A powerful dream, like a drug trip, full of significance and meaning if I could only grasp it. I want to record it but it’s going too fast, and anyway the person wanting to record it is the me inside the dream. Perhaps it’s the effect of sleeping by a river, and especially at the junction of two such different rivers.
I look out of my tent. The sky is blue, the sun just catching the tops of the hills, mist swirls around the church spire and the castle in its high place. The mist is rising and thinning as the air warms. I make coffee, pack up, and stopping only to eat pastries at the bakery while most of the town sleeps, I am soon on the road beside the river.
‘The most beautiful stretch of the Lot valley is from Entraygues to Coursavy: deep, narrow and wild, with the river running full and strong, with scattered farms and houses high on the hillsides among long-abandoned terracing. The shady, tree-tunnelled road is level and not heavily used, making it ideal for cycling.’ The Rough Guide is right, although on this balmy June day, and after the places I have been and the days I have had, ‘wild’ is a little excessive. The sun is behind me, illuminating the tree-clad valley ahead, glittering on the smoothly-flowing water.
I pass Le Fel, where I had booked a night in a stone cabin which I then cancelled. The cabin is by the road, quirkily interesting, but far enough from the food, quiet civility and the unexpected feeling of homecoming I had experienced at Entraygues to be glad I had cancelled. It is for sale, as so many places are. Country living, especially in out-of-the-way places is, like buying a country pub, so often a dream with little connection to reality. But Le Fel has its own appellation wine: ‘once, Le Fel was renowned for its distinctive wines … without doubt Aveyron’s greatest wines.’ Reduced, now, to just 20 hectares. And further on I pass an ambitious smallholding, with every sort of vegetable growing, and glasshouses as well, a productive result of huge hard work. Would I …? No, I lack that relentless energy. But today I am spinning along beside a beautiful river, and I am back on the Rance or the Tarn near our house long ago, and imagining that I can turn off, here, to visit Dennis, who grows the best grass, or there Philippe, who conjures breathtaking pots from spinning lumps of clay as he talks amiably.
At Coursavy bridge I turn south. I stop on the bridge and look upstream: the sun like a Barnes Wallis bouncing bomb comes at me along the dazzling river and smashes into me. Shaking my head to clear it, I cycle towards Conques.
Conques The road climbs and narrows, climbs and narrows. But there are big signs advertising the village along the tree-shaded road; this is a major tourist stop.
The village, clustered around the church in a narrow defile, is all verticals, dark against the sun, with hardly space for gardens never mind agriculture.
I cycle past the car park, where all cars are stopped, and push my bike, with the familiar combination of the anticipation I feel entering a religiously-charged place, and the knowledge that I am entering a commercial tourist space, onto the polished cobbles of the narrow village street. At the first house an old man welcomes me, I thank him in French, he asks me in English if I am a pilgrim. I say I’m cycling across France, from Dunkirk to Perpignan. A sort of pilgrim, then, he smiles, wishes me good fortune, and goes back into his house.
That sense, in these places whose life is linked to one past thing, of suspended time, of ageing having been stopped (or a past reconstructed) to preserve the physical world of the date selected. There are shops selling pilgrim staffs and scallop shells. And snow domes and boxes of biscuits. But of course when they were places of pilgrimage they sold stuff, made money.
The monastery here was founded around 800 by monks fleeing the Moors. They soon found that the spiritual nourishment of the site was not matched by its physical sustenance. What they needed was a draw, to attract the increasing number of pilgrims travelling in search of physical or mental health, even salvation, their search limited to Europe after Jerusalem fell into Islamic hands in 637.
The second Council of Nicaea had in 787 established that through venerating the relic of a saint, the saint may be encouraged to intercede on behalf of the venerator, bringing cures and even miracles. A whole new business for churches and abbeys developed from this. What Conques needed was a relic.
So, in 856 a plot was hatched. A monk was sent, incognito, to the monastery at Agen, which had grown wealthy from pilgrims to the bones of Sainte Foy (St Faith), an eleven-year-old martyred for refusing to worship the Roman gods. For ten years he was a faithful and devoted monk, rising slowly through the hierarchy and increasingly trusted, until the night came when he was given the honour of guarding the saint’s bones. The ‘sleeper’ awoke, cast off the robes of Agen, picked up the bones, and ran. (Agen tried but failed to get the bones back. Its monastery is long forgotten, and the town has settled for being ‘the capital of the prune’.)
At the monastery at Conques a gold reliquary was built around the bones, and a church around the reliquary. The monastery did well as a regional centre of pilgrimage, and the present fine church was built in the eleventh century.
And then came a stroke of luck (or intercession by the saint). Conques was conveniently placed on the pilgrim route from Le Puy to Compostela. This pilgrimage had become an increasingly popular alternative to Rome and Jerusalem as one which granted a plenary indulgence, ie full remission of purgatory time. The church was redesigned to speed the flow of pilgrims around the apse to pass the reliquary of Sainte Foy. (I remember a cartoon satirising coach tours of the Continent which has the tail of a stream of figures running in at one door of a church, while the head runs out of the other door and back onto the coach. I remember a similar reliquary in an abbey on Majorca which we shuffled past, the faithful making dashes to touch or even kiss it, cut off as they were pushed on from behind. I remember the way, in a blockbuster art exhibition, the crush pushes you past each picture, giving you your moment in the presence, but little else.)
The interest in pilgrimage, and in monasticism faded, and with it, Conques’ glory. It owes its popularity today to a new interest in the old, begun with Prosper Mérimée’s appointment in 1834 as Inspector General of Historic Monuments and continued with Viollet-le-Duc’s Gothic revivalism. An interest in preserving, visiting, even venerating the old. Of course this revived interest in the religious and the old came exactly at a time of religious scepticism and rapid material change.
A small house of monks was reestablished here, but only, it feels, as a legacy revival, like those Iron Age huts in archaeological theme parks that enthusiasts live in. I’m being too harsh.
The church is a fine, lofty Romanesque space. The tympanum over the West door is well wrought, and may represent, rather than what look like the torments of hell, the pains of purgatory; it reads ‘Thus are all perverted ones sunk in Tartarus’, and Tartarus is the waiting-room of Hades. It was, at the time it was made, a useful reminder of the value of the plenary indulgence. The idea of purgatory as a place, and the idea of the plenary indulgence (first declared in 1095, for the first Crusade) were taking hold at this time.
I wander round outside the church. Here the bulging back presses hard against the self-effacing house of monks. Over there is a long drop past a narrow garden to the bottom of the valley. In front there is the swept-clean artificiality of the preserved authentic, furnished with overpriced ‘traditional’ cafés, and low-ceilinged shops packed with charmless merchandise. I have no reference for this place.
Inside it is tall and striking. But it feels empty of purpose without monastic services, pilgrims and reliquary. And – it is now safely neutralised in a museum of reliquaries – what about the famous reliquary of Sainte Foy?
‘The statue is hideous,’ wrote Freda White. ‘It is as horrifying as a Senegalese fetish – and as potent. Beyond question that image has magical power.’
‘The crowd of people prostrating themselves on the ground was so dense it was impossible to kneel down,’ wrote Bernard d’Angers in 1010 (this in the old church). ‘When they saw it for the first time, all in gold and sparkling with precious stones and looking like a human face, the majority thought that the statue was really looking at them and answering their prayers with her eyes.’ He goes on, fearing that this is exactly the fetishism of the pagan world, ‘Brother, what do you think of this idol? Would Jupiter or Mars consider himself unworthy of such a statue?’ Is it, he’s suggesting, any different to the statues Faith died for refusing to bow down before?
It was made in the tenth century, formed around a wooden core (what was that? – a Celtic fetish?), using the golden head from a fifth-century Roman statue (again, perhaps one of the gods Faith refused to kneel before). Gold crown, earrings, filigree work, cameos and jewels were added over the years. At some point she was placed, for her comfort in her long working day, upon a throne. In the fourteenth century crystal balls were added to the throne, and in the sixteenth she was given silver arms and hands, far too small for the enormous head. The eighteenth century added bronze shoes. It is an overdecorated piece of flashy gaudiness. And yet. The blank haughtiness. Black eyes that look through you. Or, rather, large black pupils that draw you into their emptiness. I imagine it whirring, clanking to its brazen-shod feet coming forward, expressionless, embracing, crushing, absorbing. I imagine it turning mechanically when questioned. Perhaps it is Gerbert’s brazen head. A woman is about automatically to photograph it when her husband whispers no photographs are allowed, and she looks guiltily at me. Usually I would signal her to take it, but I don’t move. When they’ve gone I take a surreptitious photograph, from waist height. Why this discomfort? Is it the dark, spotlit place? Or some residual feeling that such fetishes might just, you never know, have a power?
But, this place doesn’t work for me. I flee Conques as I fled Portmeirion, from a place made up.
I freewheel back down to the river, beginning to breathe again, and continue west along the sunny, peacefully-flowing river. I’m soon at the Meridian. There is a plastic banner from 2000, faded but still readable, with a list of the communes la Méridienne Verte passes through. I read down through my journey so far, each place a frame in a flickering film. I’m now three-quarters of the way down. The bronze disc has been stolen from top of the concrete column. Was there life, the electrical charge of the Meridian, in the bronze discs? More desperate grasping at magical thinking.
Decazeville I follow the river for a few miles, and then then leave it to climb south, to Decazeville.
I have been fascinated by it since I read Robb’s vivid, perhaps hyperbolical description. In the chestnut forest of the Aveyron, there was ‘one of the natural wonders of southern France: the Burning Mountain of Fontaygnes. At night, a person peering down into one of the little craters that pocked the mountain would see the glow of a great fire. Coal deposits burned continuously, filling the cellars of the nearest hamlets with smoke … the abundance of coal meant the villagers could stay up after dark … telling tales of the English invaders who had set fire to the mountain many years before.’ And this so close to the Meridian, not far from where we had lived in the Aveyron chestnut forest!
I knew about Carmaux, near Albi. And now I am becoming familiar with French industrialisation. How, even well into the nineteenth century, it was developed more like the pre-Industrial Revolution industries in the south of England, in isolated pockets, often by a single, frequently an aristocratic, entrepreneur. Such enterprise built the French canals, the iron industry of Montluçon, the tyre business of Clermont-Ferrand. France lacked the entrepreneurial class (the Protestants having been driven out) that established the Industrial Revolution in Britain. And there was an excellent market for workshop-made luxury goods in a wealthy aristocracy.
Louis XIV had a habit of handing out mining concessions to his mistresses, and in 1826 the duc Decazes inherited the Fontaygnes concessions. He started mining the coal, and smelting the local iron ore. He called the town Decazeville. In an 1869 strike 17 miners were shot dead, in 1886 the Director was killed during a strike, in 1889 49 died in a mining disaster. Decazeville had the largest open-cast pit in Europe. The last mine closed in 2002. Its most famous son/daughter is Emma Calvé, the greatest diva of the Belle Époque.
So, what do I expect? A black, sulphurous sink, as described by Lawrence, where environmental destruction, economic exploitation and moral degradation mirror and amplify each other? A place emptied of purpose, streets filled with the haunted faces of those remembering? In Calvé a Zola-esque, or Loretta Lynn tale of single-minded escape from mining poverty to glittering success?
I find a small, neat town, a third the size it once was, but surviving, perhaps even thriving with a combination of small-scale industry, local services, and state aid. Emma Calvé, far from being a child of the mines, was the daughter of a wealthy engineer, educated in private schools, who went to Paris with her mother. And the last strike was an underground sit-in to keep the mine open. As with the Nottinghamshire of Lawrence, the Borinage of Van Gogh, it has been grassed over. And the modern versions of such ‘Hells’ of the past that we wax indignant about are now kettled in no-go banlieues, and off-shored to the ‘developing’ world.
The town has a statue of Decaze, imperially robed. And one of the ugliest churches I’ve ever seen (gift of Decaze, of course), a huge, looming, featureless dark oblong, made of stone that succeeds in looking like lifeless black concrete.
I have coffee in an empty café. Music plays, the television is on, the girl is engrossed in her phone. People walk past, shopping, or just passing the time. A swarm of schoolchildren flies past on their buzzing mobys, more busy bees than a threatening horde. Quiet lives. Not of desperation but of acceptance. Focussed on family, friends, and the local rugby team. Why not? Poujade, the champion of the ordinary, the given, came from near here.
The opencast pit, once stepped down in black terraces, like Dante’s circles of hell (more wilful romanticising by me!), has been smoothed and lawned to a vast green bowl of banality, with at its centre a dark pool that might conceal a large bath plug. The Industrial Revolution passed through, leaving hardly a trace. What to do with the past? Conques and Decazeville provide two very different answers.
I cycle up, out of the town, heading south. I am on the same parallel as Espalion, which is called ‘the first smile of the south’. But, however much I yearn for it, the south is not yet smiling on me. And I face one last climb, back up to 750m, and one last night camping in the Massif.
Belcastel I am determined not to camp at Belcastel. It is near the Meridian, but at the bottom of a steep and deep river valley; I don’t want to have to claw my way up out of it tomorrow morning. And of course I end up there. I still don’t know how. Hurrying to get on, trying to get as close to Albi as I can, passing possible campsites, my final error is to fail to turn off to a village shop, with a camp site close by. Instead, I take a road down, that twists and narrows and finally loses its surface. I descend from sunlit open fields into shadowed woodland, I pass two chattering and laughing girls leading a large, mettlesome horse, and tumble down like an insect into the trumpet of a flower (nectar-filled? carnivorous?), to arrive at the bottom of the steep-sided valley, by the river, at the Belcastel camp site, too disheartened and with too little energy to contemplate climbing out and finding somewhere else.
What a curious place is Belcastel! It is one of the ‘Beautiful Villages of France’. There is a Gothic-arch bridge, similar to Entraygues but more rustic, less stylish. On the other side of the bridge over the Aveyron the village climbs up the steep slope, heaps up to the château. It is made of small pieces, tesserae: the bridge is cobbled and the streets are cobbled; the buildings are made of small stones, like dun-coloured lego bricks, with roofs of small slates. The roofs are steep, with triangular, hipped dormers. It is not unlike Entraygues, but somehow lifeless. It has been renovated to picture-postcard perfection. Even the ruined part of the castle has on it a swag of manicured ivy. The village has been restored to a particular date in history and then sprayed, with both the patina of age, and a time-suspending preservative. I am not surprised to learn that it was the project, in the 1980s, of one of ‘the great architect-builders of the post-war reconstruction’. It feels like the product of single-minded vision and ideological certainty, the sort of certainty that rebuilt cities relentlessly modern, and modernist. It is a pet project. Aesthetically it is lovely. It should be beguiling. But I find it charmless. Later I learn that the population of the village halved from 1906 to 1911. What happened in those five years?
I go to the shop by the bridge, and ask about camping. The man says, pitch where you like by the river, we’ll settle up in the morning. The shop is expensive, not from inflated prices but because it stocks no staples, just expensive products. At the restaurant there’s a sign saying today’s special is paella. The last time I had paella was at the festival at Tarascon, where it was cooked in and served from six-foot pans. This, I feel sure, will come in microwavable portions. But, paella is good.
I make camp. I’m a few feet from the softly-flowing river, with in front of me an irritatingly pretty view. Stop being so grumpy! Across the river a farmer is cutting hay on a very steep slope. He reverses the tractor up the field, the engine roaring and straining, then lets it jerkily down, cutting a swathe of hay. Time after time. I keep expecting something to give, and for tractor and driver to plunge down into the river. Or maybe into the wall of the film-set, as with Truman’s boat in The Truman Show. It’s that sort of place.
Thirty yards away from me is a motorhome. The oldish French couple sit outside, across the table from each other. They have eaten. The man talks. Nonstop. The woman sits in silence, looking at him. He is talking when I go to the toilet block. He is talking when I return, having showered and done my laundry. He is talking when I go for a walk round the village, and when I return. He talks in that raised-voice certainty, the complacent modulation of a man who has arranged his life safely around himself, never risking anything. Who controls what he can, and dismisses what he can’t. And he can control his wife, a submissive acceptor, whose job is to nod, and agree, and arrange her life around his. I imagine them one day at home. The police enter, alerted by the neighbours who have reported the sudden silence from next door. The couple are sitting across the table from each other. They have eaten. The woman is silent. The man is silent. There is a look of surprise on his face, and a bread knife in his chest. The woman is calm. When they ask her what happened, she says, ‘he wouldn’t stop talking,’ and smiles at the silence.
I walk round the village. The fire is ready for the feu St Jean on Sunday. Most places moved their summer bonfires to 14 July after the division of state and church in the 1880s, but there has been a recent revival. There is a boutique hotel. There is a small restaurant, empty, but open, and advertising steak-frites, the French staple. Outside a house, on a patio like a stage, a man in a wheelchair is regaling a couple with a story. Otherwise the place is empty of life. As I’m walking back, a 2CV with British number plates draws up. I’ve seen hardly any 2CVs, in fact more Renault 4s. The young man takes from the boot a circle of blue material, like one of the hoops of paper circus dogs used to leap through. He throws it down. In the air the small circle becomes a bigger circle; when it hits the ground, it explodes, blooms, like a Japanese paper flower, into a domed tent. They are American.
I sort my things, and at 7:45 head into the village for food. The shop and restaurant are closed, the paella sign gone. Over the bridge, the steak-frites restaurant is closed. The old man has been wheeled back in. I’m in Disneyland after closing time, and all the staff, including the old man storyteller, have clocked off and gone back to the real world. I remember a line from Four Weddings and a Funeral, ‘It’s Brigadoon! It’s bloody Brigadoon!’
I return to my tent and cobble together a frugal meal. As darkness gathers down here, the sky still pinkly light high above, the street lights, orange-coloured and carefully placed to enhance the visual effect of village reflecting in river, come on. I wake in the night and look out. The lights are still on in the deserted (uninhabited?) village. I check: at least the river hasn’t been turned off. I go back to sleep in bloody Brigadoon.
Freda White, Three Rivers of France p 91.
Robb, The Discovery of France p 265.