to Cambo by diligence for the night. Espelette's chief industry is tanning leather and making those curious Basque shoes called espadrilles.
Above Cambo, a dozen kilometres, are the Châteaux Teillery and Itxassou. Itxassou possesses a richly endowed church, with an entire silver-gilt altar, the gift of a "Basque-Americain" of the eighteenth century, Pedro d'Echegaray.