The barn, when we turned up, recalled hippie habitats of North America, but the fare was distinctly French. Aline, with her mother and infant daughter, served a hearty soup, rustic bread and wine, followed by crepes. We consumed it all at a long table with several German and Swiss hikers, and slept soundly in the tower.
Four days and another 43 miles of rivers, forest and back roads brought us to the town of Conques. Actually they brought Patrick. Ten days of pounding had taken a toll on my feet, and on the 11th I hitched a ride with Transbagages, a van service that carries bags for hikers who would rather not. For an additional fee they also will transport the hiker.
I was glad, for Conques clings to the wall of a ravine so steep that even while descending you don't see the town until you're right on top of it.
Conques was for centuries the object of enthusiastic pilgrimage to the relics of the child martyr St. Foy (Faith), killed in Agen by the Roman governor in the early 4th century. In the middle of town stands the great abbey church of St. Foy, begun about 1050 and, I think, the most harmonious of the route with its red-gold stone and luminous, layered arches. Traces of paint are still visible on the exquisite tympanum. Despite its somber theme — the Last Judgment — the figures are so tenderly rendered that even the demons are endearing.
A spirit of kinship
Cool water awaited us in the courtyard of the massive guesthouse just behind the church, run by a community of Norbertine priests. A cadre of friendly volunteers processed the guests, after which we were shown up a spiral stone staircase to our quarters.
Our room was shared with a young German pastor, a Breton, two Canadians and assorted late arrivals (the doors are never closed). We took a rest day and spent it wandering the steep, flowery streets, discovering new breathtaking perspectives inside the church, sitting in the cloister and gazing up at the mountainsides. In the evenings we enjoyed a four-course family-style dinner in the refectory chatting with other, mostly French, hikers.
On a warm, overcast morning, we departed up the canyon walls, toiling over boulders and roots. The climb seemed interminable; though only two miles, it rises about 1,300 feet.
The mountains of Aveyron gave way to the limestone plateaus of Quercy, which broke into rolling hills covered in oaks. Often in the woods, we came upon old stone foundations telling of villages abandoned to forest, or neolitihic dolmens hinting at older settlements.
As we arrived, by stages, in lower country, we found ourselves in step with certain fellow pilgrims for weeks at a time, our paths braiding and parting, sharing wine at a gîte d'etape in the evening or hurried breakfasts in the morning. Wild cherries gave way to wild plums along the trail, supplemented by ripening figs. (Any fruit hanging over the path was fair game.) Towns hugged the rivers for trade or perched on hills for defense. Leaving the hilltop bastide of Lauzerte, we missed a marker and were lost the rest of the day, consigned to plodding 15 miles of local highways into Moissac.
A day of rest in Moissac was welcome. The 12th century abbey church of St. Pierre has been a pilgrim center from early times, and its cloister capitals, riotous with decorative birds and leaves or sober with biblical scenes, are among the best preserved in Europe.
From Moissac we took a shady canal towpath along the Garonne River, then crossed into Armagnac, part of the Département du Gers and the land of a million sunflowers. Because of the intense heat, we were usually out before dawn. Already the sunflowers faced expectantly east. All day legions of them cheered us on our way. Almost as numerous were the cornfields, which reportedly provide inadvertent habitat to wild boar, and vineyards.
In Armagnac, a subdivision of Bordeaux wine country, most of the grapes go into the mellow Armagnac liqueur. Here we made the happy discovery of Floc de Gascogne. On a torrid evening we sat outdoors with fellow walkers, a French family of seven, and opened a copious supper with Floc. It looked like white wine, but oh, it wasn't. Made of fresh grape juice blended with Armagnac and fermented for about 10 months, the liqueur flowed down the throat like a distillation of summer flowers. (Floc means "bouquet" in the local dialect.)
Between the flowers and Floc, the Gers became one of my favorite départements. It was hilly enough to be interesting but gentle enough to walk 12 to 15 miles in a morning without exhaustion. Chapels to little-known saints stood open to wayfarers. The people were likewise sunny and welcoming; one village priest launched into extemporaneous paeans to Franco-American friendship, dispensing with some more usual parts of the service.
By now we had been walking for a month. Fellow travelers reached their appointed goals and went home. The early part of our own journey seemed far away, and our normal lives receded to unreality. What was real were the daily exigencies of life on the trail: finding food, getting to shelter, caring for one's feet. It simplified the mind wonderfully.
We were approaching the border. One day the trail climbed a steep hill, and all the Pyrenees spread before us in the morning light. It was now only two days' walk to St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
Tourists and pilgrims jammed St.-Jean. Houses dating from the 1500s lined the streets and sparkling river Nive. We said farewells to our last remaining companions, noting the gîtes were full of new hikers starting their walk into Spain.
Despite our unhurried pace, we arrived at our journey's end two weeks before our return flight. Patrick and I looked speculatively at the Pyrenees. One morning before sunrise, we took the upward road. I allowed Transbagages to carry my pack and flew — relatively speaking — up the pass.