Day 1: Martel to Collonges-la-Rouge

Saturday, 24 May 2003
Distance 22 km
Duration 6 hours 40 minutes
Ascent 654 m, descent 750 m
Map 48 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)

Walking in France: Looking out from the Halle in Martel
Looking out from the Halle in Martel

We had a companion with us on the first few days of the walk – a woman friend who had hardly walked around the block in her life, but who had become intrigued by our descriptions of last year’s expedition.

She had a heavy cold combined with a hangover (acquired while socialising at Montignac), so our departure from the camping ground was lateish, 8 o’clock.

It was a treat to be swinging along on a GR again, keeping an eye out for the red-and-white markers. The weather was cloudy and cool, just right for walking.

The GR46 took us north through rolling farmland and we stopped for a snack on a stone barnyard wall, where all manner of fowls and a piglet were rummaging in a muckheap.

A little further on, as we entered Hôpital-Saint-Jean, it began to rain, but we found shelter and interest at an abandoned nut-mill, with a horse-drawn turnstone, a huge vat over a firebox and a press.

Walking in France: Shelter in an abandoned nut-mill, Hôpital-Saint-Jean
Shelter in an abandoned nut-mill, Hôpital-Saint-Jean

Methods have changed but it is still walnut country here. The groves of spreading trees are tenderly cared for and are as pretty as the vineyards of other parts of France.

The ground is raked clean to receive the falling nuts, making graceful curving patterns beneath the branches.

Walking in France: Walnut grove near Hôpital-Saint-Jean
Walnut grove near Hôpital-Saint-Jean

All the villagers of Hôpital-Saint-Jean were dressed in black. They were streaming away from the graveyard, some in tears.

One of them walked with us up the hill as we left the town, and pointed out the little towers visible on some of the houses, looking back. These were oil-lanterns (“fanales”), put there in medieval times to guide benighted pilgrims in to the hospice.

Soon we beheld the fairy-tale towers of Turenne on their steep knoll. 

This village, now so quiet, was once the centre of power in the region, controlling all the land from here to the river Dordogne.

Walking in France: Doorway in Turenne
Doorway in Turenne

Our first instinct was to make for the bar and order large coffees, which we lingered over in the warm interior. Only after that did we take an interest in the charming houses, lanes and towers of the place.

Turenne is a Plus Beau Village. We had lunch under a walnut tree at the top of the town, high above the plain, then descended eastwards to rejoin the track, now the GR480.

Walking in France: Passing through Turenne
Passing through Turenne

Crossing under the railway line, we found ourselves struggling through nettles and tall, dripping weeds.

Not long after, we met a man with a brush-cutter working his way down the track towards us – we were an hour too early to keep our boots dry.

Walking in France: Looking back to Turenne through a nut farm in the rain
Looking back to Turenne through a nut farm in the rain

The country was undulating, a mixture of woods and meadows. After a stretch on a tiny bitumen road, we were again faced with a soggy, overgrown path and it had started to rain, so we decided to stay on the road.  Whether this was wise we do not know – it was certainly unpleasant.

Weekend traffic swept past as we trudged up to the saddle, from where the village of Collonges-la-Rouge could be seen below, glowing red even in the rain.

Beyond the saddle, the road became a major highway, so it was an exhausted and disgruntled little group that finally arrived in the streets of Collonges.

Walking in France: A rainy arrival in Collonges-la-Rouge
A rainy arrival in Collonges-la-Rouge

A round of coffees in a bar revived us wonderfully. The village is extremely picturesque with its dark red stone buildings, winding streets and masses of roses.

The other thing that was present in masses was tourists, but then we were part of them and could hardly complain, especially as they mean plenty of bars and restaurants.

Our friend Penny, still suffering from her cold, booked in to a luxurious chambre d’hôte, while we set off for the camping ground. This is quite close to town but we made it seem far by initially following signs to “Camping Naturiste” (do not do this – it indicates a nudist colony).

The normal camping is just past the cemetery and there is access to the town through an underpass, as we discovered later.

A cold wait outside the restaurant
A cold wait outside the restaurant

At the camping ground the boom gate was down, the office closed, but a sign invited us to set ourselves up, so we did. There were two other tents in the whole vast expanse.

The showers were clean and scalding hot, the rain had stopped, and after a short rest in the tent we went back to town in our fresh clothes to meet Penny for dinner.

We chose a little place at the foot of the village that served “tourtous” – stuffed buckwheat pancakes – with a “salade corrèzienne”, the local ingredient being walnuts. Washed down with a jug of red wine, it made a fine meal.

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