Wednesday, 12 July 2006
Distance 22 km
Duration 4 hours 20 minutes
Ascent 42 m, descent 43 m
Map 27 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)
Our drab muesli was enlivened with bought apricots this morning ( a change from our usual pilfered fruit) and we set off at 7:30, with no sign of life from the other walkers.
The GR followed the river bank, through a World Heritage listed protected zone of dry grassland, growing on the sand deposited by centuries of floodwaters.
To our eyes it looked a mess, as most of the plants growing there were noxious weeds in Australia – gorse, briar roses, St John’s Wort and Paterson’s Curse, not to mention the rampant grasses themselves. With an effort I resisted the temptation to pull them up by the roots.
Approaching a big meander, we abandoned the GR and took a farm road directly towards Saint-Benoit, whose thin-steepled church could be seen in the distance.
A very big machine was mowing the verges and hedges as we came past. This is a constant preoccupation in France, keeping the vegetation from overrunning the works of man.
Before long we were comfortably installed at a bar, having our second breakfast with our heads in the shade.
A couple of black-clad monks in sandals wandered past and we saw more of them when we visited the abbey church on our way out of the village. There were renovations under way, but it was impressive all the same.
Its former importance as a pilgrim destination was because it housed the bones of Saint Benedict, founder of the Benedictine order, which were moved here from the ruins of Montecassino in Italy in the seventh century. The present church was begun in the eleventh century and suffered the usual indignities during the Wars of Religion and the Revolution.
Leaving the village, we walked on the road for a kilometre to reconnect with the GR, once again on the levée bank., We cut off the next big meander by going via le Mesnil.
When we hit the river again, we followed its curve around on a white gravel path under darkly shady overhanging trees.
The town of Châteauneuf-sur-Loire was visible ahead, but when we got to the bridge we still had quite a walk to reach the centre, uphill through grey streets.
At the top of the rise we found a street of shops with the church, two halles (one iron and one marble) and the Château.
There was a large bar on the corner and we sank eagerly into chairs to enjoy a second round of coffee and a read of the local paper.
In its pages we found out that it was not Zidane’s fault that he had head-butted his opponent in the match two nights ago. He was defending the honour of his mother and sister, which had been impugned by the dastardly Italian. So, looked at from a moral point of view, France had really won the World Cup.
Back at the bridge, we crossed over and walked back a little way to the camping ground that we had seen across the water as we approached the town.
Nobody was in the office, naturally, so we set ourselves up under some trees for a rather lavish lunch, with the chicken from last night, salad and the usual bread and cheese. The showers were warmish, which was good enough for a hot day.
We settled down for a rest but had to keep dodging from one patch of shade to another as the sun marched across the sky. We pitched the tent just before going back to town at 8 pm, and paid €8.55 at the gate on the way through.
There did not seem to be much in the main street to attract the hungry diner, until we noticed a blackboard outside a classy hotel advertising a menu for €10. Normally these cheap menus are only offered at midday, but this one also applied to weekday evenings.
We stepped inside and were ushered through into a secluded garden adjoining the château, behind which the sun was setting.
There was only one other table occupied, although later the place filled up, so we got a good table on the shady side of an enormous tree trunk. We also had the company of a couple of stone lions.
We began with a plate of crudités, plain but fresh and varied, then had steak with Roquefort sauce. Almost every evening we found ourselves choosing steak, as if our strenuous life style requires it. With this succulent meal we had a bottle of Orléans wine (the hotel was too refined to have carafes of house wine).
To get back to the river we strolled through the grounds of the château, descending a wide flight of stairs to the quay. At the gate of the camping the man was just locking up for the night as we scuttled in.