Sunday, 24 July 2005
Distance 26 km
Duration 5 hours 15 minutes
Ascent 347 m, descent 254 m
Map 64 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)
Looking forward to a short day on the hoof, we got up lateish at 7, and left at 7:45. We were determined not to miss the chance for morning coffee in Castres, as there did not seem to be much prospect of refreshment along the way.
The first thing was to find a boulangerie, which we did by asking a woman who was carrying a baguette under one arm and a dog under the other. She directed us between mouthfuls – half the loaf was already gone.
The next problem was the bar, but we finally found one open in the main street, and spent a strengthening half-hour there under an umbrella, in the company of the local layabouts.
We paid for the coffee with a €50 note, as we had nothing smaller, and were punished with a mountain of coins for change.
When we left the town, we walked on the road until we saw the GR marks, since the only map we had had since we left Albi was photocopy from a road atlas.
From here were on the GR653 for the first time – the pilgrim’s Way of Arles, one of the four main medieval pilgrim routes. We had walked on the GR653 last year, but not on this part. The way was marked with both GR signs and cockle shells.
We rambled through beautiful, undulating farmland until we arrived at Viviers-la-Montagne, the only village on the route. Thanks to the Office of Tourism in Castres, we knew it had a shop, but finding it open on a Sunday morning was too much to expect.
Somehow we had left ourselves with only bread and water to look forward to for lunch.
It was a pleasant surprise to discover the shop doing busy trade, and we were able to lay in a soft cheese, a tin of mackerel and a tomato, but powdered milk was beyond their scope, so there would be no muesli tomorrow.
The village had no bar, but we remembered that we had stopped for coffee last year at the hamlet of Verdalle, only 5 km further on.
We set off on the GR full of hope. It was a tiny road lined with blackberry bushes full of fruit, and we collected a bagfull to have with tomorrow’s muesli before we remembered that we had no milk.
A man stopped his car and got out to talk to us. Like so many French people, he had walked part of the pilgrimage himself, and was eager to find out where we had come from and where we were going. When we said we had started in Blois he bowed and said “I honour you”, and we parted with warm handshakes.
To get to Verdalle we turned off the GR onto a road, and soon another car stopped. The man was worried that we were lost. The locals seem to take a proprietary interest in their own stretch of pilgrimage and do not like to see people making mistakes.
We reassured him that we were only going to the bar at Verdalle, and as it happened we need not have bothered, because it was shut.
The posh restaurant across the road was open, but too refined to make coffee for a couple of weary walkers.
Just past Verdalle we stopped on a grassy bank for our lunch, which was a lot better than it might have been. Keith had developed a new blister on his heel after fifty days of walking, which goes to show that you must never relax your vigilance when it comes to foot care.
We were getting low on water, so we drank what we had and made a dash along the road for Dourgne, pausing to admire the Benedictine abbey at En Calcat, and the equivalent female institution of Sainte-Scholastique, whose buildings were set back from the road behind a long orchard.
We were retracing our steps of last year, but we had forgotten what a long uphill push was required to get to Dourgne. At the turnoff we noticed a little takeaway pizza kiosk that had not been there previously, closed now but open every evening.
We were not interested, as we had eaten splendidly last year at the restaurant in the square (la Montagne Noire) and intended to do so again.
Once in the square, at 1:30, we saw that the bar was closed but the restaurant was in full swing. Unlike their counterpart in Verdalle, they were not too proud to serve us coffee at a small table at one side, and brought a huge jug of cold water too.
The bad news was that they would be closing after lunch and staying closed until Tuesday. This was a blow but we had hopes that the bar would reopen in time to feed us, and there was always the pizza kiosk to fall back on.
Feeling relaxed and revived, we took the ascending street to the camping ground and found it a great deal livelier than it had been last year.
There were several caravans and tents with people having lunch, and the shower block was functioning. We washed in the disabled cubicle as it had a highly superior shower.
After a doze beside the tent we set off down to the square. It was 7 pm and the bar had opened, but it was not serving food tonight, despite the sign advertising a €12 menu.
We asked the waitress whether we could bring pizzas back from the kiosk to eat there, with a jug of wine.
Not only did she agree, but she rang the kiosk and ordered our pizzas, so that we only had to stroll down to the turnoff and collect them at 8:15. She then provided knives and forks. It was not the magnificent meal we had anticipated, but very pleasant all the same.