Saturday, 5 July 2014
Distance 27 km
Duration 5 hours 35 minutes
Ascent 245 m, descent 219 m
Map 146 or Map 147 of the TOP 100 lime-green series
While planning our walk months earlier, we had worked out an elaborate route for this stage, cutting off the curve in the river by going up through Cognac-la-Forêt on a series of tiny local roads. But we had abandoned the idea, guessing that it would be just as far and probably not as pretty or shady as the river road.
Therefore, having swallowed a perfunctory scrap of muesli, we set off down the river, past a fine old four-storey mill building at the edge of the town, the Moulin du Tarn.
After that we went through parkland as far as the main road (the D2000), which flew overhead on a high bridge. Already it was raining and our white capes were back in service, but even so it was a pleasant stroll.
The first part was on the GR654, the official Way of Vézelay, which no sane pilgrim would follow – we certainly had not in 2010 – but we parted company with it when we went under the highway.
Beyond the parkland we entered a forest of oaks and chestnuts, and walked through it for close to three hours before we got to the bridge at St-Victurnien. The rain stopped, but it was a long, featureless haul and we soon felt the lack of a proper breakfast.
Our little road stayed close to the river, turning north and later veering to the west. On a hot day the shade of the forest would have been welcome, but today there was no sun.
There were also no cars, no people, and no signs of habitation except for Chez Roger, with its disappointingly closed auberge, and the few deserted houses of St-Yrieix-sous-Aixe.
I was disgusted with myself for my lack of stamina. Normally I could swing along for several hours without trouble, but this year was different. It seemed that my recent attack of shingles had weakened me more than I thought.
The beauty of the forest that we were passing through, with its glimpses of the river, was lost on me, but I gritted my teeth and put one foot in front of the other until the blessed relief of the bridge.
The village of St-Victurnien was on the other side of the Vienne and looked promising as we walked in.
We found a bar on the first corner and the barman directed us around the corner to get pastries at the boulangerie, a mission that Keith undertook, as I was too exhausted to move.
The sun came out and we basked in it instead of retreating to the shade in our usual way.
While we sat there, the life of the village went on around us – a van arrived and delivered a hot meal to a doorway (what we would call Meals on Wheels), a woman peered at us inquisitively from an open window across the square, a corpulent old fellow got into his Aixam (tiny unregistered car), squeezing his paunch behind the steering wheel, and puttered off.
We wondered why all the Aixams that we have seen have been driven by enormously fat people.
The coffee and food had given us new strength and we set off along the river to the next village, St-Brice-sur-Vienne. The road was busier on this side, although still quiet enough.
According to our accommodation guide from Nexon, there was a camping ground at St-Brice, but it turned out to be a sort of holiday camp with cottages booked in advance, so we ignored it.
The village was booming for some reason and we walked through a long stretch of new houses before coming to the centre. Next to the bridge there was a small bar/tabac, seemingly the only shop in the place, and we had a second coffee there, which tasted foul but was at least a break.
It was 12:30 pm when we left and we covered the remaining five kilometres briskly. Half way to St-Junien, the road crossed the railway line and rose away from the river.
Soon we were in a street of red-roofed houses which ended at a sort of ring road that could have been the line of a former defensive wall (we found out later that it was – it had been built in the twelfth century), with the two towers of the collegiale ahead.
Turning to the right, we continued uphill until we came to a wide space full of plane trees, the main market place. There were restaurants and bars aplenty here but we were only interested in finding somewhere to stay. We were tired and low-spirited and anxious to escape the rain that was threatening.
There was a sign to the camping ground but we suspected that it would be a long way below, near the river. We decided to go and have a look, and if it was too far, to come back and stay in a hotel.
As it turned out, it was not far at all, with hardly any drop in altitude, and it looked delightful. The grass was thick and soft, and each hedged enclosure had a couple of large young trees, not that their shade was needed, as it immediately started to rain and we had to put the tent up in a hurry. When the storm passed we had hot showers and hung our washed clothes over the hedge to dry.
The rest of the afternoon was sunny and we lay about reading for a while, then went up to the office to pay our money (the grand sum of €12.40).
The TV was showing the first day of the Tour de France, so we sat with some other campers enjoying the spectacle of other people exerting themselves.
It was a warm Saturday night and everyone seemed to be out making the most of it. We chose a bar at the bottom of the street but had to wait to get a table outside. Keith had pastis as usual and I had a glass of the perfumed, dawn-tinted rosé of the region.
The old buildings lining this street were graceful and lovely, and one of them bore a plaque saying that Napoleon had slept there in 1807.
There was also much mention of Corot, influential precursor to the impressionists, and we discovered that he had made several visits to St-Junien in the 1850s to paint the scenery of the river Glane, which flows into the Vienne at this point.
Finding somewhere to eat was harder than finding a bar. We wandered about without seeing anything that we liked and eventually asked a woman in a boulangerie, who suggested the tapas bar (La Petite Flamenca) nearby.
We had not even considered it as a dining place, but it turned out to be the destination of choice for the good citizens of St-Junien. We were soon surrounded by full tables, both inside and out (we ate inside).
After a fresh, lemony salad, we had pork steaks with little fried cubes of potato and a bit more salad for good measure. Then Keith did some field work on his thesis by sampling the local crème brûlée, while I had a small café crème.
The sky was clear when we got back to our tent, and everything looked promising for the day ahead.