Saturday, 2 July 2011
Distance 15 km
Duration 3 hours 0 minutes
Ascent 209 m, descent 167 m
Map 149 of the TOP 100 lime-green series
Topo-guide (ref. 4304) Gorges de la Loire sauvage
Rising from the splendour of our hotel bed, we had another round of showers (because they were there) and presented ourselves, all packed up, in the breakfast room downstairs at 7:45.
We ate indoors in a cosy alcove, rather than out on the terrace, as the air was still crisp and anyway, we wanted to squeeze the last drops of enjoyment from our night under a roof. Starting with the orange juice, we moved steadily through the fresh bread, the croissants, the butter, jam and coffee, leaving nothing except one croissant, which I slipped into my pack for later.
The meaty Danish family appeared, scantily clad, just as we were leaving at 8:30, and settled themselves outside. Presumably they felt warm.
We set off down the river road rather than on the strenuous-looking GR, in recognition of my semi-invalid condition. Luckily there was little traffic and we made good progress, although the road was by no means devoid of ups and downs.
Thick vegetation clothed the slope above the river, but on the other side there were sunny cultivated flats and the village of Vousse. Beyond that the land rose to a grim spine of rock, on top of which were the roofless remnants of the château of Artias, one of the oldest in the district (eleventh century).
Before long the GR came down to meet the road at the entrance to the village of Ventressac, and then diverged again, giving us the chance to get off the main road for a while.
It was only a minor excursion, first along a small street of houses and then on a steep track in the woods, which brought us back to the road near a massive railway viaduct crossing the river.
Here the GR crossed too, on a footbridge, but we continued into the village of Chamalières in search of coffee.
Before we even arrived at the centre, we came to a little tea-shop (Lalibelle) and went in. It looked very new, although in an old stone house. Our hostess fluttered about making coffee for us and added a slice of chocolate cake, with the hot milk in a teapot.
It was delightful, but we doubted that she would survive long in business, as she only charged €2.80 for the whole thing.
The village proper was a pleasant little place, with a few shops and bars around the square. Between the square and the river was the church, with its great sprawling eastern end and octagonal tower.
Like many French churches, it is a mixture of periods – the oldest parts go back to Merovingian times, eighth century or earlier, while the tower is nineteenth century. The lapse of a thousand years or so has not detracted from its harmonious appearance, at least to our simple eyes.
Further along the river road we came to a camping ground at Chamboulive, almost a resort, with a restaurant/bar set in gardens and a lovely sweep of lawn going down to the water. The only thing missing was the clientele, who seemed to be staying away in droves – there was not a tent or a caravan to be seen. We could have stayed there if we had known about the restaurant.
Ambling along between the dark wall of forest on one side and the rust-coloured cliffs across the river on the other, we soon came to a bridge and crossed to the other bank, then over the railway line and through a short tunnel.
The hamlet of le Chambon was a gardener’s delight, with many plots of vegetables and flowers thriving in the rich alluvial soil. Just past the last house, the GR (last seen at Chamalières) came down to the road and we joined it for the rest of the walk into Vorey.
It was good to be off the bitumen and close to the river, but at the last bend before the town we found our feet straying back to the road, thus avoiding an extra kilometre of walking. As usual I was wilting fast by this time.
The village of Vorey-sur-Arzon occupies a loop of the Loire where a major tributary comes in, making a small flat valley. The houses curved around, following the river, and we passed the church with the inevitable war memorial to the children of the town fallen for France.
Eventually we came to the main square with shops and cafés, and after buying apricots, a tomato and a cucumber, we crossed over to a brasserie standing high above the square and asked about eating there in the evening. The answer was yes, with the proviso that the menu might be pizzas only.
The camping ground was close at hand and full of people, to our relief. Small neat trees shaded the grass and there were clipped hedges separating the plots.
We had a conversation in English over the hedge with a pair of German motorbike riders, who had just swept in on their shiny scarlet machines. Their English was halting, but infinitely better than our German, and it was the first time that we had spoken our native tongue, except to ourselves, since we started walking.
The showers were comfortably warm and when we were clean, with our washing strung up between two trees, we had lunch on the grass, followed by a rest. It was too hot in the sun and too cold in the shade, so we tried to position ourselves to get half of each, which required constant vigilance.
Later in the afternoon we went back to town for coffee and to investigate the possibilities for dinner.
There were at least two hotels and plenty of restaurants to choose from, but we ended up choosing the place where we had enquired earlier, with its high shaded terrace overlooking the market square.
Evidently the chef had turned up, as the menu was quite extensive, not just pizzas. We only have pizzas when there is nothing else on offer, as they are the last refuge of a dying village economy.
By the time we finished our exploration of the town, the terrace was full of diners, some of them wedding guests. We had seen the procession of cars earlier, with their white bows, honking horns and raucous passengers, already fairly far gone in drink. However they behaved well at the restaurant and the atmosphere was relaxed and festive.
Keith had a €13 menu of charcuterie, steak with Roquefort sauce and crème brûlée, while I had a large green salad followed by a pasta carbonara. The bread and wine were delicious and we felt very full as we sauntered back to the camping ground.
Our German neighbours were cooking sausages (merguez) on a little brazier and they offered us some. We managed to squeeze in a morsel while chatting.
They were no strangers to long-distance journeys, as they were in the habit of visiting Asia every year, and when we said that Australia was only another ten hours further, they said that they might face it one day, although they didn’t sound very convinced.