From Cognac to Bordeaux; ah, how sweet life is.
We arrived late last night after over five days walking. The weather has been truly superb – you would never know it was winter, as the sun shone with enough warmth to walk in a t-shirt and apply sunscreen. Not that the heat lasted into the nights, unfortunately, but you can’t have everything! We camped rough most of the way, with a couple of interesting exceptions.
On the first night we came across a campsite that was actually open. Since it is the first we have come across in over a month, we were excited bordering on the hysterical, particularly when we discovered it had HOT water in the showers. To make life complete there was one other bloke there in a static van, who invited us in for hot soup and wine, and breakfast the next morning. Despite the fact that the tent was actually frozen stiff upright when we awoke the following day, it was a real treat to have someone to talk to and be clean. Important, too, as for the next few days it was picnic grounds and closed parks all the way with not a drop of hot water in sight.
But the last night in the tent was a real treat.
We walked into a small village at about 4.00pm, our usual stopping time now that the days are dark by 5.30. There seemed to be very little about; it was a typical French rural village of under 1000 people. What this means, if you have never frequented them, is that the village centre usually consists of the following: a lovely old church, a war memorial, grassy area with a bench, a rather grand looking Mairie (town hall) and – most peculiar but inevitably present – a hairdressing salon. Do not ask me why this is so, but thus it is. It would seem the French can exist quite happily without a Boulangerie, but NEVER without a hairdresser. Sometimes there will be up to four in one tiny village. Unfortunately villages of this size often don’t have a Boulangerie or general store, particularly if there is a bigger town a few kilometres away. Walking in to this one in particular we had reasonably high hopes of food. The church seemed quite big and the Mairie was very grand looking indeed. We passed the hairdresser and then a Museum – it was looking good – but then, sadly, not a food shop in sight.
We decided that we would have to camp somewhere nearby anyway. It was starting to get cold and the nearest town was another 6 kilometres away. We figured we could get up early and hike there for breakfast.
Sometimes in small places like this one it is better just to throw the tent up at the back of the Sports Field without asking anyone; at least then you can plead ignorance if someone comes asking questions, whereas if you have actually been told not to, it means walking on and camping in the woods. I am none too fond of the woods scenario after Blair Witch night, and am far happier reasonably close to water and people.
Frank in Chartres told us to always ask at the Mairie if we were stuck, as the Mayor is supposed to help people on the Pilgrim’s trail. But we have had a couple of bad experiences with them, where we have been told to walk for another five kilometres, or simply that there is nowhere to camp and no other option, so we are a little wary. More often than not in small towns they are only open for a few hours one day a week anyway.
However, this one was open and I thought at least they might be able to point us in the direction of a friendly farmer. Little did I know we had stumbled upon the most dynamic Mayoress this side of Hilary Clinton.
Sometimes the small villages of France can be illusory; whilst you walk through absolutely captivated by their tumbledown, rustic beauty, scratch beneath the surface and often all is not as peaceful as it would seem. Over and over we have heard similar tales of woe from local residents. Their way of life is dying, they say. The young people all move to the cities; traditional practices of cheesemaking and Boucherie are fading out in the face of tough government legislation and high taxes, and the low rate of pay in such industries; the local restaurants cannot afford to run in the way they always have. There is a simmering resentment toward the perceived abuse of the system by illegal immigrants, and a common dismay at seeing “old France” – and, in particular, “rural France” – disappear. It is the same complaint which seems to plague many countries in the face of increasing globalisation; the loss of a national identity or character, and in the small villages particularly, people are often very disheartened.
But not, let me assure you, in the proud village of Civrac-De-Blaye.
The efficient secretary got on the telephone to the Mayoress, and after a quick conversation, showed us out the back to where there was a beautiful big garden by a pond. She told us we were welcome to camp there, and gave us access to a toilet block and drinking water. We were already absolutely rapt with this, as it was about 100% more than we had hoped for, but there was more to come. About an hour later the Mayor herself turned up. She was an incredibly cheerful, brisk, efficient looking woman, seemingly more at home broking power deals across a Boardroom desk than running the affairs of a 750 strong village.
We were immediately invited into the inner sanctum, a rather grand looking wood panelled room with plush furniture, and given – oh sweet, sweet heaven – HOT coffee and yummy biscuits, which we tried to eat with a semblance of decorum rather than in great schlonking handfuls as we were tempted to. As if any further gesture were required, she then showed us to a little bathroom with a sink to bathe in which had – you guessed it – hot water. After four days in the tent, there are not really the words to describe the height of our excitement.
Waving away our gibbering thanks, she said she would see us in the morning, and left us to it.
We were a little anxious to get moving the following day as we were out of food, there was no Boulangerie, and the biscuits of the previous day had served as dinner. Also Bordeaux was a 25km march away and we didn’t want to wander in late. But at 9.00 am, just as we were ready to leave, out came the Mayor with the offer of coffee. We are not stupid. In we went, trying not to slather at her heels. Inside the inner sanctum she had laid out a total spread: fresh baguette, butter, homemade jam, coffee, and chocolate “for the journey”. Gary and I were nearly reduced to tears. We hoofed in with unseemly relish, barely suppressing moans of contentment.
Meanwhile, Madame Cadusseau, le Mayor (Maire) de Civrac-De-Blaye, gave us some reading material on the village. Expecting the normal photocopied newsletter, we were rather impressed when we started to read.
As if in direct defiance of the above mentioned fears and depression plaguing rural communities, Madame Cadusseau has implemented a program of arts and renewal in her village. The unemployed have been put to work on a number of projects, such as the design and maintenance of the beautiful garden we camped in, and the renovation and restoration of the ancient Eglise and Cemetary. The Church is extraordinary, and the 15th century intricate wooden roof has been beautifully restored by the local workers under the careful eye of master craftsmen and is a work of art. The entire village has been planted out with carefully laid garden beds and has won first prize for it’s flowers in the regional competition for the last two years. But more importantly, the Maire has set herself the goal of celebrating the ancient traditions of the village, and to this end has created a museum of rural history, which is actually interesting to look at. The other traditions, of military valour and patriotism, are also an integral part of village life, and form the basis of various fetes and festivals, along with those of the harvest. There are theatre groups, music groups, artistic meetings of painters and sculptors, and a real push to attract new residents to the area.
It was marvellous to see someone determined to combat the growing despondency in the country, and tackling it with such vigour and enthusiasm. In contrast to other towns twice it’s size, the Mairie at Civrac is open all the time, and seemed to be a hub of the village. The whole place had a real air of being on the move. It was lovely.
It was gone ten o’clock by the time we started walking to Bordeaux, but we were in such a good mood we decided we didn’t care if we rocked in late. We seemed to be covering the distance really quickly – fuelled no doubt by the coffee and chocolate – and so at about 1.30 when we came across a small village with a bustling little restaurant, we decided to treat ourselves to a nice meal in celebration of our first 1000km and the last day before a rest day. Any excuse.
And oh, sweet, sweet Bordeaux! Gorgeous food, seafood cassoulet and Confit Canard, amazing wine, Crème de Café…and all for €20 for both of us. That food was the first hot meal we’d had in 6 days and, my God, it was good. We virtually floated into Bordeaux last night and even though we didn’t get here until late, we really didn’t mind.
We are only having a short stop here as we need to keep moving – only about ten walking days from the border now. I can smell the paella, chorizo and Rioja from here. Also, after the long stop in Cognac, we were in serious pain for the first two days back walking – it would seem our little bodies don’t appreciate being lulled into a false sense of security. Better just to keep thrashing them maybe! We stayed so long there because Bernard, the fantastic bloke who ran the Hostel, gave us three nights for free, not to mention dinner at his home accompanied by Cognac’s finest produce. It had nothing to do with the Hennessy tasting tours, promise.
I am also putting some new photos into the Cognac folder from the walk between there and here.
Despite it being a short stop, priority number one on the list – straight after a four handed massage by some Thai girls whilst being fed chocolate and champagne by Mel Gibson, of course – is a long tasting session at the Maison de Vin. Well, it would be impolitic no to, don’t you agree?