From Machado to Brassens

02/11/2015 10:28

The Pyrenean border witnessed the passage of tens of thousands of people fleeing the totalitarian barbarism. Massively northwards after the fall of Barcelona. Occasionally southwards when that same barbarism swept most of Europe.

Before the Galician General troops parade through Barcelona's Diagonal main avenue thousands of refugees displaced to the border looking to put an end to their persecution. They found it near the Mediterranean waters, beyond the turning of Creus Cape, which seemed to create the illusion of a safe shelter through the endless bends of the road leading to France. Hundreds, thousands, carrying their meagre belongings upon their shoulders and dragging from the hand their progeny crossed the imaginary boundary that split two worlds. However, this occasional refuge led to a France supposedly free but subject to the will of the uniformed criminals in Berlin. Republicans who managed to cross their particular goal were herded into camps in the coasts of Roussillon, particularly in the beach of Argelès sur Mer, where today they are remembered with a monolith where can be read: A la mémoire des 100.000 Républicans Espagnols, internés dans le camp d'Argelès, lors de la RETIRADA de Février 1939. Leur malheur: avoir lutté pour défendre la Démocratie et la République contre le fascisme en Espagne de 1936 à 1939. Homme libre, souviens toi. (In the memory of the 100,000 Spanish Republicans, interned in the Argelès camp after the February 1939 WITHDRAWAL. His misfortune: Having fought to defend democracy and the Republic against fascism in Spain from 1936 to 1939. Freeman, remember it.)

Among them was the Sevillian poet Antonio Machado who after having overnighted in a railroad car in the tunnel of Cerbère reached Collioure on January 29, 1939 with his mother Ana Ruiz and his brother Joseph with his wife. They were housed in two rooms on the first floor of the Hotel Bougnol-Quintana. On February 18 he was diagnosed with pneumonia and died four days later, Ash Wednesday, at sunset. Three days later his mother died too. Since then both lie in the town cemetery, under a tombstone with the epitaph: Ici repose Antonio Machado mort en exil le 22 févrer 1939. A scribbled note on a crumpled paper was found in his pocket…estos días azules, y el sol de la infancia…(... these blue days, and the childhood sun..).

About one year later, in September 1940, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin tried to go the opposite way running from the same barbarism and trying to get to Portugal and from there to New York where his colleague Theodor Adorno was waiting him. As Republicans refugees they fell down to the hot coals. The small coastal town of Portbou, a railway junction with its French counterpart Cerbère for the forced change of trains due to different gauge, almost became a necessary stop over. Benjamin and the group of people who accompanied him were to be returned by the Franco authorities to Vichy Free France because of the lack of exit visa. Benjamin died on 27 September at the Hotel de France, allegedly committed suicide with an overdose of morphine but not missing the theories that attributed his death to Stalinist agents or any of their fellows. He gave a final letter dated on September 25 to Henny Gurland, the photographer who was part of his entourage and ultimately led to Theodor Adorno: In a desperate situation, I have no choice but to stop. My life will end in a small village in the Pyrenees, where no one knows me. I ask you to transmit my thoughts to my friend Adorno and to explain the situation in which I found. I do not have enough time to write all those letters I would have wanted to write. His remains ended up in Portbou graveyard and now a memorial made ​​by Israeli artist Dani Karavan in the fiftieth anniversary of his death preserves his memory.

On the tombstone of Antonio Machado, in Collioure, small notes and writings accumulate and are annually collected since1977 by the Collioure Machado Foundation. Also a street is dedicated to him, that by which his coffin was carried to the small cemetery. Collioure is another tiny town that was before a fishing one and has reinvented itself to tourism. That deprives him no charm neither interest in honouring Machado. The town is split in two beaches by the imposing Château Royal along the quai de l' Almirauté, an extension of the stream coming down from the mountains when the rain falls. Meanwhile provides shelter to the boats of the military garrison occupying the castle and cars park in the upper side. The Château belonged to the Counts of Roussillon before the Crown of Aragon and the kings of Mallorca. Visitors let themselves be seen as they seat in the terraces down the boulevard du Boramar bringing sight to the near horizon and left to the peculiar clock tower of Notre Dame des Anges. Beyond, to the breakwater that guards the bay, the small chapel of Saint Vincent stands. After the boulevard is the tangle of streets riddled with shops devoted entirely to the visitors offering from crafts to local products and wines. In the region fortified sweet wines are produced as the Banyuls and Rivesaltes, without forgetting the sturdy red wines of Corbières.

Following the highway through their vineyards, Salses Castle once established the border between France and Roussillon, before it was annexed by the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659. From the road the castle appears as a solid mass tending to vermilion towards the ends of the day. Its current appearance is due to the works done in the sixteenth century which included elements that already took into account the use of artillery. Three concentric circles leads to a wide square, to the governor's house, the San Sebastian chapel and the Aragon King palace. Today it houses the Museum of History.

Along with the salt ponds that formerly lead to Narbonne harbour Sigean is known today for its Parc Animalier, African animal reservation and for its vicinity to Pech Maho Elysic Iberian site, the objects discovered there are exhibited at the endearing Musée des Corbières, in the Town Hall Square. Someone said streets of Sigean have some Italian air, perhaps because of some houses as Maison Ferrier, where in the seventeenth century overnighted kings Louis XIII and Louis XIV, or perhaps places like Le Coin du Petit Sal, the Small Salt Corner, a former Municipal salt depot already mentioned in a document of the year 1462. 

The highway follows the route that once ran along the Via Domitia, the Roman road which connected Rome to Hispania through the Provence and the Roussillon. A sample of pavement is uncovered in the Town Hall Square, in Narbonne, behind the Saint Juste et Saint Pasteur cathedral and before reaching the Canal de la Robine. Narbo Martius, Gallia Narbonensis capital, was founded in the second century BC. Tenth Legion veterans settled here. It also had its period of Arab occupation between 715 and 759.

At the mouth of Hérault River the ancient Greeks founded Agathé Tyché, Agde, a Phocaea dependency of the colony of Massalia, Marseille. Today, in the same river floating restaurant terraces show their menus at Quai Commandant Mages, almost under the shadow cast by the bell tower of Saint Etienne Cathedral, which more than a bell is a fortified tower, as the walls of the church ascending in its solidity to the heights. Agde has a number of sixteenth and seventeenth centuries old houses, hôtels, scattered among the streets of the old town, once protected by the city walls, a stretch of them still remaining along rue 4 Septembre. Maison Consulaire, now the city hall, shows a Renaissance facade supported by a portico with arches occasionally hosting a flea market; the former Hôtel de la Charité housing the Musée Agathois Jules Badou, with twenty-six rooms dedicated to show the history of the city; Hôtel Alberet has at its entrance a curious decoration inspired by Persian motifs. There are more houses Viguier Guerin, Boissezon, Malaval Laffont... 

Further north, once left Béziers and Agde behind, a narrow strip of land locks Étang de Thau great salt lake. Numerous trays provide the more appreciated seafood in the region: oysters, consumed also in the restaurants beside Bouzigues harbour. Bouzigues is a quiet town that has always lived of the vineyards and the sea fruits, theirs is a quiet and calm sea, sheltered from the eastern storms. In spring the streets are blessed with the aromas and colours of the flowers that climb up doors and balconies near the church of Saint Jacques and in the small garden hide behind where is the Vierge du Roc. From here emerges the Mont Saint Claire, the top of the territory which looks more like an island where the city of Sète stands. Conversely, from Belvedere viewpoint an accurate idea of Bouzigues can be made with the seafood hatcheries beyond the ledge of land of Salaruc les Bains town jutting into the lake.

Sète houses within it the remains of its prodigal sons. In the cemetery of Py, facing Thau lake, Georges Brassens rests, the famous chansonnier who on multiple occasions Castilian Paco Ibáñez sung his best known pieces: Les Copains d' Abord, La Mauvaise Réputation, Mourir pour des Idees. Brassens wanted to be buried in his native town, under the shade of a pine tree and between heaven and earth, almost overlooking the sea. He wanted passers-by to think I was going death as if on vacation.

At the other extreme, in the Marine Cemetery is the gravestone covering Paul Valery, the poet who had written about the same cemetery: Temple du Temps, qu'un seul soupir résume / À ce point pur je monte et m'accoutume/ Tout entouré de mon regard marin / Et comme aux dieux mon offrande suprême/ La scintillation sereine sème / Sur l'altitude un dédain souverain.  (Temple of time, within a brief sigh bounded/ By the horizons of a sea-girt eye I climb, surrounded / And, like my supreme offering to the gods / That peaceful coruscation only breeds / A loftier indifference on the sky.)

Just down the street is named after him is the town hall, in front of a shady plaza planted with plane trees. Some alleys are just stairs leading down to the docks near the port and along the canal that runs through the city downtown with its intense reflections stroking both sides.

© J.L.Nicolas


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