Paths of Resistance in the French Pyrenees

As it appears in ISSUE 05 of THE WINE ZINE 

Eighty years after my great aunt fled Nazi Germany, I found myself retracing her footsteps in the French Pyrenees. As part of an underground network in the International Resistance, she was on a wanted list which meant she was constantly moving from place to place. Returning to her last locale, the tiny town of Banyuls-sur-mer, was a surreal synthesis of family, history, wine and sense of place. The months I spent where she lived, working in the vineyards she crossed, reading her memoirs recounting forged identity papers, food stamps, the help of numerous people including the wine community, smuggling hundreds of refugees over the mountains before saving herself, inspired in me nothing short of reverence. I realized that it’s in human nature to simultaneously create laws and circumnavigate them, so in essence if a law exists so does its manipulation, and nature gives weight to improvisation. This mountainous frontier acts less as a border and more as a sentient consonance. We impose arbitrary boundaries that are meaningless against the strength of the natural world. 

In the case of my great aunt, a natural mountain barrier actually helped her smuggle people across unnoticed. They could not be easily regulated because the boundaries were symbolic in an otherwise rough and wild landscape. The most crucial area of her route was shimmying along a naturally inlaid cliff with garrigue and rock hiding her from view. “I must explain why this route was so secure. After the ascent through the green hills that sloped gently down to the sea, our path ran parallel to a well-known official road that led along the mountain ridge and was easily negotiable. Our route ran below the road and was concealed by the mountain overhang, so that it couldn’t be seen by the French border sentries who patrolled above.” At a certain point she stood with one foot in France and the other in Spain, disintegrating the divide completely. She could see centuries old villages, farms and vineyards surrounding the mountains on both sides, merging one country’s end and another’s beginning, unifying trade, life and community within greater Catalonia; two countries, one people.

SMUGGLER’S REPUBLIC

Banyuls-sur-Mer is a small port town along the base of the Pyrenees at the southwestern edge of Roussillon, France. Basking topless towards the Mediterranean and bordered by the beginnings of the Pyrenees which divide France and Spain, this last part of the French coast is known as the Côte Vermeille, which is also considered part of Catalonia. While there is some conflict over this matter (sometimes the French still claim it as Occitane), indisputably most locals are neither necessarily French nor Spanish, they are Catalan and have been for many generations. You notice it in the little things: the use of saffron and pimentón, the accent, when ordering pain au chocolat (it’s chocolatine or you don’t get one), dancing in the main square facing the sea where old ladies in skirt suits clap and twist their hips. There is a vivid resistance to be anything but what this place represents: the freedom to be in-between.

Winemaking in this region dates back over a thousand years, to when this was a port of ancient Greece. It became known as the Smuggler’s Republic by Louis XIV, as Banyuls fishermen transported wine, salt, tobacco, sugar, rice and skins with almost total impunity, they hid large amounts of stock within the cavernous cliff rock. By the time of the second World War, Banyuls was known for their AOC Vin Doux Naturel. This is in part because the area is hot and arid, which can quickly overripen grapes that already possess high natural sugar content (for the AOC this means mainly Carignan, Grenache Noir, Grenache Gris and Grenache Blanc). While production did become more systematic and regimented over time, it’s important to understand the impossibility of this area becoming a commercialized, high output zone of industry. In addition to the Banyulenc mentality, the land is truly unforgiving: immense layers of gray and black schist shoot up from the sea becoming relentlessly steep slopes building towards the Pyrenees, speckled with granite and quartz on which only the most strong-willed plants can survive.

Broadly known as garrigue for rough shrubbery near the Mediterranean, here especially you’ll find wild fennel, euphorbia, prickly pear, cistus, rosemary, lavender and thyme, to name a few. This landscape endures direct, scorching sun for long hours the majority of the year as well as the tramontane which can knock you off your feet. To make wine in this area, one cannot be passive: it takes a determined, well-weathered, intuitive and most of all stubborn personality. Unlike “domesticated” regions like Burgundy, you can’t fight nature here—it commands respect. It’s only fitting that the movement back to natural wine would find a home in Banyuls. 

WINE AS EVOLUTION 

Winemaker Alain Castex arrived in the early 90s and was one of the first to create a natural wine from soil to bottle without care of AOC regulations: nothing added and nothing taken away. I had the chance to visit him in January 2017. He taught me how to faire la tailleand explained his garagiste style (and unlike the many small natural winemakers being called garagistes these days, Alain actually makes wine in a garage). Thoughtful with the air of a magician in his incredible sense of balance in wine and cooking, he lowkey has incredible taste. Case in point: one night he effortlessly put together a dinner of oysters, petit Catalan saucisson, and a dish of whipped carrots, sweet potatoes and sausage that was inexplicably delicious, alongside a bottle of Jacques Lassaigne Montgueux Blanc des Blanc Extra Brut and his white and red cuvees from that year.

The community in Banyuls continues to grow and support one another through an ongoing exchange of ideas, many spurred by Castex himself. There are now more than a dozen vignerons finding a balance between showing both the terroir and their individual character. Les 9 Caves has become a hub for this exchange as part wine cellar, restaurant, wine shop and hotel supporting the growth of natural winemaking in the area. Behind the restaurant you will find nine wine caves of Bruno Duchene, Pedres Blanques, Cave des Nomades, Vinyer de la Ruca, and Domaine Carterole, to name a few. It’s not uncommon to gather and taste other’s wines at the long table in the back of the restaurant, then inevitably someone brings a few snacks and before you know it you’re well into the evening. 

How does a tiny seaside village have such conviction, such resilience? What makes a community, what creates a perspective like that? When you look at a mountain, do you see an end or a beginning? Can you ride the waves or will you get sucked under? In a place like Banyuls, you get the feeling there’s a Zarathustra in everyone: Upon your own head, and beyond your own heart! Now must the gentlest in you become the hardest. The combined energetic force of sea and mountains has a palpable effect on anyone, especially if you live there.

Ancient cultures around the globe considered mountains places of high cosmic connection and transcendence. The mountain as the immovable force, the heart of creation, the navel of the earth. Zoroastrian ritual included drinking fortified wine facilitating spirit travel to the invisible world. Times change, but the inclination remains.

 THE “F” ROUTE 

In 1940, my great aunt, Lisa Fittko, escaped a detention camp in Gurs, at the foot of the Pyrenees. She fled to Marseille with the intention of getting a visa to escape Europe, but it proved more complicated than expected.  After reuniting with her husband Hans, they ended up in Banyuls  for nearly nine months, leading other refugees over the border with the help of the town’s socialist Mayor, Vincent Azéma, and the local community, including the winemakers. She was given only a hand drawn sketch of an old smuggler’s route and a few verbal guidelines which she used to find her way. Eventually this would be called the “F Route” in honor of her surname, which is an incredible sentier although barely marked and still fairly treacherous.

Her first ascent was with Walter Benjamin, a German Jewish intellectual of the Frankfurt School, a cultural critic and philosopher with mystical leanings. Benjamin was a radical thinker who has since become somewhat of an iconic figure with lots of mystery surrounding his work and death. When Lisa left him at the Spanish Border, he descended into Portbou as he was supposed to, but committed suicide that night. This was thought to be because he believed he would get caught by the authorities despite his escape. It was a loss that made Lisa only more resolute.

At that time, the winemakers of Banyuls were mainly Catalan and helped Lisa stay hidden during the first part of the route through the vineyards. The group of refugees would leave early, before sunrise, with the vineyard crew climbing the steep, terraced vines disguised as workers wearing espadrilles, carrying a cabec and banaste. In her memoir she recalls, “Among themselves they speak Catalan, and now and then we understand a word. With us they speak French, as they do with all étrangers. It’s a good thing for us that everyone who doesn’t belong here is called an étranger, whether a Frenchman from another area or an apatride.” It’s not that the Catalans accepted her as one of their own—they accepted her as someone else. Well accustomed to maneuvering between countries, they have been fighting for their own independence for centuries, living amongst the Spanish and the French while remaining firm in their traditions. They are the original keepers of the Pyrenees.

As Lisa became familiar with everyone, she began to feel like she was from the village. People had each other’s backs, smuggling supplies and vouching for those who were interrogated by gendarmes. Not only did her sense of purpose increase, so did her affection for Banyuls.

To successfully navigate the land and work with the Banyulencs, she had to embrace the strength of ambiguity and intuit the greater picture, a way of being that invigorated her expeditions. 

“We clambered through and between the vines which were heavy with dark, sweet, near-ripe Banyuls grapes. I think it was an almost vertical incline…the vignerons know us now and sometimes in conversation one will mention in passing what the best way to the border is, and where one shouldn’t go… [Mayor] Azéma’s data about distances and times were elastic, as is often the case with mountain dwellers. How long a time is ‘a few hours’?”

Escape Through the Pyrenees by Lisa Fittko

It’s true, time doesn’t have the same meaning here; it’s less of a measure and more of a feeling. The mountains and the sea test your understanding of things, of what you’re capable of, maybe even more on a psychological level. You see the cliff drop and the jutting rock that split your path and your instincts tell you it’s dangerous, you can’t do it, but you can. It’s not the void of cavernous dips echoing a bridge to the next mountain, it’s the feeling that gravity is all around you, the weight of an invisible ocean ready to take you with one false step. But by pushing through your imagined physical limits, you relieve the internal ones, and you finally understand the meaning of balance. 

Living on a border is living in a place of undeniable possibility, of heightened perception which connects not divides. Throughout history mountains have been recognized as concentrated energetic zones where the sacred manifests, offering illuminations in varying forms. We are reminded that we are part of something greater than ourselves. A mountain is both sides, the one you’re on and the one you don’t see. It is the sum of its parts, dividing and unifying; a contradiction ruled by natural law, above the will of governments. While many borders act as a hostile political division, there’s always the undertone of rare fertile ground for true collaboration, understanding and acceptance. Resistance is one of nature’s most successful propellers but we struggle to understand what that really means. There’s a hierarchy, but not the one humans create. Even we, as the mountain, yield to the greater forces of the cosmos. 

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