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Archive for the ‘H. GASCONY AND THE BEARN’ Category

The walk toward Navarrenx is through steep and wooded country. Buildings and houses mix rustic and elegant in a style I’d simply call béarnais. I noticed other pilgrims gaping at this gorgeous heap.

And on the outskirts of Navarrenx, this simple beauty caught my eye.

The town of Navarrenx was a stronghold, and in one period it was a stronghold of the protestant Huguenots. When you see them, it’s not surprising that the fortifications have lasted to this day. Nor is it surprising that the protestants were able to hold out for so long till their hero Montgomery arrived. (He’s the one we keep saying damaged this and that church along the Camino.) Here are the fortifications looking toward the river.

The reason the town was protestant comes back to the will of a single woman, who wanted it that way against the will of her husband, and against the will of France. This perfume shop occupies part of her former home in Navarrenx.

And here is the church, since the subject of a famed restoration, where the lady made her confession of protestant faith, Easter Sunday 1563.

***

If there are protestants in this part of France, it should not surprise. In the sixteenth century, when the queen of this region ruled it firmly in a period of great prosperity, a majority of people were protestant. When Jeanne d’Albret was in charge, it was best just to go along with her. Yet – wouldn’t you know it? – for all the woman’s great competence and ferocious will, she ended up gaining greatest fame just for giving birth.

Ah, but what a birth!

Her son, though hated by many in his life, has become the French Elvis. Neither Bonaparte nor Bardot can draw so much affection as this remote historical figure, still none too famous outside France. And walking through what was once his kingdom of Navarre on the four hundredth anniversary of his assassination, it was hard not to get caught up in the myth of good King Henry, King of Navarre, then King of France. Here in the Béarn they still call him lou nouste Enric, “our Henry”. Leading up to the twelfth of May, books and magazines commemorating him were everywhere.

And the tricky, ambitious, equivocating and womanising Enric deserves much of his great popularity. There was a balance and warmth in his character that was lacking in his extraordinary mother – and lacking in all who ruled France after him.

So, as I walked along the Chemin du Puy on the twelfth of the month, across the Béarn the bells rang out for Henry of Navarre, who wished all his subjects could enjoy chicken-in-the-pot every week. And, because he really meant it, I say: Ring those bells!

Enough history. Here’s a pic of a favourite spot in Paris, the Place des Vosges. It was built by Henry, and reflects him.

Warm and balanced, don’t you think?

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The house where I stayed in Sauvelade belonged to a widow, Madame Grosclaude. On first approaching, I saw a sign saying “welcome” in a language that looked like Catalan, but I couldn’t really tell. Later, on the table where I sat to take a coffee with my hostess, lay a newspaper, in a language that might be a form of Occitan…but there were, as I’d been told, no regular publications in Occitan. I was to learn differently.

In 1958, a classical scholar from Savoy, in the north of France, and his wife, had both taken up teaching positions in Béarn. A devout protestant, Michel Grosclaude, as his widow explained, had specifically sought an area of France with a protestant tradition and population.

On this blog, we haven’t yet talked about the protestants in this part of France except to say that they wrecked stuff. There’s more to it than that. If you look at the top right corner of that newspaper you’ll see the remarkable son of a remarkable woman who ruled the Béarn, and was a notorious protestant. And we’ll soon be in Navarrenx, a former protestant stronghold where she had a home.

To return to the subject of this post, Michel Grosclaude was doing secretarial duties for the mairie in his chosen village of Sauvelade when he encountered what would become his hobby then his life’s main work. The language which was called Béarnais by an elderly speaker I’d met on the trail, Gascon by Michel’s widow, and Occitan by outsiders was to become the foster child of this northern scholar.

It varies, of course, from place to place, and gets called Provençal, Languedoc, patois and probably other names. The different forms nonetheless make one language, and it is a language very distinct from French. Michel wrote a dictionary francais-occitan-gascon,  produced a daily radio program, and the weekly newsaper (above) which is still published.

In addition, there were all the academic societies, meetings, publications. In his spare time, he was a geology and bookbinding buff, and an authority on protestantism in the Béarn!

And there’s one more tale to tell of this remarkable man.

If you think you have already encountered the ultimate in Political Correctness…you just haven’t! I’ve got it right here.

Here’s a kid’s book in Occitan written by Michel Grosclaude.

Now, you may or may not know that the word for “parrot” in every Latin-based language, except French, is something like “papagai”. And that’s what the word means in Occitan. Moreover, the last syllable, -gai, is not even sounded as the word gai in French. But nearly every human on earth could look at the cover of that book and perceive its perfect and cheerful innocence.

Nonetheless, solely because of the cover of that book, Michel Grosclaude was investigated and questioned by the French police, suspected of sexual discrimination and perhaps even darker offenses.

Um…

It’s time we looked at some lovely béarnais countryside, don’t you think?

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From Arthez, it was a day of glimpsing the Pyrenees over the crests of pretty Gascon hills. The Béarn is not to be missed, not to be rushed.

The cute village of Maslacq featured colours I would see again…and again! The maroon and white colour scheme, with the less popular option of green and white, is law further south in the Basque country. Maybe it’s compulsory in the Béarn as well.

***

It was out of Maslacq that I fell into a pace with my next Camino acquaintance. In truth, I think he slowed a bit for me.

I’d been warned by an Englishman that the Bretons are a morose lot. Others have told me that they’re only that way till they make up their minds about you. That’s certainly how it was with a new walking companion, Michel. He barely spoke at first, then his gruff remarks were of a fatalistic kind that lopped any extension of a topic.

Yet by day’s end, it was as if we’d been buddies for years. The grounded and serious manner was matched with a wild humour, which emerged as we walked.

Like many European pilgrims just tramping a section of the Camino in their spare time, he had something on his mind. He was an IT worker caught up in an approaching mass layoff after la crise. Rather than stare toward the end along with his sacked co-workers, he’d taken some due holiday time. Better a pilgrim than a civilian.

One thing I noted about all French walkers was the improbably elaborate lunch they drew from often very small packs. I joked with Michel about the sweep truck that comes by in the evenings to pick up the dead bodies of the French who have missed their lunch. He was able to counter me easily by remarking on the Anglo-Saxons who frequently miss lunch yet wallow in obesity. Okay, Michel, no more lunch jokes.

We knew that we’d split off to different accommodation that evening, that he’d leave early next day and we’d never see one another again. That’s the Camino.

***

Some days, when you pull off the track, the fascination of the place can beat your fatigue. The abbey at Sauvelade is that kind of place.

In a tiny hamlet, with little passing traffic or tourism, it is seen mainly by pilgrims. Founded in the early twelfth century by a crusader viscount of Béarn – the ridiculously heroic Gaston – it briefly bore the name of St. James during the thirteenth century, when it was run by Benedictines for pilgrims. Then the Cistercians took over, and they weren’t keen on all the populist trash of pilgrimage and relics. The abbey’s name reverted to Notre Dame. Very enlightened, but a bit stuck up, those Cistercians.

Anyway, the pilgrims are back, and Jimbo is back in the abbey.

In spite of its size, interest and bare Cistercian beauty, the abbey has to get by on the modest efforts and funds of local volunteers and authorities. Yet it’s a rough-cut medieval jewel.

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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.

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My géo-bio friends were finishing up that night, as planned. Three of them would have had difficulty continuing, though they were a game lot. The injury list: a back problem, a knee problem, and blisters. The worst was the blistering. A tiny and temporary blister can be harder to live with than many major injuries. The sufferer was close to tears.

This was a point in the Camino where many people were pulling out, and this may be a good point in the blog to raise the issue of footwear. Here are my boots after more than a thousand kilometres of wear.

The BOA no-tie system is intact and I loved it. The soles have another thousand kilometres left in them. The leather uppers are fine.

The first problem is that I should have selected a larger size to accommodate heavy socks, and the pressure and swelling that come from walking big miles with weight. I should also have used good insoles.

However, there may also have been a problem with the over-design of most modern boots, which often have such features as waterproof membranes and heavy rubber reinforcing around toe and heel. Many people find membranes effective. My experience is that they work well till they stop working. Boots also may have stiff reinforcing which prevents the upper from adapting to the shape of the foot under the heaviest wear. In the case of my boots, the rubber may have saved the tips, but the stress was transferred to where the rubber joins the leather. That’s after the stress was transferred to my toes.

While taking every precaution to avoid foot problems, I still could not avoid very minor blisters and corns. Not enough adaptation, even after a thousand kilometres. Rigid synthetic rubber may be okay for certain heels and toes, but for many people it’s not okay. The theory is that a correct fit (if that exists) avoids pressure. The theory doesn’t hold up when one is making a long descent on tar at the end of the day with humidity in socks and boots.

If I elect to take leather boots again they’ll have less reinforcing, and possibly no membrane. I will saturate and use and abuse them till they look like an Agen prune. And if they feel like old friends before departure for Spain, I’ll give them the job. Or I may take a lighter synthetic shoe, membrane optional, but with adequate height and heel clasp so knees and back aren’t wrenched about. Oh, and great socks, great sock liners, and special insoles.

Everyone has different feet and tastes. Some people wear jogging shoes and get by nicely. Just don’t leave for the Camino in untried footwear. A shoe that seems worn-in may prove to be stiff and problematic under the weight of a pack. The most strenuous weekend hike is not a test for a two month hike.

If you’re going to have to pull out, let it be for something glorious: a broken leg, salmonella infested praires farcies, chucking a brown-eye at the Guardia Civil.

Don’t miss out over a blister.

***

The municipal gîte at Arzacq is a cheery centre d’acceuil, with dorms up the front and individual rooms further back. Those economical but excellent rooms have views to the Pyrenees – in fine weather, which was lacking for me.

Okay, you get dried out confit de canard (again) for dinner, and maybe that terrifying substance, French pasta. But the atmosphere is so good you may not notice the food. The front of the centre d’acceuil is a tourist feature on its own. I don’t know what to call the style of buildings in Arzacq but many were both distinctive and lovely.

So, next morning it was farewell to the géo-bio crowd, with a blurry hope of a future reunion at Chartres. That should get the pendulums swinging.

With a supply of sheep cheese and cornbread, I headed off alone, but confident that old friends would be replaced by new friends. But a funny laziness was creeping over me. I resented the effort of making new friends so constantly, of having to race each day through all the necessary levels of acquaintance till a friendship was formed. Odd, but that’s how I felt. It’s a Camino thing.

Misty lake, sappy fields, dripping forests, lowering cloud, light rain drifting in…

…and sappy, dripping, misty prose drifting in. Sorry, but the atmosphere really was heavy that morning.

Reminders of what we are…

…and where we’re going.

Much of the day is spent in lush hill country, and you become aware of France as an agricultural power house, yet still with its special douceur.

Here are members of the renowned breed, the Blonde d’Aquitaine – actually in Aquitaine! They go back to the sixth century at least, and their hardiness and good adaptation come from their original use as draught animals. The breed is now world-wide, but here the quality and name are protected just like wine and cheese and those tiny lentils. It’s France, after all.

Lunch was in a handy covered annex attached to this very old church, about which I should have learned more.

It’s an agricultural day, ending at a farm back down on the flat country. If you’re wondering why they eat cornbread in this region…

And it was around here I spent the night, in a gîte attached to a working farm at Uzan. And when Mme Perarnaud Bernard serves cheese, it’s pure sheep cheese of the region. Can I give any higher praise?

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I’m told a “pimbo” is a pretentious bimbo. When you don’t do Facebook, you have to find these thing out.

The name Pimbo, applied to the elevated town we came to shortly after Sensacq, is Occitan, meaning “thyme”. It actually has a rugged, martial look: not hard to see it was a bastion as well as an abbey. Like the last town, it was built by an English monarch, not Edward, but his father, the long reigning Henry III, who exercised rights over Gascony. It’s a Plantagenet thing.

But the original abbey is much older than the bastide: it’s said to date back to Charlemagne, who founded it on returning from Spain in 778. Nice thought.

The castle was wrecked by Huguenots, and there was serious damage in the revolution. Happily, the abbey church of Saint-Barthélemy is still here, behind platted plane trees. (The same Cartesian fussiness which irritates me in Paris appeals here in France profonde.)

The crest shape of Pimbo meant that a road could run from here to the castle, connecting the two power-sharing institutions at the same high level. Handy.

The interior is full of interest, with its ancient glamour enhanced by superb wood panelling of later date, as well as paintings.

Some rear landscaping by a proud mairie caught the eye of one of my friends.

Yet this was as far as this hard-headed senior policeman and chef de sécurité wanted to go. For a geobiologist, the rear of a church is a no-go area. Also, when one walks out of a church through the main portal, if no side door is available, one must not linger there. Geobiologists put a lot of effort into avoiding undesirable energies. Curiously, there is no concern about nearby cemeteries or the deceased. The arbitrary placement of dead human bodies has no relation to the geology and celestial focus points (created by the building?) which concerned the builders of medieval churches. I think.

I’m hardly an expert!

Without wishing to alarm or offend, I’ll simply relate something as it was told to me. We’re grown-ups. The great church which is devoid of geobiological energies once had plenty, but lost them because of some change in its “Jordan”, its subterranean water-flow. Or something like that.

The name of the church is Santiago De Compostela.

***

Over lunch near the church, my new friends tested me for spiritual force. I always seem to test ordinary in things…exams, IQ, my palm, the pinch-test etc. Imagine my joy when the pendulums indicated that, spiritually, I was off the charts! I told you these were fine people.

Before we left, the policeman with an interest in symbols examined the tympan. It was surprising how much he garnered from the  faded carving, finding little stories or sermons in these details:

In an era when life was short and faith strong, decoration was never “mere”. Sending the punters to God was the prime motive for every chisel-cut.

***

After lunch, as we headed off, one of the group casually said the word pyrénées. Looking to the right, I saw them – and was immediately unmanned. I squealed and babbled. To my French companions the mountains were imposing but familiar. To me it was an occasion of awe.

Now, as one must explain over and over to Europeans, most Australians live in fertile, humid country and never see a desert. Nor are mountains or snow a strange sight: we have a much larger area of snowfields than Switzerland.

But we don’t have anything like the Pyrenees!

I took a snap, but my little Fuji just couldn’t find the depth. This does no justice to the moment, but, so great was the moment, I’m breaking a rule and offering an inferior photo.

Looking south across the valley of the Gabas, it seemed like I was at some kind of threshhold. After the descent from Pimbo, striding across a little plain, I began to think excitedly that the coming days would keep bringing me closer and closer to these awesome peaks…till I sat in Saint-Jean and saw them towering over me. Scary and wonderful.

In moments of emotion like this, you forget what weather and geography can do. That grand and ultimate view of the Pyrenees would never be granted me, even while crossing them. Just lots of nice glimpses. Do we ever grow up?

***

Framed by valley slopes, these flatlands were pretty. The green Béarn, one of the loveliest and least mentioned stretches of the Camino, was only a day away.

The trek ended at Arzacq, and, while were still in the Landes, the architecture differed radically from all that came before. After just a few hours walk.

And suddenly, people were eating cornbread! That’s France. That’s the Camino.

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Still some flat country.

But soon the land starts to roll up. The country over the next few days will more and more resemble my own part of Australia: humid, hilly, part-forested, maritime.

But we’re still in the Landes: these green folds are only a foretaste of the Béarn.

A mixed group of French had been popping up on the trail for some time…and going slow! It was fate: I meshed into the group, in that vague Camino way.

The Sensacq church stands on its own. It’s dated eleventh century, but built on something much older than that. One wonders about the location of these isolated chapels and churches. Was there a village out here? Was it a big pilgrim stop? My new friends had ideas on that subject.

Here’s the church, which none of us were expecting, and which drew us instantly. With that “wall” bell-tower, or clocher-à-peigne, and the plump Romanesque style of the nave – this was old, and this was pretty. (For my companions, it was something more again.)

It’s not untouched, of course, but the simple interior keeps the feel of its origins.

Restoration works, as I learned later, uncovered this extraordinary boat-hull  ceiling.

As we chatted and moved about, I noticed that some of the group were dangling little chains, standing or sitting with a peculiar concentration. One of the ladies, when called by a friend to approach the altar with him, expressed something akin to anxiety.

Soon I observed that they were playing not with keys but with little pendulums.

The French, who guard their homes and offices like fortresses, are very free in exposing their obsessions and loubies. Soon I was made privy to the interest that united the group. This was a club of geobiologists. Géo-bio is a mix of feng shui, geology, divining and medieval studies.

The main focus of my friends’ hobby, as they do a portion of the Camino each year, is to locate and measure the arcane forces and energies within religious sanctuaries. These forces are connected with water, minerals and other known physical substances, but are also celestial and remain largely mysterious in origin and effect. There are special terms. For example, the water influence within a church is referred to as the “Jordan”.

Geobiologists believe that medieval builders took into account these energies and forces when building, and the critical parts of religious places, such as the spot before altars where coffins are placed, tend to be energy centres. Some great churches, such as Chartres, have stupendous energies, others less. The example they gave me of a “null” church with no geo-bio forces might shock some readers inclined to believe in these things. Maybe I’ll leave that till later.

Okay, probably all  hooey. So why did I enjoy hanging with these people?

To begin with, they were a likable and mixed bunch. Though one of them was writing a book about the symbolism of chapiteaux in his local cathedral, he was also a commandant of police! There were two other coppers in the group, one who had retired to take up a very senior security position. There was a sales rep, a ceramicist, in short, a genuine variety. They were real world folk, even urbane: one of the group was a skeptic who thought it was all hooey, yet he was welcome on all their outings. Some were catholic, some non-believers.

These were people you could laugh with, who had real jobs and could live with contradiction. Above all, though I can’t get excited about telluric forces, spiritual energy grids and the like, I believe that the purely rational is good for getting us across roads, but not through life. In fact, I’m not even sure it gets us across the road.

But this post is long! I would learn more about geobiology at the next church. And I would see something for the first time, something that would make me babble like an infant.

But before we head off, here’s a long shot of the interior of the église de Sensacq.

Is that a scallop shell reference in the ceiling? Are you here, Messire Jacques?

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