Breakfast at the Hôtel Regina was the comedy I expected it would be. The chap who had insisted I pay in advance was there supervising the service which was provided by another flustered and harrassed lady who was perfectly pleasant and efficient, but clearly unsettled by the constant nosing, carping attentions of the boss. I watched his antics for a few seconds, then marched up to him with my little chit and presented it to him with as much ostentation as I could manage. He seemed a little nonplussed, took the little piece of paper and, after a quick look around, stuffed it hastily into his pocket like a bribe. The arrangement was that one ordered one’s hot drink from the flustered lady and then went to select the breakfast of one’s choice from the buffet. The boss was clearly supervising minutely every selection and pounced on any unsuspecting glutton who dared to take several glasses of juice, pointing out that only one glass was allowed. The buffet had the oddest arrangement for displaying the food that I have ever seen. The pieces of baguette, slices of bread, croissants and so on were presented in barely open drawers, as if reluctant to reveal themselves and symbolic of the manager’s desire to avoid all expense. It was a fiddly business extracting every morsel and the distinct impression created was that the self-service was to be made as difficult as possible. A large notice above the buffet instructed the guilty breakfasters not to remove any food from the dining-room. Clearly the chap in charge was not only afraid that his customers would clear off without paying but that they might try to feed themselves at later points in the day at his expense. I made a point of requesting a second cup of coffee. The boss stared at me, first in surprise and then as I imagined Mr Bumble staring at Oliver, his chest inflating with indignation. He was about to protest when his flustered assistant piped up, “un deuxième café, bien sûr Monsieur” and stopped him dead in his tracks. As I retired to my table with my prize, he drew her aside into the kitchen and presumably got her back onto the strait-and-narrow.
I left by the back door of the hotel at around eight-thirty and might, had I been that way inclined, have been tempted to nip off without paying. Odious management invites an odious response. Such people don’t seem to realise that. Their conviction that everyone is a scoundrel and needs controlling probably says more about their own inclinations than anything else, but their belief becomes a self-confirming theory because of their behaviour. It was a relief to get back onto the canal.
I left Agen and its suburbs behind and passed the Château de Grandfonds at around nine. I was soon back in the familiar leafy environment of the tow-path, more like a cool nave than ever given the brilliant sunshine beyond. The plan today was to get to Valence D’Agen by mid-morning and then leave the canal to visit the village of Auvillar, described in the literature as one of the “plus beaux villages de France” which is an official designation almost like an appellation controllée [see:http://www.les-plus-beaux-villages-de-france.org/fr/auvillar-0].
My destination for this evening was the Hôtel des Deux Mers in Castelsarrasin. The shenanigans in Agen had made me regret not trying harder to find a chambre d’hôte, since generally speaking my experience had been that the service is much better for a similar cost.
I arrived in Valance in time to buy provisions for lunch and asked the chap in the traiteur for directions to Auvillar. He cackled manically, said it was quite straightforward, provided the directions and then said with great satisfaction that there was a beautiful hill to be climbed in order to get to the village. I thanked him for the information and left him rubbing his hands at the idea of my exertions. This charcuterie-fancier was almost spherical, so I guess the thought of cycling up the hill in question seemed to him pretty punishing.
I got to the Garonne about half and hour later and looked up at the village of Auvillar perched on its eminence above the river.
It did, indeed seem a long way up. As it turned out, the road up to the village was a fairly gentle slope and I was at the top before I realised it. The village of Auvillar is certainly worth a visit, although it’s not in the league of villages such as Cordes in the Tarn and Gordes in the Luberon. It’s a favourite staging-post for the pilgrims on the routes to Saint Jacques de Compostelle.
For a bit of history on Auvillar see: http://www.auvillar.com/histoire.php
I did a quick tour of the place, taking in the main gate, that dates from the time of Louis XIV,
the view from the top of the village,
and the remarkable, circular Halle aux Grains, or grain market in which were traded all the cereals of the region, the names of which are inscribed on the roof-timbers inside the structure. The square in which it is located is medieval, but the market itself dates from the nineteenth century.
In order to see the detail on the roof timbers the image below needs enlarging by clicking once on it to open it and again to zoom.
I left Auvillar and re-joined the canal tow-path passing through Espalais and Pommevic. I met knots of jolly, grinning pilgrims on their way to Saint Jacques de Compostelle. A few kilometres west of Moissac I had lunch on the canal-side under the watchful eye of a heron. Given the shortness of the journey today, I decided that I should visit the Abbey of Moissac.
The arrangements for the canal were the first remarkable feature of Moissac. It traverses the town on a structure that is in fact an aqueduct although it’s not possible to pass under it.
I took a quick look around. Moissac is a pleasant place, though the town’s treasure is the Abbey of Saint Peter which dates from the eleventh century and contains some of the most remarkable works of Romanesque and Gothic art from the period.
The sculptures that adorn the main entrance to the church – completed between 1110 and 1130 – are on the theme of the Last Judgement and are of remarkable quality and preservation.
The central scupltures of the tympan show Christ in Majesty,
while the central column of the archway shows on one side Isaiah and Saint Paul and on the other an extraordinary scultpture of the prophet Jeremiah, who snakes down the column in a characteristic Gothic ‘S’ and stares back at you with a dreamy, disabused expression from behind a long fantastical moustache and beneath flowing, almost female hair.
This quality of scupltpture is evident throughout the abbey.
The side panels of the doorway represent more edifying figures, those on the right represent the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Magi and the Flight into Egypt, while those on the left show Lazarus the Poor Man in Heaven watched by the Rich Man in Hell.
The church interior has been repainted entirely in the original colours.
The quality of the carving is also evident on the capitals of the columns supporting the roof of the cloister.
Outside there are other less reverent works of sculpture, somewhat reminiscent of those of Fernando Botero.
I left Moissac pleasantly surprised at my unplanned visit. The town doesn’t advertise itself as such, but it is an interesting and agreeable little place, thoroughly worth a detour and with lots to engage the eye and the brain.
I paused to examine the aqueduct and then was off again to finish the day at Castelsarrasin
I arrived at the Hôtel des Deux Mers at around five and encountered René the long-haired patron who bore an uncanny resemblance to the Prophet Jeremiah in Moissac. He greeted me like a long lost friend. I suspected that this was because I was the only person who had booked a room in his establishment for a long time. He explained the arrangements for parking my bike in a secure place and informed me regretfully that there would be no breakfast tomorrow, since he and the staff didn’t get up until ten on Saturdays.
[There is no website for this hotel without star. René appears not to use a computer, since he refused my offer to confirm my reservation by e-mail. The best I can offer is this link to the tourist site of the region: http://www.tourisme82.com/hotel-des-deux-mers/castelsarrasin/tabid/12628/offreid/d535d44e-3c11-4e61-89cd-b7382ebfd192/detail.aspx ]
The room had an unidentifiable and nauseating smell in it. But it was reasonably clean. I showered and went off to find some dinner. Castelsarrasin on a Friday evening turned out to be quick to settle down into weekend inactivity. The streets emptied and the shops closed at around six and – inexplicably – the restaurants along with them. I was reduced to buying a pizza from a take-away establishment. “Come back in an hour” I was told curtly in a take-it-or-leave-it sort of tone. I was tempted to leave it, but there seemed to be nothing left. So I picked up my pizza and a few beers at around eight and went back to the hotel for a solitary dinner.