Music Festivals in Basque Lands

Organ built by Remy Mahler in the cathedral Saint-Etienne-de-Baïgorry, France.

Organ built by Remy Mahler in the cathedral Saint-Etienne-de-Baïgorry, France.

The 14th Festival de Basse-Navarre will be held 16-18 August 2013 in Saint-Etienne-de-Baïgorry, France.  In 2000, I visited the mountain town during my long walk across France and learned about the unique festival featuring the Remy Mahler organ in the cathedral.

The township of  St. Etienne de Baïgorry commissioned the organ in 1999 in the style of 17th and 18th c. organs of Southern Germany which was built by one of the last traditional organ builders, Remy Mahler.


I found my lodging by chance.  While trekking downhill from the Iparla Cliffs, I saw the official farm stay emblem at the entrance of an attractive manor house.  The Hargain family, my hosts at Jauregia, welcomed me with open arms.

Jauregia, Urdos, Basque France.

Jauregia, Urdos, Basque France.

I recommend this historic, modernized manor house B&B in Urdos.  You’ll sleep well in Urdos,  a quiet farming hamlet just a short walk from Saint-Etienne-de-Baïgorry.  Daniel Hargain, a mountain guide, offered maps and footpath route suggestions that made my journey easier as I walked cross-country.

There’s also an International Music Festival in Eugi, Esteribar, Basque Navarra, to be held this year from 31 July to 4 August 2013. Chamber music festival held in three locations: Eugi and Zubiri in Basque Spain and Bidarray in Basque France.

Note: Bidarray is a different town than St. Etienne de Baïgorry (sometimes shortened to Baïgorry), although they do sound similar.

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Castle Puivert: Troubadours and Troops

Prior to the  decimating Papal crusade against the Southern French Cathars, Puivert was known for sponsorship of the arts and poetry.  The fifedom and castle served as a meeting place for troubadours in the Aude and Roussillon region and a hospitable refuge for poets and troubadour musicians traveling from Provence.  American poet Ezra Pound nursed an interest in troubadour history and translated the troubadour cantos.

Gleaned from various sources, the family story related to Puivert Castle runs like this:

In 1208, a lady named Alpais, the sister of the seigneur of Montsegur and wife of Bernard de Congost, was dying and received the Cathar Consolatum, a ceremony similar to the Catholic communion, blessing and anointment with salve before death. Despite official prohibitions against the Cathars, the family continued its affinity with the sect. In 1232, Bernard de Congost also received the consolatum at Montsegur.  His son Gaillard participated in the murder of the Pope’s representatives at Avignonnet, an event that triggered even more aggressive destruction by the invading army under the aegis of the Pope.  Alpais and Bernard’s daughter Saissa, a professed Cathar, roasted with the last remaining Cathars at the terminal burning pyre at the base of Montsegur on March 16, 1244.

Religious persecution hid the reality: political greed and a type of civil war.  Simon de Montfort, the northern general who burned Béziers and other cities, massacred townspeople and turned over the conquered Cathar lands and castles to his myrmidons, subverting the established clans of the French Midi.  The Puivert castle and land went to Pons de Bruyeres, one of the crusading assailants, and the property passed to his son Jean. In 1310, a descendant named Thomas de Bruyeres married Isabelle de Melun and they enlarged the chateau.

Chateau PuivertI stared at the chateau and swished the brush in a mini-cup of water, finishing the watercolor as the late September sun closed.   I hoped families in the region retained some historical knowledge of the persecution and atrocities committed against the Cathars.  When I mentioned an interest, local folks would nod in recognition, but it was rare to find anyone with deeper knowledge than the rough facts offered on a wayside historical marker.  A typical response would be: Cathars owned the castles and the army burned them out.  That is true, but misses the point that the army was there on a trumped-up mission to subjugate a civilized, peaceful and prosperous population who disagreed with the corrupt religious hierarchy who ruled Europe with despotic force.

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The City Coat of Arms :: St-Jean-Pied-de-Port

coat of arms showing lamb, castle and other figures on red background

Coat of Arms of the city:
St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France

Do cities and townships in the USA have coats of arms?  Some towns offer a “Welcome to…” sign at the main road ornamented with the brands or logos of the organizations that paid for the sign.

What about the organizations and grassroots groups that don’t waste their resources on brand marketing?  I wonder which groups will replace the Rotary Club and the Union Sisters?

What do the symbols on the shield for St. Jean Pied de Port mean?  You can pursue the information offered on French Wikipedia.

The category for municipal heraldry in the USA needs more writers to develop content.

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La Guerre des Demoiselles

One Saturday during the walk, I chatted with a local man who noticed me painting the mountain range to the west. He was running errands in a 4×4 with two Huskies in the rear and I was installed on a large rock near a crossroads.    ~    Mr. Robert Raufast told me about the Guerre de Demoiselles in the Ariege.  During 1830 to 1850, give or take a few years, locals rose up against the Maitre de Foret, officials (usually outsiders),  who claimed wood from the region for the crown.    ~        The people who lived in the region weren’t happy about losing their firewood and lumber.  Disguised as women, the men hid in trees to scare people away from the forest, and built local fear that spirits were haunting the area, rumors that eventually would keep the officials away.

A woman appears in an open window in a stone house.

Still photo from film La Guerre des Demoiselles, directed by Jacques Nichet.
Image © Cinémathèque de Toulouse.

Later, I researched the historical event and found this fascinating book:   Forest Rites : the War of the Demoiselles in Nineteenth-century France by Peter Sahlins. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts,  1994.

Quotes from the book follow:

“Nineteenth-century peasantry in the Pyrenees. Certainly there are linguistic affiliations: sylva, for example, was the term used in the eastern Languedoc, as in medieval Europe, to designate the totality of forest lands, including brush and pastures.”

“But there is little explicit evidence to make claims about the symbolic meanings of the forest in local peasant culture, especially the identity of the forest as feminine. After all, the forest could be considered a male space, insofar as it was primarily men’s responsibility to gather firewood and building materials from the forest. Moreover, many of the supernatural creatures who inhabited the forest had masculine characteristics, not to mention the phallic possibilities of trees. ”

“Yet the peasantry’s modes of exploiting the forests, their material techniques adapted to the harsh mountain environment, were clearly identified with a female space and as women’s work, for the male peasants “gardened” the forest. To the forest administration, this had the appearance of disorder and chaos. But to the peasantry, the forest was exploited in a mode that matched its material and symbolic characteristics: vitalistic, disorderly, and feminine.”

“The forests provided the food, wood, and timber essential to a peasant’s livelihood; they protected villages from rockslides and floods; they provided a source of cash income; and they gave protection, sites of refuge from the law. Forests were also inherently destructive.  The fact that women in the Pyrenees could inherit property and act as household heads in the public domain led to a certain notoriety not unlike that of the Demimonde. ”

“The first reports of peasant men “armed and disguised as women” in the royal forests of Saint-Lary were near the district called the Castillonnais, several municipal pasture animals in the royal forests, against the restrictions on pasture animals in the royal forests.”

“But certain peasants of those same communes took matters into their own hands, chasing the royal charcoal-makers from the forests. By the last week in May, bands of men in the forest appeared regularly in their distinctive dress, cutting wood in prohibited areas and freely pasturing their herds of sheep without regard for the restrictions.  Men ‘entirely disguised as women,’ gathering to the sound of a seashell [conch shell], chased several forest guards from their houses with guns.  At Illartein, during the night of 27 June, and at Bordes, during the night of  [omission in the original 19th c. text], peasant rioters presented themselves as Demoiselles to the village innkeepers, warning them not to take in guards.”

In 1983, a film by director Jacques Nichet captures the rebellion of Pyrenees men and women in La Guerre des demoiselles shown in 2011 in a cultural Festival of Resistance.

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Cave Paintings

Drawings of horses on cave walls.

Horse heads drawn on cave ceilings and walls by unknown human hands. These images are featured in Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

The Ariege region of the Pyrenees is riddled with caves.  Presumably many of them contain artifacts, fragments and possibly, paintings.

Nature journal reports the 1933 discovery of a magnificent horse drawn and colored on a cave wall.  “The cave, to be known as La Grotte de la Bastide, is situated near the village of La Bastide, Hautes Pyrenees.”

During the Spring of 2013, the paleolithic paintings in caves at Niaux, France are the subject of a British Museum exhibition.  Niaux cave is south of Foix.  I walked through that region, visited a rustic museum near Mas d’Anzil containing tools and treasure of our human ancestors millennia ago.

Can’t make it to London for the exhibition?  Werner Herzog’s film Cave of Forgotten Dreams explores the brilliant paintings in caves at Chauvet  and other sites.  Archeology published this interview with Herzog when Cave of Forgotten Dreams was released in 2011.

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Pyrénées Spas

Kiosk at Barbazan Spa.

Since the dawn of European tourism, the lure of enjoying spa waters at Cauterets, Barbazan and other Pyrenees mountain towns attracted visitors from Paris and beyond.

Bagneres-de-Bigorre at the base of Pic-du-Midi-de-Bigorre.

Bagnères-de-Bigorre, was made famous by Victorian travelers in search of diversion, healing waters and the fresh air cure. As I walked east across France, I saw in the distance, gleaming in the sunlight, the snow-capped mountain, one of the highest in the Pyrenees at 2,872 meters and the site of a world-reknown observatory.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the population of Bagnères-de-Bigorre was about 12,000 according to Cooks’ 1912 travel guide.  Before ski holidays were popular making it a year-round destination, the town swelled during the warm months with over 30,000 annual visitors in search of mountain hikes, gambling, spa cures and social interaction.

The curative waters drew healthy and sick visitors.  Cooks’ travel guide reports that the climate of Bagneres-de-Bigorre  is:  “Mild and humid, invigorating owing to the high elevations.”  Other notes in the guide:  “Ten bathing establishments.  Casino, parks, many hotels.  Tour operators offering excursions to Valley of Gripp, Valley Campan, and Pic-du-Midi-de-Bigorre“, then as now, the highest meteorological station in Europe.

A century ago, the climb up the Pic-du-Midi-de-Bigorre consumed the better part of two days, with horses and guides required.  Now, you hik or drive a car to a mid-point, then board a funicular that ascends the peak.

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Our Lady of the Holy Waters

Lourdes’ rise to fame came about after the visions of a poorly nourished and sickly teenager in the misty gloom of the Massabielle grotto in 1858. Other towns in the area were already popular tourist destinations, attracting northern Europeans and French visitors in search of healing waters in the Pyrenees region.

Gout, rheumatism and chronic disease, such as eczema and syphilis  drew people to towns like Cauterets, Eaux-Bonnes, Eaux-Chaudes, Luz-Saint-Sauveur and Bagnères-de-Bigorre  which nowadays offer blissful spa retreats.  Is it a surprise that Lourdes wanted its share of the money tourists spend?

Who is to say what Bernadette saw or thought she saw? Who can comment on the intentions of the pilgrims who took the hope cure at these shrines?  Surely the water and fresh air were beneficial.  Perhaps the sense of purpose and community encouraged the chronically ill to carry on. Undoubtedly Bernadette had a tough life and shed many tears.

E. M. Cioran, the Romanian-born French philosopher, writes in Tears and Saints, “The church was wrong to canonize so few women saints. Its misogyny and stinginess made me want to be more generous.  Any woman who sheds tears for love in loneliness is a saint.  The Church has never understood that saintly women are made of God’s tears.”  [Univ. Chicago Press, 1995, page 49].

Lourdes enjoyed rapid ascent of prosperity with the help of the enthusiastic journalist Henri Lasserre who in 1869 produced “Notre-Dame de Lourdes,” described by a reliable 21st century Oxford historian as “the most romantic of stories.” [Lourdes, Body and Spirit in the Secular Age, Ruth Harris, Viking, 1999, p. 19].  The bishop overseeing the diocese steadfastly steered the religious political machine.

Meanwhile the nearby pilgrimage town Lestelle-Bettharam with its own grotto where apparitions of a heavenly woman had been seen by an adolescent girl long before Bernadette’s experiences, fell on hard times. There were no tourists in Lestelle-Bettharam when I arrived on foot in the rain and  sheltered at the Hotel de Touristes.  There was no line of waiting visitors for the local tourist attraction, a little train that chugs through the Bettharam cave.  The shrine and monastery were locked.

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