Monday, 26 August 2013

To be a pilgrim

Were up in the Aveyron for a few days, to take in some of the stunning landscape and get away from the continuing fierce heat on the plain. We set off at the beginning of last week for the three hour drive to this beautiful region. We’d only been going an hour or so when we saw a group of some thirty odd, (and I mean odd), people walking along the side of the road. A few bore flags and two others were carrying a large cross, about three metres long, with a wreath placed on it. Another paraded a statue, on what looked like an upturned dustbin lid. It was about the same size as a garden gnome. ‘Grumpy,’ perhaps. One of the flags said something about Catholic relations with Mexico and there were several men with beards and Manson-esque eyes, wearing monks’ habits and crucifixes starting just under their chins and continuing nearly to the waist. One of them took a break as we passed and, for medieval authenticity, urinated in a hedge.

As we approached our destination, we noticed more and more stone crosses at the side of the road, until there seemed to be one every hundred metres or so. It clicked when we saw a sign telling us that we were on one of the routes of St Jaques de Compostelle. The people we had passed were pilgrims.

We arrived at our destination: a medieval house in a small, neat village lent to us by a friend from Sauve. In the bedroom, I found an interesting book: ‘La France vue du sol,’ a very funny department by department guide. One of the entries for the Gers (32), was in a sort of English, as there are a lot of Brits living there:

Did you know it?

In the Djerse (a French departement which looks like Tuscany without crappy italians around), you can buy a house for nothing! It’s incredible! These French bastards are so stupid that for the prize of a X-mas pudding from Harrod’s, you get a big old house in Djerse where the summers are long and nice and the winters are warm and short. After installing shower and toilettes, you can open a ‘gite rural’, and rent it to french tourists and make money! Unbelievable! To celebrate the transaction, ask for a glass of Armagnac XO and enjoy a typical cassoulet (it’s like an english breakfast with no toast). *

All the shops and cafés have a pilgrim theme. Pilgrims, it seems, have changed their tastes since the time of Chaucer. There were no fat capons on the bill of fare at any of the cafés or restaurants. These days, it seems, they prefer omelettes or croque monsieurs, both served with chips.

The tourist shops sell scallop shells, which are traditionally worn over the heart by those walking the 1,390 kilometres to Spain, (from where we were staying). It is a little-known fact, but pilgrims are obliged to carry ashtrays with them at all times to protect fags in the shirt pocket from inclement weather.

A lot of people, not necessarily of a religious disposition, follow the route out of historical curiosity, although most of them do just a small part of the journey. They all seem to have have those telescopic hiking sticks, which resemble ski-poles, which seem to serve no useful purpose whatsoever. Do they topple over without them?  

One day, we drove to a town classified as one of the Plus Beau Villages de France. It goes under the name of Conques. Settle down at the back, we’ve already heard the Cyrano and De Gaulle jokes and mean to start as we continue, especially as we also visited Condom. Conques was absolutely astonishing. I’ve  been to my fair share of medieval villages, but this was quite different to anything I’ve ever visited before. It was maintained, rather than restored to death, unlike a couple of places nearer to Sauve. The only way I can describe it is that it resembled a set out of ‘Lord of the Rings.’ I took one or two pictures, but then my camera packed up, so you’ll have to google it. 

The following day we went to Laguiole, which, in a Mr Cholmondley-Warnerish sort of way, is pronounced lie-ole. Laguiole is famous in France for two things: knives and cheese. These stylized penknives, have a bee on the handle at a right angle to the blade and are a favourite of hunters and handypersons alike. A good thirty percent of the shops in the town are knife shops. How they all manage to survive is anyone’s guess.

As for the cheese, a very strange thing happened. We went into a boulangerie to get a mid-morning snack to take to a cafe. It was a large, modern establishment, selling both sweet and savoury stuff. One of the things on offer was ‘cake** au cheddar,’ which came as a bit of a surprise. There was no mention of the local product, which is quite like Cheddar but slightly softer and creamier. Maybe they thought that the use of Laguiole in cooking was somehow sacriligious and that foreign rubbish would serve the purpose just as well. 

 *La France vue du sol
   Pascal Fioretto, Vincent Haudiquet,  Bruno Léandri.
   Chiflet & Cie

**French for gateau.

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