Archive for the ‘C. TOWARD CONQUES’ Category

Conques means “shell”. The town clings to one side of a rough, sheltered gorge of a tributary of the Lot. It started with hermits seeking privacy, and the spot bears no resemblance to the wide Aveyron landscape so familiar to the pilgrim to this point, and after, for that matter. The valley, just on the outskirts of Conques, is this narrow:

It wouldn’t surprise if one million people came through the “shell” in this holy year, this année jacquaire. Like medieval pilgrims, they won’t need a television.

Pilgrimage is serious business, and a large component of that is show business. The tympan at the entrance of the cathedral, the renowned Last Judgement, was for decoration, piety…and entertainment. My bet is that most eyes were trained on the horror movie to the right.

Through good luck, some of the original colours were faintly preserved, reminding us that, as with the bleached monuments of the classical world, we don’t get to see the original gooey Technicolor that was part of the amazement. Is it rash of me to suggest that the real future of art conservation lies less in the bloating of monster museums that are already like peak-hour subway stations, and more in the careful restoration of colour to our Western patrimony? How much modern architectural bleakness proceeds from wrong assumptions about the true appearance of Chartres and the Parthenon?

More colour clues inside the cathedral of Sainte-Foye:

And speaking of the interior…

Conques. Give it a whole day if you can. Share a common meal in the refectory of the abbey, soak up the benediction in the evening, hang about for the music. And stroll.


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None of it is really above board…

Here, dominating the village of Conques, is the abbey church of Sainte-Foye.

And here’s the abbey accommodation, where, like countless pilgrims before me, I dined in a great hall with monks and hospitaliers, and stayed two nights. (I’m a rest-day kind of guy.)

Conques is professional.

The prémontrés, the order now in charge of the abbey, are involved and entertaining; ceremonies such as the benediction of the pilgrims are performed with familiar ease and yet also with drama; the reception of even the humblest and muddiest pilgrims by hospitaliers is never off-handed.

Yet it all started with a theft. Nothing much was happening in Conques till an enterprising monk stole the relics of  little Sainte-Foye from another abbey and took them back to Conques. Or so they say. In any case, the public loved it all – Conques, the theft, and little Sainte-Foye.

There are a number of stories about Sainte-Foye’s martyrdom, but the priest at Conques told me what must have been the true one. It happened in Agen, where they grow the prunes, so there’s no blaming regularity problems. The Romans were bullying a Christian girl into sacrificing to the Roman gods. The girl would not be persuaded. She was even offered a new Game Boy, according to our prémontré. Still Sainte-Foye wouldn’t yield, so they executed her. Teenagers!

Her reliquary, a very elaborate affair, can be seen in a museum out the back of the abbey. She was such hot property that they split her up and sent bits to other monasteries, who certainly did not waste their portions of the saint. Re-use, recycle!

Some droopy-drawers atheist like Richard Dawkins would have a field-day with this stuff. (So would Christopher Hitchens, but he’d at least be witty in slicing us up.)

I can’t get into the reasons for and against faith. I fell asleep at the first Thomistic proof. Chesterton says it best for me:

Fable is more historical than fact, because fact tells
us about one man and fable tells us about a million men.

Atheists are not above belief. In fact, they tend to be soft-headed, like Dawkins, embracing fad philosophies clad in the faintest veneer of science, spooked by every fashionable terror.

So I just follow what’s prettiest.

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A professional glass artist in Siena tells me of a prohibitively expensive glass he was once able to use for his only major local commission, a window in the Church of San Cristoforo. The glass is called Golden Rose, and it’s a red so soft it can’t be called red, isn’t pink, but certainly doesn’t advance so far to the other side of the spectrum as to be in any way orange. It’s…

It’s just Golden Rose!

The medieval village of Conques, major stage on the Way of St. James, with its own cult in the person of Sainte-Foy, is Golden Rose. Kind of. Okay, most of the buildings are pinkish, the abbey is a little more yellow, but in some lights, on some days – and always for me – Conques is Golden Rose. (Yeah, I know…I’m over the top about this medieval stuff. So shoot me with a crossbow.)

And Conques is where we trek today, through more of that Aveyron country, green and sweeping.

The approach from the East is not dramatic.  There is a long descent in what is almost a ditch. Then some quaint buildings on the outskirts, which are plucked and groomed like all Grade One sites in France. (An untouchable heritage, beyond the abbey Conques is purely a village, with few services, not even a pharmacy.)

We walk down a medieval alley. Don’t those trekking poles clatter in these old alleys!

And there!

Golden Rose!

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Conques is two days away and there’s a tickle of impatience, as if it represents some kind of graduation or super-stage of the Camino.

Dawdler, just enjoy the Aveyron, wide, green and handsome!

Signs of spring, these grape hyacinths with their shy fragrance have to be cultivated in my part of Australia. Here they are wild.

Senergues on its granite ridge was cold, but the gîte, Domaine de Sénos, was lavishly equipped. Though I’d requested a single room, it wasn’t necessary, since I had the whole place to myself. Bread, cheese and charcuterie were all available in the quiet little town, which seemed more ancient than any other I’d seen on the track. It’s said to have ninth century origins, and one can see that it was for long a high defensive position against someone or other. There’s a fourteenth century tower against the anglais, of course.

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A level walk out of Estaing, following the here tranquil Lot:

But there are steep climbs and cold weather ahead. This stage presents panoramas, especially of the massif to the north.

Day’s end was at Golinhac, where demi-pension entitled me to dormitory accommodation but also a complete restaurant dinner with new friends. And more panoramas while we ate.

I distinguished myself in the company by having traveled half the distance of the other pilgrims at our large table. They must have been impressed, since they all wore surprised expressions when told I’d come only from Estaing. I was then treated with a kind of embarrassed benevolence, especially when I declared my intention of stopping at Senergues the next day, only twelve kilometres distant.

But they were a merry company, those pilgrims at Golinhac! Jacques the Girondin refused to even let me drink water after I tried to convince him that Sydney Rock Oysters were superior to anything from Atlantic waters.


I must admit to a tinge of competitiveness the next morning. A young lady was dawdling in the foyer, in an obvious attempt to be the last to leave.

That’s my gig, honeybunch!

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The trail to Estaing snakes through typically lush Aveyron country with the odd ancient church or hamlet.

The level walking is over. But the village of Estaing, like Saint-Côme and Saint-Chély, is consistently voted as one of France’s most beautiful. It’s worth the trudge.

The castle and town were the seat of a famous family, the d’Estaing, whose heads were either military or ecclesiastical figures. The former French President was probably only a very distant relative, one of his recent forebears having managed to a adopt or buy the great name. The French will make themselves absurd to avoid being common. Even Balzac would rather face ridicule for sticking a “de” before his surname than be without the potent preposition. It’s a présentation thing. A Frenchman can’t sell you a pencil without fancy wrapping.

In any case, one august family member, a powerful bishop, knew how to span a river:

A special harmony in the architecture: these roofs could be a Braque composition.

I was to spend the night in an acceuil run by a lay order and assisted by voluntary hospitaliers. There is no charge for food and accommodation; those with means drop euros in a box before leaving. The common meal with grace before and after; the chats in the kitchen while a hospitalier clips the dandelions that fill the first jampots in spring; the evening prayers with a unique music for the salve regina…this is not Best Western!

The accommodation is understandably rough-to-basic, but I’m someone who can sleep on the ground when required. However, here I finally faced one of the real scourges of the Camino: snoring.

A perfectly agreeable Englishman and his charming wife shared a dormitory with me. The noises he emitted in sleep could have come from the soundtrack of The Exorcist. I was able to find another room and get a little sleep, but the trouble with that strategy is the general embarrassment in the morning when one’s absence is noted. I was quick to inform my companion that he was in no way to blame for such a natural and common occurrence.

But the Camino had posed one of its great difficulties. After the weather on the Aubrac, came the Exorcist soundtrack on the Lot.

Happily, there are ways around the problem.

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Espalion on that Saturday was buzzing. Shops were many and open till late. Here was the dawdler’s chance for some serious idling and over-eating!

My luck with shared accommodation continued. The municipal gîte was spotless, well appointed, and very well managed by a lady from the mairie. I had a room to myself, for both nights, and the pilgrims and French randonneurs I met had the spirit of the trail. One French gentleman had been a rugby player, a contemporary of the great Serge Blanco. Rugby is huge across the south of France, and is a good conversational hook for Aussies and (eyeroll!) New Zealanders.

Here was the view of a famous landmark outside my window:

And here’s what I looked at inside:

As well as the fondant sheep cheese above, I was able to get some fine Roquefort of the Caves Baragnaudes. This was the Aveyron, after all!

Gorging aside – just briefly – the town was home to the inventors of the diving suit, so this unusual memorial has been placed in the river:

And the game of quilles, French skittles, has its own monument:

But the knockout landmark is the lusciously aged Romanesque church of St. Hilarion-de-Perse. The adjacent priory, daughter of the great abbey at Conques, was wrecked by Calvinists, instead of revolutionaries…not that it helps.

So many admiring pilgrims must have stood right here, in the course of the last millennium. And they would have muttered: “How far to Conques?”

Ah, Conques! The Jewel of the track. Chill, pilgrims! You’ve got lots more walking to do.

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