A Journey through the French Pyrenees
This book is a portrait of the Pyrenees, past, present, and even future, essential reading for anyone visiting these legendary mountains, a frontier land between France and Spain with its own fierce identity and wild beauty. It recounts the extraordinary adventures of Count Henry Russell, The Man who Married a Mountain, a 19th century explorer of French and Irish extraction, an extravagant combination of both, and a highly original mountaineer. In his desire to embrace the sublimity of the heights Russell had himself buried for a night on the summit of Vignemale, the highest mountain in the French Pyrenees, and had caves dug out so he could reside there. He became known as “the troglodyte of the snows,” celebrating mass on the mountain top at dawn, and entertaining friends to lavish banquets on the glacier. Eccentric certainly, but Russell was also a man ahead of his time, appreciating the mountains more for their beauty than their sport; in his respect for nature he anticipated the environmentalists and country lovers of the future, including the concerns of his friend James Bryce, who first introduced the Access to Mountains bill in 1884, which finally became law as the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2004.
Through Russell and his romantic writings, Bailey finds the key to appreciating the beauty of the Pyrenees for herself. She discovers a rich vein of history in the many 19th century English visitors, the poets, clergymen and genteel ladies who tramped the hills and glaciers in tweed jackets, hobnailed boots and crinolines, (even sometimes carried in sedan chairs) in search of the Sublime, the Picturesque and the Beautiful. Walk on characters range from the Yorkshire Lesbian, Anne Lister, known as Gentleman Jack who was actually the first to climb Vignemale, to James Gordon Bennett, the legendary American newspaper proprietor, who like to drive his coach and horses naked with a cigar in his mouth, and was called upon to save the Pau Hunt at a critical moment.
Bailey’s historical account is leavened with wry humour and interwoven with her own life and travels, She follows in Russell’s footsteps, often accompanied by her young son, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, visiting the celebrated lakes, waterfalls and mountain summits of the Romantics. She explores the town and history of Pau, so popular with the British it was known as la ville anglaise.
She describes the climbers, stargazers, shepherds and rainbow warriors she meets with a mix of irony and sympathy. Most of all she is attracted to the romantic hermits and dreamers who find retreat and inspiration in the mountains, growing their own food and dancing by the light of the moon. (Fans of her earlier book, Life in a Postcard, will find old friends here.) Bailey quotes Tennyson, one of the poets who visited the Pyrenees, teasing Wordsworth, with the suggestion that there should be hot-air balloons provided for the ascension of steep mountains, and Bailey is inclined to agree. She is not averse to cable cars, ski lifts or mountain railways when available (she would probably not have turned down a sedan chair.) She also shows a keen appreciation of good hotels, food, and spa treatments as did her hero, Count Russell. Despite the encroachment of tunnels, roads and modern technology she concludes that there is room in the Pyrenees, one of the last wildernesses in Europe, for all the dreamers in the world. She makes you want to go there and sit on a mountain top as soon as possible, whether by foot, cable car, hot-air balloon or sedan chair.
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