Monte de Alduide and Mendilaz are not great mountains with granite escarpments that attract climbers. There is nothing special or dramatic about their contours except that they are a part the Basque Pyrenees serving as God’s fence between Spain and France. Their nude meadows are so gentle that sheep are pastured on unimposing contours that drop down into beech forested folds skirt northward towards France. Over that side of the fence their voluptuous bodies undulate into runlets joining the streams Lohitzeko Erréka with Egurtzako Erréka. These streams braid themselves across the frontier into France, splicing into the rivers La Nive des Aldudes down through the communes of Urepel and Aldudes and onto Banka becoming a steady flow that rolls across a rich green landscape.
On the Spanish side their pastoral vales are deceptively passive. On this verdant landscape, eleven hundred years before on Roncesvalles Pass, Basque warriors waited with little more than spears and knives in ambush against the retreat from their homeland of armed and armored Charlemagne’s knights. Orreaga is the Basque name for the pass where the Roman road crossed into the Aquitaine and this was where the knight of the troubadours’ song, Roland, his lance and steed useless, died. It was on these same hills Napoleon’s invincible Grande Armée was harassed and needled into retreat, where the Spanish Maquis held out during and after the Spanish Civil War, and, as Basque Separatists, well into the seventies against Franco’s tyranny. If the Pyrenees are the hartz baten hortzak, Basque for the teeth of a bear, then this part of the range has been the bear’s molars that grind down armies of occupiers and tyrants. Armed only by the tenacity and perseverance of the Basque language and culture, banned by Franco and revived after he died, the Basque have always been the last thing oppressors confront as they are swallowed into obscurity.
From the east of Monte Alduide, and beyond the Roncesvalles Pass, the peak of Mendilaz rises up to where La Nive d’Arneguy Riviere and La Nive de Bethéroble are fed. These are Basque streams that wind down through these creases in the earth towards France, their dells flanked with ash and birch, as rich with history as their Basque names. Descending further they tumble over weirs to become La Nive until its progress flattens out, but still embraced, by low and verdant hills almost all the way to L’Adour and the port city of Bayonne.
Mountain rivers roll and the river La Nive rolls and twists its way skirting past the east bank of the Basque commune of Itxassou. On one of those verdant hills above, a complex nestles within a hundred acres that was once a modest house with a rich history of its own. From the road nearby it would appear to be a typical French farmhouse hidden by hedges on a narrow lined lane. It had been remodeled and expanded from the inside out after The Hungry Years by the investment banker, Marcel Fournier. Predawn, a light radiated out of the second story window above the garage. It was the light from the window of the former Basque Maquis, Alesandro Gotson Otxoa. In his small quarters he prepared for the day ahead by meditating for a half hour and putting on his work boots as he had been doing from the same quarters since the winter of 1957.