Sunday, 22 July 2018
Distance 26 km
Duration 5 hours 35 minutes
Ascent 39 m, descent 15 m
As we had no immediate prospect of breakfast, we left early (6:40 am), ducking under the barrier at the entrance.
Outside was another Slovakian van, silent and still, presumably containing excess party-goers from last night.
We walked out to the main road with our marching food in hand, then crossed the Yonne and soon afterwards took a side road to the riverbank, where we joined the GR213.
At this late stage in its life, the Yonne was much more majestic than it had been at Clamecy, and was lined with dense forest on both banks. The local mosquitoes were pleased to see us and we had to stop and put on repellent.
Three or four kilometres later we came to the edge of the village of Bassou, where we needed to cross the river, and we tried to take a short cut instead of doing a big loop around some sports fields.
This was not a success, as the bridge was impossible to climb up to, and we ended up walking even further. It was here that we parted company with the GR.
Finally over the bridge, we continued along the riverbank on a wheel track, past a multitude of sand-mining operations, and came to a great weir, with a lock at one side.
Beyond that we arrived at the beginning of the Canal of Derivation, which cut off a particularly serpentine stretch of the river.
This canal was dead straight and only about five kilometres long, rejoining the river in the village of Gurgy, which was where we hoped for refreshments. The streets of Gurgy were a strange mixture of comfortable old houses swaddled in greenery, and bald bungalows with the unappealingly look of a recent housing estate.
We came to a bar, but it was a wreck, which was ominous. A bit further on there was a little shopping centre with a supermarket, a boulangerie, a hairdresser and a pharmacy (all the essentials), but no bar. The only consolation was that there was another village, Monéteau, not far away that might save us.
In case there was no boulangerie in Monéteau, we bought a bag of pastries (including two gougères, which we had become fond of). I remarked to the serving girl that it was a pity there was no bar in the village and she exclaimed “Mais si! Il y en a un!” It turned out that the hotel near the church was also a restaurant and bar.
We hurried the short distance to the church, which was in a tree-lined square with the red umbrellas of the hotel behind. The doors were open and the barman was setting the tables inside for Sunday lunch, but was happy to make coffee for us.
Under the lurid shade of the red umbrellas we indulged in two rounds of coffee, which we felt we deserved after three hours of continuous walking.
Reluctantly leaving this lovely little haven, we pushed on and crossed under the A6 as it flew across the river at a great height.
A tiny road then took us to Monéteau, which was on a bend of the river and looked a good deal more prosperous than Gurgy.
It had a bridge and a railway station for a start, and impressive public gardens with staircases and a bandstand, as well as many solid old houses facing the river.
No doubt it also had a bar and a boulangerie, but we did not need them and were soon out of the town, on a path between the river and some sports fields. The path became a gravel road, then a bitumen one, and we passed what must have been a heavily fortified military barracks, but was now having a new life as a “parc technologique d’activités”.
After that we were forced away from the riverbank and traversed an area of car dealers and small factories before coming to the great obstacle of the N6, the ring road around the north of Auxerre.
This raised highway swept across the river and we went with it, descending on the far side into the outer streets of the town.
We walked for another three kilometres along the riverbank, past dilapidated workshops and unedifying, rubbish-strewn waste ground, before reaching the scrubbed-up part of town.
Here there were lawns, gravel paths, flower beds, pleasure boats, a footbridge, and any number of cafés and restaurants dispensing lunch.
Looming over the scene was the mighty bulk of the cathedral, with its square-topped tower, and behind it the rocket-like spire of the abbey of St-Germain.
Still feeling the benefit of the two rounds of coffee at Gurgy, we did not pause for drinks, only for lunch supplies from a boulanger near the Pont Paul Bert.
The queue of customers was out the door, but we eventually got two vegetable tarts, and supplemented them with a tomato and a peach from a market stall nearby.
Then we kept walking along the river until we came to the abandoned railway line, now a raised cycle path, that we remembered from before. At the first overbridge we climbed down to the Rue de Preuilly and followed it out of town, past playing fields of all kinds, culminating in the grand football stadium.
The camping ground was opposite the stadium and just as good as on our last visit years earlier. Many cyclists were arriving with their laden bikes, and also many campervans, as usual. Our walk was officially over now and we felt very pleased with ourselves. Tomorrow we would be on the train to Paris.
We found a shady corner on fine, soft grass, and laid out our mats for a siesta, but first we had showers and changed our clothes. My shower was almost completely cold, while Keith’s was hot. I tried not to be bitter, and admittedly it was a warm, sticky day. The tarts and fruits made a pleasant little lunch.
We spoke to a pair of middle-aged Dutch women who had pitched their two tiny identical tents nearby. They were about to cycle the length of the Canal du Nivernais as far as Digoin, then do a bit of the Canal de Bourgogne, and they proudly showed us the GPS maps mounted on their handlebars.
At about 5:30 they and several other groups of cyclists started cooking, and had finished their humble meals before we set off for dinner. Our new Dutch friends sailed past us as we strolled out of the camping ground, saying that they were going into town for ice creams.
We needed to go to the station to check whether there was any possibility of coffee and pastries there in the morning (the answer was no), so we climbed the stairs at the overbridge to the abandoned railway line cum cycle path.
At that moment a dog wandered along, trailing its lead and looking confused, but we did not think we could help, so we kept walking. I was a little way ahead when a woman ran up an access ramp towards Keith with a distracted look.
He said “chien?”, she nodded frantically, then he said “pont!”, pointing back to the bridge, and she dashed off. With two words he had pulled off a great linguistic triumph.
From the station we walked directly into town and set off confidently up the Rue du Pont towards the Place des Cordeliers, which we remembered was close to the famous golden clock tower. We had eaten very well there on two previous visits,
Soon we were hopelessly lost. We thrashed about in bustling boulevards and shabby lanes, recognising nothing, and were on the point of giving up and returning to the riverbank when we stumbled into the Place des Cordeliers by accident.
After that everything went finely. We sat down at a bar for long, cold glasses of white wine (“Chablis ou aligoté?” We got one of each and could not tell the difference).
Then we stepped across the square to the restaurant La Tour. All the outdoor tables were booked so we were shown into the “verandah”, a completely enclosed dining room, which was also crowded, in a pleasant, convivial way.
Keith ordered pennes gratinées, the ultimate in comfort food, and I had a gratin de légumes, with discs of goat cheese melting on the top.
They were both delicious and we called for extra bread to soak up the juices. It was a celebratory dinner for the end of our long walk.
On our way back to the camping ground we came at last to the clock tower that we had been looking for earlier, and then the Rue du Pont, so our return was a lot less fraught than our outward journey.
Auxerre has a railway station. From there you can go to almost anywhere in France.
All that remained for us to do was to get back to Paris today and onto the plane tomorrow.
We left the camping ground with plenty of time for the 9:50 am train and stopped at the Bar Paul Bert, next to the bridge, for breakfast.
Unfortunately we had seen the last of that regional delicacy, the gougère, but we made do with croissants and a pain aux raisins.
On the platform we threw away the very last of our walking maps – a moment of satisfaction after having set off with a wad as thick as a bread board.
We arrived at the Gare de Bercy about 11:30 am, and before taking the Métro to Porte Maillot, we bought some lunch food for later, and also several bars of French chocolate to keep us going through the year.
The weather was so hot that we wondered whether it would all be fondu by the end of the day.
At the camping ground we waited in a long queue, and noticed that most people spoke to the staff in some form of English. We made a point of speaking only in French, out of solidarity, and to give them a break.
We put up our tent on the knoll overlooking the Seine.
At this hour it was not too crowded so for once we got a nice flat spot on the top. Normally we arrive later, and have to cling on to the slope.
After lunch we had showers, marvelling at the beautiful gleaming new sanitaires – a big contrast with the old ones. It had been four years since we were last here.
In the evening we joined a horde of others on the terrace of the restaurant, which had also been beautified since our last visit.
There were large green umbrellas over the tables, but the sun was so low that they did not shade the diners. Luckily we got a table protected by a tall shrub.
We ordered two antipasto salads, with tapenade toasts, and a carafe of red wine.
The wine was very expensive and the waiter suggested that we get a bottle instead from the épicerie next door, and bring it back to the table.
This is an endearing feature of French dining, the ability to bring food from one establishment to another.
Naturally we had to finish the whole bottle, as we were leaving the country the next day. Anyway, it was our fond farewell to France for another year.
The flight via Singapore was endurable, and we emerged at Sydney airport the following evening, where we were amazed to find our friends waiting to welcome us.
They drove us to their house (we had intended to walk there) and produced a beautiful dinner before we collapsed into bed.
The next morning we made the three-hour bus ride to Canberra and then waited, shivering with cold, for the local bus to take us home to the luxury of everyday life.