This is the view on a misty morning from my front gate here in Oz.
And this might be a spacious rural garden on the way to the beach at Crescent Head, on the very same morning.
Except, of course, for the Pyrenees in the background.
Add gum trees, and this could be fenced valley country a few miles up river from my home.
But it’s near Arthez-de-Béarn, where I was headed after Uzan.
The Béarn feels familiar to someone from the east coast of Australia. Sappy hill country, fertile river flats, a maritime tinge…it felt like home. (Of course, it doesn’t have the climatic extremes and reverses that we experience in Australia. Nothing does.)
Even moso bamboo grows in the Béarn…
Though it’s not quite so large and vigorous as on my place…
It may surprise, my region’s resemblance to country north of the Pyrenees. But, as I discovered on the Camino, there are lots of odd ideas abroad concerning Australia.
Even for many educated people (in fact, they seem to be the worst), physical Australia is now little more than a poster-child for global warming. How often I needed to explain that I did not live in or near a desert; that severe drought had recently been replaced by severe flooding in my own region; that radical climate swings were a permanent feature of Australian life and landscape. On the whole, I live in a green and humid place, though ventilated by ocean winds for much of the year.
Living around aborigines, and near a town that depends on the massive influx of federal monies for indigenous welfare, I found it hard to talk on the inevitable subject of aboriginal “poverty”. Where to start?
A young pilgrim at Conques, after a moment’s acquaintance, challenged me about the virtual apartheid system of Australia, and our rejection of “dark” peoples. When you come from the most successful mixed-race society on earth, when your home city resembles Singapore in many parts, when you have Chinese and Lebanese family members…how can you respond?
It’s a little like the myth of the “rude, arrogant French”, applied to the politest people on earth. Where do you even start to debate these notions?
Just move on. Ultreia.
Something that struck me as I did move on was the elegance of many domestic and merely practical buildings. The riverstone constructions, such as the one in Arzacq shown in a previous post, were striking, but other styles and materials also caught the eye:
It was just before Arthez-de-Béarn, walking with a Norman couple, that I came across the chapel of Caubin. This remarkable and very old structure was attached to a hospital of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. It dates back to the middle of the twelfth century, though the tower came later.
This is all that remains of a once prosperous Commandery, which included a priory as well as a very large hospital. Perhaps it was the presence of so many natural water-sources above on the long ridge of Arthez that determined the position. The chapel itself was a ruin till a local association restored it. Even during our visit, a lady arrived to tidy up and replace flowers.
One wonders if the Knights, who are now the Knights of Malta, have had any part in the restoration. For if the Templars had their brief day and ceased to be, the Order of St. John, with whom the Templars were effectively merged after their destitution, has proven unkillable across the centuries.
Like a protean organism, the Order of St. John of Jerusalem has taken on so many forms and roles and domiciles that one admires the historian who can untangle even part of its story.
Hospitallers to pilgrims, a sometimes chivalrous, sometimes savage military force that could drift into mercenary and pirate activity, they found a seat in Jerusalem, Rhodes, Malta – wherever their power and independence could be preserved. The fate of the inflexible Templars, who “decayed through pride”, taught the Order of St. John to be discreet and capable of morphing into anything – even freemasons and protestants!
Such a strange history. They were true hospitallers, true defenders of pilgrims and seaways against Ottomans…and they were also buccaneers and mercenaries. After so much heroic and so much naughty stuff, the Order now has its seat and Grand Master in Rome, where it still claims sovereign status. Partner rather than servant of the Vatican, recognised diplomatically by many, it even has observer status at the UN!
Maybe they pay for the flowers.
I stayed the night in a semi-rural home on the fringe of Arthez: the Prat family were wonderful hosts. From the lawn, I was able to get precious glimpses of the Pyrenees. Fuming away between me and the mountains is the enormous industrial centre of the Lacq gas field.