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An essay by Morley Roberts

Across The Bidassoa

Title:     Across The Bidassoa
Author: Morley Roberts [More Titles by Roberts]

I came out of London's mirk and mist and the clouds of the Channel and the rollers of the Bay to find sunshine in the Gironde, though the east wind was cool in Bordeaux's big river. And then even in Bordeaux I discovered that fog was over-common; brief sunshine yielded to thick mist, and the city of wine was little less depressing than English Manchester. But though I spent a night there I was bound south and hoped for better things close by the border of Spain. And truly I found them, though the way there through the Landes is as melancholy as any great city of sad inhabitants.

The desolation of the Landes is an ordered, a commercial desolation. Once the whole surface of the district bore nothing but a scanty herbage. The soil is sand and an iron cement, or "hard-pan," below the sand. Here uncounted millions of slender sea-pines cover the plain; they stand in serried rows, as regular as a hop-garden, gloomy and without the sweet wildness of nature. And every pine is bitterly scarred, so that it may bleed its gum for traders. When the plantations are near their full growth they are cut down, stacked to season slowly, and the trees finish their existence as mine timbers deep under the earth.

After seventy miles of a southward run there are signs that the Landes are not so everlasting and spacious as they seem. To the south-east, at Buglose, where St Vincent de Paul was born, the Pyrenees show far and faint and blue on the horizon. And then suddenly the River Adour appears, and a country which was English. Dax was ours for centuries, and so was Bayonne, whose modern citadel has had a rare fate for any place of strength. It has never been taken; not even Wellington and his Peninsular veterans set foot within its bastions.

This is the country of the Basques, that strange, persistent race of which nothing is known. Their history is more covered by ancient clouds than that of the Celts; their tongue has no cousin in the world, though in structure it is like that of the North-American Indians. I met some of them later, but so far know no more than two words of their language.

The wind was cool at St Jean de Luz, but the sun was bright and the sea thundered on the beach and the battered breakwaters. To the east and south are the Pyrenees--lower summits, it is true, but bold and fine in outline. The dominant peak, being the first of the chain, is Larhune (a Basque word, not French), where English blood was spilt when Clauzel held it for Napoleon against the English. Further to the south, and across the Bidassoa, in Spain, rises the sharp ridge of the Jaisquivel, beneath which lies Fuentarabia. Yonder by Irun is the abrupt cliff of Las Tres Coronas, three crowns of rock. Here one is in the south-east of the Bay, where France and Spain run together, and the sea, under the dominion of the prevailing south-westers, is rarely at peace with the land. To the northward, but out of sight, lies windy Biarritz; to the south is blood-stained, battered and renewed San Sebastian, a name that recalls many deeds of heroism and many of shame. The horrors of its siege and taking might make one cold even in sunlight. But between us and its new city lies the Bidassoa. Here, at St Jean de Luz, is the Nivelle flowing past Ciboure. The river was once familiar to us in despatches. The whole country even yet smells of ancient war. For here lies the great western road to Spain. And more than once it has been the road to Paris. It is a path of rising and falling empire.

During my few days at St Jean de Luz I had foregathered with some exiled friends, walked to quiet Ascain, and regretted I lacked the time even to attain the summit of so small a mountain as Larhune, and then, desiring for once to set foot in Spain, took train to Hendaye. This is the last town in France. Across the Bidassoa rose the quaint roofs and towers of old Fuentarabia, the Fontarabie of the French. I hired an eager Basque to row me across the river, then running seaward at the last of the ebb.

The day was splendid and mild. There was no cloud in the sky, not a wreath of mist upon the mountains. The river was a blue that verged on green; its broad sand glowed golden in the sun; to seaward the amethystine waters of the Atlantic heaved and glittered. On the far cliffs they burst in lifting spray. The hills wore the fine faint blue of atmosphere; the wind was very quiet. This seemed at last like peace. I let my hands feel the cool waters of the river and soaked my soul in the waters of peace.

And yet my bold Basque chattered as he stood at the bows and poled me with a blunted oar across the river shallows. He told me proudly that he had the three languages, that he was all at home with French and Spanish and Basque. He was intelligent within due limits; he at anyrate knew how to extract francs from an Englishman. That generosity which consists in buying interested civility as well as help or transport with an extra fifty centimes is indeed but a wise and calculated waste. It occurred to me that he might solve a question that puzzled me. Were the Basques united as a race, or were their sympathies French or Spanish? After considering how I should put it, I said,--

"Mon ami, est-ce que vous etes plus Basque que Francais, ou plus Francais que Basque?"

He taught me a lesson in simple psychology, for he stopped poling and stared at me for a long minute. Then he scratched his head and a light came into his eyes.

"Mais, monsieur, je suis un Basque Francais!"

My fine distinction was beyond him, and it took me not a little indirect questioning to discover that he was certainly more French than Basque. He presently denounced the Spanish Basques in good round terms, and incidentally showed me that there must be a very considerable difference in their respective dialects. For he complained that the Spanish Basques spoke so fast that it was hard to understand them.

He put me ashore at last on a mud flat and accompanied me to the Fonda Miramar, where a bright and pretty waitress hurried, after the fashion of Spaniards, to such an extent that she got me a simple lunch in no more than half an hour. My Spanish is far worse even than my French, but in spite of that we carried on an animated conversation in French and English, Basque and Spanish. At lunch my talk grew more fluent and Mariquita went more deeply into matters. She desired to know what I thought of the Basques, of whom she was one, and a sudden flicker of the deceitful imagination set me inventing. I told her that I was a Basque myself, though I was also an Englishman. She exclaimed at this. She had never heard of English Basques. How was it I did not speak it? This was a sore point with me. I assured her of the shameful fact that the English Basques had lost their own tongue; they were degenerate. I had some thoughts of learning it in order to re-introduce it into England. As soon as Mariquita had mastered this astounding story she hurried to the kitchen, and as I heard her relating something with great excitement, I have little doubt that a legend of English Basques is now well on its way past historic doubt. Leaving her to consider the news I had brought, I went out with my boatman to view the old town. I found it quaint and individual and lovely.

A man who has seen much of the world must hold some places strangely and essentially beautiful. My own favourite spots are Auckland, N. Z.; the upper end of the Lake of Geneva; Funchal in Madeira; the valley of the Columbia at Golden City and the valley of the Eden seen from Barras in England. To these I can now add Fuentarabia, the Pyrenees and the Bidassoa. I stood upon the roof of the old ruined palace of Charles Le Quint, and on every point of the compass the view had most peculiar and wonderful qualities. Beneath me was the increasing flood of the frontier river: at my very feet lay the narrow and picturesque street canyons of the ancient town; to the south was Irun in the shelter and shadow of the mountains; east-south-east rose the pyramidal summit of Larhune; the west was the sharp ridge of the brown Jaisquivel which hid San Sebastian; to the north was the rolling Bay; and right to the south the triple crown of Las Tres Coronas cut the sky sharply. Right opposite me Hendaye burnt redly in the glow of the southern sun. In no place that I can remember have I seen two countries, three towns, a range of mountains, a big river and the sea at one time. And there was not a spot in view that had not been stained with the blood of Englishmen.

But now there were no echoes of war in Fuentarabia. Peace lay over its dark homes and within its ancient walls.

[The end]
Morley Roberts's essay: Across The Bidassoa