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

Monday, 17 November 2008

Walking Through Gascony

I was now walking through the department of Le Gers - formed from the old provinces of Guyenne and Gascony, and now part of the Midi-Pyrénées region. (You can still occasionally hear Gascon spoken here - it's really a dialect of Occitan, the old language of south-west France.) This is a lovely area - characterized by bastide towns and quiet villages, isolated farms and rolling farmland, low hills, scattered woods, and fields full of sunflowers, grain crops, ducks and cows. It's quite depopulated - and a favourite place for English and other European immigrants. The local food is excellent - though I avoided the foie gras - and drink specialities include Armagnac brandy and Floc de Gascogne (which is a fortified sweet wine or vin de liqueur, a mixture of Armagnac and grape juice, normally drunk as an apéritif but sometimes with dessert). I did not avoid these! Here's a typical view of the landscape:

In the hilltop bastide of Monferran-Savès I emptied my rucksack of all unnecessary stuff and sent it back home via the very helpful post office. The fashionably dressed village postmistress (she was très à la mode - this is France, remember!) seemed to have all the time in the world to help me - nothing was too much trouble - and she directed me to an equally helpful grocery store, where they gave me a cardboard box in which to pack my things. It was a relief to carry a little less weight. On leaving the village I passed this old, brick-built bread oven:

And soon after that I reached my accommodation for the night - a private pilgrim gîte on the 1st floor of a beautifully renovated old farmhouse (Le Grangé) set in the middle of nowhere. It was absolutely superb. François, the owner and hospitalier, welcomed me, and we sat on the terrace in the warm sunshine drinking sirop de menthe and cracking walnuts from his own walnut tree. He also had some fig trees and an apple orchard, and a Russian vine - its leaves in fiery red autumn colours - swathing 2 walls of the house. Departing rather reluctantly the next morning after a quick burst of blues on the piano, I'd reached Gimont by lunchtime. Gimont was yet another bastide town:

In the town centre I was surprised to find the timbered roof of the old market hall entirely spanning the main road, the RN124:


The Weaver of Grass said...

Robert I am becoming addicted to your walk - love the pictures and the commentary - I am getting my pilgrimage second hand just like I get my gardening from the English Gardener's site!! I think I could become a virtual everything.

Jonathan Amyas said...

If you can listen to Joby Talbot's 'Path of miracles' when you get to Spain.

Jonathan Amyas said...


Jonathan Amyas said...

St Magnus Festiblog [Posted by David R. at 9:24 AM ]
Path of Miracles sung by the Tenebrae choir – Wow!

This was one of the best things I have ‘ever’ heard. In fact, I think I’m still slightly in shock. The music must have been written by some mad genius, and the singers some strange mutants with bizarre vocal powers.

In the opening section, a few of the choir stood in a circle (it was in St Magnus Cathedral BTW) and very gradually began to make very low sounds. Think of the Ligetti in 2001 and you’re about a third of the way there. As the sound built to a crescendo, suddenly the female voices crash in from nowhere, scaring the crap out of you. The harmonies are so close, the interference patterns make you fear for your eardrums. It was actually ‘scary’. I realised my heart was hammering and I was breathing too fast.

Throughout the performance, the choir used the space in the cathedral to move around, changing the sound. It really was the height of showing off to sing so superbly while walking about! At one point, the deepest bass went to the back of the nave – his voice was deeper than I thought humanly possible, making our chairs vibrate. You could almost ‘see’ the frequency of the sound waves.

After the wordless(?) opening bits, recognisable words and melody gradually appear. But it’s still not comfortable music. There’s a long middle section where the main words I could make out were “gallows” and “hell”, part of the choir singing a pendulum-like non-melody underpinning the dread. Eventually the audience is gifted a beautiful resolution into tuneful harmony. The final bit, where parts of the choir walked down the each side of the nave and sang right next to the audience, was so profoundly moving I had great difficulty controlling my emotion.

The performance finished and everyone sat in silence for about a minute before someone at the front yelled “bravo”, scaring the hell out of us all I think! There then followed a sustained standing ovation for what was a truly remarkable experience. The late start (10:30pm), the setting (St Magnus Cathedral) and the incredible performance all combined to create a unique atmosphere.

It was one of those times when you can almost believe there are supernatural agencies at work, to result in something so beautiful. G, sitting next to me, said it made 30 years of giving his time to the Festival worthwhile. It was very difficult to move at all, and when we did it was to go straight home: I didn’t want to talk to anyone or hear any more music, just allow the Path of Miracles to resound in my head for a while longer.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, grassweaver - I myself too am taking a kind of virtual 2nd trip by blogging about it. It's nice to know people are reading & enjoying it - though most don't comment a lot, I know I've a loyal core.

Jonathan - that sounds absolutely fascintating! I hadn't heard of this work inspired by the Camino but will track it down immediately (I know one of my readers who will almost certainly know it - he knows who he is! - and would be interested to know his opinion of it.)That description alone was enough to send shivers down my spine. I think it would be a good theme for a post at a later date.