France and Spain’s centuries-old celebration of peace
When he’s not squeezing sheep’s milk into a bucket, Jean-Marc is heating, stirring and compressing it into dense, creamy-white roundels of brebis cheese. ‘I’ve been doing it since I was 10,’ he says, sipping black coffee from a battered enamel mug. ‘My son is 17 and he’s learning now. The Spanish make a lot too, but…’ His cheery wink reveals how the enmity of old has been sublimated into jocular banter about dairy products. In his father’s time, Roncal and Barétous shepherds met on the mountains to hunt bears and barter contraband; now, in dwindling numbers, they moan about bureaucratic interference (‘Every time a sheep farts I have to fill out a form,’ sighs Jean-Marc). There’s a knock at the sooty kitchen window: a rambler after a wedge of brebis. He does the trade, then watches his customer stride up the extravagant undulations. ‘People come here to relax, not to work,’ he says with a shrug. ‘There were dozens of shepherds when I was a boy, but now we’re close to single figures.’
The road back down to the Barétous descends through the highest treeline in Europe, and into what feels like an open-air greenhouse. Beech and oak coexist with tropical staples: it’s Berkshire with bananas. The haze seems to embalm the landscape and its easy pace of life, imparting an agelessness you rarely find around the bright, well-trodden Alps. It’s the same in the quiet towns along the valley, with their mighty ‘bring-out-your-dead’ front doors and rusty unlocked bicycles. This close to Spain I expect a little cross-cultural fertilisation, but the Pyrenees are a mighty barrier and, at its mid-eastern end, one sparsely bridged by roads that are closed for half the year and often treacherous.
In the Barétounais town of Arette, which exudes an air of undiluted Frenchness, there isn’t a foreign number plate to be seen. Sitting at his desk in the handsome and typically enormous town hall that dominates the tiny town square, mayor Pierre Casabonne cheerfully admits that most trans-Pyrenean excursions are dictated by prosaic economy: ‘We go there to buy cheap meat and alcohol, they come here for the cheap skiing. Our lift passes are half the price.’ Yet with his black hair and deepbrown eyes, Pierre has a distinctly Hispanic demeanour shared by most of his fellow Barétounais, and he’s dedicated to the treaty and the mutual heritage it represents. ‘When we all meet up there, it’s about a lot more than cows and farming. It’s friendship and history, it’s celebrating what makes us the same and what makes us different. The past inspires the present,’ he declaims, settling into that very Gallic mood of poetic philosophy. ‘And when I stand by the stone with my Spanish counterparts, I feel like a link in a very, very long chain.’
Pierre’s link is stronger than most. He’s close friends with the mayor of Isaba, the Roncal town just over the mountains, close enough to have been a witness at his recent wedding. He’s also doing his bit to close what he feels is a heritage authenticity gap. ‘The French mayors have always gone up in civil servant business suits, while the Spanish are in traditional Basque capes and collars. It looked bad and felt wrong.’ He proudly lays out a sepia photograph of the unsmiling 1898 French delegation, in berets and a heavy, formal variant of the donkey jacket. ‘My first act in office was to have these costumes made for us.’