Monday, 23 July 2007
Distance 26 km
Duration 4 hours 50 minutes
Ascent 254 m, descent 260 m
Map 47 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)
The relentless rain during the night had the advantage of washing off the last of the mud from Bergerac, but unfortunately it did not stop at dawn, as rain in France tends to do.
We had to scamper over to the shower block to eat our muesli under an overhanging roof, draping the tent over a washing machine to let the water stream off it.
At 8 o’clock, wrapped in our flimsy plastic ponchos, we took the rising road to the village, which was shiny with rain, and turned right at the church.
There was a bar already open, but we preferred to press on a bit before stopping, and there was a likely looking village on the map about eight kilometres away.
The road descended across the river meadows to join our previous road at the Gare de Neuvic, and there we left the river Isle and pushed up into the hinterland on a narrow road in a valley.
After an hour and a bit of hard walking we reached the hoped-for haven of Saint-Germain-du-Salembre. It had a fine square, a post office, a small supermarket and nothing else.
Disappointed and indignant, we strode on, climbing sharply into a forest, and all the while it rained steadily. Keith was drenched but I was relatively dry, as the hood of my poncho was held in place by my hat. This was just as well, as I had the map pressed to my bosom. I did not consult it once, as it would have disintegrated in the rain.
At length we descended on an easier gradient to join the main road between Mussidan and Ribérac, the very road that had provided us with our excellent second coffee break yesterday.
It was full of trucks sending out bow-waves as they lumbered along the half-flooded road, but we had only gone a short way when we saw a sign “Bar-Restaurant” ahead, at the entrance to the village of Saint-Vincent-de-Connezac. We tumbled through the open door, streaming water all over the tiles, just as the rain doubled and trebled in intensity. The interior was warm and lighted and dry, a real treat.
Some tourists dashed in soon afterwards and we all ordered coffee and croissants. The barman said he had run out of croissants, but there was a boulangerie only a hundred metres further on, at which we all laughed hollowly. We would not have got five steps before being saturated.
This was where the apple tart that I had saved from last night’s dinner came into its own. It went very well with the hot coffees and we sat at the window watching torrents of rain gush over the awning outside.
When the rain eased back to moderate, we put on our wet capes and stepped out into the road. Although the traffic was worse, the walking was better because of the wide gravel margin, and because of the coffee and tart inside us. All the way the countryside was fertile and well-groomed, a typical piece of beautiful, lucky France.
As we came down from the plateau into the lovely valley of the Dronne, we passed the little outpost of Saint-Martin-de-Ribérac and soon afterwards entered the outskirts of Ribérac itself. There was a further long descent through a canyon of dark, dripping stone before we made it to the centre.
The bars were full of lunch-time diners, and after visiting a boulangerie, we joined them, protected from the relentless rain by an awning. We hung our capes from a pot plant and set to work on a second round of coffee and pastries, which we felt we had earned.
The seemingly morose solitary man at the table next to us turned out to be nothing of the sort. He saw us looking at the weather forecast in the paper and began to chat about the unnatural summer we were having.
We then passed on to sport, the Tour de France, doping and the joys of walking, which joys were admittedly not much in evidence at that moment.
He was a journalist on the local radio station and was just going off to work after lunch (it was 1:30). In his opinion, French people were deplorably unwelcoming to their many visitors, but we said we had had nothing but kindness and courtesy from them.
After he left we went to the Office of Tourism and asked for the telephone number of the Étap hotel in Angoulême where we had stayed previously.
This uncharacteristic caution on our part was because at our present pace, we would get to Angoulême two days before the arrival of the Tour de France, which would make accommodation hard to find, especially as there was no camping ground there.
Then we walked down steeply to the river, through an increasingly decrepit neighbourhood, with a sharp drop behind the houses on the left. At the bridge, the road from Brantôme came in, and just over the river we found the camping ground. It looked prosperous and well-patronised, even in the rain, which had eased off considerably by then.
A group of people was emerging from the office as we approached. One was the woman who ran the place and another was our radio friend from the bar, who had just been interviewing her. She was astonished to see us being welcomed as old friends by this affable man, and we shook hands all round.
As it was starting to rain again, she suggested that we occupy the games room for the afternoon. It had a ping-pong table, a mini-football table and a few chairs, so we had a very comfortable lunch there and later managed to ring the Étap hotel to enquire about a booking for Wednesday.
The unwelcome reply was that they were booked out, but I got the number of another hotel nearby, the Hotel d’Orléans. This had a better result.
The man on the telephone then asked for my number and I, thinking he meant a car registration number, said that we were on foot, to which the scathing reply was “Well, you can walk and have a credit card, can’t you?” Soon it was all sorted out. It would cost €37 and was just opposite the station.
We put up our tent between rain showers, on a soggy lawn near the river, hoping there would be no inundation in the middle of the night. Then we retired to the games room, and for the first time in our forty days of walking, I decided not to have a shower.
I felt that I had hardly sweated all day because of the cold and the rain, and now that I was under a roof I had no intention of getting wet again. Keith however went off for a shower, getting rained on in the process.
Occasionally the sun burst out but mostly it drizzled or poured all afternoon. After a while our kind hostess brought a little bar radiator, which was a great comfort, and I pulled out my almost-dry washing from the day before and draped it about the room.
I put my red socks on the top of the radiator itself, as it seemed to be quite a gentle heat, but it must have been controlled by a thermostat, because suddenly the element sprang into life and the acrid stink of burning wool filled the air. When madame next popped in she laughed sympathetically, and we laughed too. I was now reduced to one pair of socks as well as one pair of undies.
In the evening, with our rain capes at the ready, we ventured back to the fashionable quarter in search of dinner.
Apart from the bars, which offered nothing more than snacks, there seemed to be only two places to eat, a big, expensive restaurant on the corner, and the much smaller Restaurant du Commerce, both of which were almost empty.
Then we realised that nearly all the tables at the latter were reserved, all except one, so we hastily went in and claimed it.
Very soon all the others filled up and several couples who arrived later were politely turned away, so we felt very lucky and grateful.
The meal was excellent, in the traditional French style, and the surroundings warm and welcoming.
We had become particularly fond of places with the words “du Commerce” in their name. They were usually long-established eating places with a century or two of experience behind them. Well satisfied with this ending to the day, we managed to get back to our tent without getting wet.