Day 5: Selles-sur-Cher to Saint-Aignan

Thursday, 14 July 2011
Distance 18 km
Duration 4 hours 40 minutes
Ascent 95 m, descent 101 m
Map 134 of the TOP 100 lime-green series

Walking in France: Breakfast in the Selles-sur-Cher camping ground
Breakfast in the Selles-sur-Cher camping ground

We woke to a beautiful summer morning and ate our muesli undisturbed at the concrete picnic table where we had lunched yesterday. The few other campers that we saw were in slippers and dressing gowns, on their way to the showers.

Before 8 o’clock we were on our way, crossing back over the bridge and following the river road briefly until we rejoined the GR that we had left near Gièvres. People were already streaming across both bridges into the centre of Selles-sur-Cher for the Bastille Day celebrations, but we kept going and were soon back on the canal.

We were getting tired of canal walking after doing little else for the last four days, but this would be the last of it, as the canal was about to merge with the river at Noyers-sur-Cher, presumably because the Cher was navigable downstream from there.

Walking in France: The pont-canal over the Sauldre river
The pont-canal over the Sauldre river

We had a bit of novelty when the canal crossed a tributary of the main river on a sturdy little four-arched bridge.

Most of the “pont-canals” that we have seen (for example at Moissac and Briare) have been magnificent structures over big rivers, whereas this was small and matter-of-fact, carrying the absurdly narrow canal and two stone towpaths.

Walking in France: On the pont-canal
On the pont-canal

Shortly after that we saw the church of Châtillon-sur-Cher high above us through the forest.

There was a metal footbridge and a pathway leading up from it, which we took, arriving out of breath near the church. Our aim as usual was to find a bar, but there were no shops in sight initially.

Walking in France: Approaching Châtillon-sur-Cher on the Canal de Berry
Approaching Châtillon-sur-Cher

Further along the street, we came to a house that was being gutted and renovated, where a couple of young workmen in the glaringly lit front room were installing a staircase, surrounded by ladders, tools and benches.

I poked my head through the open window and they told us encouragingly that there was a bar 500 metres along, opposite the Mairie.

Before we got that far, we came to a boulangerie doing a brisk trade. The woman who served us our pastries and bread also added that the bar was closed for Bastille Day, information that she seemed to enjoy delivering, or so we felt in our disappointment.

Walking in France: The closed bar in Châtillon-sur-Cher
The closed bar in Châtillon-sur-Cher

She was right, unfortunately, but we called up our reserves of fortitude, as we had done so many times before, and stepped out into the countryside.

The little road that we were on was called the “Route des Vins” and it ambled gently through a landscape of vines where bunches of unripe fruit glowed amongst the leaves.

Walking in France: On the Route des Vins
On the Route des Vins
Walking in France: More vines with the château of Saint-Aignan in the distance
More vines with the château of Saint-Aignan in the distance

It was pleasant to be walking on bitumen instead of the wet, weedy canal bank, and to have a huge, open sky above us rather than walls of forest.

Gradually we descended towards the canal and the river, then passed under the highway (D976) and into the town of Noyers-sur-Cher.

The sight of a pair of pleasure boats made us realise that this final stretch of the canal was open to water traffic. Signs pointed us to the camping ground but it was obviously defunct.

Walking in France: The chapel of St-Lazare, Noyers-sur-Cher
The lonely chapel of St-Lazare

Nevertheless it was full of people, as there was a fishing competition in progress on the wide basin where the canal and the river coalesced. Most of the serious contenders were old men in jackets and cloth caps, but there were also families having picnics on the grassy foreshore.

The lack of a place to camp in Noyers-sur-Cher forced us to think of a new plan. The choice was between the hotel at the railway station and the camping ground at the nearby town of Saint-Aignan.

It was clear from the map that the railway station was well out of town, and in any case the town was rather down-at-heel, having been bypassed by the new highway.

There were two bars open, but neither looked inviting, so although coffee had not passed our lips all day, we decided to press straight on and get to St-Aignan as quickly as possible. We had seen the high, fortified promontory of the town for miles before this and it did not look far away.

Walking in France: Finally, crossing the Cher to arrive in Saint-Aignan
Finally, crossing the Cher to arrive in Saint-Aignan

It turned out to be further than we expected. A long, exposed road walk got us to the chapel of St-Lazare, standing alone and incongruous amongst a web of roads.

From there we trudged along the highway until its intersection with the D675. There was a hotel at this roundabout and we were tempted to stop, but once again decided to press on. And once again it was further than we thought.

Walking in France: The pompiers in the Bastille Day parade, Saint-Aignan
The pompiers in the Bastille Day parade

To get over the river we first had to traverse an interminable flood-plain, but as soon as we crossed the two bridges we were in the centre of St-Aignan, with the partly ruined château looming overhead.

On a small island was a fun-fair set up for the holiday, and beyond that the main esplanade flanked with shops and cafés – a very cheering sight.

We quickly installed ourselves at an outdoor table and ordered our first coffees of the day, with which we had the pastries bought in Châtillon-sur-Cher.

Walking in France: The Bastille Day parade crossing the Cher
The Bastille Day parade crossing the Cher

It was about 11 o’clock and the Bastille Day parade was just coming down the street, led by the town band.

Then came the pompiers with their shining helmets, a line of red ambulances, the veterans and finally the citizens raggedly bringing up the rear.

They marched past our café, then turned over the bridge and into the fairground.

We asked the waitress whether we could eat there in the evening and she said yes, but we should book a table, so we did.

Walking in France: Half-timbered house, Saint-Aignan
Half-timbered house, Saint-Aignan

Then we asked about the camping ground and she said it was functioning, but it was three kilometres out of town, at Seigy. This was not what we wanted to hear, so the best idea seemed to be to look for the Office of Tourism and see what other accommodation was on offer.

Following the signs, we walked up a steep street, freshly cobbled, full of people and lined with charming old half-timbered houses, most of them shops.

At the top, near the church, we found the Office of Tourism, fortunately still open, and got a map of the town, a list of local hotels and the information that the camping ground was one kilometre away, not three.

We had no sooner set off along the river road towards the camping ground when we saw tents and caravans across a bend of the river. It was a good deal less than a kilometre – another example of local people grossly overestimating walking distances, probably because they never walk them.

Walking in France: The oldest part of the château, the Tour Hagar
The oldest part of the château, the Tour Hagar

The camping ground, Les Cochards, was of the four-star variety and consequently cost us €22.20 – shockingly expensive, we thought (but better than €89 at the hotel in town).

It had a swimming pool, an outdoor restaurant and bar, a games room, a TV room, immaculate ablutions blocks and a lot of large, shady trees. We managed to find a site on the riverbank between two big Dutch outfits, with an unimpeded view towards St-Aignan and the fireworks that were promised for the evening.

During the afternoon we took another round of coffees at the outdoor bar and then went to the TV room for the last of the day’s racing in the Tour de France.

Walking in France: The view from the château, Saint-Aignan
The view from the château

At seven we walked back to town, taking a shortcut on a footpath beside the river, to visit the church and the château. Both have ancient elements mixed with more recent ones.

The oldest part of the château, a massive round tower called the Tour Hagar, is from the ninth century while the main building is Renaissance (sixteenth century) and the octagonal tower is nineteenth-century.

Walking in France: The church of Saint-Aignan
The church of Saint-Aignan

Visitors are allowed to wander around the outside and admire the map-like view of the Cher valley, but not to go inside, as it is a private residence.

As to the church, the frescoes in the crypt are astonishingly old – a thousand years – but the bell towers have only existed for a couple of centuries.

Walking in France: Frescoes in the crypt of the church, Saint-Aignan
Frescoes in the crypt of the church

As we came down the steep little street to the esplanade, the sound of singing floated up dreamily from the fairground, where the locals were gathering for the fireworks.

At the restaurant, we were glad that we taken the precaution of booking a table, as the place was filling up fast and people were being turned away.

We chose one four-course menu for €16.50, plus an extra main course, which not surprisingly was an entrecôte, Keith’s favourite.

Walking in France: A beautiful Bastille Day dinner
A beautiful Bastille Day dinner

We shared the first course of warm goat’s cheese with honey and pine nuts and then I had duck with white beans while Keith attacked the steak.

Suddenly I began to feel very queasy and had to retire to the toilet for a while, although I managed to avoid the shame of vomiting.

The cheese course was slipped into my ever-available plastic bag and Keith ate the crème caramel.

I was very relieved to get back to the tent without further drama, and sank into my sleeping bag gratefully.

Walking in France: Back at the camping ground, waiting for sunset and the fireworks display
Back at the camping ground, waiting for sunset and the fireworks display

Later I woke up to a series of loud explosions, the start of the fireworks display from the fairground. All we had to do was prop ourselves up on our elbows and peer out of the tent flap for a fine view.

There was also an answering fireworks display from Noyers-sur-Cher, exchanging bangs and flashes as if in a Napoleonic pitched battle.

Somehow all this sound and fury was soothing to my slightly upset stomach and I had a restful and restorative night.

Leaving Saint-Aignan

There is a railway station across the Cher at Noyers-sur-Cher (official name of the station is Saint-Aignan Noyers). From there you can go to almost anywhere in France.

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