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Maialen Larretche (now 90) was a girl of just 12 years old when her family took over the responsibility of hiding pilots in their family farmhouse, Jatsu Baita, in Urrugne at the foothills of the French Basque Pyrenees. She still shivers when she remembers the Nazis eating and drinking in her kitchen while the pilots hid in the room above.
At nightfall the pilots embarked on a 26 km walk across the Pyrenees, braving the torrents of the Bidasoa river into Spain with the help of Florentino Goikoetxea, one of the most famous guides of the COMET resistance network which helped almost 800 pilots to safety between 1941 – 44.
As dawn broke on the horizon, Florentino would arrive with the pilots at the next safe house, Sarobe, near Oiartzun, south east of San Sebastian. In theory they had escaped the worst but not in practice. Franco’s Guardia Civil supported the Nazi regime and were instructed to hand the pilots back to the Germans if they were caught.
The pilots were silently ushered into the kitchen by the Iriarte family where they were fed on corn talos, cheese, eggs and wine, while they bathed their sore feet in salted water. Paco Iriarte was a child of just 8 years old, helping out on his uncle’s farm and remembers the coded knocks on the farmhouse door and pulling thorns out from Florentino’s hands as he warmed them by the fire. With huge pride he also remembers the day that his uncle told him to guide a pilot to safety on a neighbouring farm as the house came under scrutiny of the Guardia Civil towards the end of the war. Both Paco and Maialen, children of the resistance, share the feeling of dread and terror that surrounded their tacit resistance work. Their work was shrouded in silence, no one talked, but the gravity of their tasks and the danger to their lives, and the lives of their families, was understood all too loudly. All too clearly. The fate of resistance workers was far worse than that of the pilots they hid.
Over the years, groups of walkers and members of the RAF have visited Jatsu Baita and Sarobe and paid homage to Maialen and Paco. However, although they live only 26 km’s apart (albeit on different sides of the French / Spanish border), and although they had helped hide the very same pilots in their farmhouse attics, they had never met. Through my work as a guide of the COMET line escape routes over the Pyrenees, I have had the honour of spending time with both Maialen and Paco. On the 14th September 2019, with the help of Itziar, Paco’s daughter, and a family friend, Juan Jose Aruanburu, we drove Paco to Maialen's home in the grounds of Jatsu Baita in Urrugne where they met for the first time over a glass of French muscatel and Spanish biscuits.
It was wonderful to hear them talking, reminiscing and exchanging stories that only they shared. What a beautiful woman Maialen is to this day with her soft, creamy complexion and Paco, with his big smile and mischievous twinkle in his eye. We are organising another reunion next year.
And, of course, they communicated in their native tongue, Basque!
More detailed stories of the COMET line can be found here.
Our Total Basque Mountain Walking Weeks include the Comet Line stories and can include parts of the Comet Line routes.