LAAS: history and monuments

Origin of the name, the flag and LAAS in Europe

The name Laàs might seem strange at first glance due to the double a, but it is not unique. In France alone, there are two other places with the same name: one in  Gers, north of Mielan, and the other in Loiret, south of Pithiviers. There is also one in Germany, another in the Czech Republic, a third in Yugoslavia and eleven, by far the most, in Austria. With regard to the Laàs situated in Béarn, the origin of the name lies in the town of Morlaàs which was the capital of the State under Gaston IV, Viscount of Béarn.

The etymology is Latin. The name comes from latus and denotes a stretch of uncultivated or arid land. As for the Laas located in Germanic regions, there is a striking similarity with the term laz which also means clearing or virgin territory, or indeed field of stone.

History of the Laas ferry

Before bridges were built, the only way to cross the Gave was byo ford, but only in certain seasons, or to rely on a ferry and a ferryman. Laàs’ origins are therefore linked to this strategic location… The proximity of a ford or ferry, depending on the season, seems to have led to a chapel being built in the vicinity; this chapel was the cause of a community of residents settling there, and was certainly linked to the installation of a castle mound, designed to watch people coming and going from one side of the river to the other. These castle mounds, man-made earthwork structures of low elevation, are generally found on a natural headland, sometimes at the confluence of two streams where gullying has created a natural ditch. This seems to have been the case here, as the Map of Cassini, created much later when the castle was already standing, appears to prove. This map mentions the presence of a ferry, the “nau de Laàs”, despite the fact that there were already bridges over the Gave d’Oloron.

LAAS: Barony of Béarn

At the end of the 11th century, Laàs was under the authority of the great Foreplat family, wealthy citizens from Navarrenx. Jean de Laàs inherited the seigneury. Despite being a Catholic, he fought alongside Henri III of Navarre, who would later become Henri IV of France, during his recapture of the kingdom. As a gesture of gratitude for the military services provided, the seigneury of Laàs was elevated to a barony by letters patent dated 2nd December 1610. There were already ten old baronies in Béarn, termed “great baronies”, and two new baronies had come before that of Laàs. These were the barony of Monein, created in 1545, and that of Lons, created in 1593.

Potters in Laàs

Between the 16th century and the start of the 20th century, Laàs, was a major location for pottery. The region’s clay soil was suitable for pottery, and several artisans, such as Jean HOURDEBAIGT, had workshops in the village where they produced all kinds of pots, soup tureens, bowls and plates which were, at the time, useful daily objects. This tradition, though now considered more decorative, persists today. Indeed, there is a kiln, referred to as a “whale”, situated above the commune, which people can use to fire clay in the same way as people did in the past.

Saint-Barthélemy chapel

The Saint-Barthélemy chapel, which has been modified over the centuries, was the starting point for the creation of the village of Laàs. It is dedicated to Saint Barthélemy, who was extremely present along the Chemins vers Compostelle. This is reflected in the use of construction techniques brought over by a population for whom Saint Barthélemy was an evangelist (Armenia). It is thought that the first clearance work took place during the 10th century. The different phases the chapel of Laàs went through are visible in its walls, but the plan was never altered. However, it is certain that, like all the churches in Béarn, it was converted into a temple when Jeanne d’Albret imposed a Protestant reformation on her lands, before becoming a church again, either after the Edict of Fontainebleau was signed by Henri IV or after Louis XIII came to Béarn. The main point of interest of the chapel of Laàs lies in its sculpted decor: the presence of two Chi-Rho symbols, exceptional and unique to the area, the engraved flag of Lorencez, the two enigmatic Borromean knots… As the village grew, the Saint-Barthélemy chapel one day became too small and, at the end of the 19th century, a decision was made to build a new, more suitable church, leaving the small chapel abandoned.

The Lords of Laàs and landowners

Charles de LATAULADE: Baron of Laàs, friend of Henri IV and Musketeer of Louis XIII

Charles de Lataulade, husband of Jeanne Madeleine, was born in around 1600 to an old family from Chalosse. His father, a lieutenant, brought him closer to Navarrenx and this was the reason for his marriage to the heir to the barony of Laàs. He willingly resided at the Château de Laàs… that is, when he wasn’t at war or at the King’s court. Having been a musketeer under Louis XIII and Richelieu, he always remained in contact with the court. He succeeded his father in Navarrenx, where he assisted the Marquis de Poyanne efficiently. He even took the Marquis’ side in his dispute with the Comte de Gramont in 1637, which earned him the hatred of the latter, who went so far as to have him arrested and imprisoned while he reigned over the States of Béarn. Louis XIII himself helped him out of trouble. Following his marriage to Jeanne-Madeleine, Charles de Lataulade had two sons and two daughters. When Jeanne-Madeleine died, Charles discovered that the estate had outstanding debts and that the creditors were threatening him with execution. To resolve this delicate situation, the baron sold some of the land around Laàs. 

Following Charles de Lataulade’s death in 1661, his eldest son, also named Charles, became Baron of Laàs.

Madeleine de LAAS and the barons of Saint-Castin

Jeanne-Madeleine de Laàs, wife of Charles LATAULADE, was therefore heir to the seigneury. She had a daughter who married Jean-Jacques d’Abbadie, later to become baron of Saint-Castin, in 1649. The couple had three children, including Jean-Vincent who later became famous across the ocean. Jean-Vincent was born in Escout in 1652 and was educated in military practice. At the age of thirteen, he left La Rochelle on 6th May 1665 to act as sub-lieutenant in the Carignan-Salières regiment and headed to Canada, known as New France at the time, to fight the Iroquois. Jean-Vincent engaged in exploration and mapping surveys, studying the country and its people. He sought to establish a ground link between Pentagouet and Quebec as he considered the maritime route to be too long. In 1674, Jean-Vincent became third baron of Saint-Castin after his older brother died and left no heir. However, it wasn’t yet time for him to claim his inheritance, and so he threw himself into a new adventure. Living in contact with the Abenaki, he soon found a wife. Jean-Vincent got involved in the fur trade and maintained consistent trade relations with Boston, in defiance of the regulations implemented by the French administration. His fierce independence created a sense of hostility towards him and accusations began to circulate against him. The baron decided to return to France to get his business in order and secure a future for his loved ones, In 1701, Jean-Vincent went to Versailles, where Louis XIV awarded him the Commander Order of Pentagouet. This show of royal support served him well on his return to Béarn, but unfortunately. the baron of Saint-Castin died in Pau in mysterious circumstances in 1707, before he had had the opportunity to visit Acadia again.

Grand Duke Boris VLADIMIROVICH of Russia

It’s important to remember an illustrious guest who visited the Château de Laàs on four occasions: Grand Duke Boris Vladimirovitch of Russia. There is a column in the park in testament to his stays in 1909, 1910, 1911 and 1913. Grand Duke Boris Vladimirovitch of Russia was the second son of Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovitch, the eldest of Tsar Nicolas II’s four uncles. In the army, he gained a reputation for being a daring and skilled soldier. He often spent his holidays in France, particularly in Paris, Cannes and Biarritz, which were frequented by Russian aristocrats. While staying in Biarritz, he took the opportunity to visit the Count de Lorencez’s descendants, who were still at the Château de Laàs. Grand Duke Boris was known for being an eccentric prince. The Russian Revolution spared him, but after the abdication of Nicolas II, the Grand Duke was the only member of the Imperial Family to travel by train to Moguilev where, despite his efforts, he was not able to assist the Russian monarch.

Charles Ferdinand Latrille de LORENCEZ

Major General Charles Ferdinand Latrille, Comte de Lorencez, acquired the Château de Laàs in 1885. Born in Paris on 23rd May 1814, he split his time between the French capital and the battlefield, influenced considerably by his father’s career. However, his life in the military was marked by the Mexican intervention. In January 1862, he arrived in Veracruz, was promoted to Major General and commanded the First Expeditionary Force. He fought troops from Zaragoza on several occasions, but the French troops began to suffer from yellow fever and so he demanded reinforcements. Napoléon III sent a new army and made Lorencez second-in-command to the General, which he refused to accept and demanded to be recalled to France. Charles Latrille de Lorencez also fought in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, but was withdrawn from active service in 1872 after suffering the consequences of yellow fever, which he had contracted in Mexico. He then dedicated himself to writing a history of the French intervention in Mexico. His wife was a descendant of the Marquis de Poyanne. A member of her family was Governor of the stronghold of Navarrenx in the 18th century. This may be how Charles de Lorencez entered into contact with the owner of the Château de Laàs. He died seven years later in the Château de Laàs and was buried in the Saint-Barthélemy chapel in the village. The Château de Laàs remained in the hands of the Lorencez family until 1921, when it was sold at an auction in Paris.

The SERBAT saga

After two and a half centuries of shifting between different owners, the Château de Laàs became the property of Louis and Madeleine Serbat who went on to make it what it is today. Louis Serbat came from the North of France. He was born near Valenciennes on 8th September 1875 to a family of wealthy industrialists; his father had invented putty. However, he spent his childhood in Pau and, after succeeding in his studies, was admitted to the Ecole des Chartes. The quality of his work was such that he was made Secretary General of the French Archaeological Society and President of the Society of Antiquaries of France. Shortly before taking up residence in Normandy, he married Madeleine de Vaufreland, daughter of Vicomte Auguste de Vaufreland. She came from a rich aristocratic family from Berry. Although Mr and Mrs Serbat were not originally from Béarn, they both had strong emotional and family ties to the area, This fact played a part in their decision to become owners of the Château when it was put up for sale in 1946. When they settled there, they had to move all of their furniture and collections too. Louis Serbat transformed the whole of the interior, taking particular care to adapt its magnificent woodwork without causing any damage. While waiting for the work to finish, the Serbats lived in an outbuilding. Mr Serbat sadly died in autumn 1953, after which Mrs Serbat took up the baton, taking great care to respect her husband’s plans. However, as she had not had any children, she was keen to ensure that the property would survive by entrusting it to a public body or a recognised organisation of public utility. She died in Laàs, on 15th February 1964, and the Touring-Club de France inherited the property and, in accordance with Mrs Serbat’s wishes, opened the castle and its gardens to the public. As it became more difficult to manage the property, the Touring-Club de France sought to pass it on to someone else, and so the Conseil Général des Pyrénées-Atlantiques took on Mrs Serbat’s legacy.

Vicomte Henri de Vaufreland

Madeleine Serbat’s brother, Henri de Vaufreland, was a major figure in the early 20th century. He was born in 1873 and died in 1957. His book, Chroniques de la vie mondaine des Basses-Pyrénées, contained portraits in every sense of the word, as he accompanied his writing with gouache and watercolour images of high society in Pau. He married an Englishwoman and  was fluently bilingual, and was secretary of the Pau-Hunt, a particularly renowned English club.

The cadets and emigrants of Laàs

CASAMAYOU (Uruguay – gift of a fountain)

The CASAMAYOU family owned a pit next to their house and created a large number of works of art. In the pre-war period, from 1914-1918, the pit employed up to ninety people. The Casamayou family had been stonemasons for generations, since the start of the 19th century, and created the fountain found in the village. This fountain is the work of the Casamayou family in two respects: they built it, but were also the benefactors behind it. Indeed, one of them, Jean-Pierre, went to Montevideo and experienced success there, which enabled him to send money back to the commune in the 1870s (around thirty years after his departure) to fund the construction of a fountain and two troughs. His demand was granted, as shown by the inscription on the fountain, but there were 400 francs left over. The municipal council therefore decided to send them back, Jean-Pierre Casamayou then returned the money, this time demanding that a washing space be built. Unfortunately, the municipal council never managed to agree on a location for it as all of the members wanted something different, and so the money was sent back to Montevideo once again. In Montevideo, Jean-Pierre Casamayou formed a welcoming committee for French emigrants.

Florencio BISCAY-COUAYRAHOURCQ: memory of Argentina

The Couhayrahourcq family was also part of the village’s history. One member of the family, Armand, left for Buenos Aires, Argentina on 5th November 1884 at the age of 19. One of his descendants, Florencio Biscay Couhayrahourcq, became a telecommunications engineer over there and designed the telecommunications network for the whole of Buenos Aires. Before embarking on this brilliant career, he was one of the last cadets in Argentina and participated in the 28-day period of national mourning which was proclaimed following the death of Eva Perón. Florencio’s son is now part of the Argentinian administration and manages the city’s land register.

Roberto PEDEHONTAA:

Professional boxer Roberto PEDEHONTAA left Laàs for Argentina, where he became a coach. One of his students, for whom he would later become manager, was none other than Carlos MENEM who, after becoming world champion in boxing, would go on to serve as President of Argentina between 1989 and 1999!

Jean-Anselme LANNES: carpenter in Buenos Aires

Fernand CASSIAU: Mayor of Papeete

Fernand Cassiau emigrated from the maison Grechez Cassiau.He studied medicine and went to Tahiti as a doctor in 1904. One year later, he married Louise Goupil, with whom he had a son, Pierre Auguste, in 1906. He was a volunteer during the First World War and got divorced in 1919, at the end of the war. On 19th February 1922, he was elected Mayor of Papeete and was so popular that he would remain as Mayor until he died on 29th July 1933. He was also President of the League for the Rights of Man and was made a knight of the Legion of Honour. One of his great-nieces now lives in Melbourne, Australia.

Joaquim (??) LABAT: grandson of  a blacksmith from Laàs in Montevideo

Prosper Labat, a blacksmith, was the first mayor of Laàs. One of his descendants, Pierre Labat, emigrated to Buenos Aires on 5th November 1885, at the age of 18, but then moved to Uruguay, where one of his descendants is now a top lawyer in Montevideo and researches his family origins through the history of the village of Laàs.

Pierre Casimir LABETOURE: founder of the town of SONORA (California)

Another child of Laàs who experienced an unusual life overseas was Pierre Casimir Labétoure. He was born in Laàs on 7 August 1821 and left for Louisiana in 1838. A few years later, clearly wishing to establish himself in the United States (like many other gold miners), he was one of the first Europeans to join the mining community at the camp in Sonora, California on 17 February 1849. He became a member of the first municipal council for Sonora in 1850. However, the English speakers in all the camps soon became jealous of the success of the French and Mexican miners, who held onto their own languages and customs. Pierre Casimir Labétoure was forced to pay taxes and decided to make his fortune between Big Oak Flat and First Garrote, in business and the hotel industry, but the work did not meet his expectations. In an attempt to revive his dream of gold, he joined forces with a Mexican and opened a mine named Toledo. He also harboured political ambitions and joined the Democratic Party. After finally fulfilling his dream of becoming rich, he decided to buy new land. Although his life was blighted by gambling and alcohol, he was one of the men and women who participated in the famous and incredible period known as the “Gold Rush”.

LAAS since 1980

Brigitte BARDOT

In the 1990s, Brigitte Bardot threatened to leave Saint-Tropez in protest against the city by-law which sought to ban domestic animals from roaming free in the city. Jacques PEDEHONTAA suggested that she come to live in Laàs. This marked the beginning of a media saga which would lead to a great friendship.  Brigitte Bardot writes several times a year, and speaks of Laàs as her “favourite village”.

The incredible story of the meeting between the Guides de France and the village of Laàs

Under the guidance of Marie-Thérèse Marchand, the Regional Commissioner for Aquitaine, and the attentive eye of Pierre Clément, a Compagnon du Tour de France, and his daughter Nathalie, 2,356 Caravelles, some having come from Africa, worked for eight years to restore the shine to the old Saint-Barthélemy chapel and, with the help of the Amis des Chemins de Saint-Jacques, reopen the pathways which had disappeared under vegetation and mark them out using boundary markers they had made by hand. Local businesses offered their support and families from the village opened their doors, barns and fields to them and provided them with water, wood and shelter. The huge project finished with the laying of the final tiles and the placing of a weathervane with Jacobean symbols and modern stained glass panels to close the windows.

Heritage evening 1994

In parallel to the opening of the Museum of Corn, German artist Nils Udo, considered one of the masters of Land Art, created a vast natural sculpture in Laàs in 1994. The sculpture spread over two hectares, below the village and castle, Its creation was driven by the Association des Groupements Producteurs de Maïs on the occasion of their sixtieth anniversary, It was a huge spiral which resembled a snail shell viewed from above, and brought together all of the varieties of corn, including the parent plant from South America, which was placed in the centre of the spiral. The work was produced by a local farmer under the Association’s orders, using modern agricultural techniques and methods. It was a great success and many people came especially to see it. However, like any living work, it only lasted a season.

Histoire du BAC de Laàs

En attendant la construction de ponts, il n’existait d’autres moyens pour franchir le Gave que le passage par un gué, mais seulement en certaines saisons, ou le recours à un bac et son passeur. Les origines de Laàs sont alors liées à cet emplacement stratégique… Si la proximité d’un gué ou d’un bac, selon les saisons, semble avoir impliqué la construction dans ses environs d’une chapelle, cette même chapelle fut à l’origine de l’implantation d’une communauté d’habitants et, très certainement, liée à l’installation d’une motte castrale destinée à surveiller les allées et venues de part et d’autre de la rivière. Ces mottes castrales, terrassements artificiels de peu d’élévation, se situaient en général sur un promontoire naturel, quelquefois à la confluence de deux ruisseaux dont le ravinement servait de fossés naturels. Cela semble avoir été tout à fait le cas ici,        ainsi que tend à le prouver la carte de Cassini, établie bien plus tard alors que se dressait déjà le château actuel. Cette même carte mentionne la présence d’un bac, « la nau de Laàs », alors que pourtant des ponts enjambaient déjà le Gave d’Oloron.