TRAVEL: BUSKING TO SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA

Our fundraising trombonist walks in the land of the Cathars and eats cassoulet served by a Glaswegian
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The Independent Travel
4 September

Into the misty Montagne Noire. Look for campsite in a tiny village. "Ask the Englishwoman!" Informant drags me into a courtyard, shouts, flees. Woman appears on a balcony.

"Sorry, I just walked from England ..."

"Do you say that to all the girls?"

I like her already.

5 September

Into the wilderness. I am in the land of the Cathars - 12th-century heretics famed for holiness, preaching, charity and getting burnt by the Inquisition. Mist whistles eerily through dark forests. Mountains appear and vanish in the clouds. Half-expect Crusaders to materialise from the murk. Spooky stuff.

The clouds lift. Ahead, Carcassonne's towers and turrets loom over endless vineyards. A town! Hot showers, clean sheets! Accelerate. Dust flies. Boots steam. Reach town footsore and triumphant at sunset. Penultimate kilometre takes nine minutes. Last kilometre, 19.

Tourists! Medieval streets heaving with them. Half-timbered houses offer postcards, dolls, two-handed swords. Classy stuff. Flee the reek of commercialism into a restaurant for a local speciality: cassoulet (bean and goose stew). Typically French, served by a Glaswegian. Stagger to the youth hostel, meet my fellow inmates - from Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Stirling. I thought this was France.

6 September

Battle my way into the chateau itself. Wonderful! No boutiques, no tawdry souvenirs, just miles of ancient stone. Literally. Inner wall, 1,500 metres. Outer, 1,700 metres. Height, 30 metres. Guided tour is superb. History, culture, masonry, literature, art. I could look and listen all day. Roman bricks, Carolingian arches, Gothic gargoyles, Renaissance windows. Fabulous. No wonder they made one of the Robin Hood films here. Different restaurant. Speciality: cassoulet. Waiter: Irish. Is this a trend?

7 September

More history. Maison des memoires, centre for Cathar studies. Too much to take in, so director explains an unexpected development: the war between Cathar and Catholic, still going strong in 1999. Catholic academics attack "undue interest" in heresy, deny the burnings ever took place. Vicious articles circulate. Still passionate, seven centuries on.

Back to the hostel, now full of Australians. I'll hear French here one day. Outside the floodlit walls, a drum-band plays salsa. My chance: grab trombone and run. Too late. They're packing up. Until they see me. Out come the instruments, up goes the baton, and the jam session begins.

Who knows what we can play? Improvisation rules. Snatched quotes - "Chattanooga", "Axel F", "Waltzing Matilda". Echoes roll between ancient ramparts. Turrets shine in the floodlights. Tourists stop and stare. Flashguns erupt. Is this stardom? It'll do me.

For information on the charity walk, visit the website at www.netplaycafe.co.uk/ bonewalk

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