Sunday, 30 May 2004
Distance 35 km
Duration 7 hours 55 minutes
Ascent 798 m, descent 633 m
Map 50 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)
Topoguide (ref. 700) Le Chemin de Stevenson
Yesterday had been a cautionary tale, the moral being that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. We had survived it fairly well-fed and well-rested, but our spirits were low. So were those of the manageress when she came to test the showers and found them still paralysingly cold. She had in her hand the receipt from the serviceman who had checked the hot water system two days earlier.
By way of apology she offerred us a free breakfast in her café, although it was not officially open. Brightening considerably, I replied “merci!”, at which she looked crestfallen, and I suddenly remembered that to say “merci” to an offer means “no thanks”, not “thanks”.
I quickly corrected myself and we all went down to the café. We had a wash in a basin of lovely hot water and then tucked in to an array of warm bread, croissants, butter, jam and coffee, with madame urging us to have more and more.
Thanks to her kindness, our previous dark thoughts about Goudet were erased from mind and we were left with only good memories of the village. By half past eight we were swinging up the road past the skeletal ruins of the château of Beaufort, on a deserted minor road rather than the GR.
At tiny Ussel we were surprised to find both a baker and a bar, both of which we patronised. We needed the bread but we only had the coffee because we could.
From there we stuck to the GR as it roamed pleasantly across the fields to Bargettes. It was here that we first saw the small white daffodils that were later as thick as snow in the high pastures.
After we crossed the highway, we decided to abandon the GR again and cut the corner of Robert Louis’ path, missing Bouchet-Saint-Nicolas completely.
We also gave up the idea of following the disused railway line when we saw that, although the rails and sleepers had been taken up, the surface was a tangle of rocks and weeds. Presumably the local worthies were intending to put a layer of gravel on top and call it a cycle path. It was much easier to take a farm track rising through the fields to Charbonnier and then down the other side to Landos.
Landos was a rather drab town which was established in 1938, for reasons that were not clear to us. Nevertheless we stopped for coffee in the main street before setting off, once again ignoring the GR in favour of a small road that seemed to be the quick way to Pradelles.
We got as far as les Uffernets when it began to rain. Luckily the village was full of empty houses and one of them, a renovated barn, had a sheltered entrance with a seat, so we made ourselves at home there to eat lunch. There was even a stone cross beside the entrance so we felt very secure. By the time we had finished, the rain had too and we were able to amble off.
Going under a high-tension power line we worried about its menacing hum, that threatened to incinerate us with a bolt from above. Soon after that we rejoined the GR and entered pine woods, descending steeply until we met the road and proceeded into Pradelles.
Like le Monastier, this shabby little town was strung out across the hillside, clinging to the main road, but there was also a beautiful, intricate old town below, guarded by thick walls with several arched portals. It had been a trading centre from the earliest times and had seen its share of trouble.
The most famous incident was in 1588, during the Wars of Religion, when a band of protestants attacked the town and were repulsed single-handedly by a young girl, who climbed the ramparts with a heavy paving stone and dropped it onto the leader’s head.
Although it did not kill him, only buckled his helmet, this lucky hit sent the attackers fleeing, and Pradelles could boast thereafter that it was a bastion of the true faith, in which no heresy could take root.
At the bar in the main square, we sat outside with our Orangina (even we had had enough coffee for one day) until the motherly waitress bustled us inside, as it had turned cold and slightly rainy. The only other occupant was a woman with a vast bosom feeding her baby from a bottle, which seemed a waste of natural resources.
Eager to get ourselves established in the camping ground, which was far below the town, we hurried off down the road, only to find the place sad and empty.
However, we knew there were hotels and a gîte back in the town. What we did not know was that they were all booked out, as it was a long weekend.
The man at the gîte suggested that we go on to Langogne, which he airily said was only six kilometres away, all in descent.
He did not look as though he had walked six kilometres himself in the past year. He swore that the camping ground there would be open.
It was almost 5 o’clock when we started off, down the lanes of the old town and out through the exact portal where the paving stone had been dropped. For some reason, we felt light-hearted at this setback.
The way was delightful, through flourishing crops and fields of daffodils, then in a forest beside a little river, until we came to the big industrial mass of Langogne.
Various workmanlike structures adorned the edges of the river Allier and the main street had a similar utilitarian look.
A camping sign sent us over the side stream, under the railway line and out into the countryside again.
After trudging a long way we came to a factory, beyond which there was nothing but fields, so we turned back, but once in town again, we met a couple with a dog who assured us that we had been on the right road all the time, and that the camping ground was just past the factory. We were not sure whether this was good news or not.
Arriving at last, we booked in at the little reception room, which was crowded with chattering drinkers, later revealed to be permanent residents of the place. We put up the tent on the spacious river flat amongst big ramshackle caravans with annexes, washing lines and pot plants.
After a wonderful hot shower, I decided to attach the zip-on legs of my trousers, as it was now too cold for shorts. To my horror I could only find one of them.
I had carelessly stuffed them in my pack when I took them off earlier in the day, instead of putting them away properly in my clothes bag. I had no other long pants and we were approaching the high Cévennes. No wonder I ended up sobbing on Keith’s chest as we trudged back to town in search of dinner.
All we saw in the main street were decrepit, closed shops as far as the halle – which was handsome – and my gloomy mood deepened, but on the way back we noticed a stairway leading up to the L’Aviation restaurant. It was a revelation, a single large room decorated in maidenly style with pink and pale green drapes, damask tablecloths, polished silver and sparkling cut glass, all in sharp contrast to the dreary street outside.
Madame, tightly corseted, wore a low-cut black number with a quantity of jewellery and make-up that did my heart good to see. My own outfit – shorts and a sagging T-shirt – left a lot to be desired but I tried not to think of it.
The other guests were interesting too. There was a courting couple who had ordered the large menu and were soon too full to eat, with two more courses to come. There was a pretty, well-dressed child and her parents, who turned out surprisingly to be camping in the tent next to ours.
There was a quartet of stout locals in suits and evening gowns, who greeted the whole room with a jovial “bon soir et bon appétit!” as they entered. One of the women pressed a small terrier to her bosom as she ate one-handed.
We ordered the more modest of the two menus and a half-litre of red. To begin, Keith had a salad with little warm goat’s cheeses half-melting on top, while I had an elaborate plate of crudités – beetroot, carrot, couscous, corn, ham, lettuce, tomato. Our mains were an entrecôte for Keith and a quail for me, both beautifully garnished. The last course was a berry tart and a cheese platter.
We left the place feeling much happier than when we arrived. Such is the power of a good meal in pleasant surroundings.