Friday, September 21, 2012


Part 2 of 3

Back again to the Moissac stories ....  

After our first couple of weeks here we had to get away to the light and the cheerfullness of the Mediterranean. The Camargue was a simple choice - only about 3 hours by car and a good price at this time of year for a Chambres d'Hautes. We have now returned to Moissac for one final week in our home exchange. On our drive back up north we picked up our friends, the Lucases at Blagnac Airport in Toulouse. They will be our travel companions for the rest of our time in France and Spain.

MOISSAC: some impressions, stories and images.

To recap, Moissac is situated in the southwest of France, in the Midi-Pyrénnées, Département Tarn et GaronneThis very old city, about an hour’s drive north of Toulouse, is situated about a kilometre east of where the River Tarn and the Garonne River meet.

This confluence of waters forms a lake at Saint-Nicolas-de-la-Grave. The summer drought and August heat wave have resulted in exceptionally low water giving way to algae bloom and turbidity - not friendly for water sports.

The 240 km long Canal des Deux Mers runs between Toulouse and Bordeaux. Along the way, it passes through Moissac. This extension of the Canal du Midi makes it possible to travel by boat between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

These waterways are just down the street from our apartment.  

We often walk and cycle along the towpaths by several of the canal’s 91 locks. Sometimes we open a  gate for a passing boat.

One of the canal’s 40 aqueducts crosses the Tarn here.

The Pont Canal du Cacor at the confluence of the Tarn and Garonne rivers  was built in 1845 using stone from Bruniquel and brick from Toulouse. It has 13 arches and is 353 metres long.

These aqueducts  are  the sections of canal that carry boats over rivers, roads, train tracks or valleys. 

The Garonne River flows right by the Tarn at Moissac. The Aveyron River, tributary of the Tarn, is only about a half hour away.

Essentially, they are bridges for boats, and of course, walkers and cyclists.

Moissac is our home base for about a month. We are living in the 3rd floor apartment of a building constructed about two and a half centuries ago for the Préfect, or Chief of Police of the city (top two windows, left).

Though rather dark and dreary, it is a spacious apartment. Looking out our  living room window, slightly to the right, one can see that we are only a few dozen cobblestones away from the old medieval town square - Place Roger Delthi

Looking straight out the same  window is the abbey, built more than a thousand years ago. It is a UNESCO Heritage site, and a major stop along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail.

The Abbey bells chime on the hour ... actually, they are about ten minutes late - kind of like Moissac itself, rather behind the rest of the world, we feel. This city, and much of the region has seen better days.

One gets the feeling that the city is in decay. And this appears to be so for the entire region.

This area is largely agricultural, the main products being Chasselas grapes (for juice, jams and jellies), apple orchards and cereal crops. We have often remarked about how old the population is, I mean, how few young people there are. Indeed, farm families in decline and the exodus of youth to large urban centres is not unique to the agricultural communities of France. It’s just more noticeable here.

In Moissac and in all the neighbouring towns we see vacant and derelict buildings, crumbling and abandoned churches.

Council funds are insufficient to maintain them; congregations have withered away; the Catholic Church has simply dropped the ball.

Few of the 12,000 or so Moissagais (locals) speak English. Moissac is not a tourist destination, except perhaps for the pilgrim trail walkers, the occasional tour bus occupants who are herded here on a neo-Christian mission to see the awesome rock pile - the Abbey; and canal boaters who berth at the canal tow path and come ashore for a meal. All the people we meet, however, are friendly and courteous, and this makes us feel welcome. 

Our hosts in Moissac, Gaby and Dom, are the people with whom we are exchanging homes (they are in our house). They introduced us in advance to some close friends of theirs who have taken the time to show us around. We are very grateful for this. Claudine from St-Nicolas de la Grave and Christiane from Montauban, Jean and Nadia have all helped to make our stay here a pleasant one.

AUVILLAR is just over a half hour drive to the west, across the Tarn. 

La chappelle Sainte-Catherine (below) was first built by the Carolingians in ... and it was reconstructed in the beginning of the 14th Century by Pope Clement lV. Clement was one of a series of French popes who resided in Avignon at the same time as Pope Urban sat in Rome - a troubled time when there were 2 sets of popes. Near the end of the 1300's Christianity was turned on its heals. This pope lookalike contest pissed a lot of people off, and a new view of the world, still with heaven above and hell below, gave rise to Protestantism ...

Auvillar had its origins as a Gallo-Romanic city and  was once an important port on the Garonne River. It was invaded by the Normans in the 10 Century, was held by the Count of Armagnac in the 16th until, in 1589 it came under Henri lV's crown of France. And like most of the region of Aquitaine and southwest France, Auvillar suffered greatly during the 100 Years War. English-French-Protestants-Catholics, power, property, and money hungry, the lot of them.

Mounted in the old square beside the Marie (City Hall) is a huge single-tine boat anchor that was excavated from the river, below. Engraved on it is the date 1667. The boat it belonged to was a trader that sailed in the 17th Century between Auvillar and Bordeaux. 

Auvillar is designated as one of the most beautiful cities in France. First impressions are strong and Auvillar really grabs you.

It is all sooo quaint; and if decay and tumbledown is part of the French definition of beautiful, then, yes, it's très joli.

However, I am not entirely sure what to make of the weathered, unrepaired, broken down, abandoned buildings that sit next to the city hall or a fine restored hotel, or a thriving restaurant.

Scattered around the old market square of Auvillar are these mini-sculptures of pilgrims. You have to look up to see them, high on the sides of buildings.


Regarding the pilgrim walk (Saint-Jacques de Compostelle) that I associated earlier with Moissac, let it be known than almost everywhere you go in France, from Puys in the northeast to the northwest border of Spain, you will find these tired walkers, frequently congregating glassy-eyed in the neighbourhoods of ancient stone and brick churches, cathedrals, chapels, and abbeys. 

Most of these real life nouveau pilgrims are retired and middle class. They come in various shapes and sizes: endomorphs, mesomorphs and ectomorphs; and they are somewhat dazed after their long, rather solitary walks. 


Like us, they too have their digital cameras,  recording their epiphanies. Best not to engage them in conversation, because, not all of them, to be sure, but the serious new pilgrims, have been on the road a long time - alone. They are travelling light and they have necessarily shed all the baggage of home,  physical and mental. "Normal" conversation may be neither relevant nor meaningful. 

BARDIGUES, 5 kilometres south of Auvillar, is an unlikely little village, well kept with pride of place. It is surrounded by farmland and it just seems to appear over the hill with entry at one end of town through this idyllic alley of plane trees.

This village may be best known for an incredibly good restaurant called Auberge de Bardigues. We had lunch there once but had great difficulty reserving another time that worked for an evening meal because reservations must be made so much in advance.

But still, one of my  favourite meals is lunch in the warm noonday shade - le pique-nique:

- fresh baguette

- paté

- saucisson

- cornichons
- cheese
- garden tomato with mayo
- fresh vegetable and fruit

- and of course, vin de table

... especially when sharing it with the woman who took this photo! 

For more travel photography with local information visit my website.

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