Saturday, May 3, 2014

Living History

Two thousand years ago, the Roman armies camped here "sponda Navarrensis," on the border of the Navarre region. A thousand border-changing years later, the first rulers of the Béarn region built a fortress that would defend them from the Spanish Kingdom of Navarre to the south, the French Duchy of Aquitaine to the north and west, and the Viscounts of Soule to the east. The walls of the newest fortress, rebuilt in the middle of the 16th century, form a flattened hexagon surrounding the houses crowded inside. Florence and I went to Navarrenx a few weeks ago for the last of their three-day Easter artisan's festival and for an afternoon away from the house and pig farm, and into the sunshine. We followed the signs for the festival in the middle of town, crossing over the 13th-century bridge (topped with 21st-century asphalt) and parking beside one of the tall grey stone walls. We took a spiraling path in towards the festival, walking along the ramparts.

According to the local tourist office, it was vicomtesse Marguerite de Béarn who laid out the plans for a village inside the fortress back at the beginning of the 14th century. Navarrenx is yet another major stopping point for pilgrims on their way to Compostela, and served to protect some of the forces under the leadership of Jeanne d’Albret in 1569 during the middle of the Wars of Religion, Protestant Béarn defending itself against Charles IX and the Catholics.

The houses are a mix of Béarn and Basque styles, with stone and mortar buildings next to white-painted red-shuttered ones. The streets were originally laid out in a grid pattern (the vicomtesse had a methodical mind) but are now criss-crossed with narrow alleys in twisted angles, the ones that always make me lose my way. Fortunately Florence had been there before, and led the way to the plaza in the center, where the animateur was chatting away over the loudspeaker and a man was carving an ice sculpture using a chain saw and dogs and children ran past the people waiting to order their drinks at the buvette.

Florence ordered some piping-hot churros from the cart at one side of the square. I got a snack, too, and we ate sitting on the wall surrounding a nice little water feature, not realizing that the water was oozing up through the tiles until Florence stood up and discovered a wet patch on her butt; my jeans were of thicker material, so I didn't notice my own wet patch until I got up as well. The day was still fairly warm, although the cloud were moving in, and we dried off quickly as we stood waiting to hear if our names would be drawn from the entry-ticket lottery for a prize of 25 euro to be used at one of the vendor booths (jewelry and toys and pottery, mostly). But neither of us won, so we left.

We stopped at Gurs on the way back, where the remains of an internment camp have been turned into a national memorial. Originally built in 1939 to house political refugees from Spain and political prisoners from Germany and political protesters from France itself, after the Nazi takeover it was primarily a deportation camp for Jews who were sent there from Germany. Those who didn't die in the camp, which was plagued by disease, lack of potable water, and poor food supplies, were later shipped out to Auschewitz. Hannah Arendt was imprisoned there for a time, but she escaped; the graves of over a thousand others who did not are in a quiet walled enclosure at the edge of the monument.

Political questions are far too serious to be left to the politicians.
- Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times (1968)

The short stretch of railway was built later, as a symbolic reminder of the deportation and death of so many people. There's a platform at one end covered by a wooden skeleton of a shelter, marking where the prisoners assembled before being shipped out. At the other end, across the road that runs through the town of Gurs, there's another platform, but we didn't go there as it was occupied by a film crew, whose director chivvied us along when we were starting our walk along the rail line towards the graveyard. We weren't picturesque enough, or something. When we left (circling back behind a group of houses towards the parking lot, so we wouldn't get glared at again), there were two people being filmed and recorded, one a young man in a ragged coat and the other a woman in a scarf and shawl and skirt in colorful and clashing patterns.

Another now-symbolic rail line is the one that used to run from Oloron to Canfranc. A local historical society had an exhibition here in Oloron of mementos and photographs and engineering drawings from the construction of the section of the line between Oloron and Bedous, which was completed in April 1914. Thousands of workers from both France and Spain labored to dig out 23 tunnels through the steep mountainsides and build bridges and viaducts crossing the narrow valleys between, all the way up to and over the Somport Pass. The train line connecting the two countries was opened in 1928, but the trains stopped at Bedous after one of the bridges collapsed in March 1970, and now the line only goes as far as Oloron-Sainte-Marie, as the railway company stopped maintaining the line beyond in the 1980s. For the moment, the train doesn't even get this far; there is a subsidence underneath the railway that needs to be fixed, and they've replaced the train service with buses to and from Pau.

While most people have gotten used to the cars and trucks that have taken over the Pau-Canfranc route, there have always been those who have lobbied to get the rails repaired and the trains on line again. This spring, the local and national governments have started plans for getting the Oloron to Bedous section working once more, but there appears to be little support for investing the time and money into repairing the collapsed bridge (or possibly bridges at this point) and redoing the steeper, longer section between Bedous and Canfranc. Given that the Canfranc Underground Laboratory has a well-established and quite expensive installation in one of the last and largest tunnels where the railway used to run, it would be a bit more complicated to make the cross-border connection at this point.

The exhibition was displayed at the Espace Jéliote, the cultural center in Oloron, and when Florence and I arrived with boxes of sliced ham and saucissons and jars of pâté de campagne last Friday, there were already people eating and drinking and discussing the photos and their accompanying text in both French and Spanish. They cleared out eventually, making way for that night's event, a concert by the group Los Pagalhós, who have been singing and chanting traditional folk tunes and modern compositions for 40 years in Occitan, lenga d'òc, which in this corner of southwest France is the Béarnais dialect. There are Occitan speakers in Spain and Italy and Corsica (the group recently performed on that island, but had to learn the local dialect first) as well as across southern France. Béarnais is making a comeback in this region, and Florence's niece Lilou and her classmates are learning the language, which was banned - along with all other regional dialects - by the French government in 1789 as a way of uniting all of post-revolutionary France under one language as well as one political system. In many areas, the dialects are dying out along with the oldest generation, but here in Béarn the six-year-olds are learning new ways to chat with their 94-year-old grandmothers. The concert was sponsored by the primary school, and the children learned some of the songs that the all-male vocal group sang that night.

It wasn't all a capella though - there was a synthesizer player who provided some of the underlying notes for the polyphonic chants that date back centuries, and an accordion player, and a man with a goat-skin bagpipe. Another man brought out a soprano recorder that ornamented some of the songs about sheep-herding (at least I think that's what they were about), and one man alternated between fiddle and guitar when he joined in on the fast dance tunes. There were comic sketches in the middle that I could almost sort of understand, and explanations (in French, luckily) about the traditions and importance of keeping Occitan as a living language linking past and present to the future. During one of the songs, whose chorus was something like "we sing together, we live together, Occitan brings us together" one of the singers started crying with emotion.

The tradition of cantèra, or chant-singing, has been part of pretty much every event I've been to here. Both Florence's uncle Jean and her father Éloi joined the group at the post-concert party in the main hall, in repeats of some of the songs they'd performed and then moving on to what I assume are old standards, since everyone seemed to know them well. There were still a dozen or two of the students from the primary school (even though it was getting on towards midnight) and they joined the circle at one point, all singing along. There was a good bit of wine and beer being consumed, but not much in the way of ham, unfortunately, so towards 1am Florence gave up on trying to sell the plates of charcuterie and started carrying them around as samples. We're hoping that the publicity will make up for the loss of product, at least. The last songs died away into the night - or the early morning, rather - at 2am, but there are a few videos of the group on YouTube, so I can listen to the chanting again, even if I don't get to another concert.


  1. They should turn that old rail line into a rails-to-trails multi-use path!

  2. Bikers here prefer to dice with death on the roads - it's a Tour de France thing probably - but I agree. It would make it easier for the pilgrims, too.