THIS book is no record of exploitation or discovery; it is simply a review of many things seen and heard anent that marvellous and comparatively little known region vaguely described as “the Pyrenees,” of which the old French provinces (and before them the independent kingdoms, countships and dukedoms) of Béarn, Navarre, Foix and Roussillon are the chief and most familiar.
The region has been known as a touring ground for long years, and mountain climbers who have tired of the monotony of the Alps have found much here to quicken their jaded appetites. Besides this, there is a wealth of historic fact and a quaintness of men and manners throughout all this wonderful country of infinite variety, which has been little worked, as yet, by any but the guide-book makers, who deal with only the dryest of details and with little approach to completeness.
The monuments of the region, the historic and ecclesiastical shrines, are numerous enough to warrant a very extended review, but they have only been hinted at once and again by travellers who have usually made the round of the resorts like Biarritz, Pau, Luchon and Lourdes their chief reason for coming here at all.
Delightful as are these places, and a half a dozen others whose names are less familiar, the little known townlets with their historic sites—such as Mazères, with its Château de Henri Quatre, Navarreux, Mauléon, Morlaas, Nay, and Bruges (peopled originally by Flamands)—make up an itinerary quite as important as one composed of the names of places writ large in the guide-books and in black type on the railway-maps.
The region of the Pyrenees is most accessible, granted it is off the regular beaten travel track. The tide of Mediterranean travel is breaking hard upon its shores to-day; but few who are washed ashore by it go inland from Barcelona and Perpignan, and so on to the old-time little kingdoms of the Pyrenees. Fewer still among those who go to southern France, via Marseilles, ever think of turning westward instead of eastward—the attraction of Monte Carlo and its satellite resorts is too great. The same is true of those about to “do” the Spanish tour, which usually means Holy Week at Seville, a day in the Prado and another at the Alhambra and Grenada, Toledo of course, and back again north to Paris, or to take ship at Gibraltar. En route they may have stopped at Biarritz, in France, or San Sebastian, in Spain, because it is the vogue just at present, but that is all.
It was thus that we had known “the Pyrenees.” We knew Pau and its ancestral château of Henri Quatre; had had a look at Biarritz; had been to Lourdes, Luchon and Tarbes and even to Cauterets and Bigorre, and to Foix, Carcassonne and Toulouse, but those were reminiscences of days of railway travel. Since that time the automobile has come to make travel in out-of-the-way places easy, and instead of having to bargain for a sorry hack to take us through the Gorges de Pierre Lys, or from Perpignan to Prats-de-Mollo we found an even greater pleasure in finding our own way and setting our own pace.
This is the way to best know a country not one’s own, and whether we were contemplating the spot where Charlemagne and his followers met defeat at the hands of the Mountaineers, or stood where the Romans erected their great trophée, high above Bellegarde, we were sure that we were always on the trail we would follow, and were not being driven hither and thither by a cocher who classed all strangers as “mere tourists,” and pointed out a cavern with gigantic stalagmites or a profile rock as being the “chief sights” of his neighbourhood, when near by may have been a famous battle-ground or the château where was born the gallant Gaston Phœbus. Really, tourists, using the word in its over-worked sense, are themselves responsible for much that is banal in the way of sights; they won’t follow out their own predilections, but walk blindly in the trail of others whose tastes may not be their own.
Travel by road, by diligence or omnibus, is more frequent all through the French departments bordering on the Pyrenees than in any other part of France, save perhaps in Dauphiné and Savoie, and the linking up of various loose ends of railway by such a means is one of the delights of travel in these parts—if you don’t happen to have an automobile handy.