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10 August 2021

From the NS archive: A night at Boucharou

5 August 1950: Walking across the Pyrenees and into another world.

By Janet Adam Smith

In the postwar years, Spain could seem a country cut off from the rest of Europe. It proved a magnet for Janet Adam Smith, the then assistant literary editor of the New Statesman (and later literary editor). In 1950 she was a widow with four young children and seeking to combine her career as a journalist with her love of mountains. In this piece, predating Laurie Lee’s famous account of tramping into Spain, “As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning”, she related her own experience of walking across the Pyrenees and into this hidden world. Her account is picaresque and full of humour, colour and warmth as she relates her encounters with the ramshackle border guards and the staff of the local hostelry. She had heard about Spanish hospitality and now experienced it for herself.

***

The visa for Spain had cost 25 shillings – and two photographs of a female murderer. It laid down no restrictions on points of entry, but was very firm about money. No pesetas at all must be taken into Spain. So while my legs carried me up the mule-track towards the frontier one early morning, beyond the green lake and past the pink quilted hanks of dwarf rhododendron, my head was working away on exchange and barter. I wanted to cross the Pyrenees, to use my visa, to spend a night in Spain.

Down in Cauterets, they had indicated ways of buying black currency. But if I got no farther than Boucharou, where there was said to be a douane, it would be hardly civil to declare myself pesetaless, then cross the road to the inn and pull out a roll of Spanish notes from my boots. Spanish hospitality, they had also said at Cauterets, is proverbial: you have only to say why you cannot pay (here the schoolmaster wrote out the pathetic phrases) and any inn will be glad to give you a bed for nothing. Or for cigarettes. I was readier to rely on Spanish hospitality if I could also rely on more tangible assets; so besides my own food, I had in my sack some francs, a tin of Olida ham, and ten packets of Gauloises.

Grosser preoccupations had vanished by the time I was drifting down the valley of the Rio Ara through a blue sea of forget-me-nots. Now I pondered the problems of heredity. I wanted to sleep at Torla – a village two hours farther down the valley than the hamlet of Boucharou – “sale  et pittoresque” according to the French guide-book. I had read two accounts of Torla. Both had mentioned the inn kept by a decayed Spanish nobleman: one was written about 1910, the other about 1925. It was hardly likely that the original nobleman would still be alive. But would the son of a decayed nobleman be a decayed nobleman himself? Or simply a nobleman? Or only decayed?

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Four hours down the valley I was jerked back to actualities by a shot; and realised that after all I hadn’t seen a soul – nor an animal except one lizard in the snow under the col – since I crossed the frontier. From the talk on the French side, I had formed a picture of vigilant activity. Unlike their French counterparts (who sat sensibly down at Cauterets or Gedre, occasionally making an appearance at weekends to control the plague of autocars from Lourdes), the Spanish frontier guards were reported to keep the sharpest look-out on the passes. Spaniards must not make unauthorised exits – and indeed the mountains on the frontier are forbidden to civilians.

As soon as I was over I had put my passport in my hip pocket, ready to flourish at the first challenge. Now, as a second shot echoed back across the narrowing valley, I began to wonder uneasily if the guards were as light on the trigger as the Italians on the Alpine passes in Mussolini’s heyday. And then, after another few minutes down the path cut in the steep wooded side of the gorge, past the clearing with the waterfall, round a corner were the brigands. There were six of them, sprawled across the path in the shade of the beech trees. Their shirts were torn, their trousers patched, their shoes were flat strips of leather tied with thongs. And their guns, lying anyhow on the ground! “Muskets” and “flintlocks” were the words that came to mind. They were battered, they were tied up with string; the brigands peered down the barrels and rammed things down them, banged them smartly with stones. They snatched my ice-axe and found the pick a useful tool for fiddling with. But by then I’d been asked to sit down – politely, the chief brigand gestured to a pile of leaves – and had whipped out my passport. They read the words on the visa out loud and passed it round. We established communication by gesture, mime and emphatic single words.

Four of the brigands, it appeared, were frontier gendarmes: looking more closely now, I could see that the torn shirts had once been the same shade of green. Edging out of the way of a couple of musket barrels, I said I was going to Torla. No, the chief brigand answered – Boucharou. Yes, Boucharou first, then Torla. He persisted with Boucharou only, but spoke of an interpreter down there. I pictured a sergeant, perhaps a lieutenant, with perfect French. One of the two civilians snatched up a weapon and gaily popped it off at an unseen quarry. This seemed to be the moment to offer cigarettes. English? they asked, as I rummaged in my sack. Their faces dropped at the sight of the Gauloises; I felt these were only accepted out of politeness. This was depressing: if they were so little regarded, it left me with the ham as my only hard currency.

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When I got up, it was clear I was not to walk down alone. With my right hand grasping my ice-axe – a pike, or halberd, to match the muskets – and my left a tin mug filled with moss and some flowers I wanted to identify, I set off at a smart pace. Very conscious of British dignity to be maintained – and of the fact that bootnails were far more likely than leather strips to skid on the slabs of rock that largely made the track – I did my best to rise to possibly the only occasion on which I shall lead a file of infantry.

Through the box bushes, and the juniper, across the pastures and the single pine-log bridges, we came to Boucharou: a stone bridge, a guardhouse and a pink-washed inn. I halted my column on the bridge and brought out my camera: they scuffled for front places in the picture. Up on the gallery of the inn where they led me after a brief look in at the guardhouse, acquaintance expanded. Pointing to the ring on my finger, one of them asked about my children: had I a picture? The photograph I produced delighted them: there were complimentary exclamations, sympathetic murmurs. Charming tots indeed they were. I felt quite proud of them, especially the twins with their close-cropped hair and brief shorts. Quite unnecessary to explain that they were the children attached to a rowdy French party from Tarbes who had invaded the Marcadou hut a week before. On this wave of friendliness, I again opened the question of Torla: and was again denied. Nor was there any sign of the interpreter till, half an hour after we’d reached the hamlet, an elderly man in black came in from the fields: the patron of the inn, with extremely rusty French. He seemed to be saying that there was some military affair going on at Torla, which was forbidden ground now, but would be accessible in a week or two.

My more resolute half was for insisting on my right to Torla; one night in one village didn’t seem much to ask of Spain for my 25 shillings. But it was clear that if I went the file would follow: to go clambering down the mule track in front of these casually carried weapons would be very different from walking peacefully down the gorge alone. If I were to follow my plan of returning to France by the Port de Boucharou, I would only have to retrace my steps tomorrow.

The patron was pressing food on me; it would be heaven to take off my boots. And with their removal, my escort melted away, and I ate and drank alone in the cool whitewashed room. A shy and willing girl brought in a fine mixed grill and a wine bottle with two spouts. The drink was cold, astringent and delicious. Will the ham pay for half a litre? I haven’t any pesetas. The salad dressing tastes of the tar. No, these aren’t English cigarettes, Miranda; these wafer biscuits you’ve given me are made to eat with wine, with taste of tar. Aragon a torrent at the door and I want to sleep at Torla, sleep at Torla…  After all I’d had 13 hours in the open air. Too sleepy to worry about paying, I fell into my bed at Boucharou at half-past seven and slept the clock round. And in the end it was a perfectly straightforward financial transaction, with the patron very honestly explaining that he had to take my French francs at slightly less than the official rate, because he’d have to go to a town to change them.

I sat on the balcony and pulled on my boots. Half my escort appeared from the guardhouse, yawned, stretched and knelt to wash in the torrent. As I recrossed the bridge and strutted up the scree to the Gavarnie path, they waved me on my way to France and off their field of responsibility. Three hours later, in a green glen on the French side, I sat down to eat by a clear stream. Out from the sack fell the rest of the superfluous Gauloises, and the tin of ham. I was angry with myself: I could at least have left that behind, as a thank you for a kindly welcome at the inn. And out tumbled also an unfamiliar packet: tissue paper, and a dozen delicious wafer biscuits, stuffed in by the shy and willing girl. Spanish hospitality, after all, had the last word. But next time I shall also sleep at Torla!

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)