Wednesday, November 21, 2012


My brother-in-law’s mother’s family comes from the Pyrenées area of France.  I was motivated to see if I could find some trace of that family while I was here.  We went in search of Esquiule—an almost unpronounceable, but lovely little village east of Bayonne and southwest of Pau.  The Michelin atlas highlights particularly scenic drives with heavy green lines.  We chose to take one of those routes to Esquiule and to explore the countryside.  We had lunch in Orthez, which sports an interesting 13th-14th century fortified bridge over the river Gave de Pau.

French on top, Basque below
We climbed up to a ridge line high above the valley.  Lagor sits right on top of that ridge, and the road through the center of Lagor falls away on both sides with houses here and there below the road.  With little navigable throughway, it’s a wonder how they ever built the town in the first place.  The views were colorful if a little scary here and there.  We dipped down into Mourenx and returned to the ridge through Cardesse and deep into the valley to Ledeuix and Oloron-Ste-Marie--famous for the production of classic French berets.  We continued on the “green route” past St-Pée-d’en-Bas (just north of St-Pée-d’en-Haut) to Esquiule.

Madame et Monsieur chatting
Esquiule has little to distinguish it from other small towns in the area.  We pulled into town on Esquiule’s one-way street—the only route through town.  Gathered at the center of town in front of what looked like the only commercial establishment—a café—and the church were a few men talking as men have a way of doing in the afternoon—when they’re not gathered on a boule court.  I approached one of the men to tell my story and since he had never heard of the family, he took me to the much older man and woman standing in another group.  The man and woman repeated the name aloud and changed syllables to produce familiar names; but they had no recollection of the name I spoke.  When I brought out the date of birth, he perked up and suggested we follow him to his “ordinateur” (computer).  We did as instructed and crossed the street, following him through the unlocked door of his home, down a dark corridor where he hung his beret on a hook, right into the main room with a dining table and fireplace and into the room with the ordinateur.  That room served as the reading/writing room, the bedroom, the toilet, the 
bathing room and, evidently, the communication center. 

Just as Madame came in and plopped herself down on one of the beds for a mini-rest, he sat at his computer and opened an Excel spreadsheet with hundreds of names separated into ranges of years.  Her head popped up and down, encouraging us to sit down around the table while her husband did his work.  She was interested in where I learned my French as I explained my long-time interest in the language and the country.  She seemed pleased.  We were more a novelty than anything else. 

Monsieur pulled up the section that included birthdates in 1891 and scrolled down to the “Js” where he found, miraculously enough, no fewer than five people—three of them siblings and one of them, perhaps, a cousin.  I photographed the screen after he struggled to print out the page and after biting my tongue from saying “Si vous me permettez. . .”  (If you’ll allow me. . .) so I could highlight the page to print.  He then turned to weddings and found another.  But there were no deaths, which might indicate that the family deserted the town before anyone kicked the bucket. 
Monsieur l'Organiste

We got a photo of our helpful gentlemen who happens to be the organist at the church nearby and clearly the keeper of the town’s records.  He told me that he put that list together over the years using what information already existed plus announcements in the paper—a labor of love, it appears. 

After Madame established that my brother-in-law’s family was Basque about which she was pleased--this being Basque country to the core, we said our thank-you’s and crossed the street to walk up to the church on the other side of the café.  The town is small enough so that the cemetery is between the café and the church itself.  A small cemetery, I wonder where they buried all those citizens who lived here so long ago, though maybe most of them left with my brother-in-law’s family and died in other parts where the cemeteries are larger. 

The church is remarkably fancy for a town of this size.  The church/chapel was first built in 1641 and then reconstructed in its present form from 1875-1880.  The wooden beams are painted blue and red in a regular pattern.  The large pipe organ was replaced in the early 1990s and sits in the choir loft at the back of the church.  Around the nave of the church are two stories of balcony above the main floor topped with a barrel-vaulted ceiling also painted in blue, red and white.  The ceiling in the high altar is a stunning blue with gold points and highlights.  There are several stained-glass windows and crosses of the Knights Templar, which protected pilgrims on the walk to Santiago de Compostela in the 12th through 14th centuries.

On our walk back to the car, we passed the pelota court (pilota or eusko pilota in Basque), which was, of course, nestled in the town center next to the church, cemetery and café and across from the Le Mairie (town hall).  No boule court here.  It’s Basque country, if you please. 
Organist's house first after flags of town hall

Driving out of town, we looked back to get a glimpse of the town and the snow-covered Pyrenées in the background.  What a view.  As we turned the bend at the edge of town between two farms, we nearly ran smack dab into a lovely cow, followed by his owner and dog.  We all had a good laugh—except the cow. 

We finished our tour of the area, leaving Esquiule and the ridge on a one-lane road that passed homes and farms scattered here and there, pulling over to give the right of way to a piece of farm equipment or creeping by another that had pulled over for me.  France is one of the most automotively-civilized countries I’ve ever driven in.  Very few horns, attention to yield signs (and there are gazillions of them) at round-abouts (and there are gazillions of those, too), attention to temporary traffic lights installed where there’s construction in the road, passing on the left—ALWAYS—and then returning to the right lane—ALWAYS.  I digress. . .

This is yet another physically breathtaking part of France.  I’m sure we’ll never run out of them

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