Saturday, 5 June 2004
Distance 33 km
Duration 7 hours 55 minutes
Ascent 985 m, descent 796 m
Map 59 in the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)
After gulping a mouthful of muesli, we made our earliest start so far.
Before 7 am we were striding away with relief from the house of horrors, and soon forgot it as the path took us along a spectacular lofty cliffline with a view of the opposite cliffs across the valley.
We were on the GR7 and a very good GR it was, managing to thread its way through the increasingly hilly terrain without either rising or falling, except for one terrific pull up a forestry track.
After four hours we arrived at the gîte at Aire de Côte, an isolated large building in the forest, devoid of life.
I peered in the window and soon a woman came out and told us that the place was closed until evening, not that we cared, although a coffee would have been nice.
We ate an early lunch (11 am) at the picnic table outside.
The climb up Mt Aigoual began with a stretch of road, then became a stony track that rose relentlessly.
We were glad not to be wasting our energy on flat or downhill sections. The slopes of this mountain have been reforested recently, unlike Mt Lozère which is naked to the winds.
When we were almost at the top, we accidentally took a side track that turned out to be an unwelcome scenic stroll around the summit, designed to stretch the legs of visitors in cars. Our legs were not in need of an extra kilometre of stretching.
On top of the mountain is the grand old set of buildings housing the French Meteorological Observatory, including a circular tower. It is said to be the wettest place in France (its name means “mountain of waters”), but there was no rain bothering us, only the cold, cutting wind.
Fortunately we found a large glassed-in snack bar and spent at least an hour luxuriating there, with two rounds of coffee, our boots discreetly off under the table. A passing parade of French car-trippers kept us amused.
Before leaving the summit we visited the tower, hoping to get a view of Mt Lozère, but it was half hidden in low cloud. We felt pleased with ourselves at how very far away it looked.
The downhill stage was no trouble at all, plunging through the pines past a ski resort to emerge onto steep meadows.
By chance it was the day of the transhumance of the sheep, when they are moved to the high summer pastures, and the leading sheep were decorated with garlands as they and their flock swarmed up the slope, munching appreciatively on the fresh grass.
Keith, descending amongst them, looked as if he were being put out to pasture too.
For the last kilometre or so down to l’Espérou we took the road, not liking the look of the GR which was setting off uphill into the woods. The town was old but newly expanding, with many half-built wooden ski-houses.
A church and a “Culte Protestante” chapel stood side by side in the centre, flanked by some shops and three hotels.
There was no sign of a camping ground, and as Keith had already offerred us a night in a hotel after yesterday’s shortcomings, we looked no further.
We chose Le Touring, the oldest-looking (and cheapest) of the hotels, whose only concession to modernity was a glassed-in bar at the front.
Once in our room we found that there was another concession – an ensuite bathroom, the size of a broom cupboard. The deep window embrasures had two sets of casement windows, both opening inwards, and wooden shutters on the outside. That spoke of the severity of the climate in winter.
The shower was deliciously hot and we were soon dressed in our clean clothes and ready to descend for dinner.
For aperitifs we sat in the glass bar and Keith decided to order Suze, the liqueur made of gentian, after two years of avoiding it. It turned out that avoidance was the better policy. I did better with a glass of rosé.
We then moved into the dining room, which Robert Louis would have found entirely normal, with its great fireplace, its many small pictures and lamps, and the boar’s head grinning from the wall. In this warm and welcoming enclosure, in the company of a few other guests, we dined splendidly on the menu of the day.
We had soup, then a salad, then Keith had steak with green beans, while I had an omelette with the local cèpes de l’Aigoual. We finished with cheese and a fruit tart, then stumbled upstairs to our luxurious slumber. Not having to walk a kilometre or two after dinner added piquancy to our enjoyment.