11 May Marsolan to Condom

It dawns warm and sunny, should be a good day for walking. It is lovely in the morning, gets a bit oppressive in the afternoon. As we leave Marsolan, Phillipe walks with us for a few hundred metres to make sure that we are on the right road. There are at least three ways to get to Condom from here. The first is a direct walk for 17 kilometres on the road, no place for food or water along the way. The second is via the chemin, about 23 kilometres, wandering over hill and dale, much like a dog’s random trail as it tracks down fascinating smells.

The third, which Phillipe recommends, is a compromise between the two. It is about 20 kilometres, through La Romieu, which has places for food and drink and is also, he tells us, the village of cats. He does not explain further, says it will be obvious. As we are standing at the point where we depart, along comes Alberto, an Italian with whom we have spending some time the past few days. We say goodbye to Phillipe and head off, four of us, on the quiet road to La Romieu.

We are here in about 90 minutes and it is indeed the village of cats. I had imagined a village full of little old ladies with their 27 cats each. I couldn’t be more wrong. There is not a live cat to be seen. What there is is whimsical sculptures of cats more than lifesize, on windowsills, disappearing into or emerging from little crannies in the walls. There are more than a dozen just in this one small square where we are sitting having a coffee. Along comes Nicolas, who has been camping in his tent on the way. He tells us that he cannot sleep unless it is perfectly quiet, so a dortoir in a gite does not work for him at all. We leave him sitting in La .

At La Romieu, we have sandwiches made for later in an epicerie, the usual butter, ham and cheese on a perfectly wonderful piece of bread. We walk on towards Condom, as it starts to get hot and oppressive. My clothes are soaking wet with sweat … again. I have filled my 3-litre soft plastic water bottle at Marsolan and it is a good thing. It is empty just as we reach Condom. As we walk, we talk. Marie tells me about her children. The youngest, 7, is concerned about her mother’s absence for 10 days. Marie’s solution is to prepare a small wooden box of kisses, one for each day, every one a piece of paper with a lipstick kiss and some words of comfort. She says that the kisses are working well.

She also tells me some of Pierre’s background. He had a brother, two years older, who died two years ago at age 48, Pierre’s age now, of heart failure. The brother was also schizophrenic, although that did not figure in his death. We talk about mental illness and its devastation on all those in the extended family. I tell her about my own experiences with mental illness in the extended family.

As we get close to Condom, we have to decide how to deal with what little time we have left together. Alberto goes ahead and I know that I will see him tomorrow, since we have booked the same gite in Montreal. The Equestrian Centre where Pierre and Marie will stay is two kilometres on this side of Condom, while my gite is somewhere in the city. The decision is for all three of us to walk to my gite where I can drop my backpack, shower, then walk back with my friends to the Equestrian Centre. Just as we enter the populated part of Condom, there is a sign for my gite, 80 metres ahead. Bliss!

After getting a bed and showering and changing into clean clothes and sandals, we walk back to their accommodation, where we hope that I can get dinner. My gite does not offer it. We think that since they have 65 beds, one more mouth to feed won’t be an issue. Marie showers first while Pierre and I sit outside and enjoy a cool drink. Then she comes out, looking radiant, while Pierre has his shower. We sit and talk for a couple of hours until we are called for dinner. We are in a little dining room, just four of us – we three and another French man who speaks fluent English. He learned it in Wales. Again we sit and talk and sip on red wine until it gets dark.

I don’t want this to end and clearly neither do they. Eventually I decide that I have to leave and Pierre insists on walking back to two kilometres into town. I embrace Marie – she has tears in her eyes, as do I as we say goodbye. None of us knows where, when or if we will meet again. Pierre has a headlamp and waves it around as we walk along the edge of the busy highway.

When we arrive back at my gite, we embrace and promise to keep in touch – and we will. I ask him to give my love to Marie and he says that he does – often.Then off he goes into the dark. They leave tomorrow morning by bus back to Cahors, where they will pick up their car for the 8-hour drive back to ALsace.

Why so busy? There is a big festival in Condom this weekend. The town of less than 8,000 is more than three times its normal population. This is the 40th anniversary of this Banda festival. Banda is folk music, big bands, accordions, large noisy and energetic crowds. This festival has over time been corrupted to be a huge drunken brawl , mostly young people, mid-teens to mid-20s, for a full weekend.

The noise in the city is incredible. Even in my gite at the very edge of town, close to a kilometre from the city centre, I can hear the noise without my hearing aids. It does not keep me awake for long although it clearly has a negative effect on some of the other people trying to sleep here.

OK, I know that you want to know what is going on with Condom. First of all, the accent is on the second syllable, not the first, so it’s conDOM, not CONdom. And the word in France is préservatif. Second, guess what they make here. Well, you’re wrong,although it was a good guess. What they make here and are famous for is Armagnac, a strong liquor similar to Cognac, but unlike cognac, distilled only once.

However, catering to popular demand, there IS a museum here of population control devices. I do not visit the museum. At my age, nature pretty well takes care of that for me.

Tomorrow I am off to Montréal, where I expect to take a rest day. No, the other one, Montréal-du-Gers. It is much, much smaller and even more French. I am just short of 400 kilometres so far, so more than half-way.

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