One Day in Basque Country (Dennis Aubrey)


PJ and I were both very excited with the thought of going to Iparralde, the French Basque country. We have passed through the region on our travels, most notably when taking my mother to her town of origin, Eibar, in Spanish basque country. But this time we were spending a full week in the land filled with sounds of the mysterious language of the Basques, Euskara, that scholars claim is unrelated to any other language on earth. About 30% of the French Basques speak Euskara but the names of the towns Gipúzkoa, Hadarribia, and Getxo (and of course the perfectly named Oô) reflect this mysterious origin.

The other day we were to photograph three churches, including one in the remote southwestern area of the foothills, a collegiate church called Sainte-Engrâce. This was deep in a gorge, hidden almost in a great cul-de-sac at the base of the Pyrénées. What a find! Large and beautifully appointed, and with fine sculptural decoration, we were completely surprised at this remote masterpiece.

Apse, Collégiale Sainte-Engrâce, Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

There were many capitals that we photographed, but my favorite features a creature that PJ calls the “head-snacker”. This capital shows a man with a mace confronting a demon who is indeed devouring a human, presumably a sinner.

Capital – man confronting demon, Collégiale Sainte-Engrâce. Sainte-Engrâce (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) . Photo by Dennis Aubrey

After Sainte-Engrâce, we drove back into the rolling foothills of the Béarn region to Sauveterre-de-Béarn. Sauveterre featured a mixed Romanesque-Gothic church with a completely intact western portal. Apparently the stone of the portal was so hard that it defeated the attempts of the iconoclasts of war and religion to destroy it.

Nave, Église Saint-André, Sauveterre-de-Béarn (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) . Photo by Dennis Aubrey

PJ’s photo of the portal shows the tympanum in situ, flanked by five colonettes on each side. I especially like the two arches at the base of the tympanum.

Western portal, Église Saint-André, Sauveterre-de-Béarn (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) . Photo by PJ McKey

The churches in Sainte-Engrâce and Sauveterre took quite a while to photograph and it was getting late as we headed back to our house in the tiny hameau of Estialescq. We were lucky enough to have a hot tub on the deck overlooking the mountains and were anxious to return. But first we had one more stop, the grand church in the pilgrimage town of Oloron-Sainte-Marie. The Église Sainte-Croix is massive and formidable and pure Romanesque. Nobody has ever added gothic elements or changed its fundamental style, and so it remains unchanged.

Nave elevation, Église Sainte-Croix, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by PJ McKey

The cupola is superb, featuring the eight-pointed star form that we see often in the southern reaches of the Compostella pilgrimage churches. The Église Sainte-Croix was the perfect way to end our perfect Basque day.

Crossing dome, Église Sainte-Croix, Oloron-Sainte-Marie (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Well, actually the perfect way was to soak in our hot tub while drinking the famous sweet wine of Jurançon, the wine that was placed on the lips of the new-born infant who became Henry IV of France. A wine that many in the region still use to christen their new-borns! Which is exactly what we did!

5 responses to “One Day in Basque Country (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. This really takes me back, Dennis. On my Camino I actually stayed an extra night in Sauveterre-de-Béarn to give myself a break from walking. The pilgrim’s hostel there was one of the best I experienced and the hospitaleros were very kind. As I have long moved on from the Camino, I’m sure they have as well.

    I don’t recall Oloron-Sainte-Marie though. Which is odd because a church like that is hard to forget. Did you see any pilgrims there? Maybe it’s not on the main route anymore.

    EDIT: I just looked it up on a map. After Sauveterre-de-Béarn I walked southwest rather than southeast; so I passed through Saint Palais and Ostabat before hitting Saint Jean Pied de Port.

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