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Archive for the ‘B. ALONG THE AUBRAC’ Category

This posting, complete with music, may seem too enthusiastic. Ah, but you weren’t there.

To get down from the Aubrac Plateau I just needed, and wanted, to follow the road. Looked a little wild out there:

This is as high as one gets, till the Pyrenees:

Yet to leave the snowline is a matter of five minutes. And the end of that easy downhill brought me to this old converted tower in the village of Saint-Chély. It was built by a religious order, but its defensive design was made necessary by that period. Bloody routiers.

There I had a room to myself, with all its ancient charm preserved amongst every modern facility. For dinner I descended the fifteenth century steps…

…to an ancient hearth place…

…where Jean-Claude, a man born to renovate and to entertain, presented a meal of paupiettes de veau and tian for myself and two German pilgrims. All the work of Christine, Jean-Claude’s wife. No aligot tonight, guys. One of the German ladies was moved to utter the old German saying: Wie Gott in Frankreich! Like God in France.

A Cantal cheese, though only six months old, rates among the best cow’s milk cheeses I’ve tasted. Jean-Claude told me it was possible to get a similar cheese with much more age, but the cost was as stupendous as the quality. Mind you, the single best thing I tasted there was the quince confiture at breakfast: perfume made solid!

There’s something else to say about Jean-Claude, which makes his efforts for heritage and pilgrims so much more remarkable. But I’ll leave that till later, rather than break the mood.

Let Charles Trenet have the last word:

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At the hotel in Aumont Aubrac, a serving of the famous aligot – cheesy mashed spud – filled four big holes. (The next night I was to eat a different version of aligot, using coarsely scalloped spuds.)

We were going to need our aligot. Check this view from the window next morning:

After breakfast, Cecil peeled off from the group to return to Germany.

A day later, to get down to a slower pace, I took my leave of the québecois. Sad stuff, these Camino divorces. Still, we’re all in touch. (Are you reading this, les compagnons?)

There’s little to tell of those days. Even when still together, the weather kept us apart. Wind, rain, snow, sleet, ice, mud…Did I leave anything out? Here’s the view from our last shared accommodation:

Our last moments together before they headed down the plateau from Nasbinals, where I spent the night. Alone!

The restaurateur advised my friends not to take the track, known as GR65, for the descent, as it was thick with fresh snow.

He advised the road, which had been cleared for traffic.

To miss one marker in the fog or blizzard conditions could result in…well, figure it out. The Canadians took his advice, and I was to do the same the next day. A number of people took the GR, some came through well, others got into trouble. I hope everyone who went that way went in enthusiasm, not in grim conformity to some imagined law of the Camino.

Purists abound on the Camino: people who believe one should always go on the traditional track, people who object to luggage-carrying services, people who think rest days and short days are defeatist. If you’re a purist, you’re on the wrong blog.

I’m a dawdler, a daydreamer, a mucker-about. An impurist.

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After Le Sauvage, the pilgrim leaves the Auvergne and enters Roussillon Languedoc. The actual department is Lozère, with France’s thinnest economy and population. Some cows, some tourists, some French life-style changers, some English scoring technically-South-of-France real estate. And quite a few pilgrims. Pilgrimage has a nifty way of injecting a little money into picturesque but harsh regions; and Lozère really does have a tough beauty about it.

Our group had decided on a testing day, where we were to cover at least 27 kilometres, each at personal speed.  I was last to leave, slowest to move, and last to arrive at Aumont-Aubrac, the day’s destination.

Mercifully, the rain, wind and snow stopped, the sun emerged. I was able to loll about at lunchtime near this lovely Romanesque church with its clocher à peigne, its “comb” bell-tower.

I now give the reader an account of a miracle, as it was related to me by the beneficiary of the miracle. Firstly, here are the fountain and chapel of St. Roch, which I saw on the way to Aumont-Aubrac.

The waters of the fountain are said to have special curative and refreshing powers.

Below, photographed at a chance re-encounter in Conques, is Dominic, a French hospitalier, a pilgrim who volunteers his services at religious gîtes. I was to meet him the first time in the Hospitalité Saint-Jacques, run by a lay order of religious in Estaing. While Dominic seemed most serious, even rapturous, at evening prayers, he was otherwise quite the witty and wily Frenchman. The man loves pilgrimage.

Here in Conques he told me of how he did his first pilgrimage from Le Puy to Santiago on a bicycle. When he got to St. Roch’s chapel, his axle and gears were a wreck, and he was about to pull out.

So he dipped his entire bike in St. Roch’s fountain!

You can guess the rest…

I don’t even know if I should be repeating this stuff.

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The next stage, from Saugues, took us through forest, fringe of the still-wild Margeride region.

Emerging onto clearer heath-like country, we were exposed to wind as well as rain. My rainwear proved useless. Next we had to ford several shallow streams. Being used to wet feet in the bush, I charged right through. The Canadians went to some lengths to keep their feet dry, but soon decided that keeping one’s balance in a freezing stream was more important than dry socks.

What a relief when this outlying farmhouse came in sight.

We gratefully settled in to the modern gîte attached to the rear of the main farmhouse, called Le Sauvage. There had been only serious expressions on the faces of our hosts and their friends at the hearth of the old house. The people of the Aubrac had been through a dreary winter – worse than the norm, which is hard. Much later, when France froze in late spring, I hoped the Aubrac wasn’t copping the brunt of it. The word Aubrac, as I discovered, is synonymous with hard weather. Only for a few months does it become douce France…but then, they tell me, it is sweet indeed.

That evening was enlivened by the presence of three girls from Brittany, who did not stop chattering and laughing the whole time. We later titled them The Birds. At collective dinner we were all commanded to guess their age…and all got it wrong. They were thirty, not twenty, as supposed. Apparently, if one chatters and laughs enough, the body will slow its clock. (Cecil encountered The Birds the next day, as they were waiting for a taxi after their brief excursion. He heard them before he saw them. Chattering and laughing.)

One of the three ladies was a biologist, multilingual, working on improving potato strains. I couldn’t learn much about the other two: you see, they were occupied…

…chattering and laughing!

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And he is bred out of that bloody strain
That haunted us in our familiar paths:
Witness our too much memorable shame
When Cressy battle fatally was struck,
And all our princes captiv’d by the hand
Of that black name, Edward, Black Prince of Wales

He rests at Canterbury, the hero of Crécy and Poiters, and Shakespeare has him inspiring the hero of Agincourt. This is hardly the place to detail all the action and characters of that chilly century where war took a pause only to allow the Black Death to have its way.

Or when war grew so poor and weary it rested, leaving bands of  stranded soldiers, or unpaid mercenaries, to survive across the French countryside. There were maybe three wars in the Hundred Years War, but the lack of resolution in between the heroics made it truly one war. This sickly little guy gave everyone a rest from the Alpha Male antics:

But geeky Charles V of France – capable, decisive yet prudent – was the exception in this miserable era of heroes. His enormous successes can still do little to lift his name above that of the glorious bunglers or quickly extinguished meteors who marked the period.

And when one looks at that tower in Saugues, especially in dreary weather after a day trudging in cold rain, the thoughts go to that century.

The Tour des Anglais wasn’t built by English. It was a seigneurial possession. But it was captured by what they call routiers, who were maybe more Gascon than English, and were the real scourge of the times. Sometimes these stranded military companies enjoyed a kind of legitimacy, and their status was fully restored when organised re-invasion took place. Conan Doyle’s novel, The White Company, recounts the exploits of one such company and its impossibly chivalrous and violent leader, Sir Nigel. Those who find the novel silly should reflect that the times described were silly. Ambition and lust for wealth don’t explain the Hundred Years War. The chivalry element was very real.

But none of this helped a peasant living around Saugues. Or a pilgrim braving the colder weather of the fourteenth century.

France’s three recent catastrophes against Germany within an eighty year period have not brought the same deep ruefulness to the French psyche, even though the enemy was more identifiable, and the memory is fresh. For France and Germany have the ability to somehow get on between massacre and mayhem, to be complementary without compliments. Above all, they extend to each other the great courtesy of feeling inferior to each other.

No such undeclared entente exists between France and the Anglosphere. Those English speaking nations who wait for the great relenting of French opposition, to a recognition of the overwhelming common interest, will wait in vain.

So if you make a war, keep it short.

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The stage to Saugues was memorable by the addition of a fourth member to our little group: Cecil, who manages to be German, English, Sri Lankan and Hakka Chinese. Our conversations that day were wondrously accented. Such is the Camino. No wonder that control freak, Louis XIV, didn’t like the hike.

The photo above was taken some days later, because rain, wind and cold made pausing hard on the haul to Saugues. I recall a steep ascent from the river Allier with its hydro dam and striking volcanic formations, a Madeleine chapel in the rock…and increasing doubts about my rain gear. Read the forums and learn, Pilgrim!

Sauges, when we got there, had a very well appointed gîte communal, a kind of joint accommodation for pilgrims and tourists run by local authorities. Sharing a dormitory with non-snoring friends, and a large kitchen with considerate French randonneurs on their annual holiday, gave me a good early experience of joint accommodation on the Camino. (I had different experiences later!)

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Saugues has a famous church (looking bleak that day) and still more famous landmark, the Tour des Anglais, the Tower of the English.

It’s not the only French tower to bear such a name, and the word anglais conjures a past that has left a far deeper mark on France Profonde than multiple revolutions, two world wars and the humiliating defeat by Prussia. The ghost that haunts this part of the world presides in that tower, has been there for seven hundred years, and won’t be leaving soon.

But more on that later.

There’s more scary stuff about this region: the Beast!

The Beast of Gevaudan now has its own museum in Saugues. The bare bones of  the story: a wolf-like creature ravaged the countryside for several years, killing over a hundred humans, till its (uncertain) termination in 1767.

Much of what’s said about the Beast is fanciful or speculative; but it’s important to remember that it did exist, and that the hundred deaths are real. There was intense public interest at the time, and considerable fear, and reputations did go on the line as even Louis XV took a close interest. An enthusiast’s account of the whole affair can be found here.

What’s special is the story’s ability to stretch, morph and resonate. The natural meets the preternatural meets the supernatural. Ancient France disturbs the new rationality, a peasant child’s gory death in the snow shakes the far away salons and even the throne.

Werewolf believers and cryptozoologists can’t get enough of it. Not into conspiracies, mysteries, myths, symbols, cover-ups? Well someone is. Just look at the book rack at the airport.

Most striking to me is how well some of the spin-off stories would serve as urban myths for modern teenagers. A little girl follows her brother who has been snatched by the beast, finds him tranquilly asleep in the forest. He seems okay…till his sister observes that his insides have been sucked out.

There’s something for everyone in the story of the Beast. Expect a Dan Brown novel where the forces of conservatism are out to discredit Voltaire and save the ancien régime.

A little take of my own? David Attenborough once said that the single most important thing he knew about animals is that they are individuals. I live in the bush surrounded by all kinds of animals.

For some years an animal will behave a certain way, then change its behaviour, either because it has learnt something or because it has been forced to change. Adventurous members of a species can try things that others of the same species won’t. Then the radical will teach the cautious something by suffering or succeeding. An example: I used to have thousands of pieces of sweet fruit per year, for many years, without netting or guard dogs. Now I have none, not even the citrus that abounds on my acres. Possums, wallabies and birds have learnt to devour all. All!

Between the middle ages and the nineteenth century climate was cool in Europe, but not uniformly so. There were periods where both temps and rainfall were higher. It’s interesting to note that according to some records the 1760’s were harsh, but had been preceded by a couple of markedly good decades.

Could a sudden shortage of sustenance after a period of abundance cause a radical change in animal behaviour?

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…if it’s well and slowly cooked. Here’s my own version  – it’s now winter in Oz – of the plat national I was served in Monistrol d’Allier, day two. (I didn’t use the famous lentils of Le Puy, but I’m not sure our Auvergnat hosts used them either.) As you walk the Camino in France, you may be offered the local specialty several times in a row: lentils for the first days in the Auvergne; then l’aligot, the renowned cheesy mashed spud of the Aubrac; later comes confit de canard; after that, la garbure. And so on. Personally, I’m up for multiples of these things, but some pilgrims complain of the repetition. What’s interesting is the expression national to describe an influence or style confined to a few towns and the surrounding land. France is all about variation and regions; and the Camino, even for a slow walker, is a quick succession of pays. This broken tower and the chapel below it are typical of the volcanic land that yields a special building stone (just as it yields unique lentils which have an AOC and an official confraternity).

From this tower one descends – and descends! – to the village of Monistrol d’Allier. Even with its long established hydro scheme on the Allier River, the town has a small and shrinking population. One reason things stay quaint in these parts is permanent economic depression.

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