A storied mountain range reflects its tumultuous history.
Journalist and novelist Carr (The Devils of Cordona, 2016, etc.) mines a prodigious number of memoirs, travelogues, histories, and literary works to create a richly textured examination of a liminal region: the mountainous border between Spain and France. The Pyrenees, he writes, “are a mirror of our world, with all its follies, tragedies, cruelties, and absurdities.” Unlike other mountain ranges, which are seen as physical barriers to invaders and obstacles for travelers, the Pyrenees have been depicted “as a savage and inhuman wilderness,” “the dividing line between Europe and an Africanized Iberia.” The stark, rugged area has long attracted artists, poets, and writers inspired by the striking wonder of the landscape, as well as naturalists who engaged in geological, botanical, archaeological, and zoological exploration. Throughout the 19th century, when strenuous tourism became popular, climbers and hikers combed the peaks in search of the dramatic and picturesque. In 1874, the French Alpine Club built a chain of refuges and shelters to house tourists, and in the early 20th century, the first guidebooks began to appear. Besides chronicling the advent of tourism, Carr offers a detailed history of the significance of the Pyrenees as a military barrier: In 218 B.C.E., for example, Hannibal took an army of nearly 60,000 troops, and 36 elephants, across the Pyrenees to avoid confronting the Roman army. The mountains served as a refuge and escape route as far back as the eighth century, when Spanish Christians fled to escape Moorish invaders; later, Jews fled from French persecution; and during the Spanish Civil War and both world wars, the mountains offered hiding places and strategic posts. Arts and crafts have flourished in various mountain towns; mining and metallurgy in others; and “health tourism” has made the Pyrenees a popular recreational landscape, as has the area’s mystical reputation. The market town of Lourdes, the author notes, is one among several sites for religious pilgrimages.
A vivid, deeply informed travelogue.