The Freedom Trail
After the German offensive in May 1940 and the division of France into two parts - an occupied zone in the North and a free zone in the South - many civilians and military servicemen fleeing from a world of persecution, imprisonment and death now unleashed by the Nazi brutality, sought refuge where they could in the free southern zone which remained a symbol of hope.
Among the military personnel were escaped prisoners of war, recently enlisted men, army cadets and shot-down airmen, all driven by the same desire to rejoin the Allied forces and continue the fight. Among the escaping civilians were victims of discrimination of all kinds, foreigners, Jews, resistants and anyone who had been denounced for one reason or another.
Their common denominator was the vital need to get away from the unbearable oppression in France and reach Spain by crossing the Pyrenees. At the beginning of this exodus, all those who were captured by Spanish frontier guards were unfortunately returned to France, interned by the Vichy regime and subsequently handed over to the German authorities. Later, although General Franco was an ally of Hitler and imprisoned all new invaders in extremely bad conditions for periods of between two to six months (depending on age, nationality and status), he later freed his captives under various economic conditions arranged in secret with the opposing Allied powers. During the early years of the war the occupying forces had left control of the free zone to the government of Vichy, which meant that for a certain time many routes were made more accessible by the variety of people who were willing to lead evaders across the Pyrenees. These guides included shepherds, professional smugglers, forestry workers, hunters of isards (the Pyrenean chamois) and frontier farming families.
But from the 11th of November 1942, the date on which the Germans occupied the free zone following the Allied invasion of North Africa on the 8th of November, the Nazi noose tightened and surveillance increased dramatically. Frontier guards, mainly Austrians, were posted along the whole length of the mountain chain and enemy patrols intensfied. A forbidden zone twenty kilometres deep was also set up along the Pyrenees into which access was only allowed with a special pass.
From then on it became vital to develop more structured, more efficient and certainly more secret ways of reaching safety in Spain. The result was the founding of many well-organised escape lines run by British, Belgian, Dutch, Polish and French groups whose aim was to pass not only men but also important military information and documents.
To make matters worse, early in February 1943, after the introduction of the STO (Service du Travail Obligatoire, or obligatory forced labour order) under which all young men were to be deported to work in Germany, a flood of draft evaders decided to either join one of the increasing Maquis resistance groups or flee across the mountains to neutral Spain. Faced with such an abrupt exodus of its prospective manpower force, the Nazi crackdown was swift and harsh. Arrests multiplied, escape networks were infiltrated and broken up, passeurs and guides relentlessly hunted down - so much so that of 2,000 known guides more than half were executed immediately or died later in German concentration camps. But in spite of these many setbacks 33,000 men, women and children escaped successfully along the entire length of the Pyrenees and realised their dream of freedom.
Situated practically in the middle of the Pyrenean mountain chain, the department of Ariège borders Spain and Andorra for a distance of approximately one hundred kilometres. For centuries, this frontier zone has been an important area of trade and cultural exchanges between the two countries via numerous mountain passes (more commonly called “ports”) varying in altitude from 2,000 to 2,400 metres. Further west is the department of Haute-Garonne, while extending to the east are the areas of Foix and Ax-les-Thermes bordering the Principality of Andorra and the eastern Pyrenees.
The Couserans and freedom trail.
Adjacent to Spain and more precisely the Val d'Aran, this area was ideally situated for prospective evaders and is why several of the networks mentioned in the introduction were set up in this western part of the Ariège known as the Couserans which radiates for more than forty kilometres around the administrative capital town of Saint-Girons. Situated at the junction of many diverse valleys, most of them linking up with the Spanish frontier, it was a particularly mountainous and thickly-wooded region with difficult access stretching from Le Portet d'Aspet in the west, with its neighbouring Pic de Crabère at 2629 m, to Massat in the east, which is dominated by the Pic des Trois Seigneurs at 2199 m. During the Occupation, a railway line (which no longer exists), ran between Toulouse and Saint-Girons and the Freedom Trail museum has been built on the site of the former station in Saint-Girons which was the main railway terminus and under constant surveillance by the Gestapo and the Vichy French para-military organisation known as La Milice. But during the early years of the occupation the Ariège was still in the free zone and although under the control of the Vichy police, many evaders succeeded in reaching Spain by their own means, often following easier routes such as the "Ports" of Aula and Salau which were high above above the villages of Couflens and Seix. These, however, were quickly abandoned after November 1942 for the reasons given earlier and from then on it became imperative to be helped by one of the clandestine escape networks and led over the mountains by local guides.
Secrecy and discretion were vital elements in these escapes but the difficulty and time involved increased as the months went by, all relative to the heightened surveillance and the difficulties encountered during all seasons on the routes themselves, over “ports” such as Guillou via Aulus-les-Bains (a Jewish baby was carried to safety in the arms of Jeanne Rogalle, honoured by the French government sixty years later and whose full story can be found in this website)... also Martérat above Ustou, d'Orle or d'Urets above Sentein, Bentaillou through the valley of Biros... and especially that of La Claouère via Mont Valier which is described below and through which the reader will learn far more about the physical and psychological difficulties of this crossing and many others which were often undertaken in atrocious weather conditions during winter and spring.
It goes without saying that many evaders lost their lives and many others endured untold hardships on these perilous journeys across the high peaks. The guides and passeurs in the Couserans area of the Ariège also paid a heavy price, many being executed, many others deported. But thanks to their intimate knowledge of the terrain and local information provided on the movements of German patrols, they were able to lead approximately 3,000 people to the safety of the frontier. A record of prisoners held briefly in the Spanish prison of Sort lists 2,674 men and 158 women, to which can be added many more who also escaped but managed to avoid imprisonment in Spain. All an epilogue, perhaps, to the twenty or more wartime escape routes through the Ariège. Among them is the most symbolic and representative of all, "Le Chemin de la Liberté" or Freedom Trail route between Saint-Girons and Sort via Mont Valier.
Because of this important and extensive historical background full of so many personal accounts and memories of the past, The Freedom Trail Association decided to embark on two major projects :
- The creation of "La Maison du Chemin de la Liberté" or Freedom Trail museum.
- The organisation of an annual commemorative hike along the trail which takes place during the second week of July.
The freedom trail museum.
50 per cent financed by European funds and inaugurated in 2007, the museum is on the D117 road leading into Saint-Girons from the north and built on the site of the town's former railway station.
It consists of two parts :
- An impressive ground floor where there is a carefully laid-out permanent exhibition covering all aspects of escape and evasion. Display stands provide full details of the networks involved, the guides and passeurs who ran them, crossing-points and the routes taken, hiding places, internment camps in Spain, as well as personal eye-witness accounts and photographs concerning fleeing Jews, evading army cadets, local martyrs and heroes and shot-down Allied airmen. Memorial sites and monuments are also listed and shown. From time to time, temporary exhibitions take pride of place, all usually linked to the same central theme.
- Upstairs on a mezzanine floor there is a library where one can consult a variety of books, documents and wartime archives. The museum is open to the public from Monday to Friday - 14h to 16h30. It is also accessible.
The freedom trail route.
The itinerary of this wartime escape route was way-marked, inaugurated and officially recognised by the French Presidency in 1994. It is a symbol and representative of many other routes across the Couserans area but paradoxically, although the longest and most difficult of all, it was the one most often used by local passeurs. Mainly because due to the complexity and extent of the terrain, the occupying forces were unable and often unwilling to maintain the necessary strict surveillance.
Every year, the Freedom Trail Association organises a commemorative hike which is open to the public and follows exactly the same mountain route. Full details of how to enter for this event can be obtained from the Saint-Girons Tourist Office or the Freedom Trail website.
However, it is very important to warn all future participants that they must be physically fit, well-equipped and have done sufficient training to master the mountain conditions and high altitudes involved. Please read carefully the information given below concerning the different stages, walking distances and heights involved. For a complete and in-depth coverage of this trek it is strongly advised to read the historical guidebook written by association member Scott Goodall, who is Scottish by birth but Couserannais by adoption ! Available in both English and French ("The Freedom Trail" and "Le Chemin de la Liberté"), it gives an exact and detailed account of the hike itself and how it came to be such an interesting part of Ariège history.
For more details, contact :
7 rue Joachim du Bellay
9 place de l'Allée
Rest assured that every participant, at one moment or another along this long and testing trail will feel intense emotion and a mixture of admiration and compassion to be walking in the footsteps of those men, women and children - many of them very young and many very old - who crossed the mountains all those years ago under infinitely more difficult conditions. Perpetuating the memory of those courageous evaders is the main purpose of our Freedom Trail Association.
It is also important to remember that only three or four years earlier, during the tragic time of "La Retirada", many thousands of Spanish Republicans fled across the mountains to seek safety in France after their defeat by General Franco in the Spanish Civil War. The same routes through the Couserans were used in the opposite direction but under the same grim and dramatic conditions.
The crossing :
First stage : from Saint-Girons to the Refuge des Estagnous
Day 1 : From Saint-Girons (391 m) to the hamlet of Aunac (766 m). Distance : 23 km. Walking Time : 8 hours.
The start of the trek is at the southern entrance to the town where an imposing iron bridge (now replaced by a modern concrete one), once spanned the River Salat and was an important rallying-point for fugitives during the Occupation. At 100 metres to the right on the road to Aulus-les-Bains and opposite the service station Relais de Guzet, the route goes up to the Beauregard housing estate from where a series of woodland paths climb above the villages of Eycheil, Lacourt and Alos on to the Col de l'Artigue at 880 m. It is here that a monument has been erected to the memory of 19 year-old Louis Barrau, a passeur who was betrayed, captured and shot by the Germans. The trail then descends to the Col d'Escots at 725 m and climbs again to end the first day's walk at 766 m in the hamlet of Aunac.
Day 2 : From Aunac (766m) to La Cabane de Subéra (1,499 m). Distance : 16 km. Walking Time : 6 hours.
It is from here on that the serious walking challenge begins as one rapidly reaches the majestic scenery of the high peaks. A glimpse of paradise in good weather, a foretaste of hell in a raging storm ! After passing the gîte d'étape or hostelry of Esbints, the path rises steeply to the Col de la Core (1,395 m). From there, descend on the road for 330 m and take the path on the right which leads to the Cabane de Casabède, on and up to the Col de Soularil (1579m), then down to la Cabane de Subéra (1,499 m) where we pitch tents for the night. The following morning a second group of walkers arrive from the Col de la Core to join in for the last two days of the hike.
Day 3 : From la Cabane de Subéra (1,499 m) to the Refuge des Estagnous (2,245 m). Distance : 13 km. Walking Time 8 hours.
The ascent now becomes very much steeper and after two hours of climbing we arrive at the base of the Pic de Lampau where a plaque has been placed near the wreckage of a British Halifax bomber in memory of the seven crew members who died there when their aircraft crashed into the mountain on the 19th of July 1945. There is a short ceremony of remembrance and the climb continues over the Col de Crabérous (2,382 m) and descends to the Cabane d'Espugue (2,110 m). Then, after passing the lake or l'Étang de Cruzous, there is a stiff climb to the Col de Pécouch (2,494 m), followed by a final descent to the Refuge des Estagnous (2,245 m), where all walkers spend the night.
Second stage : from the Refuge des Estagnous (2245 m) to Esterri d'Aneu
Day 4 : From the Refuge des Estagnous (2,245 m) to Alos d'Asil (1,200 m). Distance : 20 km. Walking Time : 7 hours.
From this refuge which saved hundreds of lives during the war and has now been completely rebuilt after many years of neglect, we descend at first to l'Étang Rond (the Round Lake 1,929 m), then climb very steeply up to l'Étang Long (the Long Lake 2,125 m). The Spanish frontier is reached after a slow, arduous climb to the Col de Claouère at 2,500 m. This is followed by a steep descent into Spain to reach the River Noguera Pallaresa where a track winds along a valley to the village of Alos d'Isil (1,200 m) and the end of this difficult route.
Within walking distance is the village of Esterri d'Aneu, not far from the prison in Sort which for so many was the final destination after their long and perilous crossing.