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When Summer is here with sunny skies and mild temperatures many of the courageous among us will be taking up backpacks and begin making their way along one of the ancient pilgrimage routes to Saint Jacques de Compestello. For the less courageous you can travel the backroads of southern France by car to begin this journey and still be able to take in the scenery and discover the history and charm in this part of the world.
Along the way, be sure to stop at the UNESCO World Heritage site, l’Hôpital-Saint-Blaise, located in a tiny village of the same name on the edge of the Béarn which is the larger half of the département of Pyrénées-Atlantique and part of the Pays Basque region.
The church combines Romanesque and Spanish-Moresque art and is topped by a cupola of Moorish design. The interior of the dome has intersecting arcs forming an eight branched star and is modeled after the Mosque of Cordoba, Spain that was built in the tenth century. The building has lovely trellises and small windows made of sculpted stone. Overall, the church has a squat like shape and is unique in size, shape and design.
The interior has wooden seating that mimics the old synagogues that have separate seating on the first floor and another in a balcony. In the synagogues it was the woman who sat in the balcony but in the Basque region it was the reverse with the men having separate seating in the balcony. This tradition pre-dates the French Revolution when the dead were buried on the church grounds and the funerary rites were exclusively for women. Many of the larger Basque churches will have multiple levels of seating for the men.
During the twelfth century, Spanish wealth attracted a vast array of peoples to include nobleman, clergy, migrants and traders. To make their travel easier, a network of hospitals was constructed north of the Pyrenees. These hospitals always included a church. The Hôpital-Saint-Blaise is one of these rest stops. The first record of the church is from a document dating from 1216. At that time, it was already a place of pilgrimage and was called Hospital of Mercy and it was run by the monks of Sainte-Christine Abbey.
In the sixteenth century, the name was changed to Saint-Blaise. Saint-Blaise is of Armenian origin (Bishop of Sebaste, Armenia) who was attributed powers of curing diseased cattle and sore throats (in humans). Saint-Blaise is one of the most revered patron saints in Europe and there are many churches that have been dedicated to him. For many years, the 3rd of February was a pilgrimage date that drew hundreds of followers in the name of Saint-Blaise who prayed for both their herds and for their families. The festival continues today but it is now held on the first Sunday in February.
The old church is one of a kind to have survived the centuries. All of the restorations and repairs that have been done have used only materials from the immediate area to mimic the original building materials. The church is made of sandstone or limestone rubble schist stones (a medium grade metamorphic rock with roughly parallel grains). These stones can still be found in the riverbeds of the surrounding hills. The church is truly unique and was classified in 1998 as a world heritage site by UNESCO.
The l’Hôpital-Saint-Blaise and its village are jewels waiting to be discovered. The surrounding area and towns are equally enjoyable making the Pays Basque region a great destination for summer exploring.
photos by Loui Franke
Loui Franke is author of Parisian Postcards: Snapshots of Life in Paris
Lead photo credit : Hôpital-Saint-Blaise
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