By Dermot Wynne
The town of Moissac in the Department of Tarn et Garonne, in the central area of southern France, is one of those magical places which seem to evoke everything which is wonderful about southern France. The town’s strategic position along the pilgrim route, the richness of the area and good river/road communications have meant that Moissac has caught the eye of every greedy prince and politician for the past 1500 years. Moissac was even an English town between the years 1361 – 1370 when Edward III was ensuring that his knights and bowmen were second to none throughout France.
The Abbey church of St Peter, with its incredible twelfth-century cloisters, was founded originally by King Clovis in 506 and the parish church of St Martin is, arguably, one of the oldest along the pilgrim route to Santiago. The history of Moissac and the changing fortunes of both town and abbey read like an excellent scenario for a Hollywood film.
I managed to get a bed at the recently renovated and re-opened Carmelite refuge. It is truly a splendid building with its own small cloisters and an almost semi-tropical garden. There is a terraced area which overlooks the Abbey and town. An ideal spot.
When I stayed there I walked into town to buy some postcards. As I was strolling along one of the principal streets I saw a young man sitting cross-legged on the pavement playing a small flute with his hat in front of him. The tunes he was playing were very jolly and as I’m a great fan of buskers I put a few coins into his hat, passed on and thought no more about it.
I spent a very pleasant evening in the refuge and was pleased to meet again three French cyclists I had met the day I left Le Puy. The following morning I left and made my way to Lectoure, passing through St Antoine where there is still one of the oldest resting places for pilgrims, and the marvellous medieval town of Auvillar.
Once in Lectoure I was fortunate enough to get the last bed in the refuge which was situated in the presbytery and run by the local priest, his assistant and a nun who acts as housekeeper. I also met two Frenchmen who were travelling to Santiago with their donkey. Dinner was going to be a communal one with all the pilgrims, the priest and his staff. However, beforehand a few of us went into town for an apéritif. We were all chatting very happily when who should pass but the young man I had seen busking in Moissac. He seemed to know two or three of the pilgrims in our party and he stopped for a chat, and naturally he was asked to join us. To my surprise he was English and was cycling on a lady’s bicycle with all his possessions in a large wicker basket fixed to the handlebars. Of course he had the obligatory pony tail and several ear and nose rings. He was also very tanned after weeks of exposure to sun and rain. I cannot remember his name but he was very jolly and seemed to be well acquainted with a couple of the pilgrims in our party. I asked him if he intended to complete the pilgrimage to Santiago, and he quickly denied the suggestion. It seems that he had discovered that there were, if not rich, adequate ‘pickings’ along the road to Santiago by befriending pilgrims, who presumably made the passing of time a little easier for him by making small donations towards his daily expenses!
There is always something adventurous about a busker or troubadour which makes him attractive to know. I like to give my few coins for their talents but one of the greatest patrons of the troubadour minstrel in the twelfth century was Eleanor of Aquitaine who befriended Bernart de Ventadour, himself the son of a kitchen scullion. The pilgrimage would be all the poorer without the sweetness of music and song. I had to reflect that things hadn’t changed very much in 1200 years. In medieval times there were always people who would follow the pilgrims’ route to beg, borrow or busk.