Read CHAPTER IX of A Midsummer Drive Through The Pyrenees, free online book, by Edwin Asa Dix, on


“And we who love this land call it a paradis terrestre, because
life is fair in its happy sunshine, it is beautiful, it is
plentiful, it is at peace. The Sun Maid.

It is a nineteenth-century sun that wakes us, after all, each morning, through the Gassion’s broad windows. We can reconjure foregoing eras, but we do not have to live in them. The hat has outlawed the helmet; the clear call of the locomotive is unmistakably modern. Throughout Pau, in its life, its people, its social rubrics; in its streets, shops, hotels, the thought is for the present age exclusively. The past is appraised chiefly at what it can do for the present. Business and society pursuits are not perceptibly saddened by memories of the bear-hunt at Rion or the dagger of Ravaillac.

And thus we come into the instant year once more, as we take the mid-morning train from Pau. We point straight for the mountains. We are on the way to Eaux Chaudes and Eaux Bonnes, before mentioned as a fourth excursion from Pau; but we go not as an excursion merely, for they lie directly in our farther route. These resorts, the repute of whose springs we hear in advance, are south from Pau about twenty-eight miles; twenty-five are now covered by the new railway, and the remaining three are done by the diligence or by breack, for the latter of which, we telegraph.

It is a brief journey by the rail. The longer post-road no longer controls the travel. The train hastens on, by the coteaux, past maize-fields and meadows, through odds and ends of villages, into valleys more irregular, and among hills higher and steeper. Of Bielle, a village where it halts for a moment, there is a well-turned story told against Henry IV. It is one of the few cases where he was at a loss for a retort. He admired the four marble columns in the church, and asked for them; a kingly asking is usually equivalent to a command. But the inhabitants made reply both dexterous and firm, and it proved unanswerable. “Our hearts and our possessions are yours,” they said; “do with them as you will. But as to the columns, those belong to God; we are bound for their custody, and you will have to arrange that with Him!”

When the train reaches its terminus at Laruns, we are fairly among the highlands. Rising wedge-shaped beyond the town, dividing all progress, is a mountain, not a hill. To the left and right of it pass the roads we are in turn to follow. On the left, two miles beyond the fork or three from the railway’s end, will be found Eaux Bonnes; on the right, at the same distance, is its lesser equal, Eaux Chaudes, our first objective point.

In the distant direction of the former rises the snowy Pic de Ger, nearly nine thousand feet in height and conspicuous from where we stand at the station platform. Still leftward, east of the hills, is a notch in the mountains; through it, we are told, pierces the Route Thermale, the great carriage-road on to Cauterets and Bigorre, which we are to take after visiting the Eaux.

Here at the Laruns station, we find our breack awaiting us, a peer of the peerless Biarritz equipage. It has been sent down from Eaux Bonnes to meet us. Trunk and baggage are stowed away, and we are driven up the straight, sloping road from the station into the village of Laruns itself, where a stop is to be made for lunch.

The appearances are not prepossessing. Laruns is a small village centring about a large square. It looks unpromising, and one of its most unpromising buildings proves to be the “hotel,” a low, dingy, stone building set in among its mates. At this the breack draws up. The splendor of the Gassion seems in the impossible past. The expectant landlady urges us within; her face beams pleasantly; her appearance promises at least more than does her environment. One by one and very doubtfully, we enter a dark, narrow doorway; pass along a dark, harrow hall, walled and floored with stone; catch a passing vista of a kitchen, a white-jacketed and white-capped cook, and a vast amount of steam and crackle and splutter near the stove; and going up the curving stairs are led into a neat little front dining-room overlooking the square. The carpet is of unpainted pine; so are the table and chairs; but both are clean, and this fact cheers. With misgivings we ask for a lunch for seven; without misgivings it is promptly promised, and the beaming hostess hurries to the depths below. Whether her quest shall bring us chill or further cheer, we do not seek to guess.

We canvass the situation and idly look out on the square before us. The low houses edging it are of stone, faced with a whity-grey, and have a sleepy, lack-lustre air about them, even under the sun’s rays. Women are grouped around the old marble fountain near the centre, one drawing water, several washing and beating white linen. There are barnyard fowls in plenty, bobbing their preoccupied heads as they search among the cobbles. In the foreground stands the temporarily dismantled breack, begirt with awed urchins and venerable Common Councilmen. Behind all rise the mountains. There is a pleasing effect of unsophisticated dullness about it all, that seems queerly out of place in a rising railroad terminus.

But a bright-faced, rosy little girl bustles in presently and proceeds to set the table. She has an unconscious air of confidence in the doings of the chef below, this fact cheers; and the cloth is indubitably clean, this also cheers. We take heart. Napkins and plates appear, white as the cloth; knives, forks, glasses, rapidly follow, seats are placed, we gather around, and the old lady herself comes triumphantly in, with a huge, shapely omelet, silky and hot, and lo, our three cheers swell into a tiger!

Well, we shall always recall the zest of that lunch. It was perfection. The cuisine of the Gassion was more refined but not more whole-souled. The trout vie with the omelet; the mutton outdoes the trout. Course after course comes up as by magic from that dark kitchen, petits pois, a toothsome filet, mushrooms, pickled goose, tartlets, cheese, fruit, and each a fresh revelation of a Pyrenean chef’s capabilities. Our doubtings vanish with the dejeuner, and we exchange solemn vows never hereafter to prejudge a Gascon boniface by his inn.


Our road forth from Laruns brings us soon to the base of the blockading mountain, the Gourzy. There it divides, and taking the right-hand branch, the breack strikes at once into the narrow ascending valley which leads southeast to Eaux Chaudes. Below, a fussy torrent splashes impetuously to meet the incomers. The driver has pointed out to me an older and now disused wagon-way, short and steep, over the hill at the right; it is tempting for pedestrianizing, and while the breack is pulled slowly around its foot by a broad, easy road, I climb by it for some twenty minutes, gain the crest of the ridge, and passing through a windy, rock-walled cut, come out on the other curve of the valley. Here the scene has become wholly mountainous. Grass and box cling to all the slopes; pines and spruces shoot upward wherever they have won footholds. They are not great peaks that we see yet, nor anything above the snow level; but the mountains in view, with their faces of rock, their massive flanks of green, are imposing notwithstanding. Far below, the breack has just come in sight, its forward route meeting mine some distance ahead.

Close at the side of the path stands a tiny roadside oratory. On the walls of this little shrine, which (or its predecessor) has stood here for three hundred years, one might formerly read in stilted French the following astonishing inscription, ignoble witness to human platitude, as M. Joanne calls it:

“Arrest thee, passer-by! admire a thing thou seest not, and attend to hear what it is thou shouldst admire: we are but rocks and yet we speak. Nature gave us being, but it was the Princess Catherine gave us tongues. What thou now readest we have seen her read; what she has said we have listened to; her soul we have upborne. Are we not blessed, passer-by? having no eyes, we yet have seen her! Yet blessed thou too, in having seen her not; for we rocks were lifeless and the sight transformed us into life; but as for thee, traveler, thy transformation would have been into lifeless rock!”

As our routes converge, mine descending, the other rising, the valley narrows to a gorge. In its depths, a hundred and fifty feet or more below, the torrent is noisily roaring, and at the other side, half way up, the carriage-road is built out from the almost perpendicular wall of the Gourzy. We draw nearer, and at length I cross, high above the stream, by a rude wooden bridge, and rejoin the main road. The slope I have quitted steepens now into a precipice, and the two sides of this ravine move closer and closer together, their bare limestone brows a thousand, two thousand, feet above the road. I vividly recall the Via Mala in Switzerland, as I lean over the stone parapet and push down a heavy stone to crash upon the rocks of the torrent far beneath.

The toiling breack rejoins me, and the road cuts in through the gorge for some distance farther. Patches of snow are now seen on some of the summits approaching. Then we round a corner at the left, the valley opens out, though very slightly, and soon we see ahead the closely set houses of the Baths of Eaux Chaudes.

We pause before a plain, fatherly hotel, and a motherly landlady appears at once to welcome us. We are won at once by Madame Baudot. Her benignant face is a benediction. She leads us in through the low, wide hallway, past the little windowed office at the end, and turning to the left into a short corridor brings us out to a set of rooms in the new extension. As we step out upon the tiny balconies at the windows, we cannot forbear exclaiming at the charm of their situation. We are directly above the torrent, which chafes along perhaps fifty feet below, and the balconies jut out over the water. Beyond it are the cliffs, rising huge before us, wooded high, but bare and bald near the top; up and down the valley the eye ranges along their fronts. The rooms, simple but exactingly clean, are dainty with dimity and netted curtains and spreads. The whole effect is so home-like and restful, the relief of the contrast so great from plain and city and the rush of trains, that involuntarily we sigh for a month to spend at Eaux Chaudes.


We find but two streets, terraced one behind the other; quiet, heavily-built houses, a small shop or two, another hotel, a little church, and the bathing establishment. The latter, large and substantial, overlooks the Gave a few steps up the road. We stroll inquisitively down through the village, lighten a dull little shop with a trifling investment, strike out upon the hill above for the reward of a view, descend to the bed of the torrent, and finally drift together again into the streetside near the hotel. Most of the houses are pensions or boarding-places during the summer, and while the spot is much less fashionable and populous than its neighbor, Eaux Bonnes, it is instinct with a comforting placidity not easily to be attained in larger resorts. The waters are said to be specifically good for rheumatism. Both drinking and bathing are prescribed. In former times the simple rule was, the more the better; Thor himself could scarcely have outquaffed the sixteenth-century invalids. One of the early French historians relates his visit “to the Baths of Beam, seven leagues from Pau.” A young German, he says, “although very sober, drank each day fifty glasses of sulphur water within the hour.” He himself was content with twenty-five, “rather from pleasure than need;” he experienced “great relief, with a marvelous appetite, sound sleep, and a feeling of buoyancy in his whole body.”

An experimentally inclined visitor, a few years ago, heard of this exploit of the “sober young German,” and attempted to repeat it. He very nearly lost his life in consequence.

The sovereigns at Pau were very fond of the Eaux. Marguerite of Angoulême loved to come to this stern, peaceful valley, and here found inspiration for her thoughts and her writings. One of her letters tells us that in these mountains, apart from the careless court, "elle a appris a vivre plus de papier que d’aultres choses," Her daughter, Queen Jeanne, Henry’s mother, found her health here when she was young, having been “meagre and feeble.” She often visited them afterward. Her visits were costly, too; the expenses of the court were considerable, but she had to bring an armed guard as well; Spain always stood ready to kidnap the Queen of Navarre if it had opportunity. Such were the times.

Later, for almost a century, these springs became neglected and forgotten; they were then again brought into notice, and now seem to have gained a permanent popularity.

As afternoon closes in, we reunite at the hotel, where Madame greets us graciously. Her visitors will begin to come with the coming week, but we actually have the house to ourselves. In the tidy parlor blazes a wood-fire; out of doors, in the dusk, it has grown a trifle chilly. Attentions are doubled upon us when it is known that we are Americans; Madame’s daughter, who has married the chef and will succeed to the inheritance, will succeed to the kindly disposition as well, and with a sunny-faced waiting-woman looks after details of comfort with a personal interest. Our famous lunch at Laruns was both so ample and so recent that now we ask only for “tea and toast,” and so, while the lamps are lighted, the trays are brought to us in the parlor, and around the centre-table and before the fire we nibble tartines in soothed content and plan to-morrow’s excursion.

Later in the evening we pause at the little office in the hall, behind whose window sits Madame, busy with her knitting yet watchfully supervising all the details of the household. She chats with us freely, speaking slowly in her clear, low-toned French, that southern French which sounds the vowels and the final e so lingeringly, telling us of the village and its surroundings, of the people, of herself; questioning us about America, (where, she tells us, lives one of her daughters;) welcoming us evidently with the greater regard as being of the few she sees from that active, far-off land.


The low, steady, insistent rumble and rustle of the torrent below our windows becomes almost ghostly in the stillness of the midnight. It is coming from the dark and mysterious forests it so well knows, the same unchanging water-soul it has been in the days of the Pyrénées past. One almost ascribes to it the power of audibly retelling its past, as it intones its way onward below us; infusing our dreams with subtle imaginings of the spirit of dead times, the pathetic forgottenness of the mountain lives that have been lived within its sound, the roysterings of the knights who have hunted along its coursing.

For into these forests often rode Gaston Phoebus and his fierce men of Orthez, in pursuit of a fiercer than they, the now disappearing Pyrénées bear. At no time was superstition more rife than then; savage souls were imputed to these savage animals; the spectres of the killed brutes returned to trouble the dreams of the hunter-knights, as the growl of their familiar torrent penetrates ours. We seem to hear old Froissart’s voice above the sound, believingly telling a legend of the hunt:

“’Sir Peter de Bearn has a custom, when asleep in the night-time, to rise, arm himself, draw his sword, and to begin fighting as if he were in actual battle. The chamberlains and valets who sleep in his chamber to watch him, on hearing him rise, go to him and inform him what he is doing; of all which, he tells them, he is quite ignorant, and that they lie. Sometimes they leave neither arms nor sword in his chamber, when he makes such a noise and clatter as if all the devils in hell were there. They therefore think it best to replace the arms, and sometimes he forgets them and remains quietly in his bed.’

“‘Holy Mary!’ said I to the squire, ’how came the knight to have such fancies, that he cannot sleep quietly in bed but must rise and skirmish about the house! This is very strange.’

“‘By my faith,’ answered the squire, ’they have frequently asked him, but he knows nothing about it. The first time it happened was on a night following a day when he had hunted a wonderfully large bear in the woods of Bearn. This bear had killed four of his dogs and wounded many more, so that the others were afraid of him; upon which Sir Peter drew his sword of Bordeaux steel and advanced on the bear with great rage on account of the loss of his dogs; he combated him a long time with much bodily danger, and with difficulty slew him; when he returned to his castle of Languedudon in Biscay, and had the bear carried with him. Every one was astonished at the enormous size of the beast and the courage of the knight who had attacked and slain him.

“’But when the Countess of Biscay, his wife, saw the bear, she instantly fainted and was carried to her chamber, where she continued very disconsolate all that and the following day, and would not say what ailed her. On the third day she told her husband she should never recover her health until she had made a pilgrimage to St. James’ shrine at Compostella. “Give me leave therefore to go thither and to carry my son Peter and my daughter Adrienne with me; I request it of you.” Sir Peter too easily complied; she had packed up all her jewels and plate unobserved by any one; for she had resolved never to return again.

“’The lady set out on her pilgrimage, and took that opportunity of visiting her cousins, the King and Queen of Castile, who entertained her handsomely. She is still with them, and will never return herself nor send her children. The same night he had hunted and killed the bear, this custom of walking in his sleep seized him. It is rumored the lady was afraid of something unfortunate happening, the moment she saw the bear, and this caused her fainting; for that her father once hunted this bear, and during the chace a voice cried out, though he saw nobody: “Thou huntest me, yet I wish thee no ill; but thou shalt die a miserable death!” The lady remembered this when she saw the bear, as well as that her father had been beheaded by Don Pedro without any cause; and she maintains that something unfortunate will happen to her husband, and that what passes now is nothing to what will come to pass.’”


White clouds scud away before the breeze, as we climb down toward the torrent again before breakfast and cross a diminutive foot-bridge to a path on the other side. The sun is at his post. “All Nature smiles,” here in the mountains as over the plains, and promises lavishly for the day. The ramble brings a sharpened appetite, and we come back to the sunny breakfast-room, to find flowers at the plates of mesdames and mademoiselle, and a family of Pyrenean trout, drawn out within the half-hour from a trout-well by the stream, in crisp readiness upon the table.

We have planned for a view to-day of the great Pic du Midi d’Ossau, the mountain seen so sharply from Pau. It is not in sight at Eaux Chaudes; but it is the giant of this section of the range, a noon-mark for an entire province. There is no mountain resort without its pet excursions, and there are three here which take the lead. One is to Goust, another to the Grotto; but the foremost is to Gabas and the majestic Pic.

Our breack comes pompously to the terrace by the hotel, and the hostess wishes us "une belle excursion." The road takes us on through the village, and pushes up into the valley with an ascent which is not steep but which never relaxes. Around us the scene grows increasingly wild and everywhere picturesque. We cross at some height the Gave, by the stone Pont d’Enfer, Bridge of Hell, so named, and keep along the westerly bank. On one side the ledges are bare, but the opposite slopes are greener, densely wooded, and ribboned by occasional cascades. Goats and cattle graze on the upper stretches of herbage; and the shadows of the clouds chase each other in great islands over the broad flanks of the mountain. Often, as the horses pause to rest, panting silently with the work, we climb down from our perches to walk on against the warm breeze, or clamber up from the roadway to add a prize to the ladies’ mountain bouquets.

At a noted angle in the trend of the valley, the forked white cone of the great Pic comes suddenly into sight. The vision lasts but a minute. A cloud sweeps down upon it, and when it lifts again we have passed the point of view.

We anathematize the intruder openly; this is incautious, for our anathemas provoke reprisals. Other clouds rally around their offended sister in support, as we push slowly onward, and some of the nearer mountains are soon enveloped also. The blue sky is forced back, cut off in all directions; even the pusillanimous sun retires from the conflict; the heavens have darkened ominously.

In an hour and a half from Eaux Chaudes, we have come to Gabas, 3600 feet above the sea. The place consists of two or three houses, and a dull little inn by a patch of wooded park. It does not attract overmuch, but to go farther at present is manifestly unwise. Nature’s smile has become a pout, and that is fast developing into a crying-spell. The guide and ponies sent on from Madame Baudot’s must wait. The breack is tarpaulined and left to the pines in the park, the horses are led off into the stable, and we disconsolately enter the hotel, to chill the coming hour with spiritless lemonade and a period of waiting.

I believe it will always rain on you at Gabas. The few persons we had hitherto met who had been to Eaux Chaudes enthusiastically praised this trip toward the Pic du Midi, “but we could not complete it, ourselves.” they invariably added, “because it came on to shower when we reached Gabas.” We had smiled commiseratingly, confident of being better favored. Now we find that the clouds, jealous body-guard of this regal summit, which is “first a trap and then an abiding-place for every vagrant vapor,” can deny him alike to the just and the unjust, that they trouble little to make distinctions, even where nationality is involved.

It is a dull hour. Within, we are in a murky, musty reception-room, and find no consolation save in ourselves, last week’s Pau newspapers, and a decrepit French guide-book which tells tantalizingly of the magnificent trip on toward the peak. Without, the rain falls softly and maliciously, slackening at times in order to taunt us with glimpses of fugitive blue overhead. We wait and conjecture; plans and anecdotes and a good fire help wonderfully to hurry the time. The landlord offers but dubious prophecies; and the window-panes prophesy as dubiously, as we peer out into the grey mist and the dripping, shivering park. Nature’s resentments are strong, and when she gives battle she fights to a finish.

At last, in full caucus assembled, we vote the war a failure and elect for a retreat.


The climb we were to take is to a plateau called Bious-Artigues. It is about three miles beyond Gabas by bridle-path, and its ascent needs an hour and a half. Here the full face of the Pic du Midi d’Ossau is squarely commanded. The view is said to challenge that of the Matterhorn from the Riffel. The plateau itself is nearly five thousand feet above the sea, and across the ravine before it, this isolated granite obelisk, with its mitre of snow, lifts itself upward more than five thousand feet higher, a precipitous cone, “notched like a pair of gaping jaws, eager to grasp the heavens.”

This formidable pyramid was first ascended in 1552, and afterward by Palma Cayet in 1591. It has often been climbed since, and affords a view over a veritable wilderness of peaks. From Bious-Artigues, without making the ascent but simply following the sides of the surrounding basin, one can go on to a second and even a third plateau, adding to the outlook each time, and may finally work his way entirely around the Pic and return to Gabas by another direction. At Gabas too one is but seven miles from the Spanish frontier, and there is a foot-pass that scales the high barrier between the countries and leads down to the Spanish baths of Panticosa. A great international highway over this pass has been in contemplation, the carriage-road to be continued on from Gabas, upward over the crest of the range, and so descending to Panticosa and the plains of Aragon. It is a singular fact that at present, from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean, there is not one such highway over any portion of the chain, but solely around the two extremities. The only midway access from country to country, (except a poor cart-road from Pau to Jaca,) is by mule-paths, or oftener difficult trails and passes known chiefly to the blithe contrabandista.

Mournfully, yet with philosophy, we muse on these withholden glories, as we drive rapidly homeward. Umbrellas shut off the scenery where the mists do not, and we are forced to introspection. We resort for comfort to praising each other for bearing the disappointment so well. We laud each other’s cheerfulness under affliction. After all,

“Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.”

We solace ourselves with the most fulsome mutual adulation, uncriticised by the stolid coachman; and as we roll down the long descent back to Eaux Chaudes, our disappointment wears gradually away; at Hell Bridge, we have become quite angelic; and we respond to Madame Baudot’s condoling welcome almost with hilarity.


The last wrinkles of regret are smoothed away by a sumptuous luncheon. It competes even with that at Laruns, which we have set up as henceforth the standard, the model, the criterion, the ultimate ideal, of all luncheons. Of a truth, this chef is proving himself a worthy son-in-law.

It has set in for a rainy afternoon, and this comforts us surprisingly. If it had cleared after all, on our return here to Eaux Chaudes, and the blue had opened into bloom overhead, I do not know what would have been said of the climate, but we should have held very strong opinions concerning it. As it is, we can lay the fault on Fate, not on any misplanning. This is an inestimable relief. We did our part. We went more than half way. The blame was Fate’s, not ours. Fate is the one, therefore, that merits the abuse. It is a solace to put the blame squarely where it belongs, and a greater solace still to abuse the absent.

But need we spend the rest of the day at Eaux Chaudes? The hotel is cosy and seems almost a home, but the wet little street has nothing to invite us. We are not going to Gabas again. On that point we are resolved. The Pic du Midi has forfeited all claims. Goust we can return to visit. We call another caucus, and in an hour, warm farewells have been spoken to Madame, and we are atop of our breack, on the watery way to Eaux Bonnes.