Our canal boat journey across France started near Montpellier under the sweaty hot nights of the Mediterranean summer. The end came forty-six days and nearly 500 miles of waterways later in the cold and wet of fall in Agen. When we turned the keys of our rental boat over to the Locaboat Holiday’s staff in Agen our quest was over. We’d taken a hire bumper boat from end to end across Southern France’s Canal des Deux Mers. A long and memorable boat journey ended and our slow trip back to California began.
Before we left Agen there were certain logistical issues to over come. Though we’d reserved the largest rental car possible for our one-way journey north we knew it was going to be a challenge to get our stuff into the vehicle. Beyond Becky’s usual extensive array of footwear, we also needed to accommodate the remainder of our bloated luggage, our sixty pound dog Gigi with her airline travel palace, and our friends G&C who had arrived to join us in Valence d’Agen.
Gigi’s expansive airline crate, when fully assembled, took pretty much all of the rental car’s luggage space. Thus the crate was clam shelled, collapsed, and loaded into the back. Along with the crate a collection of stuff that would make even the most dedicated hoarder envious was carefully crammed into every conceivable crevasse of the hired Peugeot. Somehow when the luggage was all in the back we could squeeze close the car’s rear hatch. Still we left Agen with the imminent fear of a Professor Phineas J. Whoopee moment. God help us any time we needed to open the back door to retrieve our Three Dimensional Blackboard. (For reference, scan to the five-minute mark of this Tennessee Tuxedo cartoon and watch my mentor Professor Whoopee in action.)
With the back of the car packed tight and all “extra” spaces in the passenger compartment creatively filled past full, four humans and one sixty pound canine squeezed in. It is a good thing that G&C are on the skinny side and are board certified contortionists otherwise it would never have worked. In the end the small car, sagging suspension and all, held the jumble of luggage and mammals amazingly well. It was even reasonably comfortable, at least if we all remembered to breathe in sequence.
We’d have to endure the cramped car for three hours. It took us that long to reach our day’s destination, Conques. My fingers are tempted to type out a line that says that Conques is an out of the way destination. And it is true; Conques is located in a remote area in the very much less visited Aveyron Department of France. But in our case the village did happen to be on our way to Frankfurt. “Being on the way” is part of the reason we chose to stop in Conques.
To get to Conques our route took us through a hilly, thinly populated portion of France. Here the industry is largely agrarian based. Periodically we’d pass through small villages whose street plans seemed little changed since the Middle Ages. Eventually Homer Simpson, the voice of our GPS, guided us away from the Lot River at the bottom of the Dourdou Conques River valley. A few kilometers from the Lot the road to Conques left the riverside highway and climbed a hill through a break in the trees tinged with fall colors.
I could also be tempted to describe Conques as being off the tourist trail. Though it is true that this beautiful isolated medieval village is too lonely for Lonely Planet and is missed by many other English language guidebooks, it is not unknown to tourists. After all, the Michelin Green Guide , always a better judge of the tourist sites of France, gives Conques three stars, its highest rating. And in reality Conques with 281 full time inhabitants is a tourist town; here tourism is the main if not only business. Even in the cold and wet at the end of October the parking lots at the edge of town were near full with visitor’s cars.
There is a long history of travelers stopping in Conques. Historically Conques’ St. Foy abbey-church was a stop for trekkers on the great pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Thus Conques, like seemingly half of the villages in France we have visited, is included amongst 78 places in the UNESCO World Heritage listing “The Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France”.
Conques itself is built on a hillside overlooking the river. The village was largely bypassed in the 19th Century; very little construction occurred between 1800 and 1950. Neglect of the masses and care by a few preserved Conques’ medieval character. Many of the original old stone structures still stand and the winding and narrow street plan remains. Isolated Conques is an unusually intact time capsule of the Middle Ages.
The main attraction in Conques is its impressive St. Foy abbey-church. Started between 1041 and 1052 and finished in the 12th Century, this Romanesque church is generally simple, austere, and relatively plain. To this there is one significant exception. The stone tympanum of the main façade depicts the Last Judgment in an elaborately carved and highly detailed manner.
Drawing medieval pilgrims to Conques were the remains of St. Foy, a martyred young woman from the 4th century. The relics of St. Foy arrived in Conques ironically through a quite un-Christian-like act; they were stolen in 866. After unsuccessful attempts to acquire other relics the local monks set their sights on the remains of St. Foy held at the cathedral in nearby Agen. For nearly a decade a monk from Conques, a truly dedicated conspirator, posed as a loyal monk in Agen in order to get close enough to the relics to steal them. When the unauthorized artifact acquisition was completed, Conques had the “credentials” to be a pilgrimage stop.
Today Conques is a great place for a short visit. It only takes a few hours to see and soak in the character of this small village. That was good for us. Assuming we could recreate the three-dimensional puzzle of the super dense interlocked luggage knot in the back end of the rental Peugeot we’d be off in the morning. If we successfully reloaded we’d leave Conques comfortable in the knowledge that there was nothing left to see in the village out of the completely obscured back window of the rental car.