May 3 – It was a crazy day. I was behind in packing, even though I’d started weeks before, and was glad Shawn was giving me a ride. He helped me pack, and was a calm presence. I was late getting to the airport, but luckily SJC wasn’t too busy, and I got through security relatively quickly. This seems to happen every time. Even though I have been packing for weeks, I always forget something crucial and am madly packing till the last minute. I had a sad farewell with Shawn. Tears, fear that we’d be estranged (we’d only just started seeing each other 3 months before, and I’d be gone for 4 months). I asked him to squeeze my large air mattress into its stuff sack and close the overly stuffed suitcases. I almost missed the redeye from SF to London. I talked for a while with my seat mate, eventually succumbing to weariness, and watched several movies.
May 4 – In London, I didn’t have time to explore the city as it was a 6 hour layover. I sat in Bon Vivant sitting area and ate a sandwich, talking with a couple from Philadelphia. They were returning from Tel Aviv where his daughter had just married. People from all over the world swirled through London Heathrow. A stylish woman in a full-length hijab was on her phone, while other folks sported Bermuda shorts. Finally I was on the plane to Toulouse where I was lucky to sit next to a Parisian getting her PhD in pancreatic gastroenterology. A brilliant woman dedicated to making headway in cancer resistant chemotherapy. We ended up talking about my summer travel plans. It turns out she loves Norway and promised to send me a list of places to visit. We arrived in Toulouse at 11:30pm, which was extremely lucky as customs had shut down for the night. The French are covetous of their work breaks! At the beginning of my travels I have several months supply of supplements and always worry that customs will dispose of them. Though I usually stay in hotels, I make an exception on the first night of my arrival. The Holiday Inn claimed to be an airport hotel but was a good mile walk from the terminal. I lucked out and caught the last shuttle of the night.
May 5 – What a comfy bed! I slept till 12:30pm as I’d basically not slept for 48 hours. I was picked up by Eddy Lake, a Citroen Europass employee from Martinique that I’d made friends with the previous year. After learning about how to operate cruise control, I headed to the big shopping center and then headed to visit the couchsurfing family in Toulouse I’d visited the year before. Elizabeth is the mother, and she has always been warm and kind. I dropped off my bags, talked a bit, then raced to meet my friend Eric at 2:30, then went off in search of a good lunch. Eric and I met I found a lovely tuna sandwich baguette called La Maritime wrapped in string. We walked to Daudade, the oldest part of Toulouse along the river. All the while, Eric was telling me the history of Toulouse in French. My crash course in the language. By the end of that week I was pretty fluent. From the river, we walked to a very pretty Japanese garden, and he told me about his passion for old maps and antiques. He wants to find the treasure supposedly buried in Rennes-le-Château, and showed me an old map with the original names of the towns, which are apparently important in figuring out the clues to the treasure’s location.
We walked back to the other side of town, along the old canal, and found a small “library”/book exchange. I found an old leather bound book from before the French revolution (published in 1740). Eric joked about my being able to sell these treasures to friends in the US, and financing my trip that way. He talked about the Occitane culture, the troubadours and influence of the Moors in bringing chivalry to this part of the world. We found a nice bistro, and hoped for menu du jour, but it wasn’t available on the weekend. We both had raw tuna, which wasn’t as good as the one I’d had in Monterey with Shawn, with seaweed and interesting tidbits. He insisted on treating, and I walked him to the metro, then hit the hay. I didn’t get to sleep till 2am, still very jet lagged.
May 6 – I was to meet Eric again, this time at noon. He wasn’t at the Place du Capitole, so I went into La Mairie (Toulouse town hall) to admire the beautiful wall paintings in the salle illustree (illustrated room) depicting the history troubadours. Eric apologized for being late. He joined me inside the great hall and regaled me with the history of some of the art and paintings. From there we walked along river munching on a tuna stuffed baguette and ended up at the Musee des Augustines at the Renaissance exhibit. As usual I spent too much time there, having told Eric one hour max (it ended up being two). Meanwhile Eric was sitting in the cloister courtyard checking out the medieval kitchen garden and ornate colonnades. Eric lives near Moissac, whose cloister rivals any I’ve seen for complexity and beauty, particularly the colonnades. From there we went to the chocolate store but it was closed, as most stores were this being a holiday (one of many, having been a very religious country not so long ago). As he was hungry, we walked to a park near my house, then ate near the Cinematique.
May 7 – I planned to walk around Toulouse, slept in, talked to Elizabeth (the mother of the couchsurfer I was staying with) until 1:30pm. I walked to the old center of Toulouse to get chocolate. It rained hard from 8:30pm till 12am and I returned home drenched but elated, and full of chocolate and ice cream.
May 8 – Jet lag continued to kick my butt. I slept till 10:30am, while outside the sky glowered and large raindrops fell. I packed quickly (so quickly I forgot my mouthguard and toothpaste) and headed off toward the Pyrenees. On the way I stopped at a farmer’s market, where I met people living in a commune called twelve tribes in Sus, France. They invited me to attend Naomi’s wedding on Saturday, one of their group who had lived in San Diego and liked Californians. I bought a loaf of bread from them, and veggies, talked too long, had to rush, walked to main squre and bought chocolate, walked back different way, through park and canal, grand hall, churches -St Sernin, an amazing place – then drove to Eric in Lafrancaise, we had lunch (stinging nettle pie, very hard crust) and apple tart. We headed to Moissac, bought fresh strawberries from a farm, walked along river and canal, he explained the history of an art nouveau octagon solarium on the confluence of the main river and canal where people from city came to sun bathe in early 1900s. We stopped at the mill turned hotel and found out the history, then walked to the monastery, stopped in an artist gallery, where Eric was intrigued and talked for ever. I finally headed toward the cathedral, which was open (last time I was there it was closed for a wedding or funeral). It was other worldly to hear nuns singing lovely liturgical pieces hundreds of years old. I called Shawn and it started to rain.
Eric and I dashed back to the car and headed to Lauzerte, one of about 500 bastides or bastilles. A bastide or bastille is a form of urban fortification at the principal entrance to a town or city; as such it is a similar type of fortification to a barbican, and the distinction between the two is frequently unclear. They were often forts, but could be more similar to gatehouses in smaller settlements. Both words from the word bastida in the southern French Occitan language, which meant a fortification or fortified settlement. These “free towns” built in this part of France in the 1300s gave people freedoms and liberties heretofore unheard of when they were serfs. They received equal parcels of arable land and a home, as well as the rights of free citizens. Part of the reason for this move was that it cost the lord or signeur too much to feed the serfs, and they weren’t always very productive workers, so economically it was often better for the lord to tax people instead. These free towns set up consuls to oversee that taxes be fairly distributed. I wondered whether there was a connection between these free towns and the Cathars and Albegensians (the latter were named after the people of Albi), who seemed to be progressive and were persecuted by the church as heretics and routed out by King Phillip the Fair in the 1600s. It didn’t hurt that the Cathars were giant land owners in the region. The crown teamed up with the church (not the first nor last time that happened) to make a land grab and get rid of the landowners in the process.
As we walked through the town I commented on the many homes for sale. Eric said that with Brexit, many English are selling their second homes because their pensions will shrink with exit from the EU. This part of France is very popular with the Anglos, as the geography of cliffs is familiar and appealing. We headed back to his grange barn, had dinner, and I had a hard sleep on the rock like mattress in his trailer. His closest neighbor, the man from whom he bought this barn, had just passed away. I wondered about the close knit community that Eric has here. He says that it is good because he helps and is involved with many projects. This is how he likes to participate in the lives of others. He has many stories of interesting characters he has known and worked with.
He went off to sleep in the loft. He had offered me the spot, but I was afraid of climbing the rickety ladder, which seemed to go on infinitum into the heavens. Too bad, because he keeps all his treasures there, including ancient maps with clues to hidden treasures from the times of the Templars. Ah, the history of Occitane, with its unique culture and language. Antique sellers are everywhere in France. I have seen them on tree lined squares in many cities.
May 9 – I decided to head off on my own, but asked Eric to accompany me to Montauban, which he knew well. We took separate cars, and I wondered whether we would be able to see anything as it was very overcast. We stopped at a viewpoint and he tried to show me view of Pyrenees from LaFrancaise. No luck. We drove to Montauban and wound through narrow streets, circling several times until we finally found parking. From there we walked to a church, the main square, the museum which had been an ancient college, and its chapel. The city is built on the confluence of 3 rivers and was important as a result of centuries of commerce. As in many parts, the protestants had been wiped out and exiled as the Hugenots. The Counter Reformation signaled a deluge of punishment by Catholics, and the loss of many protestant thinkers and theologians. It wasn’t till a century or so later that some kind of justice was finally metered out, allowing protestants to build their own churches and practice their faiths.
I said goodbye to Eric, shopped at a huge supermarket for food and other things, then headed to Bruniquel, which I had seen before. I walked around the small village, taking photos of the interesting angles and hidden ways. I had been in the chateau last time I was here. From there I headed to St Antonin-Noble-Val, where I revisited old haunts, including the walnut oil press (this time I found the press and mill). I had a crepe to go, called my boyfriend from the House of Lovers (bath house) under the sculpture of two people kissing (pretty racy for the middle ages), and descended on my favorite patisserie (they have lovely eclairs with chocolate cream they call Japanese cream, and orange cakes with marzipan). On my travels, I find myself rewarding myself with food and coffee, especially sweets. An old habit from childhood. My dad had a sweet tooth and especially liked cakes, ice cream, and halvah.
I love the drive along the Aveyron River from Bruniquel to St Antonin through the Gorges de l’Averyron, then to Varen where I had been in the big church when Eric had showed me the small town. I walked to the river, enjoying the beautiful garden and mill turned restaurant, the old grain hall. I think Varen should be on the Belles Villes list, while other towns that are shouldn’t be. Just like people, I thought. Those that are thought to be beautiful are not always so, and vice versa. It was almost dark when I headed to Najac. I drove a shortcut that took me across the ancient stone bridge that had been built in the 1100s, where I stopped and took a photo from the other side. Even in a tiny Citroen C3, I barely made it across without scraping the car door.
I wound my way up with hill and parked, then walked the length of the town to the church which had been built by “heretics” who had rebelled against the church. It took them over 100 years to build. That was how one treated those who didn’t obey in that time. Some things don’t change. Apparently hemp was grown all along the Aveyron, and Najac had a big market where people sold hemp cloth. The tools for measuring cloth length still exist in the square. The textile markets made the village wealthy. The brother of the King of France had his castle here, the Forteresse Royale de Najac. He married the only daughter of Count of Toulouse, so he was politically well positioned in this part of France. I like Najac. I had stayed there for a few days last summer when I had first met Eric. I bought 3 macaroons from a fancy shop, then headed back to Varen, where I found a quiet place to camp near the river where boaters enter, and had a lovely sleep.
May 10 – I awoke at 10am, thanks to the peaceful spot and lack of barking dogs. I called Kanga, my friend who does TRI (trauma release therapy), and shared my fears about people leaving me, and the feeling that I was not worth missing. I felt much better after talking, and headed back to Najac at noon. It was beautiful to see the town during the day. The countryside was lovely, and I could see the mill on the river below where I had hiked the previous summer. It appeared to be inundated with water from the copious amounts of rain this year. I headed to my favorite bakery, bought some tarts (I was starting a collection, and ended up hanging on to these for weeks), and walked the length of the town again, stopping at the courtyard where I’d stayed last year and wondering whether Eric’s neighbors Brigitte and Magaly were well. Magaly had a pet rabbit named Mignon. I have fond memories of sitting with them in the shade and watching the rabbit hop about.
The main church was closed when I arrived, as all things in France are closed from 12 to 2. I learned that Spain had slightly later lunch hours, usually from 2 to 4 pm. I had been in the church before, but was nevertheless shocked by its austere interior. It seems strange to create such a huge building with nothing inside. Maybe that’s a metaphor for the religion it represented. I walked back up the narrow town and headed to Villeneuve, a bastion with fortified gates, where I heard lovely organ and male voice accompaniment in a small church and enjoyed the pretty main square. Then I headed to Villefranche-de-Rouergue, where I wandered into the center of town, following one of many streets heading to the cathedral (all roads lead to Rome). The campanile struck 3pm while I was there and I was treated to a veritable concert of bells. Apparently the bells are some of the oldest campaniles which retain their original song. I was lucky enough to hear a different song at 4pm. Villefranche-de-Rouergue, like Lauzerte, had been a free medieval city. At the end of the Albigensian Crusade from the northern “barons” against the southern Occitania on a religious pretext (fighting the Cathar heresy), the Count of Toulouse was defeated and concluded the treaty of Paris in 1229. With this, the Count gave the Rouergue territory to his daughter. She married Alphonse de Poitiers, brother of Saint Louis, King of France. Alphonse founded Villefranche on the place of an old village called La Peyrade in 1252.
I walked up and down the streets, admiring some particularly interesting carvings, especially several doors with Italian renaissance details. One beautiful example of Renaissance building rose 150 feet and hosted a courtyard within. I wished I could jump over the wall and see. The theater had an art deco feel, in contrast with the Penitent Noire baroque chapel from the 1600s. I crossed the beautiful old bridge to the other side of the river, and was annoyed by teen age boys on scooters racing around and making as much noise as possible with their 2 stroke engines. On the way to Capdenac Le Haut, I saw a bike race as 50 or so cyclists rounded a corner. Wow! Capdenac had been a Gallic fort, and while here the Gauls had fought off a number of sieges. Their well/water source, or fontaine, was half way down the mountain towards the river. The rectangle and oval stone cap of the well had been rediscovered in the last 20 years during excavation. The town had a beautiful setting overlooking the Aveyron. I sat in the medieval garden for a time, gazing over the walls to the valley below.
Before dark I decided to head to Conques. May 10 is a holy day, the ascension of Mary, so the place was full of pilgrims headed for Santiago de Compostela. I sat outside the church with the pilgrims as the priest entertained the crowd with jokes and anecdotes, about half of which I caught, as they were in French. The village is located at the confluence of the rivers Dourdou de Conques and Ouche. It is built on a hillside and has classic narrow medieval streets. The historic core of the town has very little construction dating from between 1800 and 1950, leaving the medieval structures remarkably intact. ts name originates from Old French conche, meaning ‘basin’, which is derived from Latin concha, meaning shell. At the center is Abbey Church of Saint Foy, a popular stop for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago on their way to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The main draw for medieval pilgrims at Conques were the remains of Saint Faith (“St. Foy”), a martyred young woman from the fourth century.
The original monastery building at Conques was an eighth-century oratory built by monks fleeing the Saracens in Spain. The original chapel was destroyed in the eleventh century in order to facilitate the creation of a much larger church as the arrival of the relics of St. Foy caused the pilgrimage route to shift from Agen to Conques. The second phase of construction, which was completed by the end of the eleventh-century, included the building of the five radiating chapels, the ambulatory with a lower roof, the choir without the gallery and the nave without the galleries. The third phase of construction, which was completed early in the twelfth-century, was inspired by the churches of Toulouse and Santiago Compostela. Like most pilgrimage churches Conques is a basilica plan that has been modified into a cruciform plan
The largest hoard of religious treasures and relics in France were hidden in the walls of the church to hide them from invading armies, while the bones of St. Foy were supposedly stolen from Agen, which put Conques on the Santiago pilgrim map, and made the little village famous. I walked the streets in fading light. I had contemplated camping inside the small town, but decided against it, as it was such a small place and the chance of being discovered was too great. I drove down the river to St Cyprien-Sur-Dourdou where I found a good car camping spot, and saw a fox and two golden eagles enroute.
May 11 – I awoke in the lovely campground, which was free unless you needed to use electricity, and let my tent rainfly dry out. It had been a wet night. I had almost slipped into a stream the night before trying to get water and hurt my right shoulder, which scared me as I had just had rotator cuff surgery 3 months prior. Luckily the pain subsided in time. I headed to Combret, and decided to explore two manors, Chateau de Pruines in Pruines and Chateau de la Savereigns in Mouret. Both were private and closed to public. In Mouret I saw a young woman racing up the hill, one of the few inhabitants of the village. It was strange to see any inhabitants in a such a seemingly abandoned place. Then a man emerged who seemed to be working on a roof. I was taken by the beautiful portal to the ruined church and later discovered that it had been stolen from Belcastel. I liked walking around the dilapidated place, which seemed like ruins from another world, admiring the old stone tower.
I returned to Conques, where I parked near the town hall, and walked to the abbey to see the treasures which had been discovered in the walls, apparently the most impressive romanesque treasures in all of France. It was hot and I walked through the village for two hours, revisiting some places I had seen in the evening. It was crawling with people, inspiring me to head to Belcastel, a castle whose 13 year renovation had begun in 1973. I listened to the audio guide as I walked through the many rooms and courtyards. I called my friend and joked that I might get lucky and get locked in. Turns out that that almost happened. Luckily the woman who was closing ran into me as she was locking all the doors. I took a small meandering path down to the river and village below, crossed the ancient stone bridge which reminded me of the one at Najac, visited the church on the other side, more recent than the 9th century chapel and cistern that were now part of the castle. I enjoyed the way the light played on the valley, and headed out around 7:15pm to Sauveterre-de-Roeurgue. It was another bastide, with towers, gates, and a main square bordered by arcades with lots of slate roofs. Though similar to Villeneuve, I preferred the latter, as it was in better condition. I looked for an aire de piquenique to set up my tent. It is easy to find free camping in this part of France. Something I really appreciate about traveling through these parts.
May 12 – It was an early morning for me. I packed by 815am and walked along a small stream, then headed to Monesties, yet another bastide. I wandered around the pretty walled town, which seemed to still be asleep at 9am. I had a nice long talk with my friend Tom as I wandered around and crossed the old stone bridge much like the one in Najac. I waited till 10am to see the Mise au Tombeau, 20 life sized polychrome stone statues from the 15th century depicting Christ being placed in his tomb. The museum was closed, so I called the number on the front door. A woman from the tourism office answered and walked over to open it. The statues had been brought from the city of Albi, and later that day I saw similar ones in the convent there. Some of the figures were more finely sculpted than others, while others were more life like. The latter apparently reflected the influence of the Renaissance, which would have just been starting when they were made.
I took another pass around the town, admiring the town gates, the main square, the place where horses were shod, then I left for Cordes-sur-Ciel. Cordes was full of people, very different from the last time I had been when the streets were empty after a deluge. Saturdays (mornings till noon or so) is market day in France, which made it even more crowded than usual. I parked down the hill, then walked through the market, filling my water bottles and buying honey and tahini. I couldn’t believe I had found tahini. The seller was Lebanese and was selling dried fruit, so I thought I would take a chance and ask about tahini. Good call. I headed up to the old town. I should have bought the guide again but didn’t want to haul it around, and I have one at home. I admired the sculptures and gargoyles on the wealthy homes of woad merchants.
Cordes-sur-Ciel, like other towns in this region of France (Toulouse is especially known for this), had become rich from trade in woad (pastel in French), a blue dye made from the leaves of Isatis tinctoria. Also called dyer’s woad or glastum, Isatis is a flowering plant in the family Brassicaceae. Since ancient times, woad was an important source of blue dye and was cultivated throughout Europe, especially in Western and Southern Europe. In medieval times there were important woad-growing regions in England, Germany and France. Woad was eventually replaced by the more colorfast Indigofera tinctoria and, in the early 20th century, both woad and Indigofera tinctoria were replaced by synthetic blue dyes.
Cordes-sur-Ciel was apparently the last town to withstand the assault on the Cathars. There is a story about the locals dumping the inquisitors in the well. It would have certainly be deserved. I bought chocolate from one of my favorite chocolatiers, who is famous for his pulled sugar sculptures, and bought pain campagne, being tired of white bread. I walked along the rue de chaud, where natural hot springs makes the air particularly warm. As always, I had great views, and was lucky to miss the rain (it would hit me an hour later in Albi). I left at 2pm and headed to Albi. The adherents of Catharism were also sometimes known as Albigensians after the city Albi where the movement first took hold.
A brief aside about Catharism, which had its foothold particularly in northern Italy and southern France. Catharism was a Gnostic movement that thrived in some areas of southern Europe, particularly northern Italy and what is now southern France, between the 12th and 14th centuries. Catharism appeared in Europe in the Languedoc region of France in the 11th century and this is when the name first appears. The followers were known as Cathars and are now mainly remembered for a prolonged period of persecution by the Catholic Church which did not recognise their belief as truly Christian. The beliefs may have been brought from Persia or the Byzantine Empire, and vary between communities, as it was initially taught by ascetic leaders who had set few guidelines. The Catholic Church denounced its practices including the Consolamentum ritual, by which Cathar individuals were baptized and raised to the status of “perfect”.
Now a bit about the history: After the Roman conquest of Gaul in 51 BC, the town became Civitas Albigensium, the territory of the Albigeois, Albiga. Archaeological digs have not revealed any traces of Roman buildings, which seems to indicate that Albi was a modest Roman settlement. In 1040, Albi expanded and constructed the Pont Vieux (Old Bridge). New quarters were built, indicative of considerable urban growth. The city grew rich at this time, thanks to trade and commercial exchanges, and also to the tolls charged to travelers for using the Pont Vieux. In 1208, the Pope and the French king joined forces to combat the Cathars, who had developed their own version of ascetic Christian dualism, and so a heresy considered dangerous by the dominant Catholic Church. Repression was severe, and many Cathars were burnt at the stake throughout the region. The area, until then virtually independent, was reduced to such a condition that it was subsequently annexed by the French Crown. After the upheaval of the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars, the bishop Bernard de Castanet, in the late 13th century, completed work on the Palais de la Berbie, a Bishops’ Palace with the look of a fortress. He ordered the building of the cathedral of Sainte-Cécile starting in 1282. The town enjoyed a period of commercial prosperity largely due to the cultivation of woad. The fine houses built during the Renaissance bear witness to the vast fortunes amassed by the pastel merchants.
I parked near the main square as rain began falling in earnest, making my way down narrow streets toward the main cathedral. I ducked into the convent, also huge and impressive, and saw the life size polychrome statues like those I had seen earlier that day in Monesties. The cloister had carved capitals dating from the Middle Ages, and I took photos of the faces and beasts that adorned them. I headed to the main cathedral, and couldn’t believe the artwork. The place was dripping in it. Ornately carved choir stalls, a rood screen like I would see later in Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges, and amazing adornments abounded. I didn’t have time to visit the museum of Toulouse Latrec, and made a mental note to return and spend more time in this historical city. On the way back to my car I admired the Renaissance homes of woad merchants, and noted that the mix of Italian Renaissance with local architectural elements like the 15th and 16th century homes of woad merchants in Toulouse. It was raining hard, and I headed to Toulouse to pick up the toothpaste and mouthguard I had left behind at the Fely home. Renaud was home, and asked where I was staying. He checked the weather report for the Pyrenees and even Portugal. Looked like a huge weather system was sitting over the normally sunny and dry region. Rain (and even snow) for a week. Yuck. He wished me luck and said it was a shame, because friends of his wife were using the spare room, otherwise I could stay. I headed to Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges, and stopped at McDonalds to work on my blog and emails till midnight. I talked a bit with Kanga, and left to find a place to sleep just as police arrived (coincidence)? It was starting to rain hard, so I decided to sleep in the car.
May 13 – It had been a cold night. I awoke to snow on the hills, and at 11am headed to a small chapel in Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges. The audio guide was very informative. It presented the history of chapel, located on the site of a pagan church and necropolis. In 72 B.C. the Roman General Pompey, while on the way back to Rome after a military campaign in Spain, founded a colony there to defend the passage to the Aran Valley and the Iberian peninsula. The colony was named Lugdunum Convenarum and had reached around 30,000 people at its highest point. It belonged to the Roman province of Novempopulana and had a growing Christian community, which by the late fourth century got its own Diocese of Comminges, which was suffragan of the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Eauze. It is believed to have been the place of exile from 39 AD of Herod Antipas, with his wife Herodias, under Emperor Caligula’s orders. In 405 the Vandals sacked the city and forced the peasantry to move to the citadel. In 585 another Germanic invasion, by the Burgundians under king Guntram, entirely razed the site in the course of their pursuit of Gundoald. It would remain deserted for nearly five centuries. The bishopric however persisted under the name of Comminges and was transferred in the ninth century to the ecclesiastical province of the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Auch. In 1083 a knight related to the Counts of Toulouse, Bertrand de l’Isle-Jourdain, canon of Saint Augustine in Toulouse, was nominated bishop of Comminges. He ordered the construction of the cathedral and of the Romanesque cloister. The place became used by pilgrims as a stage on the route to Santiago de Compostela.
From the church I drove to the Roman colony Lugdunum Convenarum. There are remnants of a temple, agora, and fountain. I walked through the lower town, looked at the coffins in the early Christian church, then walked to the upper town. In stone, over the lintel of Porto Majore, was carved a floating bishop’s hat. The view from the upper town was stunning. A graceful species of purple and white wisteria covered the arbors encircling a villa that had overlooked the valley. I explored the grounds of Los Olivietos, established as a monastery, then headed to the cathedral, which had thankfully just reopened after a 2 hour break. The organ is supposedly one of the finest sounding in all of France, and they hold international organ festivals here with famous performers from all over the world. The rood screen and choir stall were ornately carved, as was the cloister. A bit about rood (aka choir or chancel) screens, which I saw for the first time here and in Albi: they are a common feature in late medieval church architecture. It is typically an ornate partition between the chancel and nave, of more or less open tracery constructed of wood, stone, or wrought iron. The rood screen would originally have been surmounted by a rood loft carrying the Great Rood, a sculptural representation of the Crucifixion. In Catholic countries they were generally removed during the Counter-reformation, when the retention of any visual barrier between the laity and the high altar was widely seen as inconsistent with the decrees of the Council of Trent.
I left at 5pm, and laughed as I watched the guy in front of me riding his bike carrying a long stick and driving the cows home. Shawn had gotten his passport, and the possibility of his joining me in Europe became more real. I headed toward Bielsa, stopping in Saint Lary Soulan, which reminded me in some ways of Aspen. Almost all of its historical buildings had been replaced by Disney looking ones. Not my taste. Everything was closed, it was Sunday around 7pm, and looked like a ghost town. There was one nice building which had been the house of a rich family that is now the park museum. I had seen road signs indicating that the tunnel to Spain would close at 8pm, and wasn’t sure if it would be open. I headed up the mountain as snow began falling in thick flakes which got denser as I climbed. I was in fairyland, mesmerized by the silence and beauty of the scene. I wanted to sit and stare into the white blur, not drive. Luckily my tires seemed to handle the snow fine, as I didn’t have chains. I arrived at the tunnel, which was luckily open as it was cold and I didn’t have a place to stay on the French side. Five minutes later I was in the Spanish Pyrenees, where the snow had turned to slushy rain. I had hoped to push on but decided to ask about lodging at Hotel Bielsa. The two women working in reception were very kind, and I was shocked that it was only 36 Euros/night. They gave me a room upgrade without my even asking. I was in heaven! I walked towards town and headed up a trail towards a mine, watching as men brought the cows home. The sky was azure blue, cold and clear. I called my mom for Mother’s Day. I had hoped to take a bath but was too tired and crashed for the night.