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TRAVELING IN STYLE : LAST STOP : Out on the Border : By the River Bidasoa, by the Gorgeous Moonlit Waters. . .An American Poet Crosses the Pyrenees, Without, Alas, a Basque Girl by His Side

May 16, 1993|Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

"Hiawatha," "Evangeline," "Paul Revere's Ride," "The Children's Hour," "The Village Blacksmith"--it's hard to imagine the man who wrote such definitively American (and frequently parodied) poems as a sophisticated young traveler in the back country of Europe. Yet their author, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), made two extended trips across the continent, studying languages and local literature (he later became a professor of modern languages at Bowdoin College in Maine and then at Harvard) and enjoying all manner of colorful adventures. His first excursion, in the late 1820s, proved particularly eventful: On the trip, his first wife died, and he met the woman who was to become his second wife. He subsequently turned his experiences from the journey into a series of anonymous magazine articles that grew into his first book--"Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea," published in 1835. This description of a diligence (stagecoach) ride across the border between France and Spain, through the Basque country, is excerpted, in a slightly edited version, from that volume. Its picturesque observations aside, it reminds us of two things: that the traveler of an earlier time was always aware of his environment, of the "outdoors" around him, even when being transported from city to city in a public conveyance; and that the modern traveler is, by comparison and for better or worse, almost antiseptically isolated from the world through which he passes in his car or train or plane.

SHOULD THESE WORDS MEET THE EYE OF any solitary traveler who is journeying into Spain by the road I here speak of, I would advise him to travel from Bayonne to St. Jean de Luz on horseback. At the gate of Bayonne he will find a steed ready caparisoned for him, with a dark-eyed Basque girl for his companion and guide, who is to sit beside him upon the same horse. The saddle is constructed with a large framework extending on each side, and covered with cushions; and the traveler and his guide, being placed on the opposite extremities, serve as a balance to each other. This style of traveling is, I believe, peculiar to the Basque provinces.

We overtook many travelers who were mounted in this way, and I could not help thinking it a mode of traveling far preferable to being cooped up in a diligence as I was.

There was one merry guide we met upon the road to Bidart, whose image haunts me still. She had large and expressive black eyes, teeth like pearls, a rich and sunburnt complexion, and hair of a glossy blackness, parted on the forehead, and falling down behind in a large braid, so long as almost to touch the ground with the little ribbon that confined it at the end. She wore the common dress of the peasantry of the south of France, and a large gypsy straw hat was thrown back over her shoulder, and tied by a ribbon about her neck. There was hardly a dusty traveler in the coach who did not envy her companion the seat he occupied beside her.

Just at nightfall, we entered the town of St. Jean de Luz and dashed down its narrow streets at full gallop. The little madcap postilion cracked his knotted whip incessantly, and the sound echoed back from the high dingy walls like the report of a pistol. The coach wheels nearly touched the houses on each side of us; the idlers in the street jumped right and left to save themselves; window shutters flew open in all directions; a thousand heads popped out from cellar and upper story--and we rattled on like an earthquake.

St. Jean de Luz is a smoky little fishing town, situated on the low grounds at the mouth of the Nivelle, and a bridge connects it with the faubourg of Sibourne (now Ciboure), which stands on the opposite bank of the river. I had no time, however, to note the peculiarities of the place, for I was whirled out of it with the same speed and confusion with which I had been whirled in, and I can only recollect the sweep of the road across the Nivelle--the church of Sibourne by the water's edge, the narrow streets, the smoky-looking houses with red window shutters and "a very ancient and fish-like smell."

I passed by moonlight the little River Bidasoa, which forms the boundary between France and Spain; and when the morning broke, found myself far up among the mountains of San Salvador, the most westerly links of the great Pyrenean chain. The mountains around me were neither rugged nor precipitous, but they rose one above another in a long, majestic swell, and the trace of the plowshare was occasionally visible to their summits. They seemed destitute of forest scenery; their huge outlines lay black, and barren, and desolate against the sky.

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