Monday, 19 October 2015

Val de Seule: 'The Tibet of the Basque Country'

I planned to stay in Val de Seule for three to four days, explore it a bit and wait for my mail from Brussels to catch up with me. That was a week ago. I’ve just extended my chalet booking for another week, at as my hosts say ‘hunter’s rate’.  I’m not sure if being an honorary hunter is something I’ve ever aspired to, but I sure do like being here.  In the first week here I did all the tourist things, two of the three magnificent limestone gorges in the valley and the Cave de Verna, the largest cave in the world open to the public – it could swallow up nine Notre Dames de Paris with space left over.  It was awe inspiring. 

I’ve also visited Pau - colonized by the English since the 1830s for its favourable climate and with stunning views of the Pyrenees,  Navarentz –voted France’s most beautiful village in 2014, L’hôpital Saint Blaise – an 11th Century church and UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site and the magnificent Salle de Belatous, a local village museum that blew me away with its stories of traditional farming knowledge,  the valley’s unique role in caving history (more about that later, perhaps) and the earthquake that destroyed 80% of the houses in the village in 1967 ( I also met an old farmer who lived through that episode).

And I have discovered that I have only just scratched the surface. There are other views and attractions that don’t even make the guide books (more about that later too perhaps). But the reason I’ve decided to stay another week is because the people here (from locals to tourists) are so cool.  Every day I have lovely, meaningful and life enhancing conversations.   On the tourist front I seem to have fallen into some kind of ‘active pensioners’ with camping vans’ sub-culture, which I feel actually feel very comfortable with.  Most of them, it must be said, are Brits. One couple I met have been coming here for eighteen years and after one conversation about bird migrations they knocked on my chalet door to let me know that there was a group of 1500 or so migrating cranes flying overhead. Last night I met a politically tuned in Scottish musician who (claimed he) has played with Altan, Sharon Shannon and so many of the Gaelic folkies I listen to. We talked about Munroes, refendera, political ignorance and later swapped our limited knowledge about constellations in the crystal starry night that gave birth to the second frosty morning here.   

But I’m also having rewarding contacts with locals.  It feels that my limited pre-trip research is paying off dividends, my scant knowledge of the area is paying off dividends, every little bit of local knowledge I share with a villager is rewarded by five times more information. The owner of my camp site keeps plying me with ancient tomes – with black and white photos - about the history and geography of this valley.  I am slow to assimilate so much text in French.  I did picked up a 1950s text about the Basque country before leaving Brussels – replete with black and white photos and she was so delighted to look at – it came back the next  day -  replete with 20 bookmarks of the local sights, and she and her partner sat down over coffee with me and discussed with each other the traditions and chronology of the photos:

‘This was when farmers used bulls to drag the carts, before the days of horses’;
‘This must have been the 1950s when they were putting in the first metal pylons. Were there wooden pylons then or was that the first time we had electricity?’ 

I feel so honoured to be party to these conversations, so much more meaningful than the standard youth hostel chat of ‘where you from, where you been, where you going?’  I feel I just might have tapped into what Alain de Botton calls ‘The Art of Travelling’ and I’ve done so by sitting still for a few days. 

The photos I posted earlier on Facebook but  don't know how to link back to them 

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