Day 38: Gardonne to Montpon-Ménestérol

Saturday, 21 July 2007
Distance 29 km
Duration 5 hours 35 minutes
Ascent 261 m, descent 247 m
Map 47 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)

Walking in France: An early breakfast at the Gardonne camping ground
An early breakfast at the Gardonne camping ground

Our new plan was to leave the Dordogne and start going north. When we set off this year, we never imagined we would even get as far as Bergerac, and we had got there with two weeks to spare, largely because of the cooler weather.

We still had enough time to get to Angoulême, the town where we had abandoned our walk in 2005, which would make a satisfactory closing of the loop of our walks around France.

We had breakfast in solitary comfort at the borrowed plastic table and left at 6:50, with a farewell wave to the fat man who was just emerging from his tent.

A hundred metres down the highway, we took a turnoff onto a tiny road that kept close by the river, with scrubby willows near the water and flat, open land on our left, mostly given over to pampered vines of the Bergerac appellation. It was easy walking but I felt weak and sickly after a stomach upset last night.

Walking in France: The Marie of St-Nazaire, apparently abandoned by St-Nazaire
The Marie of St-Nazaire, apparently abandoned by St-Nazaire

The couple of hamlets we passed through were like something out of a Hardy novel – haphazard clusters of low dwellings lost in the countryside – but in fact they were tantamount to suburbs, only a few kilometres from the main road between Bergerac and Libourne.

At Saint-Nazaire there was no village at all, just a spruce little Mairie all by itself beside the road, with flower pots and a flag.

For the last stretch along the riverbank, there was another walker on the track, a elderly man striding along in front of us, periodically looking at his watch. When he got to the bridge at le Fleix, he turned and marched back towards us, passing by with a brisk “Bon jour”.

Walking in France: Arriving in le Fleix
Arriving in le Fleix

We carried on to the bridge, where we saw that he had turned again and was coming back in our direction, but he then got into a parked car and drove off, having completed whatever fitness regime he was pursuing.

Just over the bridge was le Fleix, a village of graceful but somewhat run-down appearance, dominated by the shining steel columns of its wine-making factory.

In former times, when the river was the main transport route, le Fleix was the equal of Bergerac, a busy river port, but now that roads had taken over, it was cut off from commerce. Its name refers to the sharp bend of the river on which it stands.

There was a monastery there in the medieval period, as well as an English bastide, an old château (destroyed about 1600) and then a new château (demolished after the revolution), but nothing remains, only the charming half-timbered houses of the common people.

Walking in France: Vines near Saint-Méard-de-Gurçon
Vines near Saint-Méard-de-Gurçon

Nevertheless it had everything that we wanted at 9 o’clock in the morning, namely a viennoiserie and a bar. We sat inside with our big cups of coffee, a jug of hot milk and the pastries, and I felt my strength returning.

The next part of the walk climbed away from the village into rolling hills covered with vines, and after an hour or so we arrived at Saint-Méard-de-Gurçon, an isolated village with roads coming in from all sides.

We knew there was a bar there, because the barman at le Fleix had told us so, but in fact there were two, of which we chose the classy looking one in the garden of a restaurant. The coffees were expensive (€5 each), but the surroundings were worth paying extra for.

Walking in France: Coffees in Saint-Méard-de-Gurçon
Coffee in Saint-Méard-de-Gurçon

After that the traffic got heavier, as we were on the main road from Sainte-Foy, and we but it had a convenient gravel edge, or a shaven grass one, to move onto whenever a car came by. We walked a wiggling line as we stepped on and off the bitumen.

At Saint-Rémy we had the chance to take a smaller, slightly longer road, but we were into the swing of the main road by then so we stayed on it. We passed a gigantic camping ground or holiday village, hoping devoutly that it was not the one listed for Montpon (it wasn’t).

In due course we crossed over the autoroute, then the railway line, and came into Montpon, standing on the banks of the Isle river. It had  a plain, substantial, self-contained look, probably hardly altered in the last couple of hundred years, apart from a layer of bitumen on the streets.

Walking in France: Camping in Montpon-Ménestérol
Camping in Montpon-Ménestérol

The camping ground was close to the centre, next to the bridge. We would be sleeping beside the same river (the Isle) as we had in Périgueux, two years earlier. By this time it was raining a little, so we quickly put up the tent, which was still muddy from Bergerac, and had our lunch inside.

Then we did a minor reconnaissance of the town, looking for places to eat and drink, but it was not the sort of town that went in for fine dining. The Office of Tourism said there was a restaurant (la Chaumière) up near the church, and we remembered that we had passed it as we came in.

It had looked rather run-down, with its menu flapping loosely in the wind, but there was no other. It was not a tourist town.

We looked in vain for a bar appealing enough to occupy during the afternoon, and ended up back at the camping ground bar, where we watched the last of the day’s stage of the Tour. We did not have our usual glass of wine, because the bar had run out – could this really be France?

Walking in France: Waiting for dinner at the delightful la Chaumière
Waiting for dinner at the delightful la Chaumière

At eight o’clock, with some trepidation, we returned to la Chaumière.

To our surprise, it was a haven of comfort and elegance, with stone walls, low beams, a big fireplace, tablecloths and flowers.

It was rapidly filling with diners, local ones, judging by the number of kisses and handshakes being exchanged. We got neither, just pleasant smiles.

Our table was adorned with a fanciful lamp and before our food arrived we got a plate of hot bacon-wrapped prunes (what we call devils on horseback) to keep us going.

We ordered a jug of Bergerac wine and had a very fine mixed salad as entrée, then I had a beautiful duck dish and Keith had his habitual entrecôte, finishing with a crème brûlée, strictly for research purposes.

On the way back to our tent we passed the camping bar and saw people sitting up with glasses of wine in front of them – the injustice of it!.

Previous day: Bergerac to Gardonne

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