France and Spain’s centuries-old celebration of peace
The afternoon slowly unfolds in a bucolic haze, watching old men in berets prod muddy cattle through gates and young boys chase chickens around hot, whiffy barns. No-one I meet can call on fewer than four centuries of regional family heritage. ‘I’ve retired now,’ says a jolly, curiously youthful ex-farmer as we sip tiny bottles of shandy under his apple tree. ‘That’s my wife driving the tractor down there.’
Some surprising truths emerge. The French speak Spanish but not vice versa, and while the Barétous ranks among the poorest regions in France, the Roncal valley, in the north of industrialised Navarra, finds itself in Spain’s wealthiest province.
‘We’re the peasants,’ laughs the most conspicuous local I meet – a full-on musketeer sporting a velvet tabard and magnificent facial hair. Aramits, just up the valley from Arette, was home to an eponymous 17th-century seigneur upon whom Alexander Dumas based one of his trio. ‘It’s a unique heritage,’ says Pierre Bouillon, throwing his musket and sword into the back seat of a Renault Clio, ‘but no-one else wants to celebrate it.’
The morning of the tribute – and the entire day – is a showcase of hilariously awful weather. Up at the Col de la Pierre St-Martin, it’s the opposite of July. Refreshment stalls are cocooned in frozen fog and the marquee that was to have housed the post-tribute festivities has been largely demolished by a ferocious overnight hailstorm.
‘Apocalyptique!’ calls a voice from beneath the capacious hemisphere of a rattan and canvas shepherd’s umbrella. Yet it’s a testament to the resonance of this event that around 1,000 people are milling about on a midweek non-holiday. Most are Spanish. Later I suggest to a Roncal farmer that on his side of the border there’s a stronger need to reconnect with vanishing rural traditions that are still part of life in the Barétous valley. He nods thoughtfully, then says: ‘No, we just like to party.’
At the appointed hour, dignitaries gather around the hallowed border stone. The Roncales stand resplendent in their traditional outfits: red-trimmed capes and broad hats for the men, ruched skirts and what look almost like matador jackets for the women. Tricolour sashes add a dash of colourful nobility to the humbler outfits worn by Pierre and his colleagues. Hands are stacked on the wet granite stump, and the ancient rubric rings out: ‘Pax avant! Pax avant! Pax avant!’ (in effect, ‘So let there be peace!’). For a moment time stands still, then applause and cheers fill the fog, underscored by the clonking moos of two dozen blondes d’Aquitaine crammed into a roadside pen for adjudication. A vet vaults the barrier and bravely parts bovine jaws for the cameras, veiled in hot breath and cold mist. It’s an honour for a Barétounais farmer to have his cows chosen, but as I’d been slightly saddened to discover the day before, the selection is now mere ceremony. ‘Four towns share the three-cows tribute,’ says Raquel Marco Landa, Isaba’s deputy mayor, ‘so the maths were always difficult.’ It’s now 15 years since any cattle changed hands; the good news is that the entire cash sum which does is blown on the celebratory feast.