Monday, December 17, 2012

Weaving across the Gers

Auch Marché de NoëlI really thought I’d done with Xmas markets for the year, but since we’re being spoiled with yet another sunshiny almost warm day, I felt that we were wasting the opportunity for a glorious drive through the Gascon hills.

First stop was Auch, capital of the Gers department and somewhat oddly, the least likely community to stage any major cultural events*. The Maison de Gascogne in the centre was pretty busy with two-levels of stalls, and I was relieved that the offerings were more varied than I’ve seen in the Gers so far this year. With apologies in advance to any senior madames reading, I do find that most of the Gascon stalls are rather twee and old-ladyish or turned towards expensively-boxed selections of armagnac and duck bits which are in all the supermarkets anyway. Today I picked up a handwoven rug from Scott McNutt, an Irishman who’s been living in the Gers for ten years or so and continues working at a loom as part of the family tradition he learnt in Donegal. As I’ve travelled around Europe it’s these handmade practical articles that I have most appreciated, that connect me most to the memories of my time in different countries. While the Gers is devoid of any large-scale industry I’m sure I’m missing out on some smaller-scale craft that is native to the area and not just the output of expatriate artists and craftspeople. Is the creative impulse just expressed in terms of food and wine? I don’t know.
shetland ponies
When we popped out the other side of the market hall, I found that other visitors had parked their malamute-sized beasts on the street. While Munson would have been delighted to meet these ponies, it’s just not a wise thing to surprise them in a public place.
Pyrenees on the horizon
Next stop was Marciac, about 48km southwest, and while a familiar destination, I’d not taken this particular route before. It proved to be a glorious choice as we followed many east-west ridges parallel to the Pyrenées that allowed us to enjoy the autumn colour and the snowy peaks for most of the journey. Closer to Marciac, the sun dropped behind the tallest peaks, giving them a blue halo and then as we descended from the last ridge, mountains were replaced by tree plantations, bare of leaves but gripped by beads of mistletoe up and down the trunks as if designed to be towering  abacuses.
3D mistletoe abacus
We reached Marciac at 5pm, just as the street-lights were starting to make a difference. One year ago, it was so cold in this square that the turnout was very low and we rapidly went on to the Mirande fair. Most of the activity was sheltered under the arcades around the square where we did a slow circuit, stopping to talk to familiar stall-holders and some folks we’d bumped into at the Arch market hours earlier.

Marciac Marché de Noël
Munson and the muffins
It was quite dark when we set off for home, the day time scenery now hidden and new buildings brought into view by electric lights, completely changing the character of the route.
Auch - Marciac
*I recently discovered Auch has an annual musical festival Éclats de Voix (literally: shards/splinters of voices,  or as Google Translate suggests more mundanely “Shouting”) which is not advertised or cross-promoted with any of the other popular music festivals in the area. I belatedly learnt of concerts by the likes of Angelique Ionatas, Dame Felicity Lott and a bunch of intriguing new names which I would have leapt at when they were staged in June.

As I drove into Auch I saw a billboard indicating a week-long exhibition of artisanal works at the Parc des Expositions and that today was the final day – unfortunately I have no idea where this parc may be, and there is no listing on the town maps or in the phone book. I walked around to the tourism office, but it was closed, and had just a tiny map taped to the window. Before we drove on to Marciac I spent about half an hour trying to find it. My best guess was the Parc  d’Endouminge where the country fair is staged so I drove towards that - not helped by two signs on adjacent roundabouts pointing at each other to indicate where it was.  I do hope someone turned up to give these craftspeople some return on their time. I know from talking to vendors at various markets that it’s very costly for them to put aside time for such an event, and they often find an event is cancelled and no notice given.

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