Thursday, June 12, 2008

Gers, part II

This is the second of two posts I wrote during our recent trip to the Gers. Sorry it took so long to get it edited and posted, and I hope you find it worth the wait.

For the past two days we’ve stayed in southern Gers, where the département feels wilder as it starts to climb towards the mountains. Yesterday we drove up until the rivers we’ve been crisscrossing shrank to small streams in accordioned valleys. I have fallen in love with the Gers’ civilized side and I am not sure I like trading vineyards for cows as the farmhouses become progressively more decrepit. The showers that dogged us all day did nothing to convince me otherwise. Yet I’m still smitten and I find the landscape beautiful even from the rain-streaked window of the car.

We stopped at a Romanesque chapel in the middle of a field. A hand-lettered sign told us we could find the key at a house nearby. A few feet away, a dirt road headed off to a couple of stone houses where an old woman wrapped in a heavy, dark coat stood stooped over working in her vegetable garden. She was digging up muddy parsnips and tossing them into a tub.

One of the joys of searching for forgotten Romanesque churches is the medieval quest you must often undertake to obtain the keys. With luck, a note on the door of the church or a mention in an obscure guidebook will give you a clue to the address, but if not, if your motivation is greater than your timidity (more true for my husband than for me) you can knock one by one on all the doors of the village until you find the right one. This time, we found the right one easily, for the woman with the parsnips directed us to a farmhouse at the end of the lane.

Inside the small church, we sank into the familiar sombre light and dusty smell and blinked away enough daylight to make out the details we had come to admire. There was a fourth-century Gallo-Roman sarcophagus behind the altar, eighth-century pillars flanking the dim windows, a twelfth-century fresco on the wall. All the flotsam and jetsam of local history, collected and assembled by those who hoped that their faith would be enough to float it farther down the centuries.

My husband read the description of the sarcophagus, and the symbolism of the bas-relief is all speculation now. I listened dutifully and tried to trace the figures, but eternity still means nothing to le Petit, who started to shriek and squirm out of my arms. I eventually let him crawl around on the floor under the pews – “But he’ll eat twelfth-century dust!” my husband protested – then finally scooped him back up and took him outside to admire the cows in a nearby field.

The rain had let up briefly, but soon started pouring again for the trip back.

Today Météo France’s non-committal prediction of calmer weather proved true, for once. The Pyrenees even made an appearance, and they are much closer than I had suspected. We drove a winding road up the crest of a hill and all of a sudden there they were, white and purple peaks still shaking loose stray morning clouds.

We seized our chance to take a hike. We hiked nine miles up and down a valley, through forests and pastures and frighteningly tall grass, and along a portion of the Way of Saint James. I am clearly in no shape for a pilgrimage to Compostela, for even just carrying le Petit on my back for a few hours wore me down. But we found a perfect spot for a picnic along the way, and I mostly forgot my fatigue as I hunted for wild orchids in the grass along the trail.

A thunderstorm chased us inside when we arrived back at the house, and we were reminded that it is still only May: an early summer day stolen from between two seas and the far away mountains.

1 comment:

Marianne said...

Hello, just came across you via Polly-Vous Francais - this is very jealous-making, it sounds like a beautiful part of France. I'm enjoying reading about your adventures.