Thursday, 24 June 2004
Distance 28 km
Duration 6 hours 50 minutes
Ascent 705 m, descent 663 m
Map 63 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)
Topoguide Le Chemin d’Arles (blue cover)
It had rained during the night and Keith had gone out stark naked to rescue the clothes from the line, scaring a girl who was going past to the toilet. It rained again at dawn so the tent was wet and heavy when we packed it.
We went back up the grand staircase (where a statue of d’Artagnan, the dashing fictional character in Dumas’ Three Musketeers, recalls his real-life inspiration, Charles de Batz-Castlemore, Comte d’Artagnan, who was born nearby), and indulged in coffee and pastries at a bar in the square behind the cathedral, in the cool washed sunlight of the morning.
The happy crowds of the previous evening had given way to a few street sweepers, pigeons and hurrying office workers.
Full of strength and hope, we reconnected with the GR and continued our westward way. The track was undulating, a mixture of forests and farms, watered by a series of north-flowing streams.
Twice we had to stop because of the rain, which was light but annoying, and the second time we ate our lunch standing under a tree.
Coming over a rise, we saw the twisted spire of Barran below, a piece of architectural frivolity that we had not seen since Saint-Côme-d’Olt.
The whole of Barran was a delightful surprise, from the fortified gateway to the inner square bastide, and best of all, a restaurant full of busy diners. We sat on the terrace and resumed our favourite activity, topping up the caffeine levels.
It was only a short walk from there to our destination, l’Isle-de-Noé, which had a camping ground and a restaurant, according to the Topoguide.
To the degree that Barran was a pleasant surprise, l’Isle-de-Noé was unpleasant: the restaurant was boarded up and the camping ground derelict, with some workers dismantling the shower block.
At least the water taps had not yet been removed, so we refilled our Sig bottles and marched off. Montesquiou was ten kilometres away and we had plenty of time.
The GR for this section was particularly benign and we arrived at the Montesquiou in less than two hours, even after having stopped for a chat with a farmer. The village was perched above the river flats, with an ancient fortified gateway and a promenade wall enclosing a picturesque jumble of lanes and houses.
At the hotel-bar, we sat on the terrace and the waiter came up and said “You must be the Australians – we’ve been expecting you!”. Our Belgian friend Armand had been here the night before. Keith had a beer and I ordered a glass of rosé, but got a full carafe, most of which disappeared into an empty water bottle.
Another walker came past on his way to the shop. He could speak neither French nor English, so I did my best in German.
He was from Basel and had been walking the pilgrimage from le Puy but, not liking the crowds, had cut across from Lectoure to Auch. Whether he had caught a train or walked on the GRP, we did not find out.
The good thing about Montesquiou was that we knew somebody who lived here, a jovial Englishman whom we had dined with at Lescun in the Pyrénées last year.
He answered his phone and invited us to stay for the night at their house, which was just at the foot of the village. His wife was a charming Dutch woman and they had lived here for ten years. We dined in their garden full of flowers, and David suggested that we stay an extra night in order to accompany them on a day walk in the Pyrénées tomorrow. It would be a bit of a busman’s holiday but we liked the sound of it.