A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, 16 January 2008


The houses of the small town of Arthez-de-Béarn line up for almost 2 km along a narrow ridge like a string of rosary beads. I arrived there on the evening of Sunday 11 November. From the church I had a proper view of the Pyrenees for the 1st time, jutting up purple and black on the southern horizon, the sinking sun hanging over them like a golden orb. They stretched hazily from east to west for as far as the eye could see. They were superb.

The local hospitalier saw me coming and rushed out to greet me. He gave me the key to the gîte d'étape. He showed me around - the showers, the kitchen, the patio where pilgrims would sit outside in the summer. Then he invited me into his cottage opposite for the ceremony of stamping my Créanciale or pilgrim passport. He introduced me to his mother, a tiny, plump lady with white hair. She was sitting at the table in the cluttered living/dining room. Crucifixes and effigies of Mary, mother of Jesus, adorned the walls. A log fire burned in the grate.

"The pilgrims are less numerous and much better behaved at this time of year," she said with a twinkle in her eye. "In the summer months there are crowds of them and they drink far too much. Now, what would you like, Ricard or whisky?"

3 Ricards later we were all talking volubly and quite incomprehensibly. It was difficult to understand their strong, southern accent. It seemed to me it could have been a harsh mixture of French and Basque. Whatever that sounded like. I was too drunk to tell. Not that I could have told anyway. If you see what I mean. But we got by. I think the conversation revolved around a possible shortcut I might take the next day.

The milky liquid had slipped down my throat easily. Ice clunked at the bottom of my glass. "Another drink? Have you tried the local spirit? It's very good. It's made from plums." The kindly matriarch then ordered her son to bring food from the kitchen - chocolate, cheese, grapes, little tins of foie gras. I tried and tasted. "But what will you eat later tonight? It's Sunday and the supermarket's shut. Fetch the pilgrim some bread."

Another half hour later and I was staggering across the street, carrying armfuls of bread and eggs, paté, cheese, and a bottle of blood-red wine. I tasted it later. It was subtle and dark and smooth as velvet. It went perfectly with the omelette I cooked in the gîte's kitchen that night. Life was good...

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