Half-way between Cajarc and Cahors lies the Monastère des Filles de Jésus (the Convent of the Daughters of Jesus) at Verlats. On 29 October I spent the night there. A tiny, stoop-backed nun showed me to the dormitory wing in an old stable block. The bedrooms were cold and high-ceilinged. With difficulty I managed to coax an enormous old radiator into life. Good. I could wash my evil-smelling socks and dry them on it. I cleaned my boots, too, which were clogged with thick clay. It had rained in the afternoon and the paths had been very muddy. I didn't know it then, but that day was one of the very few rainy days I would have.
At dinner the pilgrims were seated at a huge, rectangular table in the centre of the refectory. There was a young, self-possessed French girl whose name I can't recall. There were 2 devout French Catholic families with countless children. And there was me. Unusually for France the food was rather dismal, a product of mass catering: lumpy tapioca soup followed by forlorn beefburgers and sticky pasta. However the crème caramel dessert was delicious. Around us sat the nuns, smiling shyly. Most were very old. Some were in wheelchairs. Some had little beards and moustaches.
There were plenty of wine bottles on our table. The Catholic families were not big drinkers so a lot of the wine seemed to come my way. The meal passed ever more agreeably. Whenever I spoke an awed silence descended on the room. Was my French that bad, or were they all astonished that an Englishman was actually attempting to speak it (the English are notoriously shy of foreign languages)? When the assembled diners learnt I lived near Nottingham there were the usual questions: Did Robin Hood really exist? Is there still a Sheriff of Nottingham? Had I met Kevin Costner (who played Robin in the 1991 film)? I replied too loudly and too lengthily with increasing, wine-fuelled eloquence...
At the end of the meal the Mother Superior swept in, talking animatedly into a state-of-the-art mobile phone. She welcomed us with enthusiasm as she stamped our pilgrim passports. "It's free to stay here, but a little donation would be most appreciated," she beamed, pushing the collection box our way. "€20 is recommended..."
Next morning before breakfast I attended morning prayers (lauds) in the chapel. Both Catholic families were there. A little girl found the right place in the prayer book for me. Elderly nuns chanted in quavering voices. I found it all unbelievably moving. I stayed a while in the chapel after everyone else had left. Then it was back on the trail, through endless chalky woods to the scrubby limestone plateau (causse) above Cahors. The photo shows the town of Cahors on the river Lot. With a population of 21,000 it was by far the largest place I had visited.