Saint Félix

On our walk from Livinhac l’Haut to Figeac, we stopped for lunch at a small town along the way – Saint Félix. On the way into town, we passed a historical marker overlooking a field, but didn’t take time to investigate it. After a substantial lunch at what appeared to be the only restaurant in town, we continued our walk into Figeac.

Unexpectedly, Saint Félix came up again during our time in Figeac. Evidently, the citizens of southwestern France were active in resistance to the Nazis during WW II. There is a small museum in Figeac dedicated to the Resistance and the Deportation. The following news article, titled “The Horror at Saint Félix,” was displayed there:

It describes how, on May 12, 1944, the members of a young family, resting under an apple tree in a field neighboring Saint Félix, were obliterated by German soldiers who trained their 120 mm Howitzer on the tree and fired. “Only the debris of their bodies could be found.”

One of the functions of this museum, and others like it in the region, is to keep the memory of the Occupation and the Resistance alive. This particular story helped us feel a more direct connection to those times and that place and to understand in at least a small way the impact of the war and the occupation on this part of Europe.

Friday – Figeac to Cahors

Friday morning we spent in Figeac, and then we took the bus through the Valley of the Lot on to Cahors. (Rail service linking these two cities is frequent & inexpensive, but Friday was a strike day, so we took the bus – which was not affected.

We had breakfast at our hotel, then ambled around Figeac until 10:30, when the Musée Champollion opened. This is a French national museum named for the decipherer of the Rosetta Stone, Francois-Joseph Champollion, a native son of Figeac.

The museum collection and its interpretation of the development of writing, along with its varieties and technologies, are outstanding. Wikipedia has good coverage in English.

Exterior of the museum. Note the panels with characters from various scripts behind the window openings.

One unanticipated feature of the museum is a courtyard behind it paved with a giant-scale replica of the Rosetta Stone. We caught it after it had been freshly washed and before many people had walked in it:

And here’s an interesting door from the same neighborhood:

And a tower:

After a quick lunch, we walked to the train station to catch the bus for Cahors, which is west of Figeac about an hour and 30 minutes. Initially our route wound though the valley of the Célé (Figeac is on the Célé), but in time we found the road that adjoins the Lot. The river is wide and windy, and along most of it are stunning limestone cliffs rising steeply almost at the river’s edge. In a few places, space for the roadbed has been notched out of the base of the stone face, barely clearing the roofs of trucks and buses. (We returned to this area on Sunday, and will be sharing some photos then.)

On arriving at Cahors, we rented our car, checked into our hotel, and then set out on foot to explore.

Our hotel, near the SNCF station, is a short walk to the main drag of Cahors, and just beyond is the historic district. We stopped for a cup of tea and a sweet (tarte au citron) on a square near the St. Étienne church. While looking around, we noticed a yellow wooden framework perched high, connecting two trees — not a ropes course as we first thought, but a sculpture!

The church is surrounded by a commercial and residential neighborhood. The first reaction I had was of great solidity and stability. It’s a large structure that dominates one’s view, whether you’re close or not. It’s hard to pick the style. One interesting feature of the interior is a wall of contemporary stained glass windows.

Cathédrale St. Étienne, Cahors, France
View of St. Étienne Cathedral, Cahors, France.

Inside, the sanctuary enclosed an amazing amount of space. There are three domes on the roof. One is painted in a style that appears ancient.

Finally, we saw this sculpture in a plaza as we were approaching the church. There was no indication of the artist or title. It’s a powerful work:

Tomorrow, Rocamadour and more ….

Thursday – Exploring Figeac

We’ve made a major change in our itinerary. Originally, our plan had been to push on from Figeac to Corn, and from there to pick up the variant Pilgrimage route that leads through the Valley of the Célé river before coming to Cahors. After two days of walking in the rain, and a forecast calling for several more consecutive days of rain ahead, we decided to spend our last week in France not walking on the way to Santiago, but on shorter treks in and around towns and cities we want to explore further. We started today in Figeac, a modern commercial city with a well preserved medieval core.

The gite we stayed in last night was not available for a second night, so we have moved closer to the river and are staying in a hotel. After breakfast at our gite, we packed our bags and set out to explore the town. A visit to the tourism office yielded a map showing a walking tour of the city with a route to follow and marked sites to explore.

But first, a cup of coffee and a croissant! We looked into a cafe, only to find our Irish friend, Dorothea, who had walked in to Figeac that morning from a few kilometers away! So the three of us spent several hours together on the walking tour. We saw the church of St. Saveur; the church of Notre Dame du Puy; a half-way house, Germinal, named after a novel by Emile Zola; and a museum of the Resistance and memorial to the Deportation. In addition, we made plans to visit a museum of writing, named for Jean-François Champollion, a native son of Figeac, who translated the Rosetta Stone.

Here are some photos of what we saw:

This medieval building shows clearly how post-and-beam construction is used to frame buildings. The walls in this case are filled in with bricks.

This picturesque street/alley is typical of the appealing scenes that can be found in Figeac’s Medieval quarter.

View from the Puy (hill) at the top of the Medieval city (looking south towards the Célé river.

Interior of Nôtre Dame du Puy Church reflecting 17th century renovations.

Closer view of the painting above the altar. Appears to depict the assumption of Mary.

An interesting doorway.

Map on display at the museum of the Resistance & Deportation showing regions of France controlled by the Nazis and Free French during World War II. Evidently the people of the region we have been visiting were determined in their resistance.

Wednesday – Livinhac-Le-Haut to Figeac

The setting of our gîte as we left in the morning. There’s a lot of farming of produce for markets in this part of the valley of the Lot – thus the hoop houses. The proprietress of our gîte also has a small farm raising vegetables.

The church in Livinhac as we were leaving the town after buying sandwiches. 58 degrees F and drizzle.

Hills and fields on our way towards Figeac.

Chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalene. The group from Alsace gathered in the sanctuary to sing:

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Double rainbow over the Célé at Figeac after dinner Wednesday evening. 🙂

Because of rain and the accompanying mud, to say nothing of the 24-ish km route, we took paved roads (they run near the trails) whenever we could. Still, it was great to get to Figeac!

Tuesday – Conques to Livinhac-Le-Haut

Highlights of a long stage featuring rain for the last two hours or so.

  1. Steep, long climb out of the valley of the Dourdou at Conques. About 45 minutes of climb. Equivalent of 90 floors or so.
  2. Beautiful view of Conques from the shrine to Sainte Foy (on the climb out, about 2/3 of the way up).
  3. I took photos of a couple of stained glass windows in the Refectory at Conques. They refer to St. Norbert, founder of the Premontrian Fathers, who manage the Abbey at Conques and, also, St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.
  4. Beautiful hills and fields as we walked along out of the Valley of the Dourdou and into the valley of the Lot once again.
  5. Met a large group of Lutherans (20?) from Alsace, traveling with their pastor. Very friendly and included a couple of people who could speak English. They like to sing!
  6. Lovely contemporary stained glass windows at a wayside chapel we passed.
  7. Last couple of hours, we walked in the rain.

Friday – St. Côme d’Olt to Estaing

From the exceedingly pleasant environs of the Abbey, we set out on a bright, sunny morning in the next leg our our trek. We walked along trails at first (still wet in a few places) and then in back roads, generally staying near the banks of the Lot, which was swollen, Brown from mud, and running very fast.

The next town long the river was Espalion. Friday, we had learned the night before, is market day. We stopped for coffee and tarte aux fruits, sharing some fresh local cherries with a friend whom we had met along the sway. Before leaving, we bought two servings of paella from a vendor at the market, taking it along as our planned lunch.

Before setting off, we visited the famous church at Espalion, with its clocher flamme. If you look carefully in the photo below, you can see that the spire is twisted – quite beautiful.

Here, the twisting is more evident, as are the characteristic narrow streets of the old part of the city.

Here the brown water of the Lot is particularly apparent.

A few more kilometers along the way, and out of such close proximity to the river, we came to Bessuéjouls, basically a crossroads. Before having lunch, we visited a small church dedicated to St. Peter. The small sanctuary was unremarkable, but up a dark, narrow, and steep stone staircase was a stunning Romanesque chapel. Here are a few photos:

Next stop: Lunch, at a café where they not only allowed us to eat our pre-bought meal (for the price of a soda), but allowed us the use of spoons so we would not have to eat our paella with our fingers!

Leaving Bessuéjouls, we encountered a steep and challenging uphill slog on our way to Estaing. Once again the track was muddy and the climb unrelieved.

In time, we made our way to Estaing, after one more break and serious moaning about the length of the stage and the challenges. In part, we learned, the challenges are related to Estaing’s location at the far tip of a meander in the Lot, meaning one walks both around the curve and over the hill that separates the two sides of the U. My phone indicates that we walked 13.6 miles and climbed the equivalent of 42 floors today.

Here’s the view across the muddy Lot as we approached Estaing:

Thursday – St. Chely d’Aubrac to St. Côme d’Olt

David and I shared our 3-person room at the municipal gîte in St. Chely with a young man from South Korea, Sun Han, whom we have encountered several times before along the way. He was a late arrival to the gite but, as luck would have it, was able to obtain a room. His story is an interesting one, and I’ll try to find time to write a bit about it as a separate posting.

Anyway, after a typical gîte breakfast (augmented this time with yogurt and granola), we packed up and left for the trail. Along the way we stopped to buy a sandwich and piece of fruit, anticipating limited opportunities to purchase food along the way.

A group of six or so women were there ahead of us, completing their purchases, and we encountered them later along the trail — first at a coffee break, and then eating their sandwiches in a clearing. One of them, whose English was good, said they were from Le Puy. Based on their small packs, we speculated they might be shipping their packs rather than carrying them.

The morning weather was misty and cool — a continuation of what we had been seeing the past few days. The hills around St Chely d’Aubrac were shrouded in mist and fog, and the gray skies were low.

St. Chely, though small, gives the appearance of having substantial resources available. The church, e.g., was richly decorated, there are many hotels, bars, restaurants, and the homes were well cared for and had been updated with new doors and windows in many cases.

Earlier on our trip, we had encountered a man named Guy who told us that his maternal grandmother’s home was high on a hill at the entrance to St. Chely. He went on to say that the family had sold the property a generation ago, but that his permanent home is still in the region even though he works in Paris (several hours away by train or car). Interesting to speculate what his work may be and why he remains anchored to the Aubrac region of France.

Bridge leading out of St. Chely.

St. Chely seen from above as we were leaving.

Once we had climbed out of the small valley in which St. Chely lies, we entered the district of Cantal. We noted that the blue skies were visible, but tried not to get our hopes up.

There are abundant forests and grazing lands in Cantal, as this countryside view shows.

This forest scene seemed especially beautiful.

The cows are a different color in Cantal, and a different shape, but still handsome.

We did encounter some significant muddy stretches, but nothing like earlier in the week — the soil seems to be better drained, and the trails do not always serve as natural culverts for the hillside water. 🙂

This image shows our lodgings for the evening. It’s a convent on the edge of St. Come d’Olt that has been converted into a conference center and pilgrims lodging. As you can see from the skies, the weather has improved dramatically, and so, accordingly, have our spirits.

Our total distance today was just over 10 miles, along dry paths, gentle hills, and some paved roads. Total flights climbed (a measure of the intensity of our trail) were 37, a modest level. The day of rest and the prescribed meds have definitely been helpful, and I look forward to somewhat longer walk (about 21 km) to Estaing, in the valley of the Lot river.

Linguistic footnote: ‘Olt’, as in the name of the town we are staying in tonight, is the name of the Lot river in the ancient regional language, Occitane.

Wednesday – Nasbinals

We have declared today a day of recuperation for me – rest, visit to the doctor, taxis instead of on foot.

Our taxi picked us up as arranged at 8:30. Lovely ride – ~ 15 minutes through rolling, rugged terrain to Nasbinals. Saw a doctor at the small health center at Nasbinals. My condition is only a bad cold. He prescribed pain reliever, nasal spray (with prednisone), and a cough management med for evening/night. Charge for the visit: 25 €. Next we walked a short way to the pharmacy, where everything went fine. 17 € to fill the three scripts. The pharmacist was distracted from time to time by her cat, who seemed interested in seeing the visitor to the shop.

We repaired to a café, where I took the initial dose of my medications and enjoyed coffee, pain au chocolat, and Wifi. While there, we were reminded by a notice at the cash register that WiFi is not everything:

The parish church in Nasbinals is a handsome Romanesque structure at the center of town. It is constructed of granite and basalt, the abundant local stone, in the 11th & 12th centuries.

Inside, there are appealing painted wood sculptures in a simple, sturdy style. I especially like this one of Joseph with the boy Jesus:

And this one of the ubiquitous St. Jacques

There was also a beautiful wood panel depicting the baptism of Jesus:

The next stop on Steve’s R&R tour of the Aubrac was lunch at a hotel restaurant on the town square. Our meal offered traditional foods of the region, including salade d’Aubrac, beef chunks in red wine sauce, aligot, regional cheeses, and choice of dessert. Delicious!

We then hired a taxi for the next leg of our journey, from Nasbinals to St. Chely d’Aubrac, where we will be spending the night. We have accommodation in the municipal gîte, sponsored by the Mayor’s office and operated by the tourism office. For the trip, we were pleased to find the same driver who had brought us to Nasbinals in the morning. Our drive took us through beautiful (if wet — it’s still raining!) countryside and then down a steep grade into town.

Here’s the view from our room:

And the street outside:

Though we keep hoping for relief from the rain, the forecast calls for more of the same, perhaps with some relief on Friday. We’ll see. We still have a long way to go!

Tuesday – Aumont-Aubrac to Les Quatre Chemins

Our course took us across the beautiful Aubrac plateau. We could sense the richness of the Margeride give way to a more austere, rocky landscape. We still saw rolling hills and pine forests, but now the large Aubrac cows and bulls (large and handsome) were every.where. We saw many calves, as well. The genet (broom plant) was in brilliant yellow bloom everywhere.

For us, it was hard to appreciate the beauty of the countryside because our entire walk was made in constant drizzle to light rain.

Moreover, we anticipated being able to find a sandwich along the trail, but the places we stopped were not open.

It appeared to have been raining in the area for many days, as the low portions of the trail were not only rutted but decidedly muddy. Along this way, the chemin appears to exist as a right of way over farm fields. While the track is wide, it is bounded on both sides by barbed wire, to confine the cattle. This rather narrow corridor limited our ability to detour around the mud at critical points. On the good side, we traversed several bridges spanning large muddy patches. Happily, the terrain was not as rugged as the past several days.

At some point about mid-day, I began to notice decided fatigue and a troublesome cough originating in my chest. As the day went on, these symptoms became worse, and a couple of times I had to rest on a rock before climbing a gentle rise on the trail. This was was scheduled to be a longer day (25 km), but after only about 60% of the way, I was too tired to continue.

Happily, a gîte appeared on the trail at just the right moment. We stopped for lunch, considered the matter, and decided to cancel our reservation at Nasbinals and stay the night at Les Gentianes in the hamlet of Les Quatres Chemins, about 13 km from Nasbinals. The proprietor arranged for a taxi pick-up for us in the morning. I went to bed and took a 2-hour nap, which revived me somewhat, although the coughing and sniffles persisted.

About 25 people were staying at Les Gentianes, some in the gîte and others, like us, in the chambres d’hôtes. We were served an excellent dinner – salade d’aubrac, saucisse, aligot, green beans, and tarte au fruits for dessert.

We met a young woman from Leipzig whose English was good. She joined our area of the table “so that she could hear a language she could understand” (English, that is, not French). She was walking about 10 km a day, about half our pace, and was dedicating 6 weeks to the journey. We also caught up with Dorothea, from Ireland, walking the camino again at age 82, and Susanne, a Quebecoise, both of whom we had first met at our first night on the chemin at Montbonnet.

Although sunset suggested less rain and more sun tomorrow, the night was cool and damp, our clothes did not dry overnight, and we awoke to cool drizzle.

Friday – Montbonnet to Monistrol d’Allier

We left our gîte in Montbonnet (l’Escole) about 8 am after what I am learning is the standard petite déjeuner at stages on the pilgrimage route: bread, butter, jam (broadly interpreted – includes Nutella & caramel spread in addition to more traditional examples), juice, coffee/tea/cocoa. This time the board included fresh fruit and a local cheese as well. We helped ourselves, cleaned up, and were in our way. Here’s a shot of the yard taken as we were leaving:

Our route to Monistrol d’Allier took us through farming country and woodlands, over the ridge of a line of hills that marks the valley of the Ailler, down into that valley at St. Privat d’Allier, back up the hills on the other side of the valley, then down again to Monistrol d’allier.

I expected this to be hilly and involve steep, prolonged ascents and descents. It was. According to the Health app on my iPhone, which tracks flights of stairs climbed, on Friday I climbed a total of 42 flights @ ~10′ per flight. Total distance for the day was ~10.2 miles.

Showing the mist hanging in the valleys as we left Montbonnet.

Patchwork of fields against the hills.

Muddy track due to frequent rains (which we have missed so far)

Cows grazing on the hillsides as we approach St. Privat d’Allier, where we stopped for a pause café. (Still hoping to see a group shot someone took and promised to forward.)

Pilgrims at the village of Roche Gude, with the castle, tower, and chapel in the background.

Tower, with grazing donkeys in the hillside.

Interior of small family chapel adjacent to the tower.

View from Roche Gude of the Valley of the Allier near Monistrol.

Famous Eiffel Bridge at Monistrol.