Wednesday, 25 July 2007
Distance 41 km
Duration 8 hours 5 minutes
Ascent 549 m, descent 595 m
Map 47 of the
Map 40 of the
When we got up, mist hung in the trees and over the fields, and the velvety grass was soaked with dew, so we ate our muesli in the picnic shelter. Keith had a slight hangover – perhaps the dinner had been too light for the amount of wine last night.
The village was still asleep at 7 o’clock, except for the butcher and the baker. It looked charming with its little balconied houses and odd squares, and we were sorry it was so overrun by the English.
Tinny morning chimes were floating from the church steeple as we left, via the château, taking a minor road laid like a tape measure over the undulating land. We went along without a bend for an hour, past fields and cottages, until we came to a large limestone mine with a row of gigantic lorries waiting outside.
Then the road climbed abruptly into the village of la Rochebeaucourt, where the main road from Ribérac and the highway from Mareuil joined – a certainty for a bar, we thought. The woman in the boulangerie confirmed that there was indeed a bar, but it did not open until 11 o’clock.
However she softened the blow by getting us to spread our map out on the counter so she could point out all the bars in the vicinity. She knew because she delivered her wares to them. There was one along the highway, where we did not intend to go, and another in Rougnac, where we did.
Backtracking briefly on the highway, we turned onto the D87 and set off to cover another seven kilometres as quickly as possible. It was a classic French lane, almost devoid of traffic and bordered for the first part by a beautifully constructed tall drystone wall, much of it still in good repair.
The road climbed in a forest and we passed a set of noble entrance gates inscribed “La Faisanterie”, presumably where the well-to-do of a previous age came to hunt pheasants. Inside, even the driveway had been swallowed by a tangle of regrowth.
At the top of the rise, the little road opened out into fields. We were following a tributary of the Belle Rau upstream in a beautiful smiling landscape, but Keith groaned as he walked with his grinding headache.
At last we crossed a bridge and ascended steeply into Rougnac, where the first thing we saw was the promised bar, which was also a supermarket and a restaurant. It was no architectural gem but we loved the sight of it.
As we ordered our coffees, I told our hostess that we were very grateful to her, as the bar on the highway had failed us by not opening until eleven. She seemed gleeful at this news. Together with the lovely coffee, a croissant from la Rochebeaucourt and two pain-killers made their way into Keith’s system, with the desired result.
Beyond Rougnac, a similar threadlike road took us agreeably towards Dignac, which remained invisible until we were almost upon it, coming over the crest of a hill.
The sturdy Romanesque church at the top of the town, with its blind arcades and squat tower, looked over a reconstructed mediaeval garden of herbs and simples, then a trellis-covered walkway leading between the houses to the highway. In contrast with this ancient tranquillity, commerce rampaged along the truck-infested road, and we were very pleased to see it, as it was time for another coffee break.
We found a typical highway bar, enclosed, brown and unpretentious, and settled down to luxuriate in front of our coffees. I went to find the toilet and opened the doors of a broom cupboard, an office, a storeroom and the dining room before I succeeded.
It was midday and we were scarcely more than half-way to Angoulême, but we were well-caffeinated, well-provisioned for lunch and had hardly put a foot on the highway so far. The next half-kilometre was the exception, although there was a footpath, as it was within the town. Signs warned of the closure of the road for the Tour de France in two days’ time.
Soon we turned off onto a gently undulating, wandering little road through placid crops of wheat and sunflowers. We were conscious that our epic walk was coming to an end, which gave an extra poignancy to the scene. The sunflowers, like us, were past their first flush of beauty.
At length we emerged onto a bigger road, the D81, with a sign “Angoulême 10 km”. We had our last lunch of the trip on a grassy bank beside the road, then put our heads down and set off for the finish.
On this road we had the novelty of passing cars, and a few kilometres further on we started to see the sprawling south-eastern agglomeration of the city, not a particularly pretty sight in itself, but a welcome one. The houses gradually thickened along the roadside and the soft grey mass of the old town appeared far away on the ridge.
Once we had crossed the eastern ring road, the final section was a town walk, on footpaths, gradually climbing through ever older-looking houses, until we came out at the height of the town, on a busy double shopping street.
There was a sign pointing to the railway station (where our hotel was), but Keith thought it was for cars, and that we could get there a shorter way as pedestrians. He was right, the quick way was in the opposite direction, as we found out by asking some council workers.
After a while we came to a pedestrian precinct, then a newly cleared space the size of a football field next to a towering glass box – the Nouvelle Galerie. Not far beyond that we found ourselves on the steeply descending road from the market halle to the station, that we remembered from two years ago.
It remained only to find the Hotel d’Orléans, book ourselves in and climb the three flights of stairs to our room. It was a corner room with windows facing the station and down the street. What we thought was a double-doored wardrobe turned out to be an ensuite bathroom, which was more luxury than we expected for the price of €37.
We risked emptying the hot water tank with our long showers, then lay down for a delicious rest with the windows open and the roar of the traffic like a lullaby. It was 4 o’clock and we had walked 41 kilometres without turning a hair, a fitting end to a great expedition.
At 7:30, in clean clothes and sandals, we set off to the top of town to celebrate. In the big sloping square behind the halle we took our usual jug of rosé in the midst of a happy crowd of drinkers, enjoying the rare warm evening.
Most of the restaurants were in the warren of lanes further back and we strolled around looking at menus, finally deciding on la Braise, a sort of grill house, with outdoor tables jammed against the wall.
In celebration, we had an extra course in our dinner, after the usual salads. We ordered an omelette to share, followed by large steaks, which confused the waitress, but we explained that we had just walked 1100 km and were a bit hungry.
Fortunately we did not notice the côte de boeuf for two (1.3 kilos) on the menu, until after we had ordered – our 300 gram steaks were quite challenging enough.
So, in this festive and congenial way, we finished our glorious long march for 2007. How we got back to Australia a week early without tickets is another story.
There is a railway station in the centre of Angoulême. From there you can go to almost anywhere in France.