A land of good food and wine to set your gastronomic juices flowing: fresh fish straight from the sea, or straight from the fast flowing rivers pouring off the hills, Bordeaux to go with your cheese, grapes picked from the local vineyard, fresh breads from the boulangerie, ragouts of lamb, game birds, pates and terrines – a feast from the streams, fields and ocean.
This area of France, particularly in the Middle Ages, fell under numerous rulers, as Kings, Dukes and Crowns fought, died or married to gain holdings to enhance their particular dynasties – the English, the French and the Spanish.
This dynastic conflict gave impetus to the idea of nationality – both French and English; other major military tactical changes were made and in the end medieval England was left an island nation, a fact which profoundly affected our outlook and development for many hundreds of years.
I remember a magical holiday here in the early 1960s, staying with some friends in a newly acquired ‘farm house’ on the slopes of the Pyrenees, in the tiny village of Helette, which was in dire need of renovation and land restoration. In those days we went out en famille, plenty of children, more than one family and everyone mucked in.
After our nights in dormitories, the only way to accommodate all of us, we had large rustic meals out on the paved frontage overlooking the valley below, large trees gently waving in the wind, overgrown shrubs edging the boundary, escaped planting, birds dancing around singing their individual songs for us.
It was this time of year and we were kept busy with long walks up into the hills, hiking across the saddle of connecting slopes, picnicking up there, and hiking back for a good supper a la maison. We went to the local villages to grocery shop and look round, I saw my first Pelota court – an ancient Basque game – played against a wall, with a lacrosse type stick and a hard ball; being derived from the game of “Real Tennis” (see my previous post here).
We went to a local village cinema for a French film I guess – I just remember, as a gauche teenager, the very hard seats and not being able to understand a word, with the whole thing being completely washed out by a torrential storm – lightning, blown electricity, and all the fun of the fair!
Talking of fairs we also went to the local Fiesta in the village – everyone dressed up and partying, side shows, music to dance to, the villagers all wearing national costume, fireworks galore, food and drink tents – for us kids the chance to let off steam, to watch the craftsmen ply their wares, to marvel at the wonderful Basque styled costumes, the decorated square – a magical evening amongst the stars.
We had one wonderful day when we drove across the mountains into Spain to the cross roads town of Pamplona: with its links to northern France and down to the Mediterranean, to northern Spain and the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, and into Catalan and southern Spain. Pamplona set in its green valley had been a fortified city from the times of the Romans, becoming a focal point for all invasions thereafter.
Pamplona has the bull run in July, but we went in August and I always remember the rope walk, the lengths of rope spread out on the pavement and it just fascinated me. Interestingly I found some films (see here) on the making of rope dating back to the late 1940s and early 1950s from an American source – which reflects the sign of the times and historically is of interest.
We then went on to San Sebastian a beautiful old town, developed, altered, expanded over many hundreds of years with wide open sandy beaches surrounding La Concha Bay, as this picturesque are is known. We swam in the clear blue seas across to the tiny island, where the remains of a 16th century castle are to be found. Then back to the esplanade to find a restaurant to take us all for a very late lunch, early supper and here I had the most wonderful crab I have ever eaten and to this day, I still crave another .. I have yet to find one as good!
That meal for me finished off a wonderful excursion over the Pyrenees, a holiday glimpse of rural and rustic life in these lands of historical spice – a heady mix of geography, history, gastronomy, exploration across the seas: the early influence of the new found American foods – tomatoes, peppers, maize and pumpkin; the reminders through the architecture, the religious pilgrimage routes, the army marches of times long past – the Romans, the Arabs, the Moors. A joyous informative holiday to remember, as I do!
Thank you for popping in Mr Postman and seeing my mother, she will be pleased to have another letter as I'm having a few days away - having some space, doing a few extra things and catching up a little - it's bliss just being at home without going up and down to the Nursing Centre twice a day.
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