For those of you who would like a little more insight into the region's colourful past, here we have provided a brief review of the region’s key historical events including south west France’s most famous lady – Eleanor of Aquitaine
. Any guide book worth its salt will provide more information on these key historical events.
Dark Ages…a time of pillaging
From the 5th to 10th centuries A.D., Aquitaine was repeatedly mauled by various Northern European barbarians, notably the Vandals, Vikings and Visigoths. This was a time of lots of fighting with control of the territory frequently changing hands. The local folk (Vascones), who fought off the invaders in the Western Pyrénées, were known as a stubborn and independent lot. Some say the Basques have changed little since!
Medieval Times…an introduction to town planning
In the first three centuries of the second millennium A.D., the locals enjoyed a period of relative stability. This allowed the development of bastides
(planned towns) and castelnaux
(towns built around castles). Pau
in the Pyrénées Atlantique, was once a castlenaux.
The English & French Part I…Eleanor of Aquitaine
In the 12th century, Eleanor Guilhem found herself the sole heir to the Duchy of Aquitaine. She married the French King Louis VII in 1137 but divorce soon followed and she chose instead to marry the Duke of Anjou, Henry Plantagenet. Henry was Louis’s enemy and was soon to become King of England (Henry II). And so, when Eleanor married Henry, he acquired the land of Aquitaine and for the next three centuries Aquitaine belonged to the English.
The English & French Part II…Hundred Years’ War
Starting in 1337, the south western corner of France escaped the worst of the mess. Some Gascons are known to have fought on the English side. When the English were finally evicted in the 1450s, the French got their own back on the Gascons by taking an authoritarian approach to the region which lead to stagnation of its development and so began the gradual erosion of the Gascon tongue.
More wars…In-fighting in the south west
Protestantism arrived in the south west in the 16th century and it was religious rivalry that eventually led in 1560 to civil war. Little progress was being made in the south west which was fast becoming a backwater.
Henri IV…a true Gascon hero
According to legend, when King Henri IV was born, his grandfather rubbed the baby’s lips with a little garlic and some Jurançon wine, just to make sure he started out in life as a proper Gascon. Born in Pau (Béarn), Henri was one of France’s most-loved kings, credited in 1598 with bringing a halt to wars of religious intolerance. To do this day he remains a figurehead in France and, in particular, in his Béarn homeland.
The neighbours over the mountains…loving and fighting the Spanish
The Pyrénées were the focal point of various battles between the French and Spanish in the 17th century. Harmony was restored by a new treaty and the marriage in St Jean de Luz
between Louis XIV and the Spanish infanta, Maria Teresa. However, religious bigotry rose again and during this time many south western folk fled to the Americas and the south west became a forgotten land.
19th century emigration…the Basques head west
The depression continued into the 19th century with rural poverty and depopulation rife. This period saw widespread emigration of Basques to the United States and Argentina. Basques popped up in the American Civil War and in the pampas, becoming new world cowboys. Today there are significant Basque populations in Utah, California and Idaho.
Napoleon III…the good times begin to roll
It is ironic perhaps, that this less than competent emperor of the 19th century, almost single-handedly rejuvenated the south west region. Born in the Pyrénées, Napoleon used Biarritz
as a holiday destination. He also oversaw the reclamation of the bog that was the Landes
and with the help of several million pine trees turned the area into Europe’s largest forest. Thermal resorts, casinos and luxury hotels were the name of the day as the south west turned into a holiday playground for the rich and the royal.
The English & French Part III…peace at last
In the late 19th century Queen Victoria dropped into Biarritz
for a spot of sunbathing and the area became popular again with the English. In Pau
, English and Scots attracted to the temperate climate, built huge villas in the town and introduced their favourite pastimes such as hunting and golf to the area. Continental Europe’s first golf course is located in Pau.
20th century wars…rural decimation
Rural depopulation was dramatically hastened by World War I and many villages ended up losing up to half of their young men. Naturally, war memorials are a feature of every town. The south west was occupied in Word War II but the Pyrénées saw many allies being helped across the border into and out of Spain – with the help of the intrepid locals. Hendaye
train station, close to the border with Spain, was the location for the famous meeting of Franco and Hitler.
Today…regional identities remain strong
The south west continues to strive for recognition of its cultural independence. Maps will show you the boundaries of régions and départements but the locals are from Pays Basque
, the Béarn
– you won’t hear any mention of “Pyrénées Atlantique”.