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’.
For my birthday this week, my friend, Barbara booked Body scrubs and massages at Institut Spa Valdys in Roscoff, a town about one and a half hours west of Perros Guirec, Brittany. I was quite excited and kept telling people that I was “taking the waters” at the Spa. Finally she said to me, “Have you never heard of Thalassotherapie? I can’t believe it.” I hadn’t. I wasn’t sure I’d even heard the word. It looked Greek and that was about it. Thalasso means ‘sea’ in Greek. Thalassotherapy is the use of seawater as a form of therapy. So I may not have known what I was talking about, but I wasn’t that far off the mark.
After chatting away happily for a one and a half hour drive, we arrived in Roscoff. The landscape had changed about ten minutes before entering the town. It seemed flat and grey. Although we could see the sea, there wasn’t much attractive about the geography. We followed the directions on my iPhone to the Hotel Tulip next door to the Spa. We found parking and began our day at Noon. Unlike American spas, this spa checked us in and left us on our own. No ‘Welcome, let me show you around’. No ‘First you go here and change, then you go there and’ …..American Spas, at least the ones I’ve been in, treat every person like a Queen. I wasn’t sure if this was the french way or just this Spa. We wandered around a bit lost until we finally asked someone what we do. She explained where to change our clothes and get a robe. Then to come back to her floor and sit in a jacuzzi or steam bath or swim in the swimming pool. Upstairs on the 4th floor was a gym with bikes and walking machines. No one was there!
At 2pm, we sat in waiting rooms waiting for our names to be called. When called, I was asked what kind of scrub I would like. I asked her what the difference was. One was for sensitive skin which I don’t have so she suggested the ginger scrub. The word in French is Gommage. I hadn’t asked for a translation so I wasn’t quite sure what I was in for. It turned out to be delicious. She rubbed my entire body with this oily exfoliating scrub and after showering the particles off, I was left with glowing sweet smelling skin. I wanted to keep the oil on forever. She took me back to the waiting room where I found Barbara and we compared experiences. We had picked different scrubs but the looks on our faces probably said to anyone looking that we had both loved it.
My name was called again and this time I was led to a massage room. My massage was good but not great. At the end, I was relaxed and happy. Barbara had a great massage and couldn’t believe how effective it was. Her masseuse had told her go to the Solarium and relax. So I followed along. The door that said Resting Room opened up to eight chaises longues with buttons to push for music or heat. I tried to read but promptly fell asleep. Barbara’s chair had a view of the sea at low tide. There were tide pools, tons of algae, three large pools for swimming that filled up at high tide. We decided to get dressed and go for a walk.
The sand had the strangest little curly-que details. It was like pieces of thick string wound up and dropped. I thought maybe it was droppings of some sort but when I put my foot on it, it collapsed into sand. They were everywhere. I was trying to imagine how the water would roll in as the tide rose to make those little ‘decorations’. I was stumped, it was beyond my imagination.
So what exactly is Thalassotherapy? This is what Wikipedia has to say:
“It is based on the systematic use of seawater, sea products, and shore climate. The properties of seawater are believed to have beneficial effects upon the pores of the skin. Some claims are made that thalassotherapy was developed in seaside towns in Brittany, France during the 19th century. A particularly prominent practitioner from this era was Dr Richard Russell,whose efforts have been credited with playing a role in the populist “sea side mania of the second half of the eighteenth century”, although broader social movements were also at play. In Póvoa de Varzim, Portugal, an area believed to have high concentrations of iodine, due to kelp forests, and subject to sea fog, the practice is in historical records since 1725 and was started by Benedictine monks; it expanded to farmers shortly after. In the 19th century, heated saltwater public baths opened and became especially popular with higher classes.Others claim that the practice of thalassotherapy is older: “The origins of thermal baths and related treatments can be traced back to remote antiquity. Romans were firm believers in the virtues of thermalism and thalassotherapy.
In thalassotherapy, trace elements of magnesium, potassium, calcium, sodium, and iodide found in seawater are believed to be absorbed through the skin. The effectiveness of this method of therapy is not widely accepted as it has not been proven scientifically. The therapy is applied in various forms, as either showers of warmed seawater, application of marine mud or of algae paste, or the inhalation of sea fog. Spas make hot seawater and provide mud and seaweed wrapping services. This type of therapy is common in the Dead Sea area”
Well, whatever it is, I enjoyed it. I didn’t wash the oil off my skin for eighteen hours!
Anyone who has ever visited Paris in August immediately senses that something is out of whack. Other than the Parvis in front of Notre-Dame or the Tour Eiffel, Paris is practically empty. It is the Congée Annuelle otherwise known as August. There are plenty of parking spots on the street, seats are empty on the metro. At least half the retail stores are closed for the month with a sign thanking us for our understanding.
I walked outside of my apartment building this morning at 10:45. There wasn’t a person to be seen. It was eerily quiet. The Boulangerie on the corner is closed. Two out of the three fruit and vegetable markets are closed. The Greek deli is closed. The pizza and sandwich shop is closed. The one and only Women’s clothing shop is closed. The chocolate shop is open with an ice cream stand outside the door.
Where Parisians live, it is silent. Where tourists gather, there are more people than ever. Trying to walk across the Parvis to meet a friend at a cafe was like negotiating one of the hardest obstacle slalom courses one could find. Tourists don’t walk. They amble—as they should. How else is one to take in the beauty that is Paris? However, if you live here, as I do, tourist places should be avoided at all costs. Especially if you need to be somewhere. It is a good reminder of the awe that most of us felt when we first arrived. When rambling was the height of entertainment.
Quinze Août (August 15th–The Assumption of Mary) is a holiday within the vacation month. Then absolutely everything shuts down. I asked Barbara, “Isn’t it a contradiction to have everyone celebrating a Catholic holiday in a Socialist Country?” She responded “no, not at all. Unlike the US, we have total separation of church and state.” (Note: now that Macron is President, France is no longer a Socialist country).
The stores that are open have tiny signs in their windows telling us that things are still at “very small prices.” Les Soldes is over but they hope to get rid of all their stock before La Rentrée. La Rentrée which literally means The Re-Entry. When everyone comes back to Paris, back to work and back to school.
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).