"The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea."
Isak Dinesen, The Deluge at Norderney, Seven Gothic Tales, 1934
Monday, 24 September 2012
Salt Cure in the Pays Basque
Wild, windswept, west facing Atlantic beaches suit me. Perhaps it has something to do with my Shetland heritage but, maybe, it is also the Robinson Crusoe in me that knows there will be flotsam scattered on them. East facing beaches are not the same, the sun feels as though it is in the wrong place once the spectacle of dawn has passed and at sunset there are no livid reflections on the water. Town ‘beaches’ don’t really merit the name, surrounded as they often are by cliffs of flats, cars and intense commerce. I appreciate my taste in beaches is not everyone’s but the 300km long one pictured above created by Napolean and his engineers to keep the sea out of Les Landes is really quite special. Backed by vast man made sand dunes and around a million hectares of pine forests there are no buildings, cars, sewage outlets or ice cream sellers and you can walk miles in each direction and still not find any of those things. Almost every year I return for a few days to this coast and it never fails to perform its cure.
Admittedly flotsam has always held a particular attraction for me. I cannot lie around on beaches with idle hands so I like places where there is a ready supply of materials. This coast has always obliged in the past with rope and plastic of all types and in all colours. Last year I found these small plastic wheels.
I have no idea what they are, or why they were in the sea, but this year …..nothing!! The beaches had been cleaned and my source of materials removed leaving just clean white sand. I walked for hours and only found a handful of short pieces of rope barely enough to make a table mat. So I just had to lie around and not do anything, and actually it was quite nice, I might even consider repeating it, one day.
Forty kilometres south of this beach is the town of Bayonne in the Basque country and here the Musee Basque beckoned me in. Amongst its treasures were these folded “handkerchief “ hats, origami with a black handkerchief, one of which appeared also to be woven. The label was skimpy and the on line catalogue didn’t add anything, but I came to the conclusion that the pattern had in fact been pressed and starched into the fabric – possibly using a basket as the mould. If anyone knows more please enlighten me.
Other gems were the little flutes made of hazel bark used by goatherds in the mountains, I had seen similar in the Santiago de Compostela museum in Galicia. There were also beehives and eel traps but I was running out of time and still had not found any ‘chistera’ (bats for playing jai alai ). Finally reaching the attic space I found them in a purposely dimly lit room that resembled a cathedral treasury, I could hardly make out these poetically arranged precious ‘relics’ in the gloom but their significance in the culture of the region was evident.
The chistera on display made of chestnut and willow were all part of a single collection acquired in the 1950’s, each one slightly different and strangely mystical displayed in this way. You can see them in better detail in the Museums online catalogue and read a concise history here of their origin and present day manufacture by the Gonzales family in Anglet. The Basque country spans the French -Spanish border and many things are the same either side of the frontier including jai alai bats. You can read here about a Spanish maker of these bats.