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Archive for the ‘G. ARMAGNAC VIA LITTLE TUSCANY’ Category

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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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There’s a connection. I’ll tell you later.

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West from Lectoure, the country looks fatter and richer, especially in fine weather and high spring. Is this Gascony yet?

Today’s trek brings us to an enormous abbey. It was built by a local boy who rose to be cardinal. Perhaps he knew the extra size would be justified by the town’s location, right on the pilgrimage route. The town’s name, La Romieu, is from Gascon, meaning “to Rome”, or pilgrims in general. In fact, we’re still coming!

It was built early in the fourteenth century, hence the optimism. Lousy weather, plague and war hadn’t become the norm yet. (Mind you, as a taste of things to come, Philip the Fair of France and Edward Longshanks of England, both scary guys, had already brawled over this very region, Gascony.)

The abbey is interesting, and offers view from its towers. From up there the cardinal would have known if his tenants were mucking about or getting on with it.

But, ah, the cloister:

I like all cloisters, but the sight of this one through a grate fairly stalled me on my way through town. Is it the rhythm, the repetition, the faint variations? Are there Pythagorean proportions at work? I was soon to meet up and travel with a group of French hobbyists who take an interest in all such things…and even stranger things. But, to put it in my own blurry way, cloisters work because they don’t try too hard. They can be original, but no-one sets out to be original. So no wank. And cloisters are smart: they’re sheltered but open, they connect rooms without destroying the privacy of those rooms. Plus, take one step and you’re in a garden. Furthermore, cloisters…

I just like ’em, okay?

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The cats? Why are there sculpted cats all though the town?

It all goes back to little Angélique. They say she was the orphaned child of a woodchopper…but they always say that. They probably say it about little Sainte-Foye. It’s just to get us in the mood.

Anyway, little Angélique loved cats, was followed by cats all day, slept with cats – you know the type.

In the  early 1340’s there were some terrible famine years due to cold winters and perpetually wet springs. So people blamed cats, or ate cats, or refused to feed cats. It was bad for cats, who were soon wiped out.

But little Angelique conspired with her parents – so she wasn’t an orphan? – to secretly keep a male and female cat in the attic. She embarked on a breeding program – the cats, like Jean V of Armagnac, weren’t too fussed about inbreeding – and over several years Angelique was able to raise many kittens. Meanwhile, the family lived on wild fungus, tree bark, fern shoots – the usual famine diet.

Good harvest finally came again, granaries were full. But, with no cats, rats were everywhere, creating a new crisis…

Oh well, you can guess the rest of the story. I’m sure there’s a lesson about balance in nature or tolerance or some such thing.

There’s also a legend that, as she grew older, Angélique actually started to look like a cat. You can see a sculpture of catty Angélique in the town – but I’ll just show you one more cat-cat: a dawdler like myself.

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On the road west, and a bit south – toward Spain! Well, that’s how you feel at the start of a day, with the Aubrac, the Aveyron and Quercy behind.

Lingering at an ornate little church at Castet-Arrouy, I encountered some Swiss with whom I would never actually travel but often socialise. A large group, some quite elderly, all with a love of the chemin. Highly organised, but in the nicest way.

A scrubby oak forest: with a porcupine or two it could be Tuscany.

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Lectoure is on a high spur, and has been inhabited forever. As well as prehistoric findings, works on the cathedral foundations uncovered much devotional material related to the cults of Cybèle and Mithra.

Gauls held it, and Romans took it. It was even a capital of Armagnac. Count Jean V, who schemed his way to power there, subsequently began to scheme against the king of France himself. In the end, he fell and Lectoure fell with him. After a thorough massacre it was reborn as a French possession…only to get chopped up again in the wars of religion.

Incidentally, the same turbulent schemer, Jean V, at one point forced his chapelain to marry him with his sister. They had three children, before Jean moved on to another, more respectable union. Interesting character, but I wouldn’t want my sister to marry a guy like that.

Wait…let me re-phrase!

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Lectoure is my favourite kind of stop-over:  the charm of a village, the buzz of a town. Curiously, it’s one of the few areas which doesn’t have an important cheese of its own, according to the local crèmerie. (Later I did discover a small cheese producer on the trail.)

A stroll through this old and elegant ex-capital is rewarding.

The spectacular tower of the cathedral Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais was once one of the highest in France, with an extra storey and flèche. It was actually lopped before the revolution, some say because the metal flèche attracted lightning to the cellar and smashed the bishop’s bottles. Probably just a piece of anti-clerical gossip…but a merry piece.

As to the Little Tuscany nick-name, how’s this view of the bastion, now converted to a promenade?

Che bellezza!

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Veronique at the Halte Pèlerine in rue Sainte-Claire is a wonderful hostess. The nicest thing about this sociable gîte is the large garden, all furnished for the comfort of  pilgrims. Good for a dawdle.

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Did I mention we’d crossed the Garonne before the ascent to Auvillar? Looking toward Agen – where prunes grow and where little Sainte-Foy was martyred – and the confluence of the Tarn and Garonne, one can see the Golfech nuclear reactors. They’re big!

I’m told the main limitation is the water temperature of the river. Once it gets too high in summer the plants close and electricity is purchased from somewhere like the UK. Seawater reactors don’t have the problem.

Now, a morning descent from Auvillar, pretty on all sides.

Along the road, on old mill.

A coffee in Saint-Antoine village, with its richly painted church.

Some of the paint is original, much is restoration. Think I prefer the bold and gooey look to the “wallpaper” effect in Moissac.

At the cafe where I shared a coffee with an Alsatian pilgrim the owner was starting to cook sweet peppers on an open air plancha. That’s right! We’re half way to Spain now.

At Flamarens, a ruined church that will probably keep gaping to the heavens for funding in aeternitate. Well, the odd total ruin is not unwelcome to the eye. Time was, wealthy young poms on the Grand Tour wouldn’t look at anything else.

Parts of the Gers region are called Little Tuscany. Sometimes the resemblance is amazing.

And staying that night in Miradoux, an airy little town, all stone and even smelling of stone, might have got me thinking of San-Something on its Tuscan outcrop.

But this is not the land of wild boar and porcini. The Gers is very gastronomic, but the cornerstones of its cuisine are duck and goose.

As I sat on my little upper verandah eating something far more modest than foie gras and stuffed gooseneck, two French tourists looked up and asked me for directions to the château. I hadn’t been able to find it either, so I shrugged and suggested that Richelieu had probably demolished it. They didn’t doubt me for an instant.

Whenever a castle or local liberty goes missing in regional France, just blame that mean cardinal!

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Moissac lies low on the Tarn River, and was hit worse than any place by the catastrophic flood of 1930. Its situation is more evident as one leaves the town to head west. (There is a high road, but your correspondent knows nothing of optional high roads.)

Yes, I took the road that leads along the canal, presumably part of the system that connects Bordeaux and the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.

And the day passed in mild weather, with pleasant encounters – such as an aged pilgrim who had been camped out along the canal, who excitedly told me of a new track to Lourdes.

Some people were out-dawdling even me:

How far they seem, the limestone Causses, the Aveyron. Yet they’re only a short drive away.

We are entering country more likely to be called Tarn, though it’s hard to know, since old names and modern political boundaries seldom correspond. If the Counts of Toulouse were more likely to hold sway east of Moissac in medieval times, the regions we’re heading toward were more likely attached to the Armagnac, then to the Kingdom of Navarre. Till everything was just French. Of course, I simplify.

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Normans, cathars, English, catholics, protestants, royalists, revolutionaries – all the old clashes and divisions afflicted the stronghold which is today’s destination.

Auvillar copped most of history’s problems because, like other fortified high towns, it was too strategic to be ignored by serious invasion. It’s officially one of France’s most beautiful villages, popular with the French themselves for a weekend jaunt; famed for its church, its circular open-air hall and the clock tower which  straddles the street where pilgrims depart to the west.

Quite a sharp little climb when one approaches from the Moissac side.

As the old pilgrim indicated to me earlier on, we’re not that far from Lourdes.

In Auvillar, I was to stay in the B&B of Josiane Falc, and I here mention it because it was a model accommodation of the inexpensive kind.

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