12 May Condom to Montreal

I am out of the gite by 8 AM. The other pilgrims tell me that they had a poor sleep last night because of the noise. Even I could hear it. It takes me about 40 minutes to walk out of Condom and it is an amazing, amusing and horrifying walk. As I walk through the centre of the town, I see at least a dozen young men who are in really advanced stages of drunkenness. I see one whose stance against a wall reminds me of the scene in Cat Ballou in which the gunslinger, on his horse, is leaning against a wall, completely drunk. The evidence of a really big party is all around.

The local authorities have barricaded the whole of the city centre to keep people safe from vehicle traffic, although nothing can keep them from self-inflicted damage. These guys aren’t aggressive, they are in fact quite friendly and when they are able to focus on me, wish me; “Bon courage” or “Bon chemin”. As is quite usual, the signage for the chemin is less conspicuous in the town, so I have to keep asking if I am on the right route. The tables are turned once when one of the drunks asks me if this is the chemin de Saint Jacques and I tell him that I hope so, but I don’t know.

Out of town, the countryside is gently rolling hills, the farms look prosperous, there is haying going on, the strawberries are already ripe and in the stores, the barley is high.

It is overcast and cool with a haze that supports my guess that humidity is close to 100 percent. I have refilled my water bag and sip from it every time I think of it. I have my hat attached to my belt, since there is no sun and it’s cooler with the hat off.

I meet Alberto soon after I leave Condom and we walk together for the day. He is companionable and sufficiently garrulous that I don’t have to carry my end of the conversation. Yesterday, Pierre and Marie said about him, with fondness; “Alberto is SO Italian”. He tells me at one point that the Italian term for the scallop shell, a symbol of the pilgrim’s walk, is “La concha”, which he also explains, in passing, is the less formal Italian term for female genitalia. It creates quite a vivid image for me.

We walk past vineyards and at one point, I see a man checking his vines and I ask him, naively, what kind of wine does he make. It’s the kind of question that must make a winemaker’s hair turn grey. He responds, after a pause to think of an appropriate answer to a dumb question; “Vins de Gascoyne, the best wines in France”. He produces both red and rosé and it looks to be a good year.

We arrive in Montréal-de-Gers about 1 PM, find our gite, deposit our backpacks (it opens for pilgrims at 2) and walk back 100 yards to the town square where there is a bar with outdoor seating under an old arcade. We have a little aperitif and wait until 2, being entertained by a small group of young men, clearly survivors of last night’s bacchanalia in Condom. According to the bar owner, they have been here for several hours, drinking. That is perfectly obvious.

They are loud, boisterous but not obnoxious. Just before 2 they leave to go to their car and drive – horrors, they can barely walk – back to Condom for more revelry. I am so glad that I am not there. I have never been fond of groups of drunks because they can get nasty so quickly and for no reason apparent to anyone but them. As they walk away, one of them has his pants down around his knees and is mooning, probably inadvertently, scandalised little old ladies. I say inadvertently because I doubt he or any of the group could form a coherent intention.

At 2 we return to the gite and get our beds. Since we are the first here, we get our choice. I pick a lower bunk with a window shelf next to it. That gives me a place to put small but critical bits of gear, such as my hearing aids, at night. Better than on the floor where I might step on them as I make my nightly trip to the john. Alberto picks the bunk above mine.

The place is lovely. It’s on the edge of town, up high – actually it’s hard not to be on the edge of town – with a view over farmer’s fields, woods and a couple of small villages or large homesteads. There is a tractor cutting hay in the distance. It is the only noise besides birdsong.

One of my first moves is to ask if I can stay here another night. They are happy and obliging. It turns out – this is a newly-opened gite, only 6 weeks – that I am the first pilgrim to ask to stay over for two nights. The owner, Anita, is German, indeterminate age, speaks French with a delightful lilt. She walked the camino three years ago, then decided that she wanted to open a gite. But she had little money, only a flat in Spain, worked two years at various gites in St. Jean Pied de Port to learn how to operate a gite. She would have liked to sell her flat but the economy was dreadful. Then out of the blue she got a call from a neighbour. Someone wanted to buy her flat. She sold it and that gave her enough money to buy this place and open the gite.

Late in the day two young Norwegian women arrive, both 24, both in teacher training. They are Anna and Tone – pronounced approximately Toone. I tell them about my love affair with Norway and they tell me about their experiences on the chemin. They are walking from Le Puy to Santiago and have planned 10 weeks to do it. They tell me about being in the snowfields on the Aubrac plateau and realising, even for Norwegians and used to winter conditions, that this was a very dangerous place to be. They got lost one day for three hours and were very concerned. I am surprised that no-one died up there. Over the past three weeks I have heard a number of real horror stories about the conditions there. When I was driven through in a taxi, it looked like a scene from Napoleon’s winter retreat from Moscow.

I ask them about the mass killing in Oslo and Anna tells me that her mother, who is a priest, lives very near the island where most of the killing took place and went there to help immediately after the killing. There was not a lot that she could do except console the survivors. They are both very proud to be Norwegians, as they should be, and tell me that the population has just passed five million.

We enjoy a lovely dinner, all 13 of us and get to bed in good time. Everyone except me will be leaving in the morning. Alberto will walk for a few more days, then take a train to Spain and walk the Camino del Norte along the northern coast.

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