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Archive for June, 2010

Walking out of Aire, a long ascent is followed by a descent to water. Big trees, the first seen on the whole trail. Indication of richer ground or less eager forestry?

This is Gascony, hence ducks. The distended liver is the main product: foie gras, of which the locals themselves eat a huge tonnage.

The slow-cooked and preserved thighs, confit, are almost a convenience food, simply drawn from their jelly and fat as required. They can make their way into anything, including the national soup, la garbure. (I’ll be given preserved duck again and again at table in Gascony, but not so good as that served at Nogaro.)

Another product is the magret, the fatty breast of duck, that can be sold fresh, frozen or cured. It needs to be grilled very rare when fresh, like good steak.

Here, ducks huddle in large paddocks like sheep.

We’re still in les Landes, and there’s much flat agricultural land to traverse. Some find it a monotony, I find it a nice change from constant change. If you get what I mean.

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Miramont-Sensacq is a quiet little town which was originally a bastion built by Edward the First of England. You’d think he would have been busy enough with Wales and Mel Gibson.

A little highlight is the town church, which is not the church of Sensacq. That fascinating structure is further down the trail and is older than the town. (See next post, for a very interesting encounter at that church.) 

Anyway, the town church, not so ancient in the whole, has a simple, huggy interior.

Cute.

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One enters, briefly, the département of les Landes. Over the next couple of days there’s a bit of this:

Cropping is big around here, and maize seems very popular. What strikes me is the fussy, Cartesian approach to land prep.

I’m one of those people impervious to the western part of Paris with its massive geometries: that dead straight perspective, stretching from the Louvre to La Défense (shudder), and raying outward in straight lines at the Étoile. It’s the side of France and the French which remains quite foreign and mostly meaningless to me. Just about everyone else seems to like it, so I shut up about it.

But here, on the huge agricultural flats near the Adour, I rather enjoy the precision and economy of it all. Apparently you can use lasers to get it perfect; but my guess is that the French farmers were Cartesian long before lasers or even Descartes. They just like their geometry…and la présentation.

***

If people are going all the way to western Spain to visit a saint, doesn’t it make sense to have a few saints on the way? At Aire-sur-l’Adour, where I spent the night, that’s what you get.

Sainte-Quitterie may have been a Visigothic princess who was escaping from an unwanted suitor after a vow of chastity. Or she may have rejected the Aryan heresy or Roman gods – much like little Sainte-Foye. We’re not sure.

What is certain is that, after she was decapitated a fountain immediately sprang up in the spot where her head fell. Quitterie was no quitter. She neatly picked up her own head, nicely washed by the spring, and carried it up the hill to the spot where her future church would be.

And that church, where her relics were venerated for centuries (till Huguenots trashed them), is right on the pilgrim trail to Compostela.

Position, position position!

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Advancing across that great maritime plain, heading always south, and into the spring…

The heat wave at Lauzerte two weeks back was surely a marker on the trip. Nope.

I have little to tell of the country out of Nogaro, because it was too cold and wet to stop. More cold than wet. It was all France that suffered, but the effect was most freakish in the south.

So it was head down and forward to shelter, all day. Ultreia, immer weiter, no dawdling!

Early May in eastern Australia is the wine of the year, with sappy, radiant days, mostly warm. In that freezing drizzle, the mind might easily wander back there, to my bomby old white-trash deck, looking out to Mount Banda Banda.

But no, shivering pilgrim. Ultreia!

***

Finally, among the Armagnac vines, I found my rural gîte: a beautifully converted farm-house.

A fire, a room to myself, and dinner with a charming host family. It made sense of the day and the weather. The Camino works like that, and you have to let it work.

Something worth mentioning at this point is French politesse. I’m aware that there are people who feel it doesn’t exist, but this opinion may proceed from a series of misunderstandings. French politeness is based on formalities which are almost Cartesian and cannot be neglected. Here is little Jules, with his mummy, at the gîte Dubarry.

When Jules and his older brother Matthieu met me in the evening, both came up and offered their hands and gave their names.

At the end of the evening, Matthieu came right up to me and stood expectantly at my side. Nothing happened, so he laughed nervously and moved away. A little later, he came back again and did the same thing. Only then did his mother explain to me that he was waiting for the bise, the two or three sided kiss of tradition. I was used to French formality and the bise, but not to this degree. Next his brother approached and we performed the bise.

It’s more noticeable in this part of France. Formality. If one enters a bakery, one greets all the people waiting. Leave a small bar, and you wish au revoir and bonne journée to all. Stop someone in the street for directions, you say bonjour then quickly explain that you want une information (so they know you’re not cadging). Everyone is monsieur or madame, and one does not refer to third parties as the man or the guy (mec), but as le monsieur.

When in doubt, go formal. You can’t lose. Even if you feel like a wanker when doing it…do it! Australia does not run on formality, which is fine. France does run on formality, and that’s fine too.

In Australia, a teenager rough-housing in the street who jostles an adult can’t be profuse in his apologies, or he loses face as a tough kid. The same teenager in France, even if he’s got a dagger through his nose and blue hair and needle tracks up his arm, will immediately excuse himself to monsieur or madame.

Not to do so would be to lose face… as a Frenchman.

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It’s the Nogaro cow-ring.

No, not the bull-ring, silly. The cow-ring

Here in the Armagnac area of Gascony, the bloody cows were whining about the glass ceiling and all that. A commission was appointed, quotas of females were made mandatory for the ring. Next thing you know, people said the cows were better at nurturing and multi-tasking than bulls, in a bloodless sport which was all about dodging and changing direction…

So now the marginalised bulls just go to the forest and hold men’s groups where they bond and do trust-and-fall and abseil and talk about their feelings over campfires.

Well, the story goes something like that. For the course landaise you need cows and human écarteurs – I hope they, at least, are male – who jump and dance and generally dodge the running cows. (I suppose when you follow Rugby League you can’t really look down on other people’s choice of sport.)

***

Nogaro was founded back in the eleventh century, by a future saint, with the idea that it would be a sauveté, a place where war was forbidden. Why didn’t the rest of us think of that?

The town did so well commercially that pilgrims were exempt from paying péage, the local toll.

Five centuries later, Montgomery and his protestants wrecked the place, but much survives of the yummy old Romanesque abbey of Saint-Nicolas. There’s even an original fresco visible in the church.

Here’s a fine example of a maison à colombages. It’s surprising how something that looks so temporary can last so long. There are many of them in this part of France, with many regional variations, of course.

Unique to Nogaro, at least on the Camino, are a number of twentieth century buildings that could have been old Sydney cinemas. I love this Wedding Cake style. Even the bull…I mean even the cow-ring was Wedding Cake.

The whining sound in the distance is from the famous motor racing track. So between cows, hot cars and rugby – this is the birthplace of Thierry Lacroix – Nogaro makes a good earn from sports.

The reason I decided to take a rest day, however, was the old Hotel-Restaurant where I stayed, right near the cow-ring in the Place des Arènes.

The new and youthful owners of the hotel were busy fixing it up, but at least for the first night I was able to get demi-pension, dinner-bed-breakfast. They were so welcoming and easy-going that I decided on two nights there, even though there were no other guests, and on the second night I would be the only soul at all in the place.

When the meal was proposed to me in the empty dining room, it was the ho-hum tourist food with which I was already familiar in Gascony: confit de canard, scalloped spuds, and an easy-serve ratatouille

Except!

The duck was carefully crisped but moist, served with a classic simple brown sauce; the ratatouille was tender but consistent; and the potatoes were a perfect gratin dauphinois, neither sloppy nor dry, with just the ghost of a garlic clove floating through its light custard.

The owner, as it turned out, was an Argentinian with a love of French food and a determination to cook even the stock tourist stuff in a way it deserved. The boredom that, understandably, afflicts many a French-born cook who must crank out local-this and authentic-that, to a price and night after night, had not afflicted my host or his French wife.

As even a simple blogger knows, one can always put a nice finish on the commonplace.

The ho-hum can be yum-yum.

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As you stroll through the Armagnac region, you’ll see plenty of vines.

One presumes that all is destined for brandy, yet, with a global glut of wine, an out-of-fashion drink like armagnac may not have the production levels of former times. I got the impression the industry there is under some pressure. Perhaps the Gascons could follow the example of Queenslanders and Bundaberg Rum. Mix armagnac with fizzy drink, put it in an aluminium can, and promise young men wild sex with Swedish backpackers and the friendship of a cuddly white bear.

***

Eauze is a Roman town, built by a small river. It was capital of a large province. Of course, it’s been smashed up since, but there is a museum for local Gallo-Roman archeological finds, and Roman bricks made their way into the very distinctive sixteenth century church of Saint-Luperc.

The church interior is very simple, very pure.

But weather, as you can see, and time were against me.

Goodbye, Elusa, capital of Aquitania Novempopulana, the Nine Peoples. Quite a past you’ve had.

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We leave Condom – still heroically resisting jokes about that name! – and head toward Montréal-du-Gers. The department is Gers, which is also a local river, and the traditional name for the wider region is Gascony. Just so you know.

Today starts very differently to yesterday: in a lush forest in damp weather.

A famous pilgrim bridge, the Pont d’Artigues, is closed to cars…definitely!

Photo ops were limited by weather, but I could not resist snapping this uncanny recreation of a Melbourne couple on a winter weekend at the MCG.

Everywhere you go…Collingwood supporters!

***

The town of Montréal is an old bastion which lost its fortifications in the revolution. It was founded by a brother of Saint-Louis, who gave it a name to honour the Capetian dynasty. The saint never – not ever! – missed an opportunity for some PR.

Without being striking, the town is comfy-quaint.

The weather being bad and time limited, I didn’t get to check out the ruins of the old Roman villa. But I lingered in its arcade, which is in the broad, low-slung style I’d seen before at Lauzerte and elsewhere. I find the architectural style – and the living that comes with it – delectable. Kind of cloister-related.

***

I stayed in a rough relais at the base of the town, after a warning not to go there. In fact, the old place was very agreeable, a combo truck-stop and pilgrim hotel.

At a large table of French and Swiss pilgrims, I distinguished myself by my short étapes and slow walking – naturellement – but also by pouring crème anglaise on my salad, in the belief that it was a substantial vinaigrette or sloppy mayonnaise. I was quick to cover my tracks by explaining it was an old Aussie way of eating salad.

Actually, I think that may have been the truth. Brrr.

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From La Romieu, for a while the soft rolling country gives way to immense flats which could be part of the black soil country of the Darling Downs.

And another Aussie touch a bit later.

It needs repeating: walk for a day in this part of France, in France Profonde, and you’re in a different country. A reason to do it!

A pause at an isolated chapel along the road, chats with other pilgrims who wander in off the track…This is the Camino.

My lunch! One of the great edible joys of southern France is brebis, sheep’s milk cheese. I love it in all its forms, Roquefort, Basque, Corsican or other – unpasteurised for preference. It has concentration of flavour without weight or butteriness. There was nearly always a chunk of firm or semi-soft in my pack.

***

Condom ahead, and it’s ready for us.

Condom is a pilgrim town, with a millennial tradition of accommodation, medical care, church services and commerce centred on the needs of pilgrims. The oldest brandy of France, armagnac, was popularised not so much by canal commerce as by pilgrims, who not only drank it in Condom but carted it away with them.

How many millions have trod where this pilgrim treads?

It seemed a handsome town, with pilgrims and locals doing serious lunch here in one of France’s prime gastronomic regions.

Some luck: I wandered into the cathedral before looking for my accommodation.

Up in the choir, two kids were rehearsing, one a singer, the other a violinist. There was an organist too, but not visible. A fine rendition of Panis Angelicus transfixed not just me but all the casual visitors.

Kumbaya in Cajarc, vespers in Moissac, and now Bread of Angels in Saint-Pierre de Condom. And I still haven’t had to buy a concert ticket. That’s the Camino.

***

Accommodation was out of town, in an ancient chai along the Baïse River. A chai is a storage and maybe production building for armagnac. One of the owners was a Gascon, with some of the fiery manner associated with Gascons of fiction. (Interestingly, there was a real d’Artagnan, born in this region, who was indeed a captain of Musketeers.)

My host told me of one of his vivid childhood memories: how on a fierce winter’s night he entered a warm chai, the alembic lit for the distillation of new aygo ardento, the “burning water”. He was given his first armagnac, and the warmth flooded him from inside and out…

***

The enormous chai converted to a gîte was run with efficiency, probably too much efficiency, by absentee hosts. Still, with these French ladies – one of whom was seventy-two and was striding thirty kilometres a day – I passed a cheerful evening over dubious delivered couscous.

We’re pilgrims!

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