Gavarnie – France And The Netherlands

From Luz to Gavarnie is eighteen miles.

It is enjoined upon every living creature able to mount a horse, a mule, or any quadruped whatever, to visit Gavarnie; in default of other beasts, he should, putting aside all shame, bestride an ass. Ladies and convalescents are there in sedan-chairs.

Otherwise, think what a figure you will make on your return.

“You come from the Pyrenees; you’ve seen Gavarnie?”


What then did you go to the Pyrenees for?

You hang your head, and your friend triumphs, especially if he was bored at Gavarnie.

You undergo a description of Gavarnie after the last edition of the guide-book. Gavarnie is a sublime sight; tourists go sixty miles out of their way to see it; the Duchess d’ Angouleme had herself carried to the furthest rocks. Lord Bute, when he saw it for the first time, cried: “If I were now at the extremity of India, and suspected the existence of what I see at this moment, I should immediately leave in order to enjoy and admire it !” You are overwhelmed with quotations and supercilious smiles; you are convinced of laziness, of dulness of mind, and, as certain English travelers say, of anesthetic insensibility.

There are but two resources : to learn a description by heart, or to make the journey. I have made the journey, and am going to give the description.

We leave at six o’clock in the morning, by the road to Scia, in the fog, without seeing at first anything beyond confused forms of trees and rocks. At the end of a quarter of an hour, we hear along the pathway a noise of sharp cries drawing near; it was a funeral pro-cession coming from Scia. Two men bore a small coffin under a white shroud; behind came four herdsmen in long cloaks and brown capuchons, silent, with bent heads; four women followed in black mantles. It was they who uttered those monotonous and piercing lamentations; one knew not if they were wailing or praying. They walked with long steps through the cold mist, without stopping or looking at any one, and were going to bury the poor body in the cemetery at Luz.

At Scia the road passes over a small bridge very high up, which commands another bridge, gray and abandoned. The double tier of arches bends gracefully over the blue torrent; mean-while a pale light already floats in the diaphanous mist; a golden gauze undulates above the Gave ; the aerial veil grows thin and will soon vanish.

Nothing can convey the idea of this light, so youthful, timid, and smiling, which glitters like the bluish wings of a dragon-fly that is pursued and is taken captive in a net of fog.

Beneath, the boiling water is engulfed in a narrow conduit and leaps like a mill-race. The column of foam, thirty feet high, falls with a furious din, and its glaucous waves, heaped to gether in the deep ravine, dash against each other and are broken upon a line of fallen rocks. Other enormous rocks, debris of the same mountain, hang above the road, their squared heads crowned with brambles for hair; ranged in impregnable line, they seem to watch the torments of the Gave, which their brothers hold beneath themselves crusht and subdued.

We turn a second bridge and enter the plain of Gedres, verdant and cultivated, where the hay is in cocks; they are harvesting; our horses walk between two hedges of hazel; we go along by orchards; but the mountain is ever near; the guide shows us a rock three times the height of a man, which, two years ago, rolled down and demolished a house.

We encounter several singular caravans: a band of young priests in black hats, black gloves, black cassocks tucked up, black stockings, very apparent, novices in horsemanship who bound at every step, like the Gave; a big, jolly, round man, in a sedan-chair, his hands crossed over his belly, who looks on us with a paternal air, and reads his newspaper; three ladies of sufficiently ripe age, very slender, very lean, very stiff, who, for dignity’s sake, set their beasts on a trot as we draw near them. The cicisbeo is a bony cartilaginous gentleman, fixt perpendicularly on his saddle like a telegraph-pole. We hear a harsh clucking, as of a choked hen, and we recognize the English tongue.

Beyond Gedres is a wild valley called Chaos, which is well named. After a quarter of an hour’s journey there, the trees disappear, then the juniper and the box, and finally the moss. The Gave is no longer seen; all noises are hushed. It is a dead solitude peopled with wrecks. The avalanches of rocks and crusht flint have come down from the summit to the very bottom. The horrid tide, high and a quarter of a league in length, spreads out like waves its myriads of sterile stones, and the inclined sheet seems still to glide toward inundating the gorge. These stones are shattered and pulverized; their living fractures and thin harsh points wound the eye ; they are still bruising and crushing each other. Not a bush, not a spear of grass; the arid grayish train burns beneath a sun of brass; its debris are scorched to a dull hue, as in a furnace.

A hundred paces further on, the aspect of the valley becomes formidable. Troops of mammoths and mastadons in stone lie crouching over the eastern declivity, one above another, and heaped up over the whole slope. These colossal ridges shine with a tawny hue like iron rust; the most enormous of them drink the water of the river at their base. They look as if warming their bronzed skin in the sun, and sleep, turned over, stretched out on their side, resting in all attitudes, and always gigantic and frightful. Their deformed paws are curled up; their bodies half buried in the earth; their monstrous backs rest one upon another. When you enter into the midst of the prodigious band, the horizon disappears, the blocks rise fifty feet into the air; the road winds painfully among the overhanging masses; men and horses seem but dwarfs; these rusted edges mount in stages to the very summit, and the dark hanging army seems ready to fall on the human insects which come to trouble its sleep.

Once upon a time, the mountain, in a paroxysm of fever, shook its summits like a cathedral that is falling in. A few points resisted, and their embattled turrets are drawn out in line on the crest; but their layers are dislocated, their sides creviced, their points jagged. The ‘whole shattered ridge totters. Beneath them the rock fails suddenly in a living and still bleeding wound. The splinters are lower down, strewn over the declivity. The tumbled rocks are sustained one upon another, and man to-day passes in safety amidst the disaster.

But what a day was that of the ruin: It is not very ancient, perhaps of the sixth century, and the year of the terrible earthquake told of by Gregory of Tours. If a man could without perishing have seen the summits split, totter and fall, the two seas of rock come bounding into the gorge, meet one another and grind each other amidst a shower of sparks, he would have looked upon the grandest spectacle ever seen by human eyes.

On the west, a perpendicular mole, crannied like an old ruin, lifts itself straight up toward the sky. A leprosy of yellowish moss has in-crusted its’ pores, and has clothed it all over with a sinister livery. This livid robe upon this parched stone has a splendid effect. Nothing is uglier than the chalky flints that are drawn from the quarry; just dug up, they seem cold . and damp in their whitish shroud; they are not used to the sun; they make a contrast with the rest. But the rock that has lived in the air for ten thousand years, where the light has every day laid on and melted its metallic tints, is the friend of the sun, and carries its mantle upon its shoulders; it has no need of a garment of verdure ; if it suffers from parasitic vegetations, it sticks them to its sides and imprints them with its colors. The threatening tones with which it clothes itself suits the free sky, the naked landscape, the powerful heat that environs it; it is alive like a plant; only it is of another age, one more severe and stronger than that in which we vegetate.

Gavarnie is a very ordinary village, commanding a view of the amphitheater we are come to see. After you have left it, it is still necessary to go three miles through a melancholy plain, half buried in sand by the win-ter inundations; the waters of the Gave are muddy and dull; a cold wind whistles from the amphitheater; the glaciers, strewn with mud and stones, are stuck to the declivity like patches of dirty plaster. The mountains are bald and ravined by cascades; black cones of scattered firs climb them like routed soldiers; a meager and wan turf wretchedly clothes their mutilated heads. The horses ford the Gave stumblingly, chilled by the. water coming from the snows. In this wasted solitude you meet, all of a sudden, the most smiling parterre. A throng of the lovely iris crowds itself into the bed of a dried torrent; the sun stripes with rays of gold their velvety petals of tender blue; and the eye follows over the whole plain the folds of the rivulet of flowers.

We climb a last eminence, sown with iris and with stones. There is a hut where you breakfast and leave the horses. You arm your-self with a stout stick, and descend upon the glaciers of the amphitheater.

These glaciers are very ugly, very dirty, very uneven, very slippery; at every step you run the risk of falling, and if you fall, it is on sharp stones or into deep holes. They look very much like heaps of old plaster-work, and those who have admired them must have a stock of admiration for sale. The water has pierced them so that you walk upon bridges of snow. These bridges have the appearance of kitchen air-holes; the water is swallowed up in a very low archway, and, when you look closely, you get a distinct sight of a black hole.

After the glaciers we find a sloping esplanade; we climb for ten minutes bruising our feet upon fragments of sharp rock. Since leaving the hut we have not lifted our eyes, in order to restore for ourselves an unbroken sensation. Here at last we look.

A wall of granite crowned with snow hollows itself before us in a gigantic amphitheater. This amphitheater is twelve hundred feet high, nearly three miles in circumference, three tiers of perpendicular walls, and in each tier thou-sands of steps. The valley ends there; the wall is a. single block and impregnable. The other summits might fall, but its massive layers would not be moved. The mind is overwhelmed by the idea of a stability that can not be shaken and an assured eternity. There is the boundary of two countries and two races; this it is that Roland wanted to break, when with a sword-stroke he opened a breach in the summit. But the immense wound disappeared in the immensity of the unconquered wall. Three sheets of snow are spread out over the three tiers of layers.

The sun falls with all its force upon this virginal robe without being able to make it shine. It preserves its dead whiteness. All this grandeur is austere; the air is chilled beneath the noonday rays; great, damp shadows creep along the foot of the walls. It is the everlasting winter and the nakedness of the desert. The sole inhabitants are the cascades assembled to form the Gave. The streamlets of water come by thousands from the highest layer, leap from step to step, cross their stripes of foam, unite and fall oy a dozen brooks that slide from the last layer in flaky streaks to lose themselves in the glaciers of the bottom.

The thirteenth cascade on the left is twelve hundred and sixty-six feet high. It falls slowly, like a dropping cloud, or the unfolding of a muslin veil; the air softens its fall; the eye follows complacently the graceful undulation of the beautiful airy veil. It glides the length of the rock, and seems to float rather than to fall. The sun shines, through its plume, with the softest and loveliest splendor. It reaches the bottom like a bouquet of slender waving feathers, and springs backward in a silver dust; the fresh and transparent mist swings about the rock it bathes, and its rebounding train mounts lightly along the courses. No stir in the air; no noise, no living creature in the solitude. You hear only the monotonous murmur of the cascades, resembling the rustle of the leaves that the wind stirs in the forest.

On our return, we seated ourselves at the door of the hut. It is a poor, squat little house, heavily supported upon thick walls; the knotty joists of the ceiling retain their bark. It is indeed necesary that it should be able to stand out alone against the snows of winter. You find everywhere the imprint of the terrible months it has gone through. Two dead fir-trees stand erect at the door. The garden, three feet square, is defended by enormous walls of piled-up slates. The low and black stable leaves neither foot-hold nor entry for the winds. A lean colt was seeking a little grass among the stones. A small bull, with surly air, looked at us out of the sides of his eyes; the animals, the trees and the site, wore a threatening or melancholy aspect. But in the clefts of a rock were growing some admirable buttercups, lustrous and splendid, which looked as if painted by a ray of sunshine.

At the village we met our companions of the journey who had sat down there. The good tourists get fatigued, stop ordinarily at the inn, take a substantial dinner, have a chair brought to the door, and digest while looking at the amphitheater, which from there appears about as high as a house. After this they return, praising the sublime sight, and very glad that they have come to the Pyrenees.