Finally, down in the South West corner of France, a few kilometres from the Spanish border, I have found a like-minded traveller. The only problem is he’s been dead for over a hundred years. Antoine d’Abbadie was born in 1810. Half-Irish, half-Basque, he grew up in France and was schooled in the scientific arts.
With his brother, he was sent on expeditions to Brazil and Ethiopia where he charted the territory, studied the language and culture of the local people and caused controversy with his theories on the source of the Nile.
Returning from Ethiopia in 1948 he finally settled down and built a chateau on a headland outside the village of Hendaye. The fairy-tale chateau was designed by Viollet Le Duc, who was also in charge of the restoration of Carcassonne, and completed in 1879. It features an observatory where Antoine continued to explore by studying the stars. When he died in 1897 he bequeathed the chateau to the Academy of Sciences with the instruction that they produced a catalogue of half-a-million stars within 50 years.
More recently, the chateau has been restored to its former glory and is an architectural masterpiece both inside and out. My favourite place is the main stairway, which is lined with a freeze of paintings showing the Ethiopian way of life. Other rooms are decorated in sumptuous reds, blues and greens with velvet and silk, and highlighted with Latin and Arabic inscriptions reading “To be rather than to pretend to be” and “Life is but smoke”. However, I rather think that Antoine d’Abbadie’s life was more like a burning flame, while the smoke which lingers reminds us of his story.