The Bearn

Tuesday May 9th 2017, Sauveterre-de-Béarn, France
Tonight we are in a different world, camped on the banks of the Gave d'Oléron on a municipal campsite. It is absolutely wonderful!

We felt a strong need to return to this beautiful area at the foothills of the Pyrenees where we have fond memories of our friends Ruth and Ralph. Ralph and Ian were former work colleagues from their days working together at the London Guildhall. When they retired Ian and I bought Modestine to explore Europe whilst Ruth and Ralph decided to buy a character cottage in Salies-de-Béarn. On our travels we were invited to call on them and they introduced us to this charming area of Gascony. There are quite a number of English who have retired here and our friends felt settled and happy, integrating well with both the French and British community. However, their happiness was blighted when Ruth fell ill and after struggling on she was eventually overcome by the effects of a brain tumor just a few brief months after moving here.

Ralph continued here for a while and his English friends were very supportive but eventually he decided to sell up and move back to their London home. As he said to us, "We had our dream. It was only a short one but at least we had it." He was fortunate in having a happy family life to return to with children and grandchildren. His research kept him busy and gradually he settled back into his English life. Then sadly he too died, unexpectedly. Since then whenever we think of them it is here that comes to mind rather than their London home.

So for us it means something rather special to be back in the Béarn region. We did intend camping tonight at Salies but, by chance we discovered recently that another friend, unconnected with Ralph and Ruth, was living close by in this area. The information we were given by a mutual friend was rather vague and when we phoned the number it could not connect. We had the name of the village so called at the post office here in Sauveterre which also serves the surrounding villages to ask advice. The postmaster was charming giving precise directions for finding the road we needed in the village and, sure enough, we discovered the house!

John and Ian were at school together, studied French together and were at Oxford together. John spent a year in nearby Orthez as a student and fell in love with the area. He decided to move here a couple of years ago. Ian and John have not met since University but they continue to share mutual friends. Having failed in every other way to make contact, knocking on his door was the only measure left to us. Yes, he was a little surprised but took us in his stride and invited us in for tea. Having caught up on thirty something years of news in record time he took us on a tour of his garden and the village with views across the landscape to the peaks of the Pyrenees, covered in snow that is now fast melting. His wife is currently visiting in England but they are both happily settled here in a stunning 17th century former farmhouse surrounded by extensive lawns and fruit trees. There are few neighbours and we have the impression that they would welcome more contacts locally. However, they are building up a circle of friends and John is becoming involved in teaching French to the resident English community. Tomorrow we have arranged to meet John in Salies after his language lesson for lunch. For the sake of convenience we will probably move on from this wonderful rural site to the one in Salies tomorrow.

John and Alison's French home near Sauveterre-de-Béarn

John and Alison's French home near Sauveterre-de-Béarn

John and Alison's French home near Sauveterre-de-Béarn

John and Ian in the garden near Sauveterre-de-Béarn

Was it only this morning that we left Urrugne? It seems ages ago. We have driven across country all day on country roads. As we left the coast behind traffic became less and we could drive more leisurely, passing through pretty villages, some familiar, some new to us. At picture postcard pretty Espelette we stopped for a stroll around the village. It was bustling with shops selling anything and everything to do with pimentos which are grown there and for which the village is famed. Even we ended up with a jar of the spice but gift ideas ranged from chocolate and caramels with piment d'Espelette to cherry wine, cheeses and patés also infused with the spice. You could even buy a plant to grow your own pimentos at home!

Espelette, Gascony

House decorated with strings of pimentos, Espelette, Gascony

Castle in Espelette, Gascony

We had memories of being stuck in Cambo-les-Bains in a torrential storm with thunder and lightening. Today as we arrived it was calm and sunny. Leaving Modestine we explored once more the pleasant, open centre of the little town, mainly consisting of small restaurants and bars. There are very pleasant public gardens offering easy walks and shade while down by the river there is the therm for which the town is named. The writer of the French classic "Cyrano de Bergerac" came from Cambo-les-Bains and we noticed a street named for him - rue Edmond Rostand.

We decided to eat in one of the local bars as we had not yet found time to restock our fridge following the long weekend when the food shops had been closed. We were offered pavé de boeuf with vegetables in cream followed by coffee. We always seem to be hungry so did it full justice. Then we did some essential shopping before moving on and heading for Sauveterre some sixty kilometres away across very pleasant and empty countryside. It struck us as rather English with mixed hedges around the steep fields and long grass filled with flowers along the roadside.

We arrived here around 4pm to find nobody in the office but tracked the guardian down fixing a tractor in the grounds beside the river. He gave us a pass to work the barrier in case he wasn't around when we returned from hunting for John and told us we could pay him tomorrow if our paths didn't cross later. It is all so trusting and laid-back! After needing to show our passports at every place we stayed in Spain and Portugal it makes a delightful changes to be trusted. Obviously we cannot look like terrorists!

Campsite on the banks of the Gave d'Oléron

Tonight there is the constant sound of the river falling over the weir nearby. The river divides here and a footbridge leads out onto a natural island that has formed in the centre of the river. We went for a stroll in the evening gloom along with the campsite cat with a broken tail. A narrow path has been worn around the perimeter of the wooded island. Here we discovered excellent views of the castle ruins and the remains of mediaeval city walls. It's wonderful and we could so easily spend several days in this delightful locality.

Remains of mediaeval bridge, Sauveterre-de-Béarn

Castle remains, Sauveterre-de-Béarn

Wednesday May 10th 2017, Sauveterre-de-Béarn, France
We woke this morning to a leaden sky and the heavy sound of thunder accompanied by intermittent flashes of lightening. Hurriedly we crossed to the showers and returned clean but damp just before the storm broke. The rain hammered on the roof while we prepared breakfast and worried about how long we could wait for it to pass if we were to be in Salies to meet John at midday.

The campsite was a quagmire as Modestine slipped and slithered off the grass. Once on firm ground she didn't care about the rumbling thunder and hammering rain. It is only a few kilometres to Salies and we were lucky in finding somewhere to park.

We had enough time for a quick stroll around though admitted defeat in trying to remember exactly where Ralph's house had been. Salies is very popular with the English and there are as many Brits as French around the streets. It is a very attractive, well cared for place with the river running through. The streets are full of tall, three storied narrow houses with their tall, pointed roofs looking like witches hats. In Ralph's street at least, deep cellars were deliberately flooded and then evaporated off to produce the salt for which the town is famed and named.

Houses in Salies-de-Béarn

We rediscovered the thermes, the casino and the church and even found time for a quick coffee before heading for the park where we had arranged to meet John at the bandstand. We all arrived at the same time and today John had overcome his bemusement of yesterday when he found us on his doorstep. Over lunch he and Ian reminisced about their school days and their time at Oxford where they both studied modern languages. John then went on to teach A level French in Tunbridge Wells and later at other schools until he retired. It sounds an onerous job, especially if other pupils were as bad as me at bothering to get the grammar correct! I learned it for fun and because I enjoy chatting and travelling. I have never been forced to learn irregular verbs, the past historic or the subjunctive. Somehow I survive and the French are an amazingly friendly and tolerant nation if they can see you are trying. Ian and John though do not see it in the same light and John despaired of deteriorating standards in the quality of A level French grades. Apparently literature is no longer an essential element of the curriculum and by the time he retired he says he was ready to die from boredom!

We lingered over lunch for several hours being the last lunchtime customers to leave around 3pm. John returned home while we collected Modestine and made our way to Orthez where we recalled seeing a delightful old bridge and some lovely mediaeval architecture. However, the town is being resurfaced or rebuilt and between the two it is a hot, unpleasant mess and we were glad to take our quick look at the bridge and head back to this fantastic little town of Sauveterre.

Charming 13th century bridge, Orthez

House of Jeanne d'Albret, Queen regent of Navarre 1555-1572 and spiritual leader of the French Huguenot movement, Orthez

The man from the campsite welcomed us back and we assured his just how much we loved the quiet rural charm here. What can compare to camping beside a fast flowing river with castle ruins and the piers and vestiges of a 12th century bridge just outside our door?

Remains of 12th century bridge beside our campsite, Sauveterre-de-Béarn

Remains of 12th century bridge and castle together with the church of Sauveterre-de-Béarn

Remains of 12th century bridge and castle together with the church of Sauveterre-de-Béarn

Remains of 12th century bridge, Sauveterre-de-Béarn

Fortified house in Sauveterre-de-Béarn

During the day the sunshine returned but it is very close tonight and the rumbles of thunder have returned along with a few heavy splodges of rain. We may have a disturbed night!

Related Links:
The Béarn, February 2010