On the Cover

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Grand Hotel at Font-Romeu presides over a peaceful summer scene in this 1920s French railway poster, one of many in the Hoover Archives’ poster collection. After the Grand Hotel opened in 1914, the town grew famous as a winter playground, attracting writers and other notables, as well as Olympic skiing trainees. (Since 1970, the former hotel has been an apartment building.) Then as now, the pure air and clear skies of Font-Romeu inspired “poems of snow and sunshine,” as novelist and playwright Albert Bausil said, using words that could also describe much of California. Indeed, the French commune in the heart of the Pyrénées basks in the sun some three hundred days a year. This sunny outlook led to the building of an arboretum in 1938 and of the world’s largest solar furnace in 1968.

The name Font-Romeu comes from “fountain” and “herdsman” or “pilgrim,” homage to a Marian shrine that has existed there for more than a thousand years. A shepherd tending cattle in the area, according to legend, followed one of his bulls to a stream and there discovered it pawing at a small statue of the Virgin. Believers built the Odeillo chapel, where the figure still resides part of the year, to accommodate the roaming pilgrims.

Another ancient association still alive in Font-Romeu is a midsummer bonfire festival devoted to John the Baptist. The Festival of Saint John is celebrated with fires and revelry throughout the Catalan region—and elsewhere in northern Europe—but in this area it centers around a prominent mountain, Le Canigou, fourteen miles from Font-Romeu and visible for many miles around. Canigou is revered as the spiritual home of the Catalans. “A man without heart or vision would see in the Canigou nothing but the last northern point of that long range,” wrote the poet Hilaire Belloc, but instead it is “one of the most individual mountains in Europe.” Catalan poet Jacint Verdaguer i Santaló rhapsodized in verse that Canigou is “colored in silver by the winter and in gold by the summer.”

Every year on the night of June 23, people from all along the French-Spanish border keep a vigil on the mountain, kindle a flame on its 9,134-foot summit, and then bring the fire down to every village in a celebration whose spirit is part Olympic torch-passing, part Burning Man. There are family gatherings, barbecuing and special foods, dancing, and fireworks, as well as toasts to unity and friendship. The summer solstice is considered a fortunate time to gather certain herbs, leap across a fire with one’s beloved, and toss one’s written cares (and old furniture) into the flames.

Midsummer festivities may have pagan roots, and the Saint John feast Christian origins, but the current form of the fire fest centered on Mont Canigou is surprisingly modern. It began in 1955 to celebrate a rugby victory, and then caught on. The fire itself lives on from year to year, kept in a museum in the French city of Perpignan and used to light the next year’s bonfire. It was Perpignan’s rugby championship, after all, that sparked the celebration on the mountain.

A railway, the Chemins de Fer du Midi et d’Orléans of this poster, brought the modern age to Font-Romeu and its corner of the Pyrénées in the early twentieth century. The Yellow Train, which still operates today, began running in 1909 along an electrified line rich with dramatic bridges and tunnels and cliffs, as well as the highest-elevation train station in France. Even now, scenes from the train—its cars painted Catalan red and yellow—evoke the words of a poem published in The Pyrenees: East and West by Charles Richard Weld: “Let us go forth in summer’s glorious prime, and leave the din of cities for a while; see that fair land where Nature’s robes are steep’d in brightest hues; and from the breezy heights of Pyrenean pinnacles, behold, deep vales and forests, purple glens, and plains.”