Saturday, 15 July 2006
Distance 22 km
Duration 4 hours 30 minutes
Ascent 79 m, descent 68 m
Map 26 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)
We rose with the sun just after 6 am, the air once again fresh and cool.
With our muesli we had some little yellow plums that we had collected beside the path yesterday, and we left as the first of the dog-walkers appeared. One of them was the Asian waiter from the restaurant so we smiled and waved.
The GR wove its way through the ragged trees of the riverbank and presently we came to a great château wall, with arched openings leading back into the cliff.
It was probably in just such a cave that the hermit Agilus lived, the Roman soldier turned Christian saint who gave the village of Saint-Ay its name.
On the wall there were marks, horrifyingly far above the river, denoting the heights of the floods of 1856 and 1866, the likes of which have never been seen again.
At 8:45, just before we reached the bridge of Meung-sur-Loire we turned off the GR into the streets, hoping to find the centre of town along the highway, but it was clearly not a salubrious area.
However, we did find a bar which served very good coffees at a shaded table. We had no pastries but the caffeine was the main requirement.
Reinvigorated, we set off along the highway past, turned the bend, then took a smaller road down towards the bridge. We had seen Meung-sur-Loire from the train once before and it had looked just as dreary as it did this time.
We were almost back to the river when we noticed on our left, a strange stone archway at the end of the side street, which curiosity demanded that we investigate.
It turned out that this was the Porte d’Amont, the only remaining part of the ancient fortified wall, and behind it was a beautiful little intact village with an eleventh-century church and one of the best-looking châteaux we had ever seen.
It was astonishing, and we had almost walked right round it without knowing it was there. Back on the GR (9:45 am), we followed a small road for a while, then a track along the levee bank.
Beyond that there were fishermen’s wheel tracks in all directions amongst the scrubby trees and we accidentally did a complete circuit of a large pool, but were never really lost.
It was a morning for walking right around things. Eventually we came out into the fields and saw the bridge of Beaugency, and the camping ground on the other side of the river.
Just near the bridge there was an artificial sandy beach adorned with dark blue umbrellas, light blue plastic deck chairs and a swimming pool (the Loire itself being too shallow for swimming, as we had discovered).
It was almost noon and we felt the need for another café stop before going to the camping ground, so we went up into the town. It was another beautiful village, bigger and livelier than Meung-sur-Loire, with a market under way in the two main squares.
At a boulangerie the queue snaked out the door and along the street, so Keith joined it while I rushed off to the Office of Tourism to enquire about internet access.
I found out it was available in the library (the Médiathèque), on the other side of the highway and the railway line.
Armed with bread, croissants and pains aux raisins, we sat down at a small corner bar at the foot of the town and ordered two grands crèmes, but after a time the waitress came back and admitted that they had no milk, so we left.
We trudged up to the highway, which looked desolate, then turned back into the upper square, where we finally found a bar hemmed in behind the market stalls.
We were really fading by then, but everything was remedied by a long stay under the awning with our boots off, consuming coffee, a carafe of water and the pastries.
Before turning back to the camping ground, we walked to the Médiathèque in the burning midday sun, only to find that it was closed, but would be open between 2 and 5 in the afternoon.
We were melting by the time we got over the bridge and into the camping ground. Needless to say the office was closed but we chose a thick, leafy tree to have lunch under, after our tepid showers.
We only had time for a short rest before it was time to go back to send an email, and even so we got there late, in a lather of sweat. With an effort we managed to do all our business before a little bell rang to indicate that the library was closing.
Out in the non-air-conditioned world again, we made haste to the same bar/brasserie that we had visited in the morning and installed ourselves there comfortably, watching the bustle of the market which was still going on.
As evening approached we strolled around looking at the menus in the various restaurants, and taking in the sights of this attractive town. Beaugency, like Jargeau and Meung-sur-Loire, was the scene of one of Joan of Arc’s victories. All three towns had strategically important river crossings that had been in English hands until she led her army to recover them.
There was a statue of her, not far from the Tower of Caesar, a gaunt rectangular shell which was all that remained of the eleventh-century fortress, ruined by fire during the Wars of Religion.
It was at Beaugency that Eleanor of Aquitaine’s first marriage to the King of France was dissolved. When her second husband became the King of England, her vast lands in Aquitaine became nominally English, a circumstance which precipitated the Hundred Years’ War. She had two children by her first husband and eight by her second, two of whom became kings (Richard the Lionheart and John) and she outlived all but two of them.
Our gastronomic quest ended where it had begun, at the brasserie in the square. The market stalls had gone at last and were rapidly being replaced by dining tables.
For €12.90 each we had three courses: a salade composée, the inevitable steak (with green beans), and plate of local cheeses. This was liberally enhanced by bread and wine and we finished off with ice cream and coffee.
As we ate we fell into conversation with a weathered, talkative old Frenchman at the next table, who had noticed us putting up our tiny tent at the camping ground, where he was also staying.
We soon discovered that his name was Serge and that his son lived in Melbourne. He promised to give us his son’s phone number when we got back to the tents.
We poked around the streets a bit more, then went back to the bridge, where a live band was belting out numbers on the beach to a happy crowd. We could hear it distinctly from the camping ground and it made a nice change from the sepulchral quiet of Saint-Ay.
Serge had not returned by the time we retired.