If heaven is a single moment, then, for me, heaven is to be found in an unlikely place. Heaven is standing up before the kick off in the Stade Jean Dauger in the French city of Bayonne. Heaven is a late summer’s evening, when the sky is a deep blue and the air is warm. Heaven is mellow with the smiles and laughter of those standing around and filled with anticipation as the first bars of “La Pena Baiona” begin. Heaven is that moment when 15,000 voices join in the singing of the anthem of Aviron Bayonnais. Of course, the ensuing rugby match will probably not live up to that moment of anticipation, but in that music there is something that transcends what follows.
The first time I heard the tune was in August 2007, Bayonne playing Ireland, a special occasion; seeing the national team play in the sky blue of Bayonne, but, more importantly, encountering a club that stood at the beginning of a match to sing an anthem that was trivial and inconsequential in its lyrics, but passionate in its rendering.
Seven years ago, I met the tune in the mountain valleys of Austria. It seemed odd that the hills were alive with the sound of the music of the Bayonnais. How could French rugby fans and Austrian ski resorts be singing along to the same tune?
Internet searches found the same tune being sung by Basques in the town of Dax both in the streets at the opening of the feria and by thousands gathered in the bullring last summer, except the song they sang was “Vino Griego.”
The song that is “Vino Griego” in south-west France, and is “Vinho Verde” in Portugal, and “Phile Kerna Krassi” in Greece is an Austrian song, sung by Udo Jurgens, the Austrian winner of the 1966 Eurovision Song Contest, who in 1975 sang “Griechischer Wein” (Greek Wine).
Sitting in an Austrian hotel last night, drinking tea and looking out at the frosty scene outside, the background music barely registered until the familiar bars began and it was not a January night in central Europe but a summer’s night on the Bay of Biscay with the Pyrenees standing sharply against the clear sky. It was not an ordinary quiet moment at the end of a day, but was a moment when there was a feeling of thousands of voices around,
Allez, allez! Les bleus et blancs de l’aviron bayonnais . . .
Trying to explain to those sitting around the power of a song was pointless, they regarded it as just another piece of eccentricity. It made as much sense as trying to explain an idea of heaven.