III: ON THE SPANISH FRONTIER 
 
THE Bidasoa, in the last part of its course, divides Spain from France. It further divides Basque from Basque. It has thus a local and an historic interest. 
 
It is the scene of smuggling between French and Spanish Basques and, as a frontier river, it has seen many a quaint and solemn episode in the past — the passage of Wellington’s troops, for 
instance, in 1813, or the exchange in boats of Francis I against two hostages (his sons) in 1526, the King showing an eager haste to win across the river and reach the friendly inhabitants of St. Jean 
de Luz(1) and the sheltering walls of Bayonne. But it is the passing beauty of the whole Bidasoa valley that attracts the visitor, the loveliness of the river and the hills and the villages by the river. 
The Bidasoa is beautiful during its whole course from where it rises near the village of Maya, a little mountain stream running swiftly through woods of oak and chestnut. At times the hills break 
abruptly down, the water lies deep and dark-green beneath, and there is a look of Ullswater about both hills and river. A little above Endarlaza the road leaves the river, and from here may be had a 
glimpse of the Bidasoa of unrivalled beauty. For it runs in a long, irregular stretch, irregular for the rough backbones of hill covered with boulders and bushes of box. At each hill-ridge one might 
expect the river to bend and vanish, but still it appears beyond. Nearer the village of Vera it contracts to a narrower flow, and the water lashes over rocks, magnificently white and green. The river is 
known to fishermen as well as to smugglers and Carlists and lovers of Nature. Certainly the wisest travellers, before passing on to the bleak uplands of Castile, will stay to explore this little strip of 
green country, with its fresh woods and valleys and villages full of state and ancientry. Vera, in a sunny hollow, has an especial fascination. The vine-covered balconies and projecting roofs keep the 
houses in shade, and on two sides is the rustle and flow of water. The houses stand on different levels, several storeys of them mounting roof above roof from the river to the church. They are 
curious in their sculptured stone, their quaint carved buttresses, their nail-studded doors or rounded arches leading to the outer court, their crazy wooden balconies, their coats-of-arms, their 
inscriptions. At the very entrance of the Bidasoa stands Fuenterrabia, beneath gently sloping Jaizquibel. It is a little town of marvellous, narrow streets, steep and crooked, and over-jutting houses 
carved in wood and stone. In front is a little bay, black with fishing-boats, and seen from across the water, Fuenterrabia’s clustered group of houses, yellow and brown and grey, crowned by the 
ancient church and tenth-century castle, is of a rare and enchanting beauty. Not only a narrow strip of river, but several centuries separate it from Hendaye opposite, with its shore on the Bidasoa 
and its shore on the sea, and its woods above the river, crowded in spring with daffodils. The sudden change from everything that is French to everything that is Spanish cannot but be surprising. It is 
due, no doubt, to the fact that beneath the French and the Spanish civilization and language, the people have an older language and civilization common to either side. The Basque spoken varies but 
little, being merely a little broader in Spain than in France. Mme. d’Aulnoy noticed the abrupt change wrought by a few yards of travel. “It’s certain, as soon as I past the little river of Bidassoa, I 
was not understood unless I spake Castilian ; and not above a quarter of an Hour before I should not have been understood had I not spoke French.”(2) Obstacles and delays begin : “ Here are 
Toll-gatherers who make you pay for everything you carry with you, not excepting your Cloaths. This Tax is demanded at their Pleasure and is excessive on Strangers.” Letters are no longer 
received in a well-ordered service : “ There is in this country a very ill order touching commerce, and when the French carrier arrives at St. Sebastian, all the letters he brings are deliver’d to others 
who are good footmen and ease one another. They put their packets into a sack tied with rotten cords to their shoulder, by which means it oft happens that the secrets of your heart and family are 
open to the first curious body who makes drunk the Footpost.” Mme. d’Aulnoy is irritated by the unintelligibility of Basque : “ This country called Biscaye is full of high mountains where are several 
iron mines.(3) The Biscays climb up the rocks as easily and with as great swiftness as stags. Their language (if one may call such jargon language) is very poor, seeing one word signifies abundance 
of things. There are none but those born in the country that can understand it; and I am told that to the end it may be more particularly theirs they make no use of it in writing : they make their children
learn to read and write French and Spanish according to which King’s subjects they are.” “They are said to understand one another,” said Scaliger of the Basques, “ but, for my part, I doubt it.” The 
most famous scene of peace witnessed by the Bidasoa was the meeting held in the Isle des Faisans, or de la Conference, a narrow island, now worn to a mere strip by the flow of the tide, between
Philip IV of Spain and Louis XIV of France in 1660. It was a scene of lavish splendour and magnificence, and Velazquez, then in the last year of his life, superintended the decorations and assisted at
the interview.(4) But most often we hear of the Bidasoa as a scene of strife and anxiety, escape and pursuit. The very river was an object of dispute between the Governments of France and Spain, 
until it was decided that the one half of it belonged to France, the other to Spain; in the centre of the bridge of Béhobie is the dividing line, marked in blue for France and red for Spain. Many a time 
has the sight of its waters, flowing swiftly to the sea, been welcomed by men in danger of life and liberty. Colonel Peroz(5) has graphically described his escape by swimming the river during the last 
Carlist war. On May 5, 1808, Marbot reached the Bidasoa, after riding day and night through hostile country to bring the Emperor (then at the Chateau de Marrac, near Bayonne) news of the Dos 
de Mayo rising at Madrid. At the beginning of November, Napoleon himself crossed the frontier, and as he rode rapidly along the route d’Espagne and beneath the Church of Urrugne, with its 
ancient, sad inscription,(6) little thought that the enterprise upon which he was now engaged was to be a main cause in bringing him swiftly to the last hour that kills. 
 
 
In the Middle Ages the pilgrims to the shrine of Santiago went through the Basque country and across the frontier in fear of their lives. The Basques were fierce and brave, and fond of plunder. In 
1120 a Bishop was obliged to lay aside his episcopal robes, and taking with him only two servants and a guide who understood the “ barbarous tongue of the Basques,” so passed through to 
Compostella. In later times the pilgrims would sing, as they left France, — 
“ Adieu la France jolie 
Et les nobles fleurs de lys 
Car je m’en vais en Espagne, 
C’est un étrange pays,” 
 
and would look back with sighs to the good cheer of France : 
“ Quand nous fumes a Saint Sean de Luz(7) 
Les biens de Dieu eu abondance, 
Car ce sont gens de Dieu élus, 
Des charités ont souvenance.” 
 
The older way into Spain was the Roman road from Dax to S. Jean Pied de Port and Roncesvalles — where, indeed, and not “ by Fontarabia,” Charlemagne was attacked by the Basques ; but 
often this road was ‘rendered impassable by war. In the middle of the 12th century the French Basque country passed, with the rest of Aquitaine, into the possession of the English Crown, and 
henceforth many were the battles and frontier raids between the Basques on either side. In 1296 we read of a truce in the quarrels between San Sebastian and “ Fuent Arrabia,” and of an 
agreement made between them not to “ send or take bread, or wine, or meat, or arms or horses, or other merchandise to Bayonne, or England, or Flanders while the war lasts between the King of 
France and the King of England.” On July 19, 1311, a peace is made between Bayonne and Biarritz (Beiarritz) on the one hand, and Laredo, Castro Urdiales, and Santander on the other. A few 
years later we find the King of Castile writing to the King of England to complain of the seizure of the goods of his vassals of Biscay by the Seneschal of Aquitaine, “ against all right and reason.” 
As often before and after “en ce temps avoit grand rancune entre le roy d’Angleterre et les Espagnols. In 1352 a treaty is formed between “England and the people of the coast of Cantabria,” who 
were famous for their prowess in catching whales, as well as in frontier warfare, and came into rivalry with English fishermen. In 1482 “amicable intelligences“ are concluded at Westminster 
between “Edward, by the Grace of God King of England and France and Lord of Ireland” and “the inhabitants of the noble and loyal Province of Guipúzcoa.”(9) During the 17th century the frontier 
raids continued, and in 1636 (as before in 1558) the town of St. Jean de Luz was taken and pillaged by the Spaniards. Up in the hills, near the little village of Sare, the Spaniards of Vera were 
defeated, and Sare still displays on the walls of its mairie the coat-of-arms given by Louis XIV. after the victory won by the bravery of its inhabitants, with the following inscription in Basque: — 
“Reward of courage and loyalty, given to Sare by Louis XIV. in 1693.”(10) In the Peninsular War, Sare and its mountain. La Rhune, played a prominent part, and many a vivid description, such as 
the following, occurs in Napier : — “ Day had broken with great splendour, and three guns were fired as signal of attack from Atchuria. The French were driven from La Rhune, Sare was carried, 
and the enemy brushed away from Ainhoa and Urdax : “ It was now eight o’clock, and from the smaller Rhune(11) a splendid spectacle of war opened upon the view. On the left the ships of war, 
slowly sailing to and fro, were exchanging shots with the fort of Socoa, and Hope, menacing all the French lines on the low ground, sent the sound of a hundred pieces of artillery bellowing up the 
rocks, to be answered by nearly as many from the tops of the mountains. On the right the summit of the great Atchuria(12) was just lighted by the rising sun, and fifty thousand men rushing down 
its enormous slopes with ringing shouts seemed to chase the receding shadows into the deep valley.” The description of the passage of the Bidasoa in October, 1813, is equally graphic : “From San 
Marcial seven columns could now be seen at once, moving on a line of five miles, those above bridge plunging at once into the fiery contest, those below appearing in the distance like huge, sullen 
snakes winding over the heavy sands.” The mountainous character of the frontier, causing Spain to be entered by one or two narrow passages, has indeed concentrated upon a few points a 
picturesque variety of traffic through the centuries — a historical pageant of soldiers, pilgrims, smugglers, Kings and Queens dethroned or released from imprisonment, wily agents, gorgeous 
ambassadors, fugitive politicians, exiled Jesuits, heretic missionaries, Carlist conspirators, with a large sprinkling of visitors and adventurers from many lands. 
 
Footnotes
 
(1) The former importance of St. Jean de Luz (in Basque Donibane Lohitzune) is shown by the lines — 
“Saint Jean de Luz, petit Paris 
Bayonne, son écurie.” 

Similar is the proud boast of Almeria :

“Cuando Almeria era Almeria

Granada era su alqueria.”

Victor Hugo quaintly describes St. Jean de Luz in 1843 as “ un villlage caboté dans les anfractuosités de la montagne.”

 

(2) English translation of 1692.

 
(3) In 1623 Sir B. Wynn describes the country near “ Bilbo “ as “ all infinite Bocky, over’d onely with Furrs and a few Juniper Trees.” 
 
(4) At St. Jean de Luz, where Louis XIV was married to the Infanta, a house still bears the inscription — 
“L’Infante je recus l’an mil six cent soixante 
On m’appelle depuis le Chasteau de I’lnfante.” 
 
(5) “Par Vocation.” Paris. 1905. 
 
(6) “Vulmerant omnes, ultima necat. — All hours wound, the last kills.” 
 
(7) Cf. Mme. d’Aulnoy ; “ We were here very well entertain’d so that our Tables were covered with all sorts of Wild Fowls.”
 
(8) The Basque poem, “Altabiscarrasco Kantua,” singing of victory, was considered magnificent when it was thought to be 
centuries old, and though it has been proved beyond all doubt to be modern, we may still venture to consider it to be magnificent : “ 
A cry is beard among the Basque mountains, and the Etchecojauna, standing before his door, listens and says : “ What is it ? who is 
there ? “ and the dog asleep at his master’s feet, rises and fills the region of Altabiscar with his barking.” One line is, “Cer nahi 
zuten gute menditarik Norteko gizon horiek? — What do these men of the North want in our mountains ? “ and another, “Why have
 they come to disturb our peace? “ The Basques must often have asked a like question as they have seen the foreigners of younger 
races crowd around their mountains ; but in spite of these inroads, the Basques have succeeded in keeping a part of their language 
and customs, like the waters of their proverb which, after a thousand years, still run in their old course : “Mila urthe igaro eta ura here 
bidean — Después de años mil, vuelve el rio a su cubíl.” 
 
(9) Rymer, “ Foedera.” 
SARAR I 
BAHOREA 
RENETALE 
YALTASSUN
AREN SARIA 
EMANA LUIS
XIV 1693. 
 
(10) The words balhorea (valour) and leyaltassuna (loyalty) are typical of the absence of truly Basque abstract words. 
 
(11) The mountain La Rhune or Larrhun, is half in France, half in Spain. Its name is Basque, derived from larre, pasture, 
and on, good (in Navarre there is a river Liarron and a village Larraona) ; but the first syllable has become the French article, and 
a lower flank of the mountain is known as “ La petite Rhune.” 
 
(12) Napier, who had no gift of spelling, writes Atchuria, or Atchubia. The word means White Book (aitz, rock, and churi, white)
 and its Spanish name is Peña Plata, Silver Mountain,