Sauveterre-de-Bearn is a small town in the western Pyrenees about 45 kilometres east of Biarritz.
The main reason to go to Sauveterre-de-Bearn is for the view from the terrace of its thirteenth century church, l’Eglise St Andre. The view looks over a bend in the river and the Bridge of Legend - it really is absolutely idyllic.
In the early middle ages Sauveterre was on one of the important trade routes to Spain and the bridge over the ‘Gave d’Oloron’ was a key crossing point, a source of the town’s riches and an integral part of Sauveterre-de-Bearn’s defences.
It is called the Bridge of Legend because of an interesting legend dating from 1170 that tells how Viscountess Sancie gave birth to a still-born child while her husband, Gaston V, was away. Rumours of witchcraft were rife at the time and she was accused of killing her new-born infant.
Her brother, the King of Navarre, ordered that she be tried by water, thus letting God decide her fate. She was taken onto the bridge and thrown into the turbulent waters below, with her hands and feet tied. She re-appeared from the torrent below, unconscious but alive and therefore judged innocent.
Nearby is the Porte de Lester, Lester’s gate, which gave access to the town from the bridge. It was fortified with a heavy wooden door. Pass through this gate onto the ‘rue Pleguignou and walk up to the medieval town which stands at the top of the cliff above the bridge.
You can see the walls of the old 11th century Arsenal and the Datters gate which originally had a drawbridge thus adding to the town’s defences. To the right you can see (but not visit) the ruins of the Viscount’s castle built by Gaston VII.
Also in Sauveterre-de-Bearn is a 12th century tower called Monreal’s tower and named after the Monreal family who saved it from demolition in the 19th century. It was a defensive structure (for a small town there were a lot of defences perhaps accounting for its name ‘Sauveterre’ or ‘safe ground’) and is almost 33 metres tall. It is closed to the public.
You can also see the Eglise Saint Andre in Sauveterre-de-Bearn, a Romanesque style church built in the 13th century. Inside it has interestingly carved capitals including one with characters representing lies and greed. On the southern wall is a small door called the ‘Cagots door’. Not much is known about the Cagots but they seem to have been a kind of ‘untouchable’ class of the Pyrenees who were kept separate from the main population.
Address: Sauveterre-de-Béarn, Oloron-Sainte-Marie, Pyrenees-Atlantiques, Aquitaine, 64390, France || GPS: latitude 43.4, longitude -0.933333
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The French version of this page is at Sauveterre-de-Bearn (Francais)