We dodge a flock of sheep being driven up the steep cobbled street to the stock-selling part of the ancient markets. Up and down the street are stalls of all kinds, and farmers in the large flat berets characteristic of the Basque country and blue overalls. Many of them are speaking the ancient tongue of the region to each other and the stall-holders while a steady stream of incoming tourists like ourselves rubs shoulders with the locals. I'm a teenager on holidays in the Basque country with my paternal grandmother Mamizou and her two daughters, my aunts Betty and Genevieve, and we've driven up into the mountains to the famous markets at Saint Jean Pied de Port, deep in the ancient province of Navarra, on the French Basque side of the Pyrenees. St Jean Pied de Port is a gorgeous medieval town, built of local pink and grey rock, set beside the rushing Nive River, and it has a feeling of ancient fastness which percolates into your veins.
On the way up, we've seen some amazing sights: rows of beautiful old houses, a team of men in white shirts and trousers and red belts playing pelote, the Basque handball, against village walls built specially for the purpose; and best of all, a pair of patient oxen harnessed to a haycart. Betty takes a photo of me near—but not too near!--them, and I have for ever the exciting proof that a sight right out of the history books was still alive in the late 70's in the Basque country. I'm delighted; the past and especially the distant past is my obsession. I love romantic ancient tongue-twisting languages—Gaelic, Welsh, Breton, Basque—and I read old sagas and myths and Arthurian romance and to my relatives' somewhat pained dismay often dress like something out of the Middle Ages or rather a fantasy-reader's impression of that period, haunting old-clothes markets and junk shops for turn of the century lace camisoles, long satin nighties worn as dresses and gypsy-style coloured skirts and velvet jackets.
Today though I've dressed in black and though my grandmother and aunts aren't keen on that either, because all-black outfits should in their view be reserved for mourning or else for old peasant women—they haven't said anything, just in case I might take it into my head to wear something really outrageous. But as we trudge up the cobbles to the market, I'm suddenly aware how out of place we look—my elegant grandmother and aunts in their city clothes and patent leather shoes, and me in my toned-down 'bohemian' style. We're so very obviously tourists, and for a while that's all I can see. But nobody else seems to notice. The locals couldn't care less if you're there or not; this is their own gathering, held since time immemorial, and tourists are the least of their concerns. There are one or two stalls catering specially for tourists, with little Basque flags and knickknacks; but to the locals, they might as well not exist. So soon I forget all about my self-conscious preening and just enjoy taking it all in, the sights, the sounds, the smells..
These markets are famous because they are the focus of the region. Hundreds of farmers come from a wide radius to buy and sell stock and poultry and a bewildering range of farm produce, from eggs and honey and sausage and cheeses to vegetables and fruit and preserves. As well there are any number of stallholders selling things bought by locals as much as tourists, such as pottery or the famous stripy Basque linen which makes such striking tablecloths and aprons. We wander up and down, buying bits and pieces but mostly looking, and I remember another time I was here, a few years before, with my father and some of my siblings. That time, Dad had bought a vast wheel of cheese cheap from an old Basque lady with deceptively candid blue eyes. He thought he'd got a bargain; when we got it home hours later to La Nouvelle Terrebonne, he cut it open and discovered it was full of worms..Everyone yelled in horror, except for Dad, who gamely asserted that cheese was only improved when it was worm-riddled; everyone except him refused to touch it. Oddly enough not long after he'd defiantly tasted it, the cheese mysteriously disappeared—and he wouldn't answer Maman's sardonic question as to where his 'bargain' had gone!
Today though there's no wormy cheese to be seen, or if there is, we don't buy it, though we stock up on sausage and eggs and honey and fresh herbs and more, with my aunt Betty, the (very fine) cook of the family, examining each purchase as carefully as a local, earning the respect of the stallholders who soon discover that elegant city clothes don't mean she doesn't know what she's looking at!
And then comes my favourite part of all: after an hour or two jaunting through the market we repair to a charming little cafe near the river and eat a wonderful meal of chicken a la Basquaise and salad, followed by a big slice of a delicious, fragrantly fresh Gateau Basque, the whole washed down with light local wine and a nip of a herby local liqueur afterwards. When my grandmother compliments him on a fine meal, the proprietor tells us all the fresh ingredients came out of this very market. 'There's no better in the whole of the country,' he tells us with superb local assurance, and nobody is disposed to argue with him, not with the sun shining on the Nive, and our bellies cheerfully, happily full.