Tuesday, February 10, 2009

My Cut-Rate Grand Tour: Day Ten

Thursday, 15 December 1988
From Toulouse to Conques & back to Toulouse again

Rented a car from Hertz and drove up to
Conques today. Only way practicable to get there. Hertz was the only one with unlimited kilometrage for a one-day trip so they actually came out the cheapest. 490F, meaning about £49, meaning . . . †

Oh, well. Always wanted to go to Conques.

Kind of a dumb joke here: The rental agent at the Hertz place was the first one since I’ve gotten to France who has attempted to speak any English with me. And I suppose he thought he had to, since I was allowing myself to become self-conscious over the differences between the Toulousain accent and the Parisienne one I was taught and was mispronouncing things and generally tripping all over my mouth. And this guy had the charming cheek to say to me-- in English-- "You know, if you want to learn French, you just have to practice and just try to speak it!"

I refrained from telling him I have been speaking nothing but French for the last week and a half and that when I get into stressful states I can’t even speak my native tongue properly, let alone a foreign one.

Beside, I was going to have enough fun with the car anyway. It was not a Ford Fiesta, it was a mini-Peugeot. I never did get the trunk lock to come open--well, once, to put my stuff in, but then couldn’t get it out; had to get into it through the back seat, but never mind that.

First real issue was not being able to turn the key in the ignition. Clerk came out and showed me how the steering wheel locks and you have to turn the one to free the other. Oh.

Then I worked the little car out into traffic-- where it promptly died. Tried anew. Died again. At which point the clerk came running out and showed me how this car has a manual choke and you have to pull it out till the engine warms up. Oh.

By that time I had a nervous cramp and a bad case of the shakes in my left leg and it was dancing all over the clutch. But fortunately I’d worked out the route so I knew where I was going and knew that if I just kept driving I’d get over it. And out of the major city traffic.

This was not a good day to drive near Toulouse. Extremely foggy but try telling the truck drivers that that makes a difference. I got passed a few times. Great. Let them.

French roads really are those long straight affairs with ranks of trees on either sides, like you see in pictures. Plane trees in this part of the country. Pity I couldn’t see more than a few yards of them at a time. The fog was very poetic but I could’ve done with less romanticism and more visibility.

By the time I was driving through Albi, though, it was just gray skies.

I got a bit turned around there. The signage was great to that point, always telling you in each small town that the N88 traversed which turn to take to get to Albi. But once I reached
Hereticville I lost my signs. Ended up in the middle of town, pulled over, with my Michelin.

Got out of there and on towards Rodez. Fog closed in again, as the road reached higher and began to curve around the foothills.

Rodez is very prettily sited, all on a hillside. Church prominent at the top (cathedral, maybe?) with all the buildings ranked down the slope at its feet. Kind of place you’d want to pull off the road and photograph-- if the whole town visible from the road wasn’t modern. Wonder if the Germans had something to do with that . . .

Found the D901 to Conques off the bypass; no trouble this time. Fog continued in drifts on up into the mountains. But it was the sort of thing that just maybe might disappear up higher and give place to sunlight.

Then I got to a scene I wish I could’ve captured on film, if I’d had a place to pull off. The mist became suffused with radiance, which glinted off the trees and hedgerows covered with white hoarfrost. And just a little farther on and higher up-- voilà! there it actually was-- blue skies and sunshine. Thank you, Jesus!

Whatever else that little car had, it had good interior acoustics. First time I’d gotten to do any real singing in a week and a half.

Conques, as I’d remembered reading in Gourmet Magazine, is on a switchback road. Paved, not gravelled, happily. Put her into second and had fun with it.

Conques was kind of strange, as a town. I got there around 1:30 and so it wasn’t surprising that everything was closed. But nothing ever opened thereafter. More people around than in old Carcassonne but nothing like the bustle of even La Côte (There’s a thriving village. They even have an architect’s office). One wonders what it must be like to live there. The major activity in sight was repair work. There were trucks back and forth all afternoon redoing the paving in la rue Charlemagne.

I approached the pilgrimage church of
Ste.-Foi-de-Conques from the east side, having left the car at the carpark near the new cultural center (they have concerts there in the summer). It was below me as I came upon it and I could see the chevet and crossing tower. Steps lead down to the place at the west front, and there she was, that wonderful Last Judgement tympanum, with the antique polychrome showing pastel pink and blue. The sun was shining on just the lefthand side of the embrasure and I decided to hold off on too much photography there till the light was hitting the tympanum more directly, from the west.

Into the church through the westward side door of the south transept. First thing I noticed was the fresco that occupies a wall blocking off the far end of the south crossing arm.

The second thing was that the crossing itself was filled with scaffolding. They were repairing the lantern. Oh well. It apparently needed it. The vaults in the side aisles definitely do. If one had the money that would be a good place to throw some.

Even with the scaffolding in the way I could see up into the lantern. It was very beautiful and filled with golden light. And I could just see the carvings of the angels and apostles in the corners.

Walked around the ambulatory to the north transept. The apse chapels were filled with dismantled woodwork. But the transept was free of emcumbrances and yes, the Annunciation relief was where I’d guessed it was, in the center of the north wall.‡ It forms a kind of column at the meeting of the two blind arches under the tribune there.

nave was radiant, especially in its upper reaches, with winter sunlight. And, more considerately than at some other places I could name, the historiated capitals are illuminated. You could actually see the carvings.

Unfortunately my Olympus battery had managed to run itself down again so I didn’t feel safe using that camera. Did what I could with the Minolta. Ate lots of film as the sun kept moving around and striking the sculpture and columns at new angles.

After I’d seen all I could inside, I went over and learned where to buy a ticket to see the treasury. You get it from an old Augustinian (Premonstratensian) monk, and I’ve never learned yet how one addresses such personages in French these days.

The treasury was certainly impressive, especially when you think of all the donations, all for the sake of that
little girl named Faith martyred in the 4th Century. And for Jesus’ sake, too, one hopes. The funny thing is that the whole cult of relics got started because it made people feel closer to heaven-- here was physical evidence of someone who had lived a saintly life on earth and who now was united with God’s holiness in heaven. But it’s been so long since all that that it’s lost its power. The risen Christ seems closer.

From the standpoint of liking it, though, I think my favorite was the crystal on the back of the
statue of Sainte Foi, with the Crucifixion showing through it. Rather ghostly, but effective.

The fee for the cloister treasury also affords one access to the
museum in the Syndicat d’Initiative. Most of the work here is from a later date, except for the artifacts in the downstairs room which are fragments of capitals and other carvings salvaged when the cloister was demolished in 1830. Does that mean the cloister that’s there now is only 140 years old?

Otherwise, there was a great deal of 16th and 17th Century work, painted wood statuary and most importantly, a series of tapestries recounting the life and legend of Mary Magdalen. Like a lot of others, this artist makes her identical with Mary of Bethany, Martha’s sister. I wonder who’s right . . . I really liked the scene of the supper at Bethany with Christ dressed, from the waist down in the typical 1st Century flowing robe, and from the waist up in a doublet like a 16th Century noble’s.

Over to the abbey magasin after that and bought the obligatory postcards and guidebook. They had one in the same edition as that for St. Sernin. Does Dr. Gendle have one? Should I have picked one up for him?

Wrote him a postcard, at any rate. Don’t know his postcode but figure the British postal service can find Oxford . . .

Sunlight on the tympanum was better by now. The blessed look pleased as punch to be in heaven, though one little soul gives an apprehensive look over his shoulder at a leering devil, as the angel leads him into himmlische Reich . . .

The sun was setting all pale gold and I took advantage of the rest of the light exploring the town, with all its little cobbled streets and stairways. But damn! it was quiet! People were there, though-- you could see the smoke coming out of the chimneys. And occasionally someone would peer through a window as I passed.

Shot several very antique-looking houses. I realize that if I were being really scholarly I would’ve documented their general appearance and location, street and so forth, for future reference. But dammit, it was cold.

Ran out of slide film there. I mean completely. I’ve shot all ten rolls I brought already.

Decided to use the final frame on a view of the town from the west, with the light on the houses and the towers of the church. In order to save my feet and not lose the light, I made up my mind to drive over to that end of town.

Wrong. Got about three blocks worth and ran into the repaving work, blocking the way completely. Big red dump truck and a backhoe. No place to turn around so I had to take the car in reverse-- uphill-- all the way to the carpark (the black exhaust was shocking). Ended up walking back that way after all.

In the process discovered something else interesting about that little Peugeot. Not only will it not work if the choke’s off when it’s cold, it also won’t work with the choke on with the engine warm. Until I discovered that too much gas was the problem I thought I’d done something highly regrettable to the car.

The road from Conques looks west for awhile. And I was privileged to see a real live honest-to-God sunset, my first in a long while.

But, as didn’t greatly surprise me, the clouds closed in as I drove lower, and with dusk returned the fog. And if you don’t think that was enough fun on that curving mountain road you can also figure in the aggressivity of French drivers who don’t think 40 mph (or 65 kph) is half fast enough, even under those conditions. I had a whole string of tailgaters. They were perfectly free to pass if they dared but me, I was going as fast as I could.

I had gotten a taste of the daredevil passing habits of the French on the way up, so it didn’t surprise me greatly to come around a bend and see two pairs of headlights coming towards me in tandem out of the fog. I hit my brakes just enough to give the passer leeway to get back in and kept on singing Berlioz: "Elle s'en va seulette; L'or brille à son bandeau . . . "†† That’d be heart attack city in the USA, but here it’s business as usual.

Fog lasted all the way to Albi. If the drivers didn’t care for what I was doing, I wonder what they thought of the slow-moving trucks doing 20 mph? I know my thoughts weren’t particularly patient or kind.

Had hoped to go a different route on the trip back, maybe even make it up to Aurillac, but decided that under the circumstances I’d better go a way that was at least somewhat familiar.

Found the bypass around Albi this time. The way between there and Toulouse took a much shorter time this time around. I still didn’t go much over 100 kph.

Finally got back to Toulouse and the rental agency a little after 8:00, without having struck any dogs, pedestrians, trees, or other cars. Dropped the key in the slot after parking in the only available spot. Discovered later that I was supposed to drop in some copies of the rental agreement. Well, I’ll do that tomorrow.

Went over to a café at Jean Jaures and rue de Strasbourg and had
cassoulet and an Abbaye de Leffe beer. The beer was good. I suppose the cassoulet was, too, if you like the idea of spending around $7.50 for what is essentially baked beans with assorted cured meats.

Well, it’s Famous and now you can say you’ve had it.

Back to the hotel by 10:00 and washed my hair. Stayed up too late waiting for it to dry. Which was dumb, because I do have my blowdryer and a converter with me.
†The exchange rate at the time was around $2.00 US to the pound sterling.
‡This had been in question for me. The previous term in Oxford when I'd decided to do an essay on this church, the only book my Medieval Architecture History tutor could recommend to me was a 1939 guidebook held by the Bodleian Library. It was completely in French and had no pictures at all. To make things more interesting, some of the pages had never been cut and I had to get permission to do it with my new Swiss Army knife! You'd think I was the first one to read it in almost fifty years!
††Hector Berlioz, La Belle Voyageuse; words by Thomas Gounet, after the Thomas Moore poem "Rich and Rare." Literally (with poetic license), "Travelled she alone, with gold her circlet shining . . . "


whiskers said...

Did the British postal service find Oxford for you?

Inquiring minds want to know...


St. Blogwen said...

I'm pretty sure they did!

What I can't recall is whether my tutor regretted that I hadn't bought him that book.