Having spent three weeks in the little village of Calignac, I have fallen in love with this area. I’m told that Lot-et-Garonne is one the poorest areas of France. This most southern part of the district that abuts Le Gers is more like Le Gers. Nérac is a bustling large town that is busy all year long. The river Baise flows from Agen and it is very popular with tourists to rent a boat and take a week going from town to town along the river.
Here the river runs under the bridge with old Nérac on one side and the Chateau where Henry IV spent his teenage years and newer Nérac on the other side.
The Saturday outdoor Nérac market is one of the largest in the area and attracts natives and tourists alike. It goes on rain or shine although many of the non-food stalls don’t show up on rainy days.
During the heat wave (canicule), if anyone was silly enough to go outside, we sought places that were shady to rest. Like the small mini-park below that is just before the bridge in Nérac.
I visited an artist friend in the small town of Francescas, which lies just before one enters Le Gers. There are miles and miles of small roads all numbered D131, D112, etc, winding around each other, going in and out of these small towns and hamlets. Some have only houses left although they once would have had an ironsmith and a boulangerie. Others will have a café that might also sell bread.
In the town of LaPlume on D931, the ruins of an old church, L’Eglise St. Nicolas, sit without a roof, its insides empty but a thriving and full cemetery. LaPlume has a new church (around 1856) but it seems that the old church is being somewhat restored. There will probably never be a roof but in the future, it may be much more presentable. Meanwhile wire mesh keeps teens and partiers from going in.
No matter how lovely a balade en voiture is, it is always nice to head ‘home’ at lunchtime for a nap, a good book and food out of the garden.
As all my readers from last summer know, sunflowers are everywhere. Huge fields of them, alongside all the roads, next to hiking trails, visible from house windows. They are planted in late Spring and reach their peak in mid-July. These sunflowers aren’t grown for cutting flowers. They are grown for sunflower oil which is prolific down here. People cook with sunflower oil and use olive oil for eating. Now a couple of days into August, the large, heavy heads of the sunflowers are bowing down toward the ground. They will eventually turn black and in early Fall, will be mowed down and their seeds will become huile de tournesol.
France is divided into 101 departments, 96 of which are in mainland France. The first two numbers on the postal code tell you which department you are in. 75 is Paris. 32 is Le Gers where I spent the summer last year. 47 is Lot-et-Garonne where I am at this moment. I tried very hard to find a place to rent or house-exchange in Le Gers but no one wants to leave in the summertime! So I am in a very small village called Calignac, next to a large town called Nérac and both are about 30 minutes driving from Condom which is close to where I stayed last year. So I’m still telling people I’ve come down to Le Gers but really it’s Le Gers bis (just behind or next to)!
I arrived last Monday evening. For whatever reason, I had a hard time leaving Paris. I have been looking forward to this vacation for a year but as I said good bye to Bijou and closed the door of my apartment, all I could think of was how much I love Paris. I made the train on time and, voilà, down in Le Gers. I slept on and off for the next two days.
One of the reasons that people don’t leave Le Gers in the summer is the music. There are festivals in every area of the department. In Condom, during the summer, there are organ recitals every Tuesday evening at 6pm in the Cathedral. They are followed by an optional tour of the Cathedral followed by what’s known as the Night Market. The night market is an extremely popular event all summer long and one could go to one every single evening of the week. In french, it is known as the Marché des Producteurs régionaux. Different “companies” or farms bring gourmet meals in trucks to sell. Long tables are set out in the town square or nearby. People come in droves to eat together or meet and party with their neighbours. Often there is a band or bands playing and the evening will go on until the sun finally sets around 10:30pm.
We went to the first organ recital of the summer last Tuesday. Gospel music on the organ and trumpet in the confines of a huge cathedral space! Absolutely divine!! Literally.
One of my favourite towns is La Romieu. It lies west of Lectoure and east of Condom. All three towns and villages are on the Compostale of Saint Jacques. This weekend is the the 9th Music Festival en Chemin. And last Thursday, the 18th, was the Avant-Premier concert held in the Gardens of Corsiana, a private large garden reminiscent of Longwood Gardens in Penna. My friend, Barbara and I, arrived early to see the gardens quietly before everyone else arrived. We brought a picnic dinner which we ate on one of the many picnic tables on the property. At 8:30pm, an outbuilding that has been constructed for weddings, small concerts and events was filled up with at least one hundred people and the concert began. The quartet was made up of a family: 2 brothers and 2 sisters on violins and a cello. They are young and only recently have been traveling and now are winning awards for their interpretations of Mozart and their playing. It was a magical evening and a wonderful start to my summer vacation in Le Gers.
If only I could figure out how to attach my videos, I would also include the sound of the summer music. But…..
Five pm and the sun was setting casting a rusty orange glow over the empty fields as I drove up the one-lane road to Tourré. I turned the corner and there she stood in quiet majesty just as I’d left her in August. A ranch-style stone house with a covered yet wide open terrace, she welcomed me back for a too-short week of rest and writing.
I had been afraid that I would be disappointed in Le Gers once the summer was over. In the summer, the fields are full of people-sized sunflowers, their huge heads following the daily path of the sun until, in mid-August, they are bowed way down by the weight of their dying beauty, waiting to be cut and turned into sunflower oil. These same fields are now brown and bumpy from being turned over by huge machines plowing their way up and down the non-existent rows. A glorious burnt-sienna light is spreading out quilt-like over the gentle ups and downs of the Gers countryside.
If anything, it is more beautiful than summer.
I parked my Renault Clio and sat in an arm chair looking back the way I’d arrived. Taking in the absolute quiet, the solitude of the surrounding Tuscan-like landscape. It is a gentle, spacious and friendly landscape. One that hasn’t changed in decades.
At night, the half moon will quiver in the slight wind and cold as I stand under the heavens reminding myself of the constellations that I can’t see in Paris.
I feel full of anticipation. To be here, to walk here drinking in every golden leaf, every blade of grass, every spire of each church that stand in the center of the many hamlets of fourteen or fifteen homes. There are no big cities in Le Gers. Just small villages and hamlets, some still have the ramparts surrounding them that were built in the 13th/14thcenturies. There are no large byways only two lane roads that never have many cars on them, although those cars are always speeding.
I read that there are more animals here than people. It is a place that God has favored, loved and cared for. I am so grateful to have found this place, to be able to spend time here. Now I realise it doesn’t matter what time of year it is, it will be beautiful. It’s Le Gers. Trite as it sounds, I feel my heart leap into my throat each time I turn off D931 and make my way back ‘home’.
When I wrote about le Chemin de St. Jacques that starts in Le Puy and works it way down France to Lectoure and west to Condom and Montreal, I was fascinated by a big detour. As the Way goes west from Lectoure, it suddenly goes due north 8 kilometres to the Collegial of La Romieu and then back down 8 kilometres and makes it way to Condom. La Romieu had to be something very special to the pilgrims. I learned it is classed as a World Humanity site by UNESCO.
The Village itself was founded by two Benedictine monks on their return to Rome in 1062. The word Romiau means Roman pilgrim. Later, Cardinal Arnaud d’Aux wanted to build a Church that would be the tomb for his family. Today, Le Romieu hosts a beautiful church, Sacristy with painted ceilings, Cloisters and a tower. From the top, on a clear day, one can see the Pyrenees.
What charmed me was the story of Angeline and her cats. The short version is that during the middle ages, the people in the village were starving and took to eating cats and dogs. The child, Angeline, hid her two cats. When the time of starvation passed, the rats came. Angeline’s cats killed the rats and saved the village. We ate at a restaurant called Angeline’s. Everywhere you walked, a stone cat or fascimile would be gazing into the distance.
Driving up to Le Romieu, one sees two towers not one rising into the sky on either side of the Collegiale. It is a magnificent skyline. In July, a music festival and Fete is held on a long weekend called Festival Musique en Chemin.
My ticket to Le Romieu gave me access to Les Jardins de Coursiana, a 900 meter walk from the village. The Botanical gardens are actually four different gardens: an English garden, a medicinal garden, a huge vegetable garden (plenty of vegetables were on sale in the Boutique), and a Potager Familial.
Entering a well loved garden has always given me a deep sense of peace, much more so than many churches and cathedrals that I have visited. These gardens were created in 1974 by Gilbert Cours -Darne, an eminent French botanist (he was awarded the Olivier de Serres prize, the highest distinction bestowed by the Academie d’Agriculture), the arboretum occupies 6 hectares and contains 700 different species of trees and shrubs. Situated by the road to Saint-Jacques de Compostelle with a view of the St Pierre de La Romieu collegiale, the Coursiana Gardens offer you a serene pause in a beautiful environment. Veronique and Arnaud Delannoy, the owners of the arboretum, as a result of their painstaking work, received the national Edouard d’Avdeew’s prize, awarded by the Association des Parcs Botaniques de France. In 2001, a partnership was established with Fleurance Nature to create a medicinal and aromatic plants garden, which opened in spring 2002. (most of this from TripAdvisor).
Some reviews say “Come in May”. During the first two weeks in August, I saw: Wisteria shading lilac plants, large orange marigolds protecting long rows of tomatoes, green beans and aubergines. Next to a lake with two swans and 3 ducks, rose an Oak tree that had been planted two hundred years ago. It towered majestically over the rest of the many trees nearby. It’s branches, in almost a perfect circle hung canopy-like over the bottom of a Japanese Fountain and waterfall. Hanging to the sides of the lake were the largest Hibiscus plants I have ever seen.
The brochure says it takes 1.5 hours to walk the gardens. That’s a rush for me. I wanted to sit on many of the wooden benches strategically placed for contemplation. The gardens were very quiet. Visitors seem to respect the deep spiritual sense of beauty that the gardens instil.
A couple of days later, with only one day left in Le Gers, we visited L’Abbaye de Flaran. It is a former Cistercianabbey located in Valence-sur-Baïse, The abbey was founded in 1151, as a daughter house of Escaladieu Abbey, at the confluence of the Auloue and Baïse rivers, between the towns of Condom and Auch. The abbey was founded by Burgundianmonks and today represents one of the best preserved abbeys in the south-west of France. (Wikipedia)
After years of tumult, almost being sold off and ending up in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the site was purchased by the department of Gers in 1972 and underwent an intense restoration project; it is now the site of numerous cultural activities. The site houses a permanent exhibition on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, the Way of St. James.
At the turn of the Century, Michael Simonow donated all his art collection to the Abbey. They have been showing exhibitions every since. The one we saw on the First floor looking over the Cloisters was called The English School. It was a lovely exhibition but…it gave the Abbey a feel of a museum. Downstairs is the permanent exhibition of Les Chemins de St. Jacques. Entering that stone room with two stone sculptures of what Jacques must have looked like, I was immediately transported back to the spiritual feelings this being (me) almost automatically soaks up when near this Way. A bit like being wrapped up in a light shawl. I am so looking forward to starting on Le chemin next summer. I don’t even care about getting to Spain. Just being around it, so close to it for over a month, has given me a great feeling of longing to walk on the path that so many pilgrims have walked on. I even talked a fish market into giving me a half shell of a Scallop to place in my small terrace garden.
While still In Paris wondering what Le Gers would be like, H sent me a couple of e-mails describing music festivals taking place while I was there. He let me know how far away they were from Pouy and whether he had enjoyed them in the past. So I thought “OK, if there’s nothing better to do, I’d love to go hear music.”
Upon my arrival and with very little investigation, I learned that there were at least three or four festivals a weekend, most including music: Organ concerts almost every night of the week that rotated around village churches and cathedrals; spectacles; theatre; night markets with bands to both listen to and dance to. Saying there are a few music festivals during the summer in Le Gers is a bit like saying there are a few raindrops when it rains.
The most famous of the Festivals is a ten day Jazz Festival in Marciac (southwest of Auch). Special guests this year were Joan Baez (sold out immediately) and Santana. It would have been a very long day to go to Marciac and come back on small roads that I didn’t know well late at night (remember how the Gascons drive!). After Barbara arrived, we went to visit Fourcès (my second time) and we saw a sign advertising Marciac in Fourcès, August 10. Easy to get to as it was 20 minutes from Pouy. Off we went, driving my favourite back route through Mèzin passing fields of exhausted sunflowers, heads bowed down awaiting their fate.
We arrived around 9pm and the music had started. The town square which is a circle, making it one of Les plus beaux villages de France, was filled with chairs, every one of which had a person sitting n it. Many people had brought their own chairs or stools and at least 200 hundred people were eating at tables they had brought, full of wonderful food,circling the centre. We ran into a woman we’d met earlier in the week. Something like that always helps me feel like I belong. After a walk around the shops which were open for the evening, we made our way to the front to listen. A friendly Gascon gave Barbara his seat on a long bench. The woman seated next to her turned out to be the drummer’s mother. The group was called The Louisiana Hot Trio and they had brought along a famous horn player, JF Bonnel. He had three other wind instruments at his feet in front of him.
The music was toe-tapping good, it was difficult to keep still. I saw couples doing a jitterbug under the arches that encircle the “square”. The sky was clear and full of stars. Everyone was smiling, many bouncing their heads in tune with the music. One fellow seemed a bit tipsy and made his way to the top of one of the two haystacks on either side of the stage. After making sure that everyone saw him, he lay down on his back, arms behind his head, feet in the air and settled in to listen to the music under the stars.
Before we left home at 8:30pm, we thought we were tired. We said we would only stay an hour. HA! We stayed to the bitter end–not late for the French, maybe 11pm. Some, like us, wandered off to their cars. Many migrated to the restaurants.
I hear Marciac can be expensive. Marciac in Fourcs was free. I wondered if it was due to the fact that the drummer was a local. H. later told me that the real local was someone connected to the Jazz Festival and had the clout to bring one group to his village. It was a night to remember. Not just for the music but for the welcoming attitude of the Gascons, the ability to join in to a local fête and the sense of being right where we were supposed to be.
I’ve been told that the heatwave that has hit all of Europe has broken all records. I have certainly felt it down here in Le Gers. There is something so different about being this hot when you live in a stone house and have a pool! I get errands done in the morning or plan a hike and make sure I’m back in the house by 2pm at the very latest. Then it’s nap time, reading time, swimming time. If I need to go out again, I make sure I’ll be in the shade as the heat doesn’t even begin to subside until 10pm at night. Who knew when I planned this month down here in March that I would be escaping hot and miserable Paris. I feel very fortunate.
Is it because of the heat that all the sunflowers are bowing their heads? Probably not, That’s what happens. They bow their huge heads into their long necks and nothing but a pale yellow and green shows in the fields. It’s very pretty but it’s not like seeing proud sunflowers looking at the sun and loyally following it’s path during the day. Soon they will be harvested and turned into sunflower oil. That patch of ground will then be home to wheat. It’s so fun to see sunflowers popping up willy nilly in and around the wheat. The stubborn ones kept their seeds nearby.
The Gascons drive terribly. Very fast on roads that are barely wide enough for one car. The Gascons live here and probably know these roads like the back of their hands. It must be frustrating to have summer people driving slower, looking at the gorgeous countryside, filling up on the beauty that is Le Gers. I’m pretty sure of this because they come right up on my tail and wait for the first possibility of passing. I pull as close to the right as I can to make it easier but when I see a van coming in the opposite direction and the road isn’t wide enough for both of them, I find myself holding my breath, my eyes grow very wide and I say a little prayer to the driving gods that all will be ok. So far, I haven’t seen an accident. The people that live here tell me accidents happen a lot.
The people that live here…. I’ve met Gascons, I’ve met Brits, I’ve met a few Americans. Everyone of them is genuinely happy to help if I have a question or just chat if I don’t. Saturday, I was in Agen with my friend Barbara. We went to a pharmacy to get some bug spray and anything to help with the itching. Barbara got a prescription filled and we just chatted away with the pharmacist. As we were getting ready to leave, she disappeared for one second and returned with two french soaps. One for each of us. Just because.
There are two Brits who live in Pouy and have done so for 12 years. The wife arrived on our doorstep last week with a big box of tomatoes, corgettes and green beans that she had just picked from her potager. The smell of freshly picked tomatoes is unlike anything I’ve ever smelled. It makes me wonder how I ever ate those tomatoes my mother used to buy that were wrapped in cellophane and sold in the A&P. Today, we went over to see their home. They had bought a house that had been empty for years and they gutted it except the bones. They now have a lovely, tasteful stone home (the walls were maybe the ramparts of the Chateau next to them) with something precious to look at at every turn. After drinks of cool, cool water, it was time to leave and she handed us another bag of fresh green beans and tomatoes. The thing is they would treat anyone this way.
Then there is Sallie Erichson, the American Photographer, who I met two weeks ago at a Fete. When she realised that I was just visiting for the summer, she got my contact info and invited me for dinner with her and her husband. When my friends from Paris arrived, we went over to her home and she entertained us for a couple of hours. Plus, each time we were going out for dinner, I would ask her for a suggestion. So far, she is batting 1000.
And lastly, there is Simone, the mother of a friend of Barbara’s. She is 93 years old and when Barbara realised we were staying only 2 km distance from the mother’s home, she suggested to her friend that she might check up on mom in all this heat. Both of us were picturing a frail old woman suffering from loneliness while everyone was staying inside. We rang her doorbell and a sturdy woman answered and shook her finger at us and said she wasn’t interested. She thought we were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Her son had told her that Barbara would visit so when she realised who we were, we all doubled up laughing. She took us through her house, completely shuttered up to prevent the heat from entering, to a small terrace in the back. We must have stayed 45 minutes while she entertained us. We walked through her lovely gardens and both Barbara and I hoped that we looked and functioned like her at 93 years old. Each time Barbara asked if we could buy her something or help her with something, she didn’t need us. She has plenty of friends who stop by. She is well cared for.
When I was in my 20s and did most of my hiking (really backpacking as we always spent many nights out in our sleeping bags) in Vermont and the Northeast of the United States, I had a dream of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail. I hiked much of it in New England and now know that not all of the trail is fun. It goes through cities and one has to hike on cement etc.
Then I moved out to California and my dream changed to doing the entire Pacific Coast Trail from Canada to Mexico. It went through Yosemite and I did a lot of it there and south to Kings Canyon.
Then I moved to France. Many of my friends were walking the Compostelle one week at a time, year after year. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was but it sounded like fun and it was hiking. I talked a few friends into considering joining me next Spring or next Fall but no one agrees where to start or when to go and how much money to spend on a service that helps! My friends Joy and Erica want to start in Portugal. My friends Jane and David have already done 13 days and walked only in Spain. The French trails seem like the ugly step sister so I hadn’t paid much attention to where they are. So imagine my surprise when I realised that I’m sitting right on top of the part of the ‘Chemin’ that comes down from Puy en Velay.
The trail comes down to Lectoure then goes northeast to La Romieu (19km). From there it goes to Condom (16km) then onto Montreal (20km) and from Montreal to Eauze (18km)
The Way of Saint James is known by many names – the Chemin de Saint-Jacques, the Via Podiensis, the Pilgrims’ Trail or, more simply, the GR 65. It is just one of many long-distance walking paths which arrive in France from all corners of Europe, converging eventually in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
For more than one thousand years, pilgrims gathered in this picturesque village (recently classified as one of France’s ‘most beautiful’) before heading out on a month-long journey across northern Spain to pay homage to the Apostle Saint James.
Perhaps the most famous – and most popular – of all long-distance walks is the Spanish Camino which stretches 800 kilometres (500 miles) from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.
Statistics vary greatly but between 100,000 and 200,000 walkers set out each year to complete all, or part, of this trail which, confusingly, is often referred to as the Camino Frances – a reference to its starting point in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port nestled in the foothills of the Pyrénéan mountains of southern France.
Legend has it (and this is the version that I like best) that after the death of Jesus, the twelve disciples cast lots to divide up the known world and determine where each of them would spread the gospels. James travelled to Iberia (now known as Portugal and Spain) but, disappointed by what he perceived as a lack of success, returned to Jerusalem some years later, where he was promptly beheaded on the orders of King Herod.
And so the first pilgrimages began. For the devout in France and northern Europe, a pilgrimage to Santiago was much more manageable than a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Over time, four main routes became established and today there are over 4,000 kilometres of paths, known collectively as the Chemins de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, which bring walkers from all over France to the southern town of Saint-Jean Pied-de-Port. From here, they begin the 900 kilometre journey across the top of Spain to where the relics of Saint James are now housed in the much grander cathedral in nearby Santiago de Compostela. Luckily for us walkers, a steady procession of pilgrims has resulted in a plentiful (in most cases) offering of accommodation and other infrastructure (OK, perhaps not a plentiful offering of toilets). As you get closer to Santiago, competition for a cheap bed can be pretty stiff but in France you are less likely to find yourself stranded or having to walk on to the next town. If you are walking a short section of the Pilgrims’ Trail, it is quite easy to pre-plan your stops and book your accommodation in advance.
Nowadays, people walk the Way of Saint James for a variety of reasons – sometimes for the physical challenge, sometimes as a walking meditation, often for religious reasons – and in a variety of ways – alone, in a guided group, with friends, in short stages or in one huge concentrated effort – but invariably they share a camaraderie that overcomes language barriers and other differences.
PS: The four main routes in France are known by their starting points – Chemin du Puy-en-Velay (730 kilometres); Chemin d’Arles (805 kilometres); Chemin de Paris (940 kilometres) and Chemin de Vézelay (1,090 kilometres)
Thank you, Melissa Lusmore
Here in Pouy, there is a woman who is helping me out with care-taking of the pool. When I told her of my interest in Le Chemin, she told me that she and her friends have walked it one week every summer for years. They only have one week left to complete it. She said she prefers the France paths to the Spanish paths. I imagine that a lot of that is due to ease of finding gites to stay in at the last minute and fewer people on the trails. The Spanish camino is the most popular and most crowded. Starting in Portugal is also a way to begin with a lack of many people.
I bought a book and my theory is that if I read it enough, it will happen (Build it and they will come).