WE WERE away at the time, so we missed out on all the fun. Some bright spark had decided that the one thing our sometimes quite touristy village lacked was a memorial to, or at least some kind of recognition of pilgrims passing through the village
WE WERE away at the time, so we missed out on all the fun. Some bright spark had decided that the one thing our sometimes quite touristy village lacked was a memorial to, or at least some kind of recognition of pilgrims passing through the village on their traditional way to Santiago de Compostela in north-eastern Spain.
I'm not certain of the reasoning here. Pilgrim routes here in the south of France are as plentiful and often as apocryphal as beds Queen Elizabeth I slept in or caves Bonnie Prince Charlie hid from the redcoats in, and I suppose anyone with a map and a ruler can claim that their village lies slap bang on the direct route between somewhere a bit further back along the road and the famous shrine of St James the Greater. Perhaps I'm being ungenerous here, because there are pilgrim symbols at several local churches, but they don't follow any logical pattern and any pilgrim trying to follow the trail would find himself going round in circles while addressing increasingly desperate prayers to St Mapy and St Satnav.
Anyway the decision was taken that henceforth our village lay on the pilgrim route, and if it never did it ought to have done and it was high time the oversight was corrected. So, as the local newspaper reported, the maire 'replaced' the village on the winter route from Arles to Toulouse. A ceremony was planned, a plaque was dedicated, suitable texts were read, some medieval flute music was 'interpreted' (as the local paper put it), there was an official opening of an exhibition of pilgrim medals and other mementoes, followed by a conference on the theme of 'Yesterday's Pilgrim, Today's Pilgrim'. As far as I know nobody who had actually been on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, or who intended to go, was present. As invariably happens with any such beano in France, the proceedings closed with sustenance for the body rather than the soul: medieval apéritifs were served, along with a special St James wine and an enormous loaf baked in the shape of the pilgrim emblem, a scallop shell, by an old friend of this column, Jean-Marie Gosset from one of the two village boulangeries. And to think we missed all this.
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SOME OF this rather equivocal evocation of pilgrimage was put into context a few months ago when we were standing outside the village church seeing the last people in before the start of an organ recital. Up the street, too narrow for traffic, came a tap-tapping of staff on cobble and a dramatic figure appeared, hooded and cloaked in black and accompanied by a small dog. He stopped beside us, pulled back his hood and asked if the church was open. He was tall, tanned and weather-beaten, travel-stained and grimy, and the scallop shell sewn on to his staff, with another on the left breast of his cloak, above his heart, proclaimed a real, live, authentic Today's Pilgrim. He went into the church followed by his dog, and wasn't in there two seconds before some functionary shoo'ed him and his dog out again. No dogs in church, even those on their way to Santiago de Compostela. We thought of St Francis of Assisi and really felt quite exercised about this.
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AND YET . . . several years ago, in the same church, Josephine and I sat ourselves at the end of a pew waiting for a concert to start. You might be forgiven for thinking that the village church is in fact a concert hall, but the truth is that at least as many people go there to listen to music than to attend the dire and truly dispiriting Masses that are sometimes celebrated there. Someone arrived in the pew behind us. We looked round and recognised a woman we knew slightly, whom we greeted as she sat down and put her basket on the tiled floor of the aisle beside her. In it was her little dog, curled up quite contentedly. So she got through the no-dogs-in-church security check without any difficulty. Well, good for her, I say, but I wonder why?
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UP TO La Salvetat, another pilgrim stopover high on the plateau above our valley, a place of granite, slate and icy winters quite different from our sun-warmed honey-stone masonry and pepper-pink tiles in the valley 2000 feet below. They're having a Journée du Livre, a Book Day, and as a local author I've been invited to take part.
I'm assigned a stall in the Place Montarnaud. I find myself next to Klaus Erhardt, a retired and very cultivated German sheep-farmer who has made it his life's work to buy an entire ruined and deserted hill-village and restore it, a 30-year enterprise that puts all those television programmes about doing up old properties in France well and truly in the shade. Not surprisingly he's written a fascinating book about it - but in German. On my other side is a local poetess whose name I don't catch. She writes penetrating and witty poems - in French - in single copies, handwritten and laminated, which she sells at 1 euro a go. Is poetry popular in La Salvetat? Time will tell. Beyond her is an aged local historian, André Jougla, whose erudition is eclipsed by scatters of typos that his failing eyesight hasn't picked up in the proof-reading. Such a shame. There are very few customers. The briskest trade is between the authors themselves.
In fact things are so slow that in mid-afternoon Josephine and I bunk off and go in search of ice cream. We find a pleasant terrasse with several tables still encumbered with the débris of lunch. Clearly the two women on duty are stretched to the limit, so Josephine starts to clear our table and the neighbouring one, even going to the bar and finding a tray. Another customer arrives and asks Josephine to clear and wipe down her table as well. With pleasure, Josephine says, but actually I'm not the waitress. Ah? the woman says; cela ne se voit pas. You could have fooled me.
Which is just what we feel about our village pilgrimage promotion. But the ice cream was totally authentic and absolutely delicious.