I remembered seeing the ornate silver-knobbed swordsticks, called makilas in the Basque language, in an antique store in Bayonne thirty years ago when I first visited the French Basque country. I asked Marie-Andrée about them. “Yes, I think they are still being made by an old man near Saint-Palais. I’ll ask for directions at the Maison de Tourisme when we get to Saint-Etienne-de-Baigorri.”
My husband, Allen, and I were spending March and April visiting several old friends in France. We had just spent a week with a schoolteacher friend in Bayonne and had visited the Basque coast and some of the villages nearby. Another friend, Marie-Andrée, had driven from Pau to pick us up and take us home with her and we were zigzagging across the interior of the Basque country from one picturesque village to another on our way.
We had just finished a delicious lunch at the Hotel Euzkadi at Espelette. The most unusual addition to the meal was an extremely hard aged mountain ewe’s milk cheese called ardi gasna in Basque, which was served with tart cherry preserves from Itxassou. The hotel facade was decorated with hundreds of the dried red peppers for which the region and its cuisine are famous. The town is also famous for the traditional fair of pottoks held each winter. Pottocks are the wild Basque ponies living in the mountains and thought to be the same race of horse as the prehistoric horses painted in the Lascaux caves.
On the road to Saint-Etienne, we turned off the main road at Bidarray, crossed the 14th century humpbacked bridge, called Hell’s Bridge (le Pont d’Enfer) and climbed up the hillside, past the grazing sheep and the cherry trees in bloom, to the fascinating Romanesque Basque church. In the Middle Ages, the great pilgrimages came through here on the way to Roncevaux and Compostello. The red sandstone foundations of the church were part of the priory of Compostello founded here in 1132. The massive wall of the facade continues on up above the church, its bell-shaped top pierced by two openings, with the church bells suspended in the left one.
In the graveyard around the church dominating the valley we found the old tombstones surmounted by disk-shaped stones, some marked with the Basque cross, dating from the 16th century or earlier.
At Saint-Etienne-de-Baigorri, we were amused by the sign posts on a wall which pointed to the Spanish frontier — in one direction eight kilometers and in the opposite direction twenty-three kilometers. We went into the typical Basque church, where women worship in the nave while the men occupy the wooden balconies above. Across from the church, the tourist office was large and had an interesting exhibition of local attractions and crafts. The woman at the desk was very helpful. “Yes, the old man does still make them, but I heard recently that he is ill. You would be better off going to see the two young men who live at Ibarolle. They learned the craft from him and have now set up on their own.” Marie-Andrée made a note of the directions.
When we left Saint-Etienne, we traveled through the Irouleguy vineyards. Our next stop was in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, one of the most interesting and probably the best-known town in the interior of the French Basque country and another important stage on the old pilgrimage route to Compostello. We parked outside the mediaeval walls and walked into the old town through the Navarre gate. We climbed the steep narrow street, noticing the 16th and 17th-century houses with the names of their owners engraved above the doorways, until we reached the Citadel, built by Vauban in the 17th century. From the top, we had a magnificent view of the town and the valley. When we came back down, we went into the fortified church which forms part of the 15th century ramparts and stood for a while on the romanesque bridge over the Nive, watching the trout swimming in the clear water.
We crossed the bridge, passing stores displaying the famous brightly-colored Basque linens, and stopped in a picturesque restaurant to sample the famous gâteau basque. We were in luck: the cake with its custard cream filling flavored with almonds and Armagnac was light and fluffy, not at all like the leathery mass-produced versions found in many places.
After this delightful interlude, we set off in the direction of Saint-Palais, but after a few miles we turned off onto the road to Mauléon and drove through the green hilly countryside dotted with white farmhouses with blood red timbers and shutters. We took the turn to Ibarolle and passed an old church. “It’s the second road to the left,” Marie-Andrée said. But after quite a while we had seen only one turn to the left, so we decided we had gone too far. We turned back and looked for the man we’d seen working in the churchyard earlier. “Second road on the left — it’s right by farmhouse.”
So we turned back and, still not really sure, made the turn at the farmhouse. And indeed what we had thought was a track into a farmyard was a road of sorts winding around the farmhouse, meandering between the hedgerows and leading eventually to another farmhouse. As we drove up, a little girl ran out of the door into the courtyard, holding the end of a baguette. The bread was split and made into a sandwich containing a chunk of cheese and a piece of dark chocolate. Allen just managed to get a photo of her and then a close-up of the sandwich, before the first drops of a sudden spring shower fell and drove us all into the doorway for shelter.
A small, dark, lively, young man appeared and when we explained to him that we had come to see them make makilas, he was very excited and amazed to think that Americans had found his isolated workshop. We went inside and met his brother, and the two of them showed us with great enthusiasm every stage of the craft of making the elaborately carved, silver topped stick with a sword blade in the handle.
They told us that in the spring, they go into the woods looking for wild medlar trees of the right size. While the trees are still growing, they carve the selected canes with a design and then leave them for the rising sap to fill in and seal the wounds. They cut them in the winter, bake them in ovens, and stain them with quick lime. The stick is then straightened and at the top a narrow blade is inserted, which is revealed when the handle is unscrewed. Pierre demonstrated how he braided fine kidskin to cover the long tube of metal which formed the handle and then he deftly manipulated the braid, pulling it over the knob to cover it smoothly. On the bottom of the stick he fitted a carved metal tube filled with lead to balance the cane, and closed it off with a coin and a blunt metal tip. Then he showed us how they decorated the makilas used on special ceremonial occasions. Carefully selecting the right tool, he engraved sterling silver with intricate designs for the handle and explained that the silver knob was heptagonal, its seven sides symbolizing the seven Basque provinces.
We asked the young men whether there was sufficient demand for makilas to keep them both in business. They told us that there was quite a good demand for “honorary” makilas to be given to very important dignitaries at special ceremonies, but they kept busy the rest of the time carving solid wood moldings for furniture. Jean-Pierre showed us a beautiful leaf design he was carving in solid wood at the top of a wardrobe.
When we asked how much a finished stick cost, the range of prices was far above our tourist budget, although we realized that for the craftsmanship, materials, and time, the cost was reasonable. We were reluctant to leave without a souvenir of our trip and so Allen asked whether we can buy just the wooden carved part of the stick without the metal and leather accessories. They made a number of objections: the height wouldn’t be right, there would be nothing to hold it with, it wouldn’t be balanced, and so on. But we explained that we weren’t looking for a practical walking stick to use every day, but simply something to have as a souvenir. The brothers then conferred in the Basque language, a language so different from French that even Marie-Andrée had no idea what they were talking about. Eventually they agreed and settled on a price and Allen asked Pierre to carve his initials P. H. on the end of the stick.
We carried this stick for the rest of our trip around France, in cars, on the train, and on the planes. And now the unfinished makila stands in our hallway as a tangible reminder of a showery spring day on the back roads of the Basque country.