Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The trip to Figeac

May 26, 2006

Quayside for the 10:16 to Capdenac there are a gaggle of train cops blockading the exit of the stairwell. ‘Where are you going ?’ They seriously want to know.
‘Figeac’, and they let me by. Am I headed for some sensitive destination ?

We have a two car train, about one-third full of mostly young people. High school and college ages, many of them greeting friends, nobody yet playing loud music or making much noise at all. Very subdued, even. Perhaps it’s the influence of the officers who stroll up and down the aisle occassionally. It does seem more likely they’re here to catch freeloaders rather than stop trainjackers. Take this train to Beirut, now, or we’ll blow it up!
10 :14. All the forward-facing window seats are taken. I’m glad I got here early enough to snag one, and a clean one. All the seats are 2-facing-2, which can be quite annoying on a full train. You spend the whole trip trying to arrange your feet and not look straight ahead. Like spending hours in an elevator. Some people get to know one another on the train. Not me. I feel badly about that sometimes, wishing I could be more open to making friends and just talking to people at random, but no.
At 10:16 precisely we slide out of the station. I didn’t even hear the whistle, just noticed the quay starting to move slowly past. Only ten minutes later the conductors come around to collect our tickets. Very efficient. When I came back from Paris Tuesday evening they never did check my ticket.
A young man sitting opposite, facing my two rows on, passes the conductor a ticket that she punches mechanically. Then she looks at it and discovers something wrong. The guy tries to bluff her, saying he has several of something, just an accident, but she’s having none of it. Charm gets him nowhere but he doesn’t try very hard; he knows he’s caught. That will be 20.80€ to Aurillac, on the spot. About twice what a ticket bought at the station costs. I guess if you get away with it one time in two you break even.
The guy smirks and settles back to his sandwich. The conductor’s colleague has finished with the rest of the train, and they retire to the driver’s compartment at the front.
Coming into Issoire there’s a recycling depot, with heaps of twisted metal, crumpled metal, rusted metal, tangled wire. Each in its place, neatly divided. A man in orange operates a machine piling up cubes of packed metal into a small hill.
I’d love to get access to that place with my camera. All those wonderful shapes and patterns beckon. I wonder who you’d have to get permission from, and if they would grant it to a person just messing around out of personal fascination. Every time I go to Paris I pass by depot of pallets near Riom, wooden pallets stacked to the sky, acres of them, old weathered ones segregated from yellow-new ones from painted ones.
10:53. Brassac-les-Mines. A nice-looking small town, more spread-out than many, suggesting that it doesn’t go back to medieval times when town centers were all piled up around the church and fortress, the better to defend itself from marauders. Brassac is big enough to have dependable lodging, but I could still be out of town and into the countrysinde in just a few minutes’ walk. I should keep it in mind for a very nearby overnight. Or even for a day trip if there’s an evening train to get me home.
11:00. Arvant. So close to Brassac-les-Mines that there are houses and businesses all the way from one to the other, strung out in one longitudinal town along the road.
Definitely worth an overnight. I could explore both towns and also take a good hike among the rolling hills half-forested half-farmland.
People here have gardens. Huge vegetable gardens. Older people and chickens are out in the dull spring overcast tending to the young plants. That’s one of the terrible things about train travel. Every two minutes it makes me want to get out and do this or that. Hike here, explore a ruin or an old village there; now it’s gardening. Gotta get a house with some land so I can play in the dirt and grow stuff.
11:22. Massiac-Blesle. Correspondance for Saint Flour by bus in front of the station.
So this is the place where from the freeway you see a narrow valley flanked by two high, stony bluffs, each with a ruined stone chapel on top. I’ve always meant to come here and hike up to the top and see the ruins and the spectacular view. Make a note.
The cheater is snoring heavily now, one stockinged foot on the table the other on the seat. His bags are open and strewn across the seats opposite. He’s barely contained in a place for four.
My apologies for the fragmented text. The ride is too rough for writing between stations. By the time we get to the next one my daydreaming has moved on.
11:44. Neussargues.
Another small town nestled in a lush narrow valley bounded by picturesque black cliffs. Fields of cattle and sheep alternate with woods full of oak, chestnut, trees I don’t know, and stands of pine all organised in rows. No wild forest this – it’s all cultivated wood and private hunting grounds.
Two children rush past, swaying up the aisle to the rocking of the train along our twisted path. They’re looking for the bathroom, but it isn’t there. It’s in the other car. So they amuse themselves just going up and down the aisle.
11:55. Murat, with its ancient monastery alone on a slate hill overlooking the town. Note the great castle just after the town. Another destination.
The high meadows of the Cantal are still dotted with snow; we can catch glimpses of them through the peaks to our left. The town is all piled up on itself, covering the slope, a study of grey rock homes and grey slate roofs. Only the surrounding open space is not grey – there seem to be no flowers yet on the balconies.
12:10 Le Lioran
Time for lunch. I have a sandwich. An enormous sandwich of chicken touched with a hint of curry, sliced tomatos, boiled eggs, lettuce. Alas, the dryness of the chicken is not overcome by the usual french mania for excessive quantities of mayonnaise. In fact, they seem to have forgotten the mayonnaise entirely, an omission I would normally applaud were not my sandwich so very very dry.
12:25. Vic-sur-Cére.
Just after Le Lioran we passed through an exceptionally long tunnel, marking our departure from the north-flowing course of a tributary of the Allier. In the sun again we have changed watersheds and our accompanying stream flows south with us.
12:38. Aurillac. A city as big as Clermont-Ferrand, and the capital of the Cantal region. It doesn’t look like much from the train – all low-lying housing tracts and high-rise apartment blocks interspersed with light industry and the same big stores you find anywhere. Boring, but I should come here in August some year. There’s a week-long street theater festival that’s quite famous. Storytellers, puppet shows, plays. It’s a major event. And there must be an old town somewhere. It’s just hidden by the rumpled land, around a hill.
Almost everyone gets off the train here. Only a handful of people are going on after this only major stop on our route. I’ve never heard of the train’s destination, Capdenac, but it can’t be very large.
No clock at Le Rouget.
Sprouting fields. Cows. More cows. An abandoned freight train, that’s kind of interesting. Old stone houses. Slate roofs like fish backs with their shaped scales. The only differences between the houses are the colors of the shutters. Then on the other side: a modern subdivision. These tickytack houses are even more the same.
1:30. Maurs. Much the same as the other small towns. The hills here aren’t high but they’re steep. It’s what keeps the area in small, family farms. Agribusiness doesn’t go for the little pastures and fields all cut up into bits by impassable escarpments. And there are no major train lines for hauling freight, nor freeways.
1:35 Bagnac.
They’ve got a car-wrecking place here. ! Oh, the photo opprotunity ! it’s so colorful and chaotic and with a big sign that says « forbidden to the public ».
A quick look at the train schedule posted at the Figeac station shows that on Sunday morning I can in fact take an early train back to Bagnac, mess around there for 2 and a half hours, and then catch my train as it stops on the way to Clermont. Now there’s a plan.
Figeac looks fabulous. It has an extensive and pleasing old center, complete with cobblestone streets too small for car traffic, and half-timbered buildings. I can see I’m going to enjoy this weekend. I can see I’ll have to bring Dan and Liz here when they visit next, and show him that Annecy isn’t everything.
Hastening to find a room to stash my things in for the afternoon, I turn up one cheap place because it isn’t any cheaper than the much nicer place down the block. It only looks that way. Bleh. Used to be I’d just gravitate right to the least expensive digs, knowing that was all I could afford, but why, if I don’t have to ?
And then it’s time to explore. In my 20-minute search for lodging I did in fact see more than half the old town. But I didn’t look, not really. Now it’s time to get the camera out and play tourist.
At the top of the hill is Notre Dame de Puy, with a very plain, even severe façade. Interestingly, on the ground in front is a large white cross worked into the ruddier cobbles, with a large pink heart of a single peice of quartz just in the middle.
Inside is bizzare. The walls have been painted white, with all the ribs of the vaulting and around the windows done in yellow. It makes for a lighter, happier than usual church, which is fine. But the altar and all the space behind it are done in heavy black wood, intricately carved and a sink for all the light that touches them. Behind me, the organ is the same. Very strange juxtaposition.
Figeac has a spectacular medieval center, very well kept up, discreetly repaired, lived in fully (I bet a house here is astronomically expensive), and happily not too done up in modern advertising. Some, of course, you can’t avoid it, so there’s always some sign or other in any picture you take, but it isn’t too obtrusive.
Roses are in bloom. And irises, and lilacs, and some of the trees still have their flowers but not many. The gardens are oases of color where they peek around and above their high stone walls. The geraniums hanging from every balcony and windowsill are not yet in flower, though. This place will be even more cute in a month, when they are.
So I walk up and down and around and around and up and down again. And then slightly out of town, up a local road with a path beside it, but when I consult my map it doesn’t seem to go much of anywhere I want to go just now. Meaning there are no goat-tracks or hiking trails meeting up with this road any time soon.
Back at the hotel I take a hot soak and think about dinner. This region of France is well known for its fine gastronomy – the heart of foie gras territory is just to the west of us, as is the Cahors wine-making region and the ‘Black Perigord’ where the best truffles grow. I haven’t brought evening wear in my rucksack, and the top-end restaurants in town are starting their fixed-price menus at 30 € (plus wine), but I’m hoping to run across that jewel: a small place where they make good local food at a reasonable price and where I’ll be welcome in my jeans and trainers.
And as luck would have it, I find exactly that. They’re serving on the terrace upstairs tonight, and it’s warm enough for the moment, but when the sun goes down for real around nine I’ll just slip my jacket back on.
Start with the local goat-cheese on toast over salad. A favorite always, but here they’ve spread honey on the underside of the bread, and sprinkled the toasted cheese with finely chopped walnuts instead of splashing a few halves artfully around the dish. I like it this way. The honey makes it a new dish, and there are none of the traditional apple-slices you so often get (good thing, too, it being so far from apple season).
Then lean steak and roast tomato with garlic and green beans with so very very much garlic I don’t really even care that they’re from frozen. Followed by a cheese course, and topped off with crème brulée. Far too much crème brulée – I should definitely have stopped halfway. But is there ever really too much crème brulée ?

Coming downstairs in the morning I see it’s 8:20 already. How’d it get so late? knowing it would be light by six I did roll over a couple of times and wait for noise of life to start up outside, but it’s Saturday so I thought I’d get street noise earlier than this. Or maybe I did, but just slept through it. Either way I start out with a feeling of having missed something already.
The market is in full swing in the covered main square just around the corner from the hotel. Here it’s all fruit and veg, with scattered stands of bread or sausages. If there’s a wine vendor I’d love to pick up something local to take home.
The market continues down the street and fills a second square with mostly clothing and fabric and basket vendors. And it goes on and on, up another street and one more.
In the high season, the last of June through the end of August, I bet I would see many more artisans selling knickacks and carved doodads and little paintings or pen&inks of the region, and wine of course, because there will be crowds of tourists here then. The bus-parking by the cathedral is not likely really meant for church-goers, after all.
I pick up a sandwich, a bottle of water, and a pain au chocolat to supplement my generous breakfast of cafe au lait and tartine (bread and jam)(really good bread with ordinary jam) and debate stopping back at the hotel to drop off my jeans and just wear shorts all day. Nah, too far to go back, and it won’t be shorts-weather for an hour anyway.
Then it’s off on the GR65 east toward Montredon.
Thing # 1 that I notice: there’s an awful lot of asphalt on this GR. I hate that. For one, it tires your feet out three times faster as walking on dirt, and for two these are pretty popular roads for cars.
Thing # 2 that I notice: there are plenty of those nifty structures described in my little Figeac book (picked up for reading material last night and as a present for my folks) : ancient dovecotes and shepherds’ shelters randomly set out in the fields. They are really cool. I take pix.
One thing about farmers near Clermont-Ferrand is they’re poor, and their houses reflect this, with old cars hanging around, unrepaired outbuildings, piles of old machinery. Nothing is gotten rid of. Discarded perhaps, if that means just putting it out back to become one with the landscape.
A thing about farmers around Figeac, or at least people who live on farms around Figeac: they aren’t poor. Their houses are manors, impeccably restored, impeccably neat and landscaped. It makes me wonder who does the farming. The fields are mostly wheat or millet, the livestock cattle. Or goats – there are goats in batches, and signs for fresh goat cheese sold here. I don’t see more vineyard than would correspond to personal use. Often there are horses.
At a guess, I’d say one real farmer cultivates the land that meerly appears to be attached to half a dozen houses. And the rest of the residents don’t work around here at all; these are trophy homes for the retired, for Parisians and Londoners who spend their summers here.
Hiking steadily east through farmland, leaving the dovecotes behind, walking half the time on dirt paths, half the time along small roads, I take a detour to see a stone village around a medieval church, St Jean Mirabelle. The church is locked, and everybody but the dogs seems to have gone to town for market day. But there’s a tap of drinking water, nice and cold.
Back on the trail I pass some more hikers on their way to Figeac, and think too late I should ask them the time. And as if on demand the next local church starts ringing out the hour. Noon. And then another church finds noon, and another farther off, and they all ring it twice in case you lost the count the first time.
In just a few minutes I’m strolling into St Felix, where there is an auberge set with tables to handle 50, and with no business at all, and then three picnic tables in the shady yard by the church. The sunny table is taken by a group of three hikers in their 60’s sharing a copious banquet.
They are on the Route of St Jacques de Compostelle. They signal this, like most of the hikers I’ve seen today heading west, by hanging a painted scallop shell off the back of their pack. Scallops in France are St Jacques. St Jacques in medieval times made a famous pilgrimage from Belgium across France to Compostella in Spain. His route is now integrated into the vast system of GR (Grande Randonnée) trails that crisscross the country. The official route passes not far from here, but Figeac is not actually on the StJC trail. What scallop-clad people are doing here is a variant route. For those who find the one true trail too crowded (and it is crowded, from what I’ve heard) or already visited. Places to eat or to stay along the Compostelle cater to the pilgrims, often using Jacques or St Jacques in a name, and hanging the seashell by the door. What I don’t get is why do the holy route if you don’t do the holy route?
While I’m eating my chicken sandwich and cherries, two other pairs of hikers come in, also heading west, also in their 60’s. They each carry two sticks, like ski poles, a common thing to accompany more mature hikers. Younger people tend to use only one.
The woman at the sunny table calls out to her fellow pilgrims, the last to arrive, pointing out that her party is just leaving, look how they’re clearing up. But monsieur prefers shade, and he and his companion join my table.
They’re German, though his french is such that I wouldn’t have guessed he wasn’t French until the pair started conversing in german. They’ve come from Montredon, and he’s relieved to see that St Felix here is just over half the distance to Figeac. They’re only going as far as Cahors this time – they’ll make it there on Sunday.
Even more convenient than the picnic tables and a trash can for a lunch stop, St Felix is blessed (or rather blesses us) with a sparkling clean public bathroom. Ah, the convenience of modern life. I long ago took advantage of a secluded spot to change into my shorts, but it’s been so open and populated most of the way that finding a secure women’s room has been a problem.
I decide to turn around. I’ve come 9 km, according to the pilgrims, and on the way back I’ve decided to detour through Capdenac. I’ve worked out a way to get there without much backtracking; I’ll just have to consult the map more to not get lost. And once I get there there will surely be ice cream or ice cold soda available on a Saturday, and I can pick up the GR6 to get back to Figeac in a loop.
That works almost as planned, except for my climbing down a gorge to an 11th century church I expressly meant to avoid (not because I have anything against 11th century chuches, but because it’s rather a dead-end at the bottom of a ravine). Fortunately, there’s a dirt track back up to the plateau in the direction I want to go. The church was in fact not worth the visit, being dark and smelly inside and not particularly interesting architecturally.
Capdenac Haut is astounding.
The town of Capdenac proper is way down below, across the river, spread out on the plain. This part of Capdenac is the old gaulish fortress on the pointed bluff overlooking a large bight of river. Now a place of chic houses with fabulous views, a single 13th century tower and an obligatory church, in the 1st century B.C. this was the last Gaulish holdout against the Romans. Apparently they lasted a couple of years longer here than at the more famous Plateau of Gergovie, where local Clermont-boy Vercingetorix made his now mythical stand.
Vercingetorix is better known because at Gergovia he actually beat off Ceasar, and wasn’t captured by the Romans for another year, at an ill-considered defence of some town. Vercingetorix as a Roman captive was paraded around and humiliated to death. At Capdenac there was no such singular hero to sieze the day – the fortress garrison was worn down gradually and capitulated without the capture of any charismatic figures.
I have an orange soda, then walk around with a chocolate ice cream. The clock is tolling three as I make my way down the GR6 to Figeac. I never did see where the GR6 went in the other direction. I think it must end here. There’s no trace of it continuing on the map.
I keep an eye out for more dovecotes, now I’m nearing Figeac and it was only nearby that I saw them on my way out. But I see not a one. Darn. Should have made a couple of detours earlier. I do see a sign marking Capdenac, 7 km, and according to the map I’m just over halfway along the GR6. That will make 29 km for the day, then. Plus the wandering about town this morning. A 20-miler. And my feet are holding up fine, in spite of the continued road-walking. I am quite pleased.
In Figeac at 5 the market stalls are just packing up. I am minutes too late to score some good cherries for tomorrow’s train ride, and half an hour too late for the guided tour of the historic city. That’s ok. I hate to have a hike stressed by some deadline. I couldn’t have walked any faster the last leg anyway.
After a good long soak in the tub – it is so worth the extra for a tub and not just a shower! and a nap it’s time for a little aperitif, a spot of writing, and dinner.
A woman huffs into the bar where I’m having a kir (too sweet – why do bars always add too much crème de cassis?) and starts complaining to the bartender. She’s not accusing, she swears, no need to take offense, she directs. It seems that some passing kid picked her sunglasses up off the ground and walked off with them. And apparently the barkeep saw this kid with sunglasses and was supposed to know somehow who they really belonged to, and should have stopped the thief.
Theft? says the exasperated barkeep. Theft is he took it from your purse, your pocket, off your table.
Oh don’t get upset. I’m not accusing. But the woman with no sunglasses is standing around as if waiting for justice to be rendered from behind the bar, muttering under her breath. What is she doing in here? – some kid picked her glasses off the ground – why didn’t she herself do something, why is she waiting for the barkeep to turn cop, or detective, or hound? Another tense few minutes and she flounces out into the street, where the kid is obviously not to be found.
The bar fills up and becomes too smoky for me, so I head off in search of dinner. The place on the market square is serving rabbit with mustard, which I love, but it turns out to be meerly edible. No dessert – I’ve got a craving for a crepe and there’s a creperie down by the river. Better stroll down there than risk more mediocrity here.
It’s early yet and I know from last night that my room is quite noisy from the restaurant across the way and the bar downstairs. No point in turning in too early, so I take my time.
A slow stroll around the rolled-up town reveals cats. Cats everywhere; they’ve had their dinners and now they’re out on stoops and balconies and garden walls taking in the cool evening air.
Many cats and secret alleyways and a walk up the river to the next bridge and back later, I discover the creperie is packing it in. It’s barely ten! Damn; who’d’a thought! I wander back to my hotel’s square considering desserts, and sit at an empty table across the street from my own window. Nobody comes out to check on the terrace customers. Understood, they don’t want to start a whole dinner now for someone at this hour, not outside the big cities, but I only want a dish of fromage frais with honey. Just a teeny little dessert.
Oh never mind.
I’m breakfasted, paid up, and out the door before anything is open to sell me my picnic lunch, so I make the rounds in the early light. New angles of shadows. Nobody much about, not even the cats, not a one.
At 9:30 I can finally pack up some cherries and some pastry and wander up to the station where the schedule promises an 11:18 train to Bagnac. I just want to make sure I don’t need an extra ticket to get on and off the train an extra time.
Good thing I checked, because the 11:18 train isn’t actually running.
So now I’ve got five hours to kill in a town I’ve seen and seen again. It’s a nice town, sure, but I’ve seen it. I was so looking forward to climbing around the junkyard;
Ok, ok.
How about trying to get to one of the old dovecotes I saw in the distance early in yesterday’s hike. Yeah.
It’s hot today. And I’ve got all my stuff with me too, thank goodness I passed on buying a couple bottles of local wine. I can’t even change into my shorts because my jeans won’t fit into my pack. Overloaded.
It’s a frustrating first hour as I labor up the road, sweating, muttering, determined not to spend five hours in the train station or on some park bench. I spot the remembered dovecote, but it isn’t easy to get to. People around here seem much more concerned about random hikers crossing their land, and they don’t give the access there is where I live.
After a lot more walking on asphalt I come to where the road turns to dirt, away from the upper middle-class suburbia of eastern Figeac. The dovecote is on the south side of this road, frustratingly hidden be a ditch and a treacherous dry stone wall overgrown with weeds and small trees. It is a wall not to be breached. To the north it’s open, but there’s nothing interesting there. Just more gentlemens’ farms. I go on, hoping for a break in the hedge and there isn’t one but eventually I see something better.
A field of poppies in full bloom.
A carpet of red, dotted with white Queen Anne’s lace and yellow buttercups.
It was certainly poppy season along the train tracks to Paris on Tuesday, but here I’ve only seen them a few here and there along fences and paths. They aren’t really wild flowers; they get sown for looks and occassionally cultivated in fields for their seeds, but you rarely see the hills covered in red depicted in paintings.
These are the first I’ve seen this season, and they’re magnificent. The junkyard will be there all year round but flower season is short.
Oh, and here’s a picturesquely ruined shepherd’s shelter, and there an old-fashioned fortress farm compound. And now a herd of perfect blond cows and their calves, one lone blackie in the group just to be different.
And lastly, just before my circle takes me back to the big road and more modern cinderblock housing: a dovecote in a freshly mown field. The hay is still lying about in sinuous rows, waiting to dry before bailing.
The dovecote sits there as it has for centuries, cared for, empty of doves now. Somebody makes sure to keep the weeds from taking hold between the grey stones piled one on the other with no mortar, only expertise to keep them together all this time. Let it go, and in just a decade it would be reduced to a shapeless heap under the growth of vines and roots.
I don’t enter the field to get the best angle of sun – the family seems to be home down the way and I’m not one to go knocking and asking. Perhaps I should be, but that’s not a step I’ll be taking today.

Back at the station with two hours to go. A long wait, but not long enough to do any more exploring, burdened as I am in the heat. When the empty 4-car train slides in from Capdenac I score a window that’s cleaner than most and settle in to finish the pretzels. Every stop, people get on. And more. At Aurillac we’re delayed by another train, half of whose passengers run across the quay to join us.
People are heading back to school and work in Clermont and Paris, having spent the long weekend with the folks in the country. The students all have very serious luggage full of clean laundry.
Another delay. Every seat is taken. People start to worry about catching the 6:51 to Paris. They miss it. The 7:27 will be very full tonight ! I walk home to my waiting cats.

No comments: