A Book of the Pyrenees/Chapter 11

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CHAPTER XI

LUZ AND CAUTERETS


Springs of Cauterets—La Raillère—Taine on Cauterets—Double clientèle—Pont d'Espagne—Lac de Gaube—Drowning of Mr. and Mrs. Pattison—Avalanches—Ravine to Luz—Val de Barèges—Church of the Templars—Hermitage—Castle of Ste. Marie—S. Sauveur—Imagined accident—Brêche de Roland—Giants of Vizos—Gorge of the Gave—Gèdre—The Héas—Landslip—Cirque de Troumousse—Chaos—Cirque of Gavarnie—Skulls of Templars—Du Molay—Citation before God's throne—Barèges—Defences against avalanches—Opposition of the peasantry to planting.


FROM an early period Cauterets enjoyed great repute. By a charter of 945 Raymond I, Count of Bigorre, granted the valley to the abbey of S. Savin, on condition that they built there a church in honour of S. Martin, and that they maintained at the hot springs a hospital for the patients who visited them.

Of these springs there are two groups. The upper, La Raillère, is at some distance from the town, but is reached by electric tram. It takes its name from the avalanches (raillères) that have made their pathway down the mountain side above it, and have left their white and ghastly scars on the rocks, and heaped wreckage below. This is the most abundant group of springs, but the space there is narrow, and lies in a gorge. The thermal establishment has to be maintained on huge walled terraces. There is no hotel there; but those who use the waters for baths or for gargling come and go by the tram. The platform on which the baths of La Raillère are constituted command a view of the deep valley of Lutour, down which descends a stream issuing from a chain of little lakes lying in the lap of the Pic de Mallerouge, 9740 feet, the lowest of which, the Lac d'Estom, discharges its waters by a beautiful cascade, and they further leap down into the basin of Cauterets at its extremity in a white streak. Above the Lac d'Estom in a wild chaotic cirque are the tarns that feed it; one of these retains its coat of ice almost all the year through.

The Lutour joins the Gave de Jerret above La Raillère, and it is up this latter that the way leads to the Pont d'Espagne and the Lac de Gaube, about which more presently. Another Gave, that of Cambasque, unites with the Gave of Pierrefite by the station of the electric tram at Cauterets, and below the town itself.

The Thermes des Œufs, so designated from the smell of rotten eggs, sulphuretted hydrogen, emitted by the waters, is one of the most luxuriously furnished establishments of the kind in Europe. Six springs contribute their water to the baths. Above these is the casino.

"Cauterets," said Taine, "is a bourg at the bottom of a valley, dismal enough, paved, and furnished with an octroi. Innkeepers, guides, all that ravenous population surround us. We are annexed by touts, children, donkey-drivers, by the first garçons who can hitch on to us. We are handed cards, we receive to this hotel for its situation, to that for its cuisine. We are attended, cap in hand, by the crowd, elbowing one another out of the way, to the end of the village. 'This is my traveller,' shouts one, 'come near him and I will horsewhip you.' Every hotel has its herd of touts. Here all are hunters. In winter they hunt the chamois, in summer the tourist."

Cauterets has been considerably enlarged and improved since the above was written, but the tout is ever with you. Something like ten thousand persons visit Cauterets during the season to drink the waters or to bathe in them. But in fact it has a double clientéle, one of patients and the other of excursionists. The former move like clockwork to the baths and back again, like a long black revolving chain; then to their hotels or lodging-houses, to their meals, to their promenade, to their beds; and throughout the day thus mechanically passed, the tick-tack of their talk, always about their symptoms and their sufferings, their progress or their relapses, is maintained without cessation. But the second class of visitors are such as desire to climb the Vignemale, to ascend to the highest tarns above Estom; at the least to see the Lac de Gaube. These pertain to an order of beings very distinct from the patients. They have no aches and pains. They turn away their noses from the savour of the springs. They are quivering with energy, muscular, and restless. They look upon the patients with undisguised contempt, and the latter scowl at those who enjoy rude health with querulous dissatisfaction. There is yet another category of visitors—the pilgrims to Lourdes; they arrive fagged with their devotions and overstrained emotions, to relax, laugh, and perhaps entertain some incredulity as to the marvels of the Grotto of Massabielle. The market at Cauterets is gay with stalls during the season, that lasts from 1 June to the end of September; every trifle is to be found in them, from gay-coloured Merino shawls, rock-crystals, toys, rosaries, sacred images to picture cards.

The Pont d'Espagne, that can be reached by a carriage, and the Lac de Gaube, are points omitted by no excursionist who visits Cauterets. The former is a stone bridge thrown over the river formed by the junction of the Gave de Mascadou and that which issues from the Lac de Gaube. Higher up the first of these is a picturesque wooden bridge thrown across the torrent.

The path to the Lac de Gaube leaves the road just before reaching the Pont d'Espagne. The lake is a lovely mountain tarn two miles and a half in circumference. The sides are steep, in places clothed with dark masses of pines; and in the background rises the Vignemale, 10,820 feet, with its crevassed glacier, that feeds the lake by a cascade.

By the water is a white marble monument to the memory of a Mr. Pattison and his wife, who were drowned here whilst on their wedding trip, within a month of their marriage, on 20 September, 1832. Mrs. Ellis thus describes the accident. Her husband was acquainted with the relatives of both:—

"It is said to have been a bright and beautiful morning when the English bride and bridegroom went out upon this lake, in the fisherman's rudely-constructed boat, the very same that we saw lying by the shore, than which a more unsafe or unmanageable vessel could scarcely be imagined. Little seems to be known of the awful event which followed, except what those who stood on the shore relate, that when the boat was about the middle of the lake, the figure of the man was seen stooping overboard—that the female, alarmed for his safety, rushed to the same side—and thus, the vessel being overbalanced, both were plunged into a watery grave. The bodies were both found, though one not till a month after. They were conveyed to England, and buried at Witham, in Essex."

The recklessness of the villagers in times past had threatened Cauterets with destruction. The forests had been cut down, and free course given to the avalanches to fall into the valley and cover all with stones and mud. If something had not been effected to bridle the torrent above La Raillère, the springs there would have been overwhelmed with rubble, and the thermal establishment utterly wrecked. The ravine down which the avalanches fall is that of Péquère, and it was not snow and small stuff only that was brought down, but huge masses of rock.

Great pains have been taken, by means of replanting the slopes and the erection of barriers, to protect the baths, and these eiforts have been happily crowned with success. Since 1897 another avalanche path has been taken in hand, that of the Lizey, which menaced the road to Pierrefite, and had in fact cut all communication during three weeks in 1895.

Even the esplanade of Cauterets was threatened. The winter of 1903-4 tried the place severely; in the month of January the masses of fallen snow reached the town itself. In spite of themselves the inhabitants of the basin have had to yield to the resolution of the Board of Forestry and allow extensive replantation.

The journey up the ravine to Luz by electric tram presents a succession of beautiful peeps of the bottle-green river thundering through the gorge, breaking into masses of foam at every leap; waterfalls descend the mountain sides right and left—everywhere is rich and luxuriant vegetation.

The gorge opens to reveal the green meadows of Viscos, then contracts again, once more to expand into the basin of Luz. High aloft on a terrace stand the villages of Vizos and Esquièze, with their church spires. In the background is seen a superb circle of snow-clad mountains, those of the ridge of the Mont Perdu, nearer the Soum Blanc on one side and the Pic Long on the other.

The whole of the district, from the opening of the gorge at Pierrefite upwards, formed the Pays or Val de Barèges,
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the templar church, luz

which formerly enjoyed to a high degree the rights of self-government. It was practically an independent republic till the time of the Revolution, its liberties accorded to it in acknowledgment of services rendered in wars with Spain. Few taxes were imposed; that most severely felt elsewhere, on salt, did not trouble the Barègois. They had entire liberty to chase and to fish, rights so jealously reserved by the princes elsewhere. Even in diplomacy Barèges preserved a sort of autonomy, and treated with delegates from the Spanish valleys without reference to the counts of Bigorre or the kings of France.

What strikes the eye at once on arriving at Luz is the old Castle of Sainte Marie, now reduced to a ruin, perched on a height; and the curious parish church, built and fortified by the Templars, who had a commandery here. The crenellated walls now enclosing the small area in which stands the church were built by the Knights of Malta, who succeeded to the place that had been occupied by the Templars, after the suppression of this latter order.

On each side of the apse is a tower, one of which resembles the keep of a castle. The ramparts surrounding the old cemetery of the Knights are passed through an embattled gateway.

There are two portals into the church, that on the north being the main entrance, and it is Romanesque. The tympanum, surrounded by inscriptions of the twelfth century, contains symbols of the evangelists surrounding a figure of Christ. The bases of the columns of the doorway also bear inscriptions. The interior of the church is dark, dungeon-like, and the decorations and furniture are barbaric. On the south side of the nave is a late chapel dedicated to S. Mary Magdalen. A child's stone sarcophagus serves as a bénitier at the entrance to the church. Here, as at S. Savin, is a Cagot's door.

This is perhaps the best preserved Templar church in France. So far it has not undergone restoration, but it is far too small for a growing place, and a new church will have to be built elsewhere.

Above Luz, on a height, is a hermitage, formerly occupied by a Père Ambrose, who died in the odour of sanctity in 1778. He was a Capuchin friar, born in 1708, who had embraced the religious life at the age of sixteen. He wrote some godly works, one on the Joy of the Soul, one on the Peace of the Soul, and a third consisted of letters giving spiritual advice.

The chapel is dedicated to S. Peter. Napoleon III had it rebuilt, and entitled S. Pierre-de-Solférino. Near by is a cairn, under which lie the bones of Ambrose, the last hermit to occupy the place. The ruins of the Castle of S. Marie date from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. There are two keeps. This fortress was formerly the principal stronghold commanding the Valley of Barèges. It was built by the English originally, and held by them, terrorizing the inhabitants of the basin, till the Barègois peasants rose in a body against them in 1404, stormed the castle, and put the garrison to the sword. After that it was rebuilt and strengthened.

Saint Sauveur consists of a long street of hotels, and is occupied in the summer alone. In winter and spring every door and window is barred. It is reached from Luz over a bridge, erected in 1860 by order of Napoleon III. The keystone of the arch is 198 feet above the torrent.

Another bridge, farther up, is that of Scia; like the former, constructed of white marble, and thrown at an amazing height above the Gave, where huge blocks of granite intercept its
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la brèche de roland

course, and it roars and tumbles savagely over the obstruction. A French guide-book asserts that at the spot an English lady, the Lady Clara, standing on the bridge, recited the celebrated soliloquy of Hamlet, in this fashion: "To die, to slip!" and then flung herself into the abyss. No such an incident ever occurred there.

The Brêche de Roland, a gash in the high ridge of snow and rock above Gavarnie, now becomes visible, as Pragnères is reached, but it is invisible from Gavarnie itself.

The story goes that Roland hacked this opening in the rock with his sword Durandal in the hopes of breaking the blade, so that the Saracens might not get possession of it at his death. But the tale has been transferred hither from Roncevaux. It is certainly curious to note how that legends of Roland have attached themselves to numerous places in the Pyrenees from west to east. He occupies there the place that King Arthur does in England, Scotland, and Wales. We have seen how that at S. Savin he was said to have fought with giants. Now it is a curious fact that according to tradition Vizos, near Luz, was occupied by a race of giants called Empresous, les Preux, and that representatives of them remained on there till the end of the eighteenth century. The Revolution seems to have cut them down, for we hear of no others since then. In the Archives of Luz is a record of the death of an Empresou named Barèque, in 1771, at the age of a hundred and ten. These giants had a cemetery of their own, and a baptistery of their own. They seem to have been regarded with something like the repulsion with which the Cagots were considered. In the churchyard have been turned up human bones of extraordinary size.

The valley or gorge of the Gave has been much belauded and often described. This naturally has produced a revulsion. M. Ardouin-Dumazet has led the way. He says:—

"The road is fine, without exactly deserving all the hyperbolical praises lavished upon it. That which is the spoiling of this country is the extravagance of the admiration expressed for it. Since the time of Ramond no one who speaks of the Pyrenees can describe a site without declaring it to be incomparable. If they have judged it incomparable, it is because they have seen nothing with which to compare it. The panorama from Pau, truly marvellous, I admit, is not superior to that of the Alps, the Jura, and the Cevennes, seen from the hills above Lyons on a clear day. It is so with this country. I do not venture to use the expression Gasconading with reference to these descriptions, but I cannot pitch my note at the diapason of the Pyrenean infatuists."

This may be true enough of the way to Gavarnie, but I do venture to believe that the Cirque of Gavarnie—the end of this expedition up the Gave—is, pace Ardouin-Dumazet, incomparable.

Gedre was a wretched hamlet some years ago, when I first knew it, but now it has its hotels, and is a very convenient tarrying place whence to explore the valley of the Héas, and visit the two cirques of Estaubé and Troumousse; as also the valley of the Aspé, descending from the glacier of Mallerouge.

The Héas issues from a narrow fissure, foaming over cascades. Higher up in the ravine is the chapel of Notre Dame de Héas, planted on a huge block fallen from the mountain above. It is held that the Virgin once appeared to a shepherd at this spot.

This mass is but one portion of a landslip that took place in 1650, which dammed up the river and formed a lake, which in its turn was destroyed by a flood in 1788. Among the fallen rocks may be found the beautiful Saxifraga pyramidalis or longifolia, and the Ramondia pyrenaica. Pilgrimages are made to the chapel on 15 August and 8 September.

The Cirque de Troumousse is above Héas. It is less remarkable than that of Gavarnie, though more extensive. It lacks the series of bold escarpments capped with glacier that form the distinguishing feature of the latter.

Above Gèdre, on the route to Gavarnie is a chaos, an agglomeration of fallen gneiss rocks from above; it is as if half a mountain had been precipitated into the valley from the Coumélie. Farther up may be seen a cleft rock, between the jaws of which hangs a mass, arrested there on its way down. The scenery becomes grander, but at the same time more dreary; the cirque opens before one, and we reach the village of Gavarnie.

The Cirque of Gavarnie has been already briefly described in my first chapter. To see it to advantage it should be visited in spring or early summer, when, from the melting of the snows, the great fall is full of water. It resembles the Staubbach only in the long drop of the stream and its resolution into fine spray. The setting of it is immeasurably superior to that of the famous Swiss fall. The height is 1385 feet, and is the highest in Europe, except one or two in Norway. If there be plenty of water it shoots down in one single column; but in summer it descends in two leaps. This is not the only cascade in the cirque; down every part of the huge curve threads of water drop into the basin. Towards the end of a hot summer many of these fail, and the great cascade is much reduced.

The first sight of the cirque is disappointing. There is nothing by which to scale it, and the appearance is only one of size, gloom, and cold. The bottom of the great bowl is heaped with rubble brought down from above. But at Gavarnie we are four miles from the foot of the cirque, and it looks as if not more than a quarter of an hour's stroll was required to reach it. A thousand feet seems to be no more than a hundred, and the huge rocks hurled down from above are reduced in appearance to mere pebbles.

A stone dropped from the top of the Pic du Marboré, 10,600 feet, will fall 5500 feet into the cirque. In the church of Gavarnie are to be seen twelve skulls, held to have belonged to the Templars of Luz, who fled hither, and were here executed. A story is current that on the last night of the year, just before the clock strikes midnight, a Templar clothed in white, and with a red cross on his breast, enters the church at Gavarnie and cries, "Ho! who are there that will stand up and fight for the temple?" Whereupon one skull after another replies, "None; the temple is destroyed." This white-robed Templar is Du Molay, the Grand Master, burned alive at Paris, with four other great dignitaries of the Order. King Philip the Fair coveted the great possessions of the Knights, and Pope Clement V had obtained the tiara by the help of the King; the price he paid for it was the dissolution of the Order, and the sacrifice of the Knights to torture and death. In the midst of the fire Du Molay cried out, "Clement, iniquitous and cruel judge, I summon thee within forty days to meet me before the throne of God." According to some accounts he cited the King as well. Du Molay was burnt on 18 March, 1314; on 30 April, Clement was dead; and Philip the Fair on 29 November, in the same year.

The road over the pass of the Tourmalet branches off below Luz and ascends the desolate Valley of Bastan, ravaged by avalanches, to Barèges, a long street of hotels and lodging-houses closed during the winter. The baths here have been famous for long. The waters impregnated with sulphate of soda are the most powerful in the Pyrenees, and are charged with a peculiar nitrogenous substance called glairine that renders them oily to the touch. Their great use is for the healing of wounds and ulcers, and for scrofula. They have been employed for a military hospital since 1760. Barèges stands over 5000 feet above the sea, yet it is more bleak and inhospitable in appearance than many a town such as Briançon, little short of it in altitude. A covered tank for bathers was erected here in 1550; and hither, to take advantage of the waters, came Mme. de Maintenon, in 1677 with the young Duke of Maine.

The scourge of the place has been the avalanches, mainly those that shoot down by four great paths from the Labas Blancs, the mountain to the north, and which bring the town or village, call it which you will, under 100,000 cubic feet of snow. Extensive works have been undertaken to prevent the complete destruction of the houses, baths, and hospitals. Huge barriers of masonry 40 feet high and 46 feet long by 18 feet wide have been drawn across the ravine of Le Theil, and extensive replanting of the sides with pines has reduced the danger; but it will take many years of growth before the trees attain a sufficient height to be able to completely screen the place. The ravine of Le Thiel may be said to have been already rendered innocuous; but that of Midaou caused disaster in July, 1897, when an avalanche carried away a portion of the baths, and choked the valley as far as to Luz. Since 1900, however, this trough of the avalanche has been blocked.

On the left bank also the work has been energetically pursued to arrest the fall of torrents of snow from the Pic d'Ayré, where the avalanche path is formed of glacial clay, hard as cement when dry, but in time of rain forming a flood of mud falling 1200 feet. Here replanting has proved efficacious, and barriers of masonry have been erected, that have served the purpose intended. This work was begun in 1862, and since 1869 no lava-like flood of mud has reached the Valley of Bastan. The inspector Dellon says:—

"The regulation of the system of the torrents of Rieulet and Bayet, the fixing of the glacial mud which constitutes to a large extent the banks of these torrents, and the foot of the slope of the mountains facing Barèges, the attenuation of the avalanches, so dangerous to this thermal station, all prove the efficacy of the means adopted. The contrast is most striking between the districts within the range of these torrents acquired by the State, and such others as have not, and still belong to the communes. In these latter the devastation increases every year, annually exposing the route nationale and the Bastan to ever magnifying dangers of obstruction."

All the valley might be saved and reclaimed, but everywhere, here as elsewhere, the Board of Forestation meets with sullen and stubborn opposition from the peasantry.