Thursday, May 10, 2012

Bascassan and Alciette

(Which sound rather like the protagonists of a troubadour romance...)

I'd read about these 17th century twin chapels out in the countryside a little north and east of St Jean Pied-de-Port, very similar to one another in design outside and decoration within. The morning the pilgrims set off and we decided we really needed to get out and about, damp weather notwithstanding, or fall into a slough of anticlimactic despond. Tom just about tolerates my fondness for quaint and colourful (which he's inclined to see as crude and creepy) folk art and religion, my sister indulges it happily, so we wound our way through the tangled lanes of the back country to find them.

Find them we did, first of all Bascassan. (Not Alciette, as I said in the last post, now corrected) 

It was locked, we poked around outside

Then I braved the hollering pack of dogs around the house next door to ask who might have the key, they sent me down to another, very substantial and slightly forbidding farmhouse further down the road.  There was no one there, so I took the opportunity to photograph their farmyard, where a wall-eyed cow and her calf, some bare-necked fowls and a line of washing were all abiding in harmony directly adjacent to the main house, giving a pleasing sense of porous boundaries and spaces giving onto spaces.

Another neighbour commiserated sympathetically with our disappointment, and told us that the key-holding lady's husband was in hospital, so she was much absent.

I went back to the chapel and looked at the locked doors, and noticed that the keyhole was beckoning (the figure has something of the air ofa maquette, with his riveted joints),

so I had a very small glimpse of the inside.

Rather strangely, as this is a documented small treasure of the region, in the guide books and on one of the smaller tributaries to the pilgrim way, I can't find any photos on-line of the interior of the chapel.  I did find this lovely blog post (in French) about it, with much better photos of the outside than mine, but the blogger who wrote it had the same experience at Bascassan: door locked and no one about with the key, so perhaps that's more often the case than not, hence the lack of photographs to be found.  However, she gives interesting information about the small building adjacent to the chapel, with the blue doors and windows I showed in the last post.  It is the former benoîterie.  This led me off to find out more about this Basque tradition, which I'd never heard of before, and which I feel merits a digression here.

The benoîte was a single woman, either a virgin or a widow of the parish, of thirty years or older, who was an appointed official of the church, given a very small stipend from the parish, something like a sacristan or churchwarden.  She held the keys of the building, cleaned it and washed the linen and polished up the ornaments, but also rang the bells for all the regular offices and hours and for funerals and weddings too (sometimes for the early morning angelus she had a string attached which she could ring from her bed without having to get up), distributed the host alongside the priest for the Eucharist, could  be requested to make intercessory prayers, saw in the wedding parties and officiated with the rings, saw in the funeral cortèges and sorted out the seating and carried out a few of the other rituals attendant on death which were particular to the region.  Additionally she had a few more unusual jobs, like ringing the bell very fast, or burning consecrated leaves with a consecrated candle to keep storms and hail away (they'd go on to the next village, it seems, but presumably only if the benoîte there wasn't quick enough off the mark...) I read in one place that she was often the confidante and counsellor of young girls, and helped women in childbirth.

In return for these services, she got a tiny house with a potager (a vegetable garden), a tithe of produce, mostly grain and bread, and a share of the collection taken at weddings and funerals.  Oh, and a designated burial space in or by the church.  She wore a hooded garment and a rosary at her waist, and was contracted for life, only ending the contract (and losing her stipend) if she got married.  Most of the records of these women are from the 16th to the 18th centuries, but there were quite a few later, and Bascassan is said to have been the home of the last one, who only died about 20 years ago.  A notorious witch-hunter of the 16th-17th century, Pierre de Lancre, who was himself of Basque origins but disowned these and hated all things Basque, convinced that they were mostly witches because they liked to dance, condemned the benoîtes as consorting with libertine priests, perhaps their wise-woman activities also smacked of witchcraft, or just of women, and Basques, having too much autonomy.

The little house with its blue doors and windows, which I like to think date from the time of the last benoîte, and were of a colour she loved, and its enclosed garden are now listed and preserved as historic monuments along with the chapel itself, but there was no one with a key to let us in.

My nieces T & B decided to make friends with some cows.

B the cow whisperer.

As we went out of the village, we saw some of the sheep with the black faces and the big curly horns.  After my last sheep post I found a leaflet I'd picked up in the tourist information office about la Route du Fromage, the long tour you can make through the region stopping at farmhouses and eating cheese as you go (it appears Ossau-Iraty was last year voted Best Cheese in the World in the World Cheese Awards, I kid you not).  From this I learned that these sheep are the manech tête noire breed, whereas the more delicate pale-headed ones in the post before are  manech tête rousse.  

That's a lamb under the sheep, having a feed.  I hope and assume they stop doing that before they start growing their horns, like the one in the background.

We fared no better at the chapel's twin in Alciette.  This time a rather pleasant farmer told me that normally monsieur le maire, who lived in that house over there, could furnish me with the key, but he was at a funeral and would be gone all day.  By that time the weather was closing in anyway, we took no pictures and headed home.  However, Rose-et-Grise had better luck, in the post linked to above, and there are some super photos of the interior there.

On the way back we stopped at a chapel of charcuterie in St Jean le Vieux, and bought some Bayonne ham,  and a sweet/hot preserve made from Espelette peppers, and the young woman kindly allowed me to take her photo with some of their renowned Basque beret-shaped sausages.

(Sorry about the rather close juxtaposition of livestock and meat products, that's rather how it goes. There's more information about the benoîtes, all in French and rather duplicating, here, here, and here.)



marja-leena said...

In spite of disappointments, Lucy, you have given a wonderful tour of the area, with gorgeous photos. Have you thought of being a tour guide with a blog, as you are almost doing anyway? I wish to have you as my guide (if I were to ever get over there)! I love all the old buildings, doors, animals... and the green hills.

Bruce Taylor, a.k.a. Catalyst said...

Oh, Lucy, you are a great tour hostess. Those sheep are wonderful. The young woman in the charcuterie appears a bit doubtful about the picture-taking. But I'm glad you got it. It's fit for National Geographic.

christopher said...


Plutarch said...

But a useful visit all the same. The key hole view of the alter ( I assume) and the key hole with maquette like frame, are enough to justify the exploration.

Isabelle said...

Great little tour indeed. Your last comment is mostly why I'm a vegetarian...

Dick said...

Absolutely fascinating, Lucy. A wonderful flavour of the familiar and the alien.

Rosie said...

This is a nice way to sight see without getting my boots dirty...