Andrée Dumont - better known as "Nadine" - had taken a tumble in the week leading up to the weekend and so with great regret she had to cancel. Needless to say, all our best wishes go to her for a speedy recovery. Et joyeux anniversaire!!
George's file from the Comète Line site. On his return to Britain, he went back to operational flying and went on to fly 39 more operational sorties. He was honoured with the award of a well-deserved DFC. After the war, he flew some 236 sorties during the Berlin Airlift after which he became a civil airline pilot for British Airways where he had a distinguished career. A charismatic gentleman with a permanent twinkle in his eye, he exudes the indefatigable spirit that saw him through all that life could throw at him. George and Janet inspire respect and great affection from all who meet them and may I be allowed to add here on this special day for them - happy wedding anniversary.. 66 years!
The pattern for the long weekend has been set for some years now - Friday is reserved for honouring the memory of those who fell or did not return from deportation. Wreaths are laid at war memorials and cemeteries at St Jean de Luz, Ciboure, Bayonne and Anglet, followed by civic receptions at St Jean de Luz and Anglet.
The Comète organisation was shaken to its foundations by a wave of arrests in Brussels as a result of the Abwehr's successful penetration in late 1942 and this was followed by arrests at a Comète safe house - Bidegain Berri farm (left) - at Urrugne in the Pays Basque in January 1943 where Andrée de Jongh - the founder of Comète - was among those arrested. This was a major blow to the organisation and one which might have proved to be fatal.
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us .."
"A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens
However, as the saying has it, "Cometh the hour, cometh the man.."
|George & Janet Duffee outside the "Villa Voisin"|
We now moved to the War Memorial at Anglet where wreathes were laid in a colourful and poignant ceremony attended by many French veterans complete with their standards. In addition, our own Comète standard was carried this year by John Clinch, and the British Legion standard for the south west France branch was represented by their standard bearer (ex Royal Marines!). Representatives of the local civil and military authorities were also present. A most moving ceremony especially when a Basque choir sang the Partisans Song.
All too soon the official part of the day was over and we left to return to St Jean de Luz. For those of you who are unfamiliar with St Jean de Luz, here's a short video that lets you know what you've missed (turn the volume up!):
We were headed for the Sardinerie, situated no more than 5 metres from the waters edge, where the sardines come straight off the boats and into the kitchen. Fortunately, tables had been reserved for us. By now, my Cold Beer low level warning light was showing steady red and the first one hit every spot on the way down.. The place was full and bustling with the sound of people enjoying themselves. A great evening among friends and it's a pity that we must wait for another year to renew our friendship.
Saturday morning saw us waiting in the car park of the school at Sutar where Pierre Elhorga had lived. A retired customs official, his knowledge of clandestine cross border activities (we'd call it smuggling!) was put to good use in signing up passeurs to help the cause. An influx of walkers from across the border swelled our numbers to somewhere in the region of the mid forties.
|Rest stop at Pont du Diable|
We had a short break at the Pont du Diable - just long enough to force an energy bar and some dried fruit down - before we continued on up a trail previously known only to the contrebandiers (smugglers) up to a disused farm building known as Mandochineko Borda (below).
Far from prying eyes, Mandochineko Borda lies deep in the verdant Basque countryside, and it is exceptionally well hidden. It was still covered in brambles and creepers as it always has been and it remains just as it was all those years ago - with its floor of beaten earth with no heating, electricity or water. Here, the airmen would lie up and try to rest for as long as it took for the Comète planners to decide on a suitable night for the mountain crossing.
|The business end of a makhila!|
The sun had climbed high in the sky by now and the temperature must have been more than 30C - with humidity to match. The midday heat lay very heavily on us here and the air was thick with dust raised by our feet. People sought out any shade they could find and shirts were wet with sweat. As we continued our way, Sauveur led us past his fields of piment d'Espelette which flourish here.
The tiredness was quickly forgotten as we sat down among friends.. while wine appeared and disappeared as if by magic and quantities of lamb in all its forms arrived..! Guitars, harmonicas and tin whistles were brought out and the singing began.. Basques love to sing and they all seem to have been born with the ability to sing in harmony:
After the méchoui we left to go to the War Memorial near the church at Espelette to lay a wreath honouring those of Espelette who did not return. We then walked the short distance to a function room where Gracy Florence, Madame le Maire of Espelette (below), spoke very poignantly and movingly of Espelette's involvement in the Comète story. Merci Madame. This was followed by a vin d'honneur that the village had very kindly offered us.
|Gracy Florence, Madame le Maire d'Espelette|
The next day saw us taking the bus with the non-walkers - partly for logistical reasons and partly due to your correspondent's knees. Having walked over the mountain route a couple of times in practice in the last few weeks, I didn't feel too bad about it!
Watching the walkers arrive at the finish:
|Protection Civile volunteers|
One by one the walkers arrived and took their seats in the dining room that had been made available for us at "Esteben Borda" (below), which lies either 10 metres over the border in Spain or 10 metres inside the border and still in France (depending if you're buying or selling!☺). Waitresses brought out steaming tureens full of beans and platters of lamb.. Wine disappeared yet again and was just as quickly replenished.
The safe house on the Spanish side was called Jauriko Borda and here it is seen through a mid-afternoon heat haze:
|Our lunch stop - Esteben Borda|
Each year, an honorary boïna or Txapela* is awarded to the person who has made a significant contribution to Comète and this year it was awarded - to his great surprise - to none other than the very deserving John Clinch! (the Duffees are seated under the Comète standard) I wish I could have caught on film the expression of total surprise as I said his name! Well done John!
Suddenly, the weekend was all over and goodbyes for another year were said in the car park. We drove home feeling the warmth from all the people we'd met. The warmth lingers on as I write this and look at the photographs. Thank you to all those who came and who made it so memorable.
I had several people come up to me and tell me that they thought this new route was tougher than the more traditional route - especially the second day. If you missed it this year for whatever reason, the pattern for future annual Comète commemorations in the Pays Basque will be that the routes will alternate between the new "Larressore" route and the usual St Jean de Luz one - so the next time we do the "Larressore" route will be in 2014, with perhaps with one or two tweaks. Thanks to all of you again for making this last weekend so special.
A couple of very aptly-named Mark Knopfler tracks here for you - and coincidentally, both were filmed in the Basque country too. The first is called "The long road":
The second is called "Going home":
Haste ye back!