The Pyrénées – A European Mountain Range that Challenges the Alps for Beauty, Diversity, Culture, and Links to America

The Pyrénées

By Axel Krause

Bagnères-de-Bigorre, France September 26, 2016

Last month my wife and I wound up several weeks of travel here, a fin-de-siècle town famous for its thermal spa, biking, golf and relaxed hiking nestled in the western portion of the French-Spanish Pyrénées. We had rediscovered this 280-mile mountain range that correctly, in the words of the excellent English-language Rough Guide to the Pyrénées, challenges and invites, « rather than intimidates. »

That somewhat-exaggerated dig was clearly directed at the Alps of France, Germany and Austria, which continue attracting millions of tourists to their spectacular peaks, villages and valleys, including many Americans, stretching over 680 miles; that’s longer than the Blue Ridge range, but far shorter than the Rockies, the largest range in North America, stretching over 3,000 miles.

A key goal of our trip was testing the Rough Guide’s opening line: « Anyone could find their perfect retreat in the Pyrenees, a mountain range of comprising a diversity of landscapes rarely equaled in Europe » citing everything from « herb-scented Mediterranean slopes (on its east coast) and the damper, stormier Atlantic coast (on the western end) lie the iridescent green meadows, snow-clad peaks, canyons of sinuously sculpted rock, dense broadleaf forest, weirdly eroded limestone pinnacles and sheer, overgrown valleys that get two hours of sun daily. »

But what about music, culture, Europe’s regional autonomy, the legendary, tragic, medieval saga of the Cathars in the region and links to America for those seeking more than landscapes and hiking trails? And, we asked, what’s the latest buzz regarding the US presidential election and even the controversial TransAtlantic trade liberalization negotiations?

Leaving Paris, after several hours on France’s high-speed TGV train, we picked up our rented car in the eastern coastal town of Narbonne, headed for one of the world’s most-famed chamber music festivals named for its legendary Spanish Catalan founder and cellist Pablo Casals, protesting and exiled from Franco’s dictatorship…

An hour’s drive westward through the foothills of the Pyrénées lies the town of Prades, where since its founding by Casals in 1950 a wide range of concerts has been held in nearby churches and abbeys from late July to mid-August, attracting world-class artists and students, including young Americans, who now come to play and study.

« I only heard about this program to study and play during the festival by word-of-mouth and the experience here was truly fantastic and cheap compared to the US where there are tons of summer music programs, » said Alison Chu, studying clarinet at the University of Michigan, one of five participating Americans, out of some fifty. The per person cost: some 900 euros for tuition and meals.

« Actually, thanks in large part to America, this is how the festival began in 1950, » explained musical director Michel Lehiec, « because we were in the middle of the Marshall Plan, restarting Europe, and so Casals was able to attract the top musicians, his friends in the US – Stern, Oistrach, Rubinstein – to play with him; and Columbia recorded it all for music lovers back home. »

« The rich experience of master classes with leading world cellists, my instrument, and performing to international audiences here cannot be exaggerated, » said another teenage American, Johannes Gray of Chicago, who played solo to a sold-out, final performance in the downtown cathedral, drawing sustained, enthusiastic applause and bravos.

Another revealing US connection surfaced in a visit to the nearby Benedictine Abbey of Saint Michel de Cuixa, whose origins go back to the 10th century, and where festival concerts are held; and where in 1913 a well-known American sculpture, George Grey Barnard, finding the abbey in ruins, purchased many of the stone-sculptured works.

And, unthinkable today, shipped them to New York to be incorporated into The Cloisters, a popular replica of a medieval fortified monastery opened in 1926; still on a hill in Manhattan’s Fort Tyron Park, overlooking the Hudson River, and where concerts also have been held.

Prades also boasts several downtown hotels and a nearby campsite, as well as reasonably-priced bed-and-breakfast accommodations, or small hotels, « chambres d’hôtes » one of which we can recommend highly – Les Loges du Jardin d’Aymeric, where for roughly 100 dollars per person per night, you get a cozy room with shower or bath, plus breakfast plus a world-class gourmet evening meal prepared by its decorated chef Gillles Bascou, using fruits and vegetables from his own garden.

Striking as we left to head westward, chatting with one of the younger guides in the tourist offices, noting her badges attesting to her command of English and Spanish, I asked if she also handled Catalan, the ancient and still-official language of Catalonia, the surrounding autonomous region spanning Spain and France; and which recovered political and cultural autonomy several years after Franco’s death in 1975 with Barcelona its capital.

Various plans for secession have failed, but the Catalan red-striped-on gold flags fly everywhere in the region. And though the French guide, embarrassed, admitted she did not, her six-or-so aged daughter raised her hand. « Mais moi, monsieur, je parle Catalan, » she announced proudly, attesting to its growing, renewed, teaching in the region’s primary schools.

A day’s drive westward led us to the small village of Montségur, towered over by the commanding, 1207-meter mountain site of a ruined castle where in 1244 some five hundred of the heretic religious sect of Cathars were slaughtered by a force of some 10,000 Vatican-led troops. Thus ending the power of Catharism, which in southern France had become a popular, dualistic Middle Eastern doctrine that condemned the material world, proclaiming that God reigned over the spiritual world and that asceticism was the only route to redemption, hence no need for the Roman Catholic Church. A once-a-day tour in English is also offered.

The small village below, with a small museum and several art galleries, boasts several « chambres d’hotes, » one of which (L’Oustel) we found so cozy and cheap (some 100 euros per night for two, including breakfast and dinner) we stayed an extra day.

Driving westward brought us through the obviously-poor, but bucolic, agricultural Ariège region, with relatively few historic sites. We learned, however, of the « Chemin de la Liberté » the so-called Freedom Trail, which between 1940 and 1944 was the route used by French and foreign men and women fleeing the occupying Nazi Germans; Jews, for example, and resistance fighters as well as American and British airmen who had either crash-landed or parachuted during bombing raids – and from such towns as Saint Girons and Foix were seeking escape to Spain via the central Pyrenees’ trails being marked and opened to tourists, notably buffs of the Second World War.

Arriving here later in Bagnères to the west, it was jolting to see a large poster alongside the road leading into town proclaiming – « Non! To TAFTA. » The initials refer in French to the TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the TTIP, an Obama administration-European Commission initiative, which has triggered strong opposition throughout the European Union from environmentalists, and far-right political leaders, such as France’s Marine Le Pen, of the National Front, and running for president next year, who is expected to be in the second, final round, most likely facing unpopular Socialist President François Hollande seeking a second term.

Several French locals following American politics noted that both major-party presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, in varying degrees question President Obama’s 12-nation TransPacific Partnership amid expectations in Washington that any congressional vote on it and the TTIP will be held off until after the election, and the next president is in the White House.

And then who may see the accord rejected, a possibility recently raised by Hollande, whose government, like Germany’s, is divided over whether or not to simply postpone any congressional vote until January at the earliest, or resume negotiations with the Barack administration; ministers in Berlin and Paris have claimed that the US is stalling and refuses to budge on such issues as liberalizing Buy-America legislation.

But any reasonable comparison with Trump and Clinton ended there. Nearly everywhere, average French men and women constantly asked repeatedly, sincerely worried, dismayed and hostile to his prospects – is it really possible that Trump may become our 45th president? What has gone wrong in the good-old USA we so admired, many asked, noting, somewhat philosophically, France may have its female, far right-version of Trump in the Elysée Palace next year – Marine Le Pen. « We’re somewhat in the same boat, » one longtime Socialist commented, « hélas. »

Winding up our trip via the nearby historic, towns of Pau and Lourdes, the latter hugely-popular with pilgrims from around the world for its cult of the visionary, saintly, 19th century, Roman Catholic Bernadette Soubirous’ alleged curative powers, we concluded that, without a doubt, the Rough Guide was right on.

 

Axel Krause is the longtime contributing editor of TransAtlantic, based in Paris, who previously for several decades covered Europe for Business Week magazine and the International Herald Tribune. He is the author of Inside the New Europe.

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