I traveled from the village of Marsolan through Condom–which, to my understanding, has no etymological relation to its similarly-named latex brother–and beyond to a small farm near a village called Larressingle.
On the way, as is often the case, there were a couple options for walking, one that went through La Romieu and its Collegiate Church, a pretty town besides that too, or the shortcut that cut out about 6 km. Silly me, I took the long way, which I’ve been doing whenever there’s an option and something worth seeing by doing so. Who knows when, or more likely, if, I’ll see these places again?
Anyway, I don’t exactly know what a collegiate church is, but my sense is that it has something to do with training priests. Here is a picture of the cloister and the view from climbing the narrow, spiraling stone stairs of one of the towers.
Condom didn’t interest me too much, and in the interest of moving forward I traveled about 6-7 Km out of town and decided to stay on a functioning farm. I’ve been on farms before, but I didn’t really know what staying on one entailed. The result was incredible–farmers know how to eat and drink. But before I get to that, here’s a picture of an old fortified village right close to the farm, Larressingle. Although a new village exists, the old one is intact around old walls and a fort, with a church and several buildings inside that were likely residences or craftsmen’s shops.
Around 7:30 PM the seven people staying at the farm gathered near the farmhouse to await dinner, I don’t think any of us knew what to expect. The farmer showed up 15 minutes later after apparently having just showered but still sweating from the day’s work and invited us into a cellar under his house. I didn’t understand a word he said of course. In it he had barrel casks piled deep, along with a few devices for producing what we found out to be Armangac, a liquor distilled from wine. He also makes white, rose, and red wines. We all gathered around a couple upturned casks and he set about to pouring everyone shot glasses, explaining that it was a mixture of “Jus de raisin” (grape juice, hopefully) and “Armagnac.” Given an opportunity to taste such fresh products was a rare opportunity and I think everyone knew it, especially at the paltry price he was charging for room and board. We all drank, and he poured a different kind, all the while proselytizing as to a sermon the finer aspects of Armagnac and making wine.
Through some benevolent translators, I learned that he started allowing pilgrims to stay at his farm for a quarter or more of the price he could probably get otherwise in order to give them a great experience along The Way, an experience they would remember. He, Alain, produces Armagnac, all kinds of wine, beef, and who knows what else, and organically too; organic wine or anything like that is quite expensive here in France. He swore that, because organic wine and Armagnac had no sulfites, it was impossible to get a headache from drinking too much of it. I’m not sure I or anyone else actually believed that.
He kept pouring, and everyone kept foolishly drinking. In France, a German man told me, the people believe that tomorrow is tomorrow, today is today, that we should live for the present. Even given the upcoming walk the next day, I embraced this and did as everyone else did.
Alain even invited a couple of us to take photos while he poured a beverage.
What he poured me was labeled “Eau de Vie,” water of life, which I understandably mistook for being water. Instead, to my surprise, it was some 58% proof pure Armagnac before it gets aged and, consequently, weaker. Finally we headed for dinner, where his wife had been preparing the most delicious meal I’ve yet tasted in France. Some tomato, onion dish with oil and spices for the appetizer, vegetables, chicken, and rice, all cooked to perfection and well-spiced for the entree, and cake soaked in Armagnac for dessert, tasty except for the Armagnac that I’d already had my fill of. Also at dinner the obligatory wine, this time specially unique as it was grown by the man’s own hands not 100 meters away. The Armagnac kept coming until finally, at 10 or 10:30, he decided it was time to let us all sleep.
Waking up the next day was a bit of a challenge, but I somehow hit the road by 6:30, well-hydrated for the hot day, with thoughts still swimming in my head of the incredible experience this man provided for us, provides for presumably most every pilgrim that stays the night there.
The following day, I finally entered a definitive wine region of France, where hills and plains in every direction were lined with row after row of grape vine. A church even sat between two fields, and inside was a dusty old place which I noticed didn’t have electricity. The symbolism now dawns on me: while many people in France surely worship Jesus, everyone pay homage to the grape in some way.
Later, after taking another long route to visit Montreal-du-Gers, I entered and sat down in the pews of the town’s cathedral while a brass band rehearsed for some unknown event. They played a few songs before I hit the trail again, the only one of which I recognized being Whitesnake’s “Here I go Again.”
The day’s temperature hit the mid-90’s, not great for walking, and even worse to walk in after an evening when you’ve first tried Armagnac. Nonetheless, I stumbled into Eauze, cooking inside but happy to be alive and free, happy for the daily experiences found on this trail, ready to do it again the next day in just as hot of weather. I stayed at the family home of one Pauline and Marcel, pilgrims who said the Camino de Santiago vastly changed their lives, convinced them to buy their house and open the top part of it pilgrims in order to help others along The Way, charging only what they each can afford to pay. I’ve heard this same story of people wanting to give back after their lives were changed by The Way again and again, and I’ll surely hear it in the future still.
Food and Drink
The events at “Ferme du Tollet” as it was called makes me want to write about a topic as complex as they come in France; I imagine anthropologists could write ethnographies on the intricacies of the subject of food and drink in France after years of study. But nonetheless, I’ll write here my observations I’ve found interesting so far.
Breakfast is the simplest meal. It consists of baguette with butter and jam, coffee or tea, orange juice, sometimes yogurt, and less frequently cereal. My sense is the cereal isn’t that traditional. The strangest part of breakfast is that coffee is drunk from a bowl, a bowl you’d eat cereal from, not from a mug. Everything else is pretty standard. Bread, as at dinner, is eaten right off the table.
Lunch I don’t have much too say about, as lunch is always a hodgepodge of whatever I can find during the day’s walk. For me, it’s often quiche from the local boulangerie/bakery and some fruit. I have no idea what French families eat for lunch.
Dinner, however, is the hard part. An older German man told me something that I think fittingly describes dinner in France: it’s not an event but a process, a social event, a celebration of the day, and in my view it’s where French cooks show their pride for cuisine. A standard family’s dinner can easily last for a few hours or more. Forks go on the left of the plate, knives and soup spoons on the right, and the dessert spoon rests at the top of the plate. There is usually one glass, used for both wine and water. Dinner consists of an appetizer, soup, or salad, sometimes two or more, without exception. Less frequently, dinner is proceeded by an aperitif, which is just like my drinking of Armagnac at the aforementioned farm before dinner. The entree consists of some meat dish along with rice, pasta, vegetables, or some combination thereof. Sometimes, a selection of local cheeses follows dinner, usually three of them. After the entree or cheese comes dessert, always, without exception. It’s usually some kind of cake, creme dish, parfait.
Finally, and certainly most importantly, dinner always comes with wine. To me, French culture is inseparable from wine, and you can often see people drinking it during the day during the lunchtime siesta. Coming to France and not tasting the wine is tantamount to heresy I imagine–one can’t truly experience this culture without at least tasting the wine. The wines, I’m told, are delineated by region, whereas in the United States and most of the world, wines are labeled by the type of grape. In France, the terrain they are grown in is most important, not the type of grape. There are three colors, white, red, and rose, and it’s incredibly cheap to buy here compared to what people pay in the United States for decent wine.
Growing up in the United States, and especially as a Mormon, I think back and notice that we are quick to label people that drink alcohol a few times per week as alcoholics, or at least excessively drinking. But in France, and most countries in Europe, alcohol in its various forms are just a normal part of daily life, and this seems true of wine most of all. Children and teenagers sip wine too. I can’t claim to know extensively the cultural aspect of addiction and alcoholism, but my sense is that the quicker a culture is to label someone as having a problem with something, such as drugs, alcohol, sugar, whatever, the quicker someone will actually have a serious problem with that substance. Culture reinforces the addictive aspect of a substance, my intuition tells me, such that when people actually believe they are alcoholics or addicts sooner, because culture says X amount is too much, they truly do become dependent faster. Anyhow, in France, people do not have a negative view of drinking 1, 2, even 3 glasses per day, though this doesn’t preclude the likelihood that doing so may not be the best for physical or mental health, and I am doing my best to avoid drinking more than I feel is necessary because of this. Regarding culture and drinking plentiful amounts of a beverage, alcoholic or no, it’s probably the same or even more true in Russia with vodka, Argentina with mate, or other countries and their respective beverages, drinking massive amounts of whatever is acceptable and a part of every day reality in those cultures
Another hot day that dragged on, the temperatures have stayed in the low 90’s in Fahrenheit, mid 30’s in Celsius the last few days. I traveled from the town of Eauze, through Nogaro, a city with a massive race track on which cars were buzzing about as I walked in, to a place that seems to consist of a church, a couple buildings, and an old presbytery in which I stayed: Lanne Soubiran.
Here are a few pictures from this day, walking through the town of Aire-sur-l’Dour and ending in Miramont-Sencques. The one at the top of the page is me sitting quietly in the church as I neared the end of my walking day.
Although I had said not one week prior to this that I wouldn’t walk anywhere close to 40 km again, on this day I walked 38. An interesting thing happened that I noticed this day. When walking for a long time on the Camino, you start to go through phases, like you go through in life. At first, my body was having a hard time adjusting and by about day 9 or so, the day I reached Conques, I felt tired in many ways. It adjusted afterwards somewhat, and by the time I left Cahors, walking was noticeably easier such that 30 Km days became fairly common.
Today, however, I realized that walking has become the end of this, not looking forward to reaching somewhere where I would stop at the end of the day, not going to visit some beautiful church or old ruin on The Way; just walking. The more days I walk, the easier the idea of walking late into the day becomes; no longer does walking 10 or 11 hours each day seem unreasonable, no longer is my mind always set upon taking a shower at the night’s bedroom, eating dinner there. This is a wonderful, warm feeling, one that courses through the body and brings a sense of contentment, and I still have it now, later in the evening. Today, I could have easily walked another 5, maybe 10 kilometers or even more had I decided to. The wonderful woman who cooked dinner said that temperatures reached 100, but this made no difference to me in my head while I walked. Every hour of every day, getting lost in the meditation of walking becomes easier. On a straight, unchanging stretch of 3 or 4 km I must have had 45 minutes of time which I can’t now recollect, completely lost in some thought in an incredible way. There is no rush getting to Santiago or wherever I go after that, each day I find I just want to walk and walk. Even writing this at 10 PM, falling asleep while I write, I am simultaneously ready to lace my shoes and set out, no matter the hour. Today, I felt that were there no ocean barring the path, walking home to the United States right from Santiago would be but a simple matter, even a joy. Walking is a meditation, there is no better way to describe it, it forces you into the present moment, the present thoughts, the present surroundings, it forces you to be aware of each moment, both painful and joyful.