Sunday, March 30, 2014

Weekend At The Sea: Labenne

Yes, that is a whole block of homemade foie gras on the table for lunch. Marie-Morgane and her mother and grandmother put it up in 2012 with salt and pepper and cognac, so it was nicely aged and wonderful when spread on my toasted gluten-free bread. The whole weekend was filled with good things to eat, and none of it made with butter or cream or flour (except at the restaurant - that was pretty buttery). Marie made squid stuffed with spinach and rice in a tomato sauce for Friday dinner, and the leftover rice turned into a salad that we had for lunch the next day with ham. She roasted chickens with spices from the market for our Sunday lunch at the table in the sun, and Sunday evening we finished the foie gras spread on the last of the toasts, followed by fresh foie gras crisped in a hot pan with salt and pepper, with prunes in Armagnac for dessert. It's a good thing we went for long walks that weekend.

Others were taking walks as well through the pine woods bordering the dunes, including the newly-awakened hordes of Pine Processionary caterpillar larvae that are causing increasing problems in the Landes region and moving inexorably northward. Local governments use spraying to try to kill the nests before the caterpillars emerge, but usually not until April; the milder (if very rainy) winter and early spring has thrown that schedule off this year. Marie kept calling her dog away from the squirming lines and loops and snarls of chenille-knitted knots, because the spiky hairs cause breathing problems and rashes in animals - and in people as well, as she warned me when I crouched down to take a photo. We talked about invasive species for a while, and climate change, and our hopes and plans for the future and whether those hopes and plans would come true, global weather patterns permitting.

We were headed towards the old Centre Hélio-Marin which was run by the mayor of Labenne, Jules Bouville, in the 1930s to house people with breathing problems and rashes: lepers, according to Marie. At one point, anyway. It was more generally a "cure by the sea" location, not for tuberculosis (you went to the mountains for that) but for other ailments that sun and saltwater might help with. I'm not sure what it did for the lepers. There's a new fancy Institut Hélio-Marin now closer to the town, where wealthy older people and injured sports stars get treated, and the old building is now falling down under the ownership of the State, who has it up for sale at an unspecified price. The woman guarding the property with the help of a ferociously-barking dog didn't know the price, in any event, and when she saw my camera she said it was forbidden to take pictures because it was the property of the State and not allowed. Which I thought was odd, given all the places in Paris that are the property of the State, and guarded besides, that I've taken pictures of. Marie said it was just that she was being officious and probably bored, stuck out there on the dunes all alone but for a nasty-tempered dog and a gun, and that in general if there's a woman official, you'll get read every last footnote of the regulations and maybe some made up on the spot just to show you who's boss, but if it's a male official they'll wave you on to do or see whatever it is. I put my camera back in its case and we moved on, but on the way back I snapped a quick photo through the underbrush. If you don't hear from me any more, please check the French national prison system, Aquitaine region.

1930s, 1830s, 1130s and even farther back - you can't escape history in France, even in the most modern settings. A friend of Marie's mother, whose family traces its lineage back to the court of Henri IV, I was told, gave her this memento from the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle. It's a larme batavique (Dutch Tear, or Prince Rupert's Drop). The cover of the small box says it's a "lentille en cristal de roche fondu" or "lenticular crystal of melted rock" and I was fairly excited about that, thinking that it was a unique natural formation, but then after I squinted and deciphered the spidery lettering on the inside, saw that it's actually something that you get when you drip hot liquid glass into cold water. Which is also pretty neat, but not something you'd come across on a field trip, so sorry, Mom, no geology expedition this time. But I was prepared to take notes.

Apologies to everyone for the fuzzy picture; I couldn't get the light and focus to cooperate.

Mieulx est de ris que de larmes escripre,
Pour ce que rire est le propre de l'homme.

- François Rabelais (1534)

The dirt road we were following leads to Capbreton, as does a paved bike/pedestrian path that runs along the Boudigau, and it's all flat so an easy walk or ride, another reason why this area is so popular with tourists. Maybe I'll do the 14-kilometre loop next time I visit, because it looks like fun. I do hope there's a next time. And in checking the distance along the bike path, Google maps has helpfully highlighted all of the other bike routes, and (with occasional forays onto major roads with crazy French drivers) there's a way to get all the way up to Bordeaux by bike. I'll bet a lot of people do that trip, too.

But on our walk we didn't go out of Labenne, and we stopped at the Chapelle Sainte-Thérèse not far from the (possibly) former leper colony and sanitarium. Bouville had it built in 1931 to accommodate the religious needs of the growing population of Labenne. There's another older church in the center of town, the Église Saint Nicolas de Labenne, originally built at the beginning of the 13th century but extensively remodeled and rebuilt in the 1860s. I didn't visit that church, and we couldn't visit this one either, as it's generally closed to the public. There's an old concrete-walled convent, now also closed, between the chapel and the sanitarium, that dates back to the 1930s as well. I imagined the sisters ministering to the people in their iron-framed hospital beds facing the sea, then walking back to their own hard and narrow cots in the evening, following the path through the sand towards the chiming of the chapel bell.

That morning, the bell was silent, and all I could hear was the sound of the wind through the dune grass and the shush-roar of the waves below. The four-wheeler tracks on the sand indicated that it wouldn't always be such a quiet place, but for a while the ghosts of the nuns were left in peace.


  1. Hello Elizabeth, I've just read your article. Nice pictures of the Chapelle !
    I'm a local surfer and I have always wondered why the Former Helio Marin was guarded by a guy with a dog, because it seems abandoned...

    Thanks for the risk you took by taking this picture aha.
    Salut, Adri