Monday, 2 July 2007
Distance 22 km
Duration 4 hours 35 minutes
Ascent 184 m, descent 223 m
Map 58 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)
To our great relief, Keith woke up feeling perfectly all right – otherwise I would have gone to the village pharmacy and asked for help. My muesli had got wet in the storm and had congealed into a slimy mass, but was edible mixed with some cut-up nectarines.
We left rather late, at 7:50. None of the bars were open, only the boulangerie, and we had resigned ourselves to a morning without coffee when we came to the hotel on the corner near the bridge, where guests were tucking into breakfast, as we soon were too, with the pastries we had just bought.
We knew the short cut up the staircase to the road, and from there we gradually descended along the valley, no longer worthy of the name of gorge.
Two fairy tale medieval villages, Liaucous and Mostuéjouls, could be seen on the slopes across the river, the heights above them just emerging from the mist. The air was bracing, although we were almost out of the mountains.
We passed the camping ground that we had pursued in vain the day before. It did have a restaurant, so we could have stayed there without too much trouble.
As the valley widened, there were orchards of cherries, plums and peaches, as well as vines.
Before we got to the hamlet of la Cresse there was a sweet little riverside chapel (Saint-Baudile) being restored.
Our road was very quiet, as the main one was on the other side of the Tarn, and at Compeyre it merged into the highway coming from the north, the N9. The railway sailed over this junction on a many-arched bridge, and the howl of the traffic floated across to us.
On our more tranquil side of the river, at Paulhe, we stopped for bread and cheese, sitting on a low wall, then continued towards Millau. The last few kilometres were a continuous line of camping grounds, all the way to the bridge.
This reminded us of the legendary August traffic jams that used to occur at Millau before the viaduct was built, as Paris holiday makers all tried to go south on the same day. Getting across the Tarn valley involved a tortuous descent and re-ascent on a choked road, with the result that many people found themselves obliged to spend the night at Millau.
It was 12:45 when we stepped over the bridge. The lower part of the Avenue Gambetta looked seedy and desolate, where the remnants of its former glove-making industry were the only sign of life.
Then we turned into the Boulevarde Bonald and found ourselves in the fashionable quarter, with newly paved footpaths and flourishing shops set in a wide semicircle around gardens and a fountain. We were tempted by the cafés, but strong-mindedly pressed on in search of the Office of Tourism.
Past the ugly iron halle, we arrived with five minutes to spare before it closed for two hours. We got the list of all the camping grounds in Aveyron and asked the young woman at the desk which was the closest for a walker.
She must have been mentally already off duty, as she recommended that we go to Creissels, across the river and downstream about 4 kms, whereas we had just gone past several, less than a kilometre away. Perhaps she wanted us to be within view of the famous Viaduct, which was a little way further on in that direction.
Back at the big half-moon square, we had our customary delightful coffee to celebrate our arrival, and then back-tracked to the nearest of the camping grounds we had passed on our way in (‘Les Deux Rivières’, as it was where the gorge of the Dourbie joined the Tarn).
We got an excellent spot right on the riverbank, and although the grass was rather threadbare, we had the luxury of a picnic table to hold all our stuff. After completing the lunch we had begun in Paulhe, we had showers and a siesta. I spread out my soggy muesli in dishes on the table, but the weather was too cool and cloudy to allow much drying.
At 6:30 we went back to town, well rugged up, and hunted about for the restaurant area. The small lanes to the south looked the most promising and were certainly attractive, and at the Place Mareschal Foch, near the belfry, we found several eateries.
After pastis and rosé at the brasserie, under a colonnade, we went and sat down at an outdoor place called Pizza Phil’s. I was cooling down rapidly. We were just examining the menu when we noticed a cluster of restaurant signs pointing into an alley, so we got up rather rudely and slunk away.
This alley was evidently the gastronomic centre of Millau, and the place we chose was la Camargue, a snug, convivial room brimming with diners. We got the last available table, next to a wall covered with paintings of wild horses splashing through water.
We both had a formule for €13.50, familiar but delicious food. We began with salads of different sorts and followed with the inevitable steak.
Something about our strenuous life style inclines us towards red meat, our main variation being amongst the different cuts of steak – bavette, entrecôte, onglet, pièce de boeuf, faux filet, and occasionally real filet. Other dishes such as fish or chicken do not seem to have the same restorative power, at least in our minds.
We finished with cheeses and ice cream, also very familiar. Our evening meals are enjoyable as much for the surroundings as for the food. Sitting up at a prettily laid table amongst other diners, being waited on, is a great pleasure in our otherwise spartan existence.
At the other end of the alley we found we were back on the Avenue Gambetta and halfway home. We were accompanied the rest of the way by the deafening strains of a live band pouring from a bar. A sign outside read “100% Johnny”, so perhaps the great French Elvis (Johnny Hallyday) was there – but more likely an imitator.
It was a cheerful sound and a good way to end our little excursion down the Gorges of the Tarn.
Millau has a railway station. From there you can go almost anywhere in France. Also, from the Millau railway station, there is a SNCF autocar (bus) to Montpellier.