Day 39: Montpon-Ménestérol to Neuvic-sur-L’Isle

Sunday, 22 July 2007
Distance 32 km
Duration 5 hours 40 minutes
Ascent 164 m, descent 114 m
Map 47 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)

Walking in France: Bridge over the Isle river at Montpon-Ménestérol

Bridge over the Isle river at Montpon-Ménestérol

We left just after seven, wrapped in our warm jackets. Without going back to the village, we crossed the bridge and set off along the road which hugged the hills at the edge of the river valley.

It was an ideal walking road, as only the odd local vehicle came past, all other traffic being either on the highway through the town or on the autoroute. The river was sinuous in its flat bed, bordered by fields, with isolated farmhouses here and there.

Near the village of Vauclaire, with its big monastic enclosure, we spied a fellow pedestrian, but a very slow-moving one, carrying only a plastic bag and looking down intently into the long wet grass beside the road. He was collecting snails after yesterday’s rain.

A few minutes before 9 o’clock we arrived at Saint-Laurent-des-Hommes, a junction of roads with a deserted square flanked by a church, a mairie and a few shops. The only shop still closed was the bar, but the woman in the épicerie came out to assure us that it would open at nine – unless the owner was late, she added ominously.

While we waited, Keith went over to the boulangerie and got the very last pastry in the place, a “suisse”. Time passed and nothing happened.

Walking in France: A long wait for the bar to open in Saint-Laurent-des-Hommes

A long wait for the bar to open in Saint-Laurent-des-Hommes

At 9:15 we got tired of waiting and shouldered our packs for the road, but the épicerie woman rushed out to detain us. “She” had arrived at the back and was about to open up. The door creaked open, the shutters were thrown back and we entered with gladness.

Before our lovely coffees had even arrived at the table, there were half a dozen locals lounging at the bar, sprung from somewhere invisible.

From our window looking out on the sunny, tree-lined square, we saw an ancient 2CV coughing its way towards the épicerie.

It stopped in the middle of the road, releasing slowly, like a hermit crab from its shell, a fat, whiskery, even more ancient fellow and an arthritic dog, Souzy.

Later he emerged, with the shop woman carrying his purchases, and there was a hue and cry from various neighbours and passers-by, for Souzy to get back in the car. Actually there was no need – the car eventually wheezed off at walking pace, with Souzy strolling along behind.

Continuing our swift but peaceful progress on the road, swinging along in step, we came to Saint-Front-de-Pradoux, which was little more than a crossing with the road leading across the river to the sizeable village of Mussidan. By virtue of this conjunction there were a couple of shops on an apron of tarmac, just the right sort for us.

We got croissants at the boulanger and took them next door to the bar where our host scurried out to arrange his tables and awning for our comfort. Our second coffees were as large and delectable as the first and amazingly, only cost €1.50 each. Before we left we asked him to refill our water bottles and he insisted on giving us iced water, with our choice of syrup as flavouring (we chose lemon).

Walking in France: Camping ground at Neuvic

Camping ground at Neuvic

From then on we were close to the railway line, which had just come over the river. Near a level crossing we met another pair of walkers, a very unusual occurrence, especially as we were not on a GR. They were Dutch and were on their way to Compostela from Vézelay, having set off from their front door. They preferred this road, with its promise of creature comforts, to the deserted GR654 between Saint-Astier and Bergerac.

Another couple of hours took us to the Gare de Neuvic, a settlement two kilometres away from Neuvic itself, squeezed in between the railway station and the bluffs guarding the side valley. A camping sign directed us, not towards the village, but along a shrunken road, hard up against the bluff and hemmed in by the railway and the river.

Eventually the river swung away from the cliff and the road turned towards the village of Neuvic, whose slender church spire was visible through a screen of trees. We found the camping ground at the first bridge, next to the swimming pool, which of course was empty in the height of summer – it was that sort of summer.

It was 2 pm, so we had lunch as soon as we got to our patch of grass. The simple, delicious food – fresh bread, mackerel and cheese – was a reward for our long morning’s walk. Tall, slim trees lined the lawn on which we set up our little abode, in company with the usual massive vans and circus-sized tents.

Walking in France: Waiting for dinner at Neuvic

Waiting for dinner at Neuvic

The showers looked smart but promised more than they delivered. The temperature control knob gave you a range between stone cold and not-quite-warm-enough. Nevertheless we washed ourselves and all our walking clothes, as we did every day.

Walking up to the village in the evening for dinner, we saw the remains of an earlier camping ground, just across the bridge from the present one, its solid reception building in a state of abeyance and its terraces adorned with picnic tables and tubs of flowers.

It was some sort of community project, possibly involving the unemployed, or the inmates of the nearby prison.

The fields looked immaculate as we climbed towards the town and the church was very beautiful with its sturdy body and narrow steeple, but the view from below was ruined by a hideous, misshapen modern halle.

Walking in France: Entrées: a salad paysanne and a pain perdu with rillettes and salad

Entrées: a salad paysanne and a pain perdu with rillettes and salad

Our host at the camping ground had promised that at least one restaurant in the village would be operating on Sunday night, and he was right.

On a corner behind the church, the outdoor tables of the Pomme Dorée were rapidly filling. The weather was adequate for dining in the street and people were making the most of the opportunity.

Unlike at Montpon, there were several foreign tourists among the diners, apart from us – a Dutch family and two American girls. We had the feeling that we had not seen the whole of Neuvic, even though we were in the centre of the old village. Further down was the highway and presumably a lot of new development.

We both took a €14 menu and I started with a salad paysanne, while Keith had pain perdu with rillettes on a bed of salad leaves, quite a substantial dish in itself. Then we had our standard favourite main course, steak garnished with an array of vegetables.

For dessert Keith had a tarte tatin, that most ubiquitous and variable of French desserts, completely unlike the light pastry confection that went by that name in Montcuq. This one was dark, hot and sticky, with a mountain of cream. I ordered an apple tart and put it away for tomorrow, when it proved more useful than we could have imagined.

Keith had noticed (on his fancy watch) a comprehensive fall in air pressure while we were eating, and indeed clouds were massing, but we got back to our tent without trouble before the rain began.