Day 14: Aigre to Angoulême

Saturday, 18 June 2005
Distance 38 km
Duration 7 hours 30 minutes
Ascent 445 m, descent 470 m
Map 40 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)

Walking in France: Abbey of Saint-Maur

Abbey of Saint-Maur

With due deference to the sudden savage heat, not to mention our illegal status, we rose early and had our breakfast at one of the park tables.

By 7:15 we were on our way, before our Dutch comrades had stirred. The south road was deserted and soon we came to a fine old abbey (Saint-Maur), half-ruined, standing in a field of grain. We snooped about but could not get inside.

A bit further on, the village of Marcillac-Lanville seemed wholly defunct, but Keith smelled fresh bread in the air. We found we had walked right past the boulangerie without noticing it.

The woman who sold us a baguette said the bar would open at 9:30, an hour away, so we reluctantly continued, hoping for refreshments at Genac.

Walking in France: Part of the Abbey of Saint-Maur

Part of the Abbey of Saint-Maur

We were not far from the banks of the Charente, the great river that flows past Angoulême out to the Atlantic. Here it was no more than a skein of rivulets.

On a tiny road we entered Genac, a village which must have been lively before the age of cars but was now, like so many others, sinking into grey ruination. The church was handsome in a severe style, but we were looking for more mundane beauty – a colourful sign or a sun-umbrella.

The only thing we found was an old BAR sign leading to a courtyard full of broken furniture, with an open door beyond.

Contrary to expectations, it actually was a functioning café, and we were served coffee in the cool gloom by a vast smiling woman. Knowing we did not have far to go to our destination for the day, Marsac, we lingered.

Walking in France: A hot walk on a glaringly white road

A hot walk on a glaringly white road

Greatly refreshed, we stepped out into the glaring sun and pressed on.

Our map showed a thread of a track going on our direction, and it turned out to be a dusty white road, grassy between the wheel-tracks, that swooped over the rise with a beautiful expansive view of the countryside, then became a narrow tar road. Our legs felt strong and we enjoyed swinging along, despite the heat.

We started to see vines again, as well as the usual maize, wheat and sunflowers.

When we got to Marsac we followed a sign to “Commerces” and the first thing we came to was a bar, next to the church.

It was lunchtime and the terrace at the back was full of diners, so we sat indoors and had a celebratory beer to mark the end of the day’s walk. Then it was time to go and explore the rest of the town.

Walking in France: Vines near Marsac

Vines near Marsac

To our horror, we found there was nothing more, not even a camping ground. Once again the loathsome department of Charente had misinformed us. We went down to the river, series of interlacing strands separated by willows and undergrowth, and tracked down the sad relic of the place, still marked by a large sign.

Some neighbours told us that it had been closed for three years. It was a pity that nobody had bothered to tell the Office of Tourism.

We had a glum lunch in the picnic area, then went back to the bar to ask the advice of the locals. They all agreed that we should go back to Montignac, about 6 km upstream, but we stubbornly declined to take the necessary backward steps and decided to push forward instead, to get to Angoulême by the shortest possible route, namely 15 km on the highway.

Walking in France: Keith at the bridge below the town feeling much worse than he looks

Keith at the bridge below the town feeling much worse than he looks

Everything that followed was thus caused by our own folly. The less said about those three hours the better. We had not allowed for the fact that it would be 38 degrees that afternoon and the only shade was that cast by power poles.

Twice I had to stop to avoid collapsing to the ground. Many people driving past honked and waved in a sympathetic way. The northern suburbs seemed to go on forever, ugly and depressing, but at least there was occasional shade from buildings.

At the bridge below the town we stopped again to summon our last resources for the steep entry. Somehow we got up into the high old streets with their marvellous view over the landscape we had just come from. We had to admire it although we had come to hate that piece of country.

Walking in France: A blessed cold beer in Angoulême

A blessed cold beer in Angoulême

Looking the other way, an ocean of umbrellas and tables occupied the market square. It was like a mirage to our heat-crazed senses.

We sank into the nearest seats and ordered a round of beer, which had the interesting effect of making us drunk immediately, even though we swallowed two litres of water with it.

Feeling giddy and weak, we crept across to the Office of Tourism (closed – it was the Department of Charente after all) and managed to read a list of hotels through the glass door.

The cheap ones were down towards the station.

Walking in France: Rest at last

Rest at last

Here we found the Étap Hotel, one step up from Formule 1 in the same chain, in that the rooms have their own tiny bathrooms instead of the shared ablutions down the corridor. For €36 we were in paradise.

Much later, after showers and a sleep, we returned to the old town in sandals, moving very slowly. It was 8:30 and the tables were filling up in the crooked streets behind the square.

We chose a place called Pinocchio, on a sharp corner of two lanes, and had the most substantial thing we could see on the menu, an “assiette composée”, which was a large steak with a baked potato full of sour cream and chives, and lots of other cooked and raw vegetables. We cleaned out two baskets of bread and two flasks of water with our usual half-litre of wine. As it got dark, lights and candles glimmered in all directions amongst the sociable throng.

We went back to our room in a state of grateful repletion, weak in the legs but strong in morale. We had walked 38 km in 38 degrees, which had a certain ring to it.

Leaving Angoulême

There is a railway station in the centre of Angoulême. From there you can go to almost anywhere in France.