Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The Restaurant Larré

 Restaurant Larré -  Cheryl Padgham                                                                                                         

Marthe Mendiara

Cafés and restaurants can be havens for the writer; places of escape where they can sit in a quiet corner to unclutter their mind, start that next chapter, sketch out a short story, or just observe the people that come and go.

Observation is key to the writer; a springboard for plot and character ideas. From July 1943, the observations of Jeanne Marthe Mendiara-Villenave were vital for different reasons. As proprietor of the Restaurant Larré she had to be more aware than most. Located 5 kilometres from Bayonne in the village of Sutar Southern France, this restaurant became an essential shelter for evaders approaching the Pyrenees. It sat on the road to Cambo close to the local school, where timing and security was essential to get the fugitives in without attention being aroused.

The nearby towns of St Jean de Luz, Dax and Bayonne were heavily populated with Germans in addition to the local Gendarmerie, and the area was under close scrutiny. The Pyrenees were guarded and patrolled by German border and ‘Alpine’ Units. All of this barred the way before the hazards of Franco’s Spain had to be faced.

Evaders arriving in Dax and Bayonne on the train (usually a group of four) were given bicycles by their guides and made the journey to the restaurant riding in single file a hundred yards apart, with one guide leading two evaders. The journey from Dax was considerably longer and a stiff physical test. 

Before entering Sutar a guide would check to see if the party were safe to enter the village and arrive at the restaurant, as the latter was regularly frequented by German Officers of the Wehrmacht. A red scarf on the washing line from Marthe Mendiara (as she became known), signified they should wait. It must have been strange for the evaders hiding upstairs, trying to rest before their next ordeal, whilst the sounds of German officers enjoying their wine and food percolated up from below.

Marthe Mendiara’s husband was a POW in Germany so at 37 she had as a good a reason as any to carry on the fight. The restaurant was also used to plan the escape of Comete head Andrée de Jongh from the Villa Chagrin prison in Bayonne.

Most evaders only stayed the one night and were well fed, for some this would be their last proper food for days. Less than twenty four hours later they would be on their way, towards the hazards of travel at night, mountains, rivers, unpredictable weather and the enemy.

© Keith Morley


  1. I love writing in cafes, nothing better than getting into the zone with a coffee for company.

    Enjoyed reading about the Restaurant Larré and Marthe.

  2. Interesting blog about a sanctuary on a hazardous journey.A network of determined people headed by a lady who perhaps did more washing of red clothing than most....
    As the evaders were hiding upstairs and hearing the voices below I thought of Anne Frank as the family were hiding from the Gestapo.
    A writer who people-watched in cafes and wrote there sporadically was JK Rowling. All human life is here.....back in the Pyrenees for our evaders it "is no time for ease and comfort. It is time to dare and endure."
    (Winston Churchill.)

  3. A million miles from "Allo, Allo" this is really admirable work that they did. A fascinating and informative blog entry, as always. Keep them coming, Keith.