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Learning to Walk, Day 11, cont.

September 8, 2022

Wifi! Sitting outside a cafe with a cafe au lait and they have wifi!! So let’s see if I can adequately write up yesterday. Actually, there probably aren’t words to adequately describe Conques—I wish you could experience it for yourselves. As I think I said earlier, this is the second most significant location on the Chemin Le Puy, and many people end their pilgrimage here. The church, which feels like it should be a cathedral is breathtaking. Austere and simple. It’s Romanesque in style from the 11th century. Thank God they didn’t “Baroque it up” as has happened to so many of the earlier churches on the inside. It just soars. The height inside is nearly 30 meters, nearly 100 feet. It just takes your breath away. More about Conques in a minute, first I need to tell you about a great experience earlier in the day.

I finally had a shorter day, 12 km according to the guide, 15 according to my Apple Watch. I still don’t understand why my watch adds kms to the distance, but I just start out the day knowing I have to add a few to what I expect. I stopped to see the church in the village of Senergues. I try to go in all the churches that are open—and most of them are. This is the Church of St. Martin (one of many), originally founded by Louis, Charlemagne’s son, and the current building is 16th cent, windows are 20th cent. As I was in the church I heard a lot of noise coming from the tower—thumps and voices and I wondered, “can you go up?” I went around to the side, looking for an entrance, and just then a man came out the door, with a pail of rubble to dump in the back of a truck that was parked there. He said, “you can come up if you like.” In French, but I could understand that. I took him up on the offer, and climbed the slightly scary stairs (who am I kidding, very scary, but I was determined), and there were several men working on restoring the tower. He had warned me it would be dusty, and it was. One of them gave me a hand up and I made it into the tower on the same level as four big bells. One of them tried to explain the history of the bells, and wrote the dates of each on a beam with his finger. Two of them are historical, maybe 16th century—from the time the church was built. The other two are slightly more recent. It was very cool to be up there. I don’t know if pilgrims normally have access or not. They had built new wooden stairs to get up to the bell level. I don’t know if this is just for the safety of those who need to go up, or if it is for visitors. Anyway, there were no other walkers going up—just me and the restoration crew—so I felt like I had had a special tour.

Now for Conques. Oh my. Descending into it is quite a feat. It is built on the side of the hill, so there are many levels to the town, full of steep, winding streets/lanes—most of them too narrow for a vehicle—and staircases. As I pass through these medieval villages I keep thinking, “this is where Beauty and the Beast is set.” Disney must have visited this part of France. So many of his animated films could have been set in this area. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty. I guess there are probably medieval villages all over Europe that would look the same.

The Church of St. Foy is the centerpiece, and the place of pilgrimage for centuries. Sometimes this was the destination, sometimes it was a significant stop on the way to St. Jacques/Santiago. Pilgrims came here to venerate St. Foy (Saint Faith). She was a young girl, maybe 12, who was martyred in the 3rd or 4th century, perhaps under Diocletian. She was from Agen, but Conques needed some relics so it could become a pilgrimage destination. The story I have read is that a monk or priest from Conques went to Agen, lived and served among them for a decade earning their trust, then made off with St. Foy’s relics and brought them to Conques. So they were stolen by a priest to put Conques on the map. I may not have that exactly right, but I think it’s close to the story. Anyway they built a church any 12 year old martyr would be proud of.

I stayed at the Abbey, which like many such ancient abbeys and convents now serves pilgrims. I had my own little room on the top level, and I think I counted more than 60 stairs, up a central, stone, spiral staircase. At least it was a wide spiral so did not bother my spiral staircase fear too much—only when I met someone coming down and I had step on to the slightly narrower part of the stairs. It was wonderful to have my own room again. When you are in Conques bedtime is much later than the normal pilgrim bedtime. They have a service of pilgrim blessing at 8:30, followed by one of the brothers giving a half-hour talk explaining the tympanum outside, followed by a 45 minute organ concert (again, one of the brothers), followed by a light show of the tympanum at 10:15. Of course, I could understand virtually nothing, and I really wish I understood French last night. The brother who gave the talk of the tympanum was clearly an engaging speaker and evoked many laughs.

The organ concert was wonderful. During the concert, you can pay 6 Euros to go walk around the upper level of the cathedral. I gave it my best shot. I made it up the narrow, steep stone stairs to the organ loft, paid my 6 E, started up the very narrow, steep enclosed stairs to the upper level, then when you had to go out on a narrow balcony with low railing high above the nave, I just couldn’t do it. Sheer panic set in. I turned around, let the couple behind me squeeze past and went back down to the organ level, told the woman taking money that I just couldn’t do it and made my way back down to the safety of ground level. She offered to refund my 6 E, but I said no. It can be my contribution to the organ fund which they made a plea for. I watched people walking around the upper level, one woman almost as scared as I had been. Her friend helped her past the scariest parts. Maybe if I’d had such a friend with me who had no fear of heights I could have done it. Here are photos of the cathedral, the tympanum and the light show.

And that is Conques. There may be a few more photos from this morning. Time to leave this cafe with wifi and walk around a bit. I am really enjoying my morning off from walking. It’s so nice to sit, enjoying cafe au lait, or two, write and just relax. I take the transport service to Decazeville early this afternoon, hope to find a sporting goods store to upgrade my day pack, then will have what should not be too taxing a walk, 5 km to Livinhac-le-haut, tonight’s destination.

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  1. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate… wow . . is as far as my vocabulary will take me !
    ..and don’t worry about not finishing the high.wire act ! . . you have enough courage for two men and a lion !
    what a great pleasure to share this. xx

  2. What an interesting post (you must be a good story teller because I felt dizzy too!), and what wonderful photos, thank you for a lovely read!

  3. Patricia Decker permalink

    I’m so glad you got a little rest and restoration and a single room for the night.

    I am also pretty scared of heights so I totally get not going higher – I probably would have been very woozy and nauseous. But no matter – your photos (and lovely writing) show how gorgeous it all is.

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