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Across The Bidassoa
by [?]

I came out of London’s mirk and mist and the clouds of the Channel and the rollers of the Bay to find sunshine in the Gironde, though the east wind was cool in Bordeaux’s big river. And then even in Bordeaux I discovered that fog was over-common; brief sunshine yielded to thick mist, and the city of wine was little less depressing than English Manchester. But though I spent a night there I was bound south and hoped for better things close by the border of Spain. And truly I found them, though the way there through the Landes is as melancholy as any great city of sad inhabitants.

The desolation of the Landes is an ordered, a commercial desolation. Once the whole surface of the district bore nothing but a scanty herbage. The soil is sand and an iron cement, or “hard-pan,” below the sand. Here uncounted millions of slender sea-pines cover the plain; they stand in serried rows, as regular as a hop-garden, gloomy and without the sweet wildness of nature. And every pine is bitterly scarred, so that it may bleed its gum for traders. When the plantations are near their full growth they are cut down, stacked to season slowly, and the trees finish their existence as mine timbers deep under the earth.

After seventy miles of a southward run there are signs that the Landes are not so everlasting and spacious as they seem. To the south-east, at Buglose, where St Vincent de Paul was born, the Pyrenees show far and faint and blue on the horizon. And then suddenly the River Adour appears, and a country which was English. Dax was ours for centuries, and so was Bayonne, whose modern citadel has had a rare fate for any place of strength. It has never been taken; not even Wellington and his Peninsular veterans set foot within its bastions.

This is the country of the Basques, that strange, persistent race of which nothing is known. Their history is more covered by ancient clouds than that of the Celts; their tongue has no cousin in the world, though in structure it is like that of the North-American Indians. I met some of them later, but so far know no more than two words of their language.

The wind was cool at St Jean de Luz, but the sun was bright and the sea thundered on the beach and the battered breakwaters. To the east and south are the Pyrenees–lower summits, it is true, but bold and fine in outline. The dominant peak, being the first of the chain, is Larhune (a Basque word, not French), where English blood was spilt when Clauzel held it for Napoleon against the English. Further to the south, and across the Bidassoa, in Spain, rises the sharp ridge of the Jaisquivel, beneath which lies Fuentarabia. Yonder by Irun is the abrupt cliff of Las Tres Coronas, three crowns of rock. Here one is in the south-east of the Bay, where France and Spain run together, and the sea, under the dominion of the prevailing south-westers, is rarely at peace with the land. To the northward, but out of sight, lies windy Biarritz; to the south is blood-stained, battered and renewed San Sebastian, a name that recalls many deeds of heroism and many of shame. The horrors of its siege and taking might make one cold even in sunlight. But between us and its new city lies the Bidassoa. Here, at St Jean de Luz, is the Nivelle flowing past Ciboure. The river was once familiar to us in despatches. The whole country even yet smells of ancient war. For here lies the great western road to Spain. And more than once it has been the road to Paris. It is a path of rising and falling empire.

During my few days at St Jean de Luz I had foregathered with some exiled friends, walked to quiet Ascain, and regretted I lacked the time even to attain the summit of so small a mountain as Larhune, and then, desiring for once to set foot in Spain, took train to Hendaye. This is the last town in France. Across the Bidassoa rose the quaint roofs and towers of old Fuentarabia, the Fontarabie of the French. I hired an eager Basque to row me across the river, then running seaward at the last of the ebb.