Le Gers in late Autumn

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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D931 with the ‘city’ of Condom in the distance

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’.

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Boudu, my companion for the week.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone who celebrates it.

A bientôt,

Sara

 

 

Le Gers: Marciac in Fourcès

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

IMG_1561.JPGI 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.

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A bientôt,

Sara

Le Gers: Heatwave, driving and the nicest people one could ever meet

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Not the Brits but I didn’t have a photo of them so you get the swans!

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.

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Sara, Sallie Erichson and Fatiha

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.

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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.

And thus continues my wonderful month in Le Gers.

A bientôt,

Sara

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Les Chemins de St Jacques de Compostelle

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.

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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)

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The breathtaking collegial of La Romieu–halfway between Lectoure and Pouy-Roquelaure

History of the way of St. James:                                                                                                           BY

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.

Cloister in Le-Puy-en-Velay, GR65, 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.

Just past Villeret-d'Apchier, Way of Saint James, France

Shady path through the woods near Chamoux on Chemin de Vézelay
Shady path through the woods near Chamoux on Chemin de Vézelay (Photo by Melinda Lusmore, Ilovewalking)

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)

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Beginning of Chemin du Puy-en-Velay (730kilometres) photos by Melissa Lusmore I love Walking)

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).

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Stick around and more will be revealed!!

A bientôt,

Sara

Le Gers: Pouy-Roquelaure

I am in the south-west of France.  Once upon a time, this area was known as Gascony–famous for it’s wonderful food and fois gras.  Then the area was divided into two parts: Le Gers, more inland, and Landes, the beaches, as far south as Bayonne, and the forests that border Gers.  The people here are still known as Gascons, the restaurants are still famous for Gascon cooking and Le Canard Gascon is still pictured on many publications looking cute and silly.  Which I’m quite positive he is not feeling as he is foie gras in the making.

After living in Paris 4.5 years, I have some confidence that my home in California will stay rented and that I can pay my rent in Paris.  So for the first time, I have done two home exchanges.  The first one was last winter in London and this is my second.  I am staying in the lovely home of two Americans who live here permanently and they are staying in Oakland.  I am now a true Parisienne who has left Paris for the summer!

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Pouy-Roquelaure can be found on the map halfway between Agen and Condom.  It is a very small village with a church and a Mairie (Mayor’s office) but no retail of any kind.  It doesn’t even have a morning march.  I am staying just outside of Pouy with a view of sunflowers everywhere and far into the distance the patchwork quilt of green, brown and yellow.  It is extraordinarily beautiful.  In the morning, if I eat my breakfast outside I can hear the songs of birds and am just a bit sorry that I don’t recognise their breed.  As the day gets hotter, the birds are quiet, everything is quiet and only on a windy day can one hear that familiar country refrain of leaves rustling.

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The first morning I was here, I walked out the front door, went down to the mailbox and turned left.  From there, I followed trails/paths that took me alongside sunflower fields, a small stream then into the village of Pouy and back to Tourée–a full circle of about 8 kilometres.

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I am also charged with caring for a ‘swimming’ pool.  I have never had my own swimming pool.  Lovely as it is to jump in when I’m hot, I don’t think I’d want one.  For one thing, it’s a lot of work.  But more important to someone who loves to swim as much as I do, it is agonizing.  I do about five strokes of the crawl and hit the end.  I almost had a smash up involving a number of fingers on my hand the first time I had the great idea of swimming laps!  So I’m not thinking of it as a “swimming” pool but only a pool.  It is unheated and the loveliest time of day to get in is late afternoon, early and late evening when the sun has heated the water up.  I must admit that getting into my bathing suit at 10pm and swimming a couple of laps is a truly delicious experience.

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The French love to walk for which I’m very grateful.  They produce an endless amount of books on walks in every region of France.  My hosts equipped me with two books of Les Randonnées (as walking in France is called).  One covers the Gers region below the city of Agen and one covers the Lot-et-Garonne region above Agen.  To my delighted surprise, a large part of the GR65 known as the Chemin de St. Jacques goes through Pouy to Condom to the walled city of Larressingle on it’s way down into Spain.  Walking the Compostale is on my bucket list and I can now say I’ve walked at least 45 minutes on it!!!  The symbol of GR means Grands Randonnées which are the larger trails that go through a number of regions and PR is Petites Randonnées which are the smaller trails that stay within a region.

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The red and white symbol is for the GR65 and the yellow one is for PR4.  There was a about 30 minutes of this walk where the two were the same trail.
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A preview of one my randonnées 

Next: the village of Condom and some surrounding towns.

A Bientôt,

Sara

Paris Plages

 

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In 2002, the Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, who was well-known for launching ambitious municipal events, decided that everyone has the right to go to the beach in the summer.  Not everyone can afford to go to the Cote d’Azur or Brittany or the West of France.  So beaches were brought to Paris.  For four weeks, sand lay on the quai of the right bank of the Seine from Hotel de Ville to Pont Neuf. It was so popular that it was brought back the next year.  By 2007,  4 million visitors were recorded.

This year, Paris Plages is lasting from July 7 (the first day of school vacation) until Sept 2. I walked down there today from Hotel de Ville.  I didn’t see any sand but all the umbrellas were up and lounge chairs were out with people sunning and reading.

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One of the reasons that the Paris Plages look different this year may be a political one. The beaches were built free of charge by LafargeHolcim from 2002 to 2017, when the city of Paris discontinued their contract in retaliation for LafargeHolcim’s proposal to build the wall on the Mexico-United States border promised by U.S. President Donald Trump. (Wikipedia)

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I don’t think the sunbathers or the children playing with the above games cared one way or the other.  School is out for the summer and they can all go to the “beach”.

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In past years, this quai up to the bridge would have been sand with beach showers and water games.

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In  another part of Paris, at the “Bassin de la Villette” is another beach.  This one has three different pools.  Photos will have to wait until I return from Le Gers.  From TripSavvy:  Stretching from the Rotonde de Ledoux near the Jaurès Metro station to the former Magasins Généraux on Rue de Crimee, this is the beach to choose if you’d like to see a more contemporary side of Paris, and are interested in getting in the water. For water sports enthusiasts, the beach of choice will be at La Villette, where the Canal de l’Ourq affords participants a choice between a variety of relaxed water sports. Kayaks, pedal boats, sailboats, canoes, and more are open to the public at no charge until 9:00 p.m. with instructors on the scene to help ensure a safe experience. You’ll be able to glide along over 53,000 square feet of water, and after boating, a cold drink on one of the beach’s waterside cafes will be in order.

So those who can’t travel, summer at the beach has come to them!!!

A bientôt,

Sara