Monday, 14 June 2004
Distance 27 kms, time 6 hours
Ascent 168 m, descent 300 m
Maps 65 and 64 of the
Having slept only fitfully, we fancied a proper breakfast in the bar rather than muesli behind a hedge.
As we walked out of the deserted camping ground, we met the cleaning woman coming in and exchanged conspiratorial smiles and greetings. She seemed delighted that we had ignored municipal bureaucracy.
The warmth and conviviality of the bar was another boost to our spirits, and we had croissants and coffee, with the morning sun slanting in through the glass.
Once back on the Piste Verte, we had the further satisfaction of sailing smoothly over the top of the highway as it plunged down a hill. Further on things deteriorated, not because of any difficulty in walking, but because of a sickening acrid smell in the air.
We were going past a fertiliser factory and it was over a kilometre before we breathed fresh air again. The track was not as well-maintained in Tarn as it had been in Hérault. In places it was weedy and brambly, one bit had become a ploughed field with No Entry signs (which we ignored) and further on someone had built a shed on it.
Our goal of Saint-Amans-Soult was soon in sight. It was really two villages divided by the highway, the upper one being a small bastide.
We ate our lunch there under the blessing of a plaster Virgin and set off to find a bar for coffee, but we had not reckoned on the Monday Factor – the notorious French habit of closing from Sunday afternoon to Tuesday morning.
One of the most dispiriting sights for the walker is a closed bar, and there were two of them in this town.
We still had plenty of strength in our legs, however, so we took to the Piste again. Although the line of the old railway was always obvious, it became more and more a tangle of nettles, blackberries and rank grass. We got slower and bloodier, and eventually had to scramble over to the road for the last few kilometres into Mazamet.
The centre of the town is pressed hard against the Montagne Noire to the south, the great range from whose waters the Canal du Midi is fed. We chose a café under the trees beside a pleasant grey church, took off our boots and set about picking grass seeds out of our socks until the pavement looked like a threshing floor.
After coffee, we found the Office of Tourism housed in an impressive mansion in a nearby square, and were told that the only camping ground was the one we had passed in the industrial outskirts, two kilometres back. There were two hotels close by, both expensive by our standards, but old and charming.
We ended up at the Hotel le Boulevard, on the first floor with a view out onto the lopped plane trees of the street. At €39, it was our greatest extravagance of the trip (the provinces are a different country from Paris).
Showers and an afternoon nap followed. Later, leaving our washing strung from window-latch to bedstead, we went out to survey the eating scene. We walked miles, only to end up at the dining room of our own hotel, which was doing brisk trade.
On the cover of the menu was a photograph from 1861 of the street, with its lopped plane trees and the hotel exactly as now. How many generations of travellers, before and since, have been made warm and welcome here we could only imagine. It was good to feel part of this continuous tradition.
The meal was very good and very reasonable. For €12 we got three courses and a quarter litre of wine each.
First a trolley of crudités was parked beside our table, from which we heaped our plates with salads, grated carrot, beetroot, couscous, celery, ham, salami, vermicelli and hard-boiled eggs. A basket of bread disappeared with it.
Our appetites only heightened by this, we pressed on to the main course.
I had a half cockerel and Keith a steak, both with a big baked potato in foil and a knob of butter – the first butter that had passed our lips since our free breakfast at Goudet.
To finish, Keith had a classic apple tart and I asked for cheese, which necessitated another basket of bread, our third. We waddled upstairs very pleased with ourselves.