Tuesday, 3 July 2007
Distance 28 km
Duration 5 hours 35 minutes
Ascent 219 m, descent 238 m
Map 58 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)
The day dawned cold and dull. We had our muesli at the picnic table and left rather later than normal, at 7:10. Up in the town there were bars galore open and we went in to one with our bag of croissants for very small, but delectable coffees.
In the local paper we discovered that the whole of France was under a sheet of rain, except for this corner, so we stopped grumbling. The weather would improve in a couple of days, it said.
Descending to the Place of the Martyrs of the Liberation (recently renamed, like so many French streets), we set off on the small road along the right bank.
It went through an industrial area and the traffic was disconcertingly heavy until we got to the second bridge, when it all turned off to Creissels and left us in peace.
Once out in the country, we went along pleasantly beside the railway line, with the river not far away, and soon we began to get glimpses of the Viaduct of Millau shining silvery in the morning sun like a long cobweb. The closer we got, the higher and more breathtaking it became. The tops of huge trucks moved very slowly across, with a distant whine, and cars could not be seen at all. It seemed so light and ethereal, but we passed the base of one of the columns and changed our mind.
Soon the troglodyte village of Peyre came into view ahead, a tiny place backed up against the cliff. Although it was a Plus Beau Village, with enormous parking areas to prove it, there was no bar or café in operation, to our disgust.
It must have been before the time when the buses arrived (it was 9:30). We made a perfunctory tour of the steep upper streets, including the communal oven, and left.
Shortly after that the railway line diverged across the river, but our little road kept on meandering along and presently we arrived at Comprégnac, a dear little manicured village on a bend of the river.
An old man came up as we entered and urged us to return a few hundred metres along the road and go up to see the pigeonnier. We thanked him but did not have the energy to go back. We were much more interested in the signs to a café at the camping ground, to which we were directed by two ancient ladies sitting on a bench outside the church.
Unfortunately, the camping ground did not have the same spruce appearance as the rest of Comprégnac. Picking our way through broken machinery and upturned chairs in the long grass, we disturbed a man sitting outside a shed labelled “reception”, reading the paper.
When we asked about the possibility of coffee, he apologised – the machine was broken. We had to content ourselves with the bread and cheese saved from last night’s dinner, with a swig of water. We were not doing well so far in wayside comforts.
The road continued through fields of wheat, vines and fruit trees, although the upper slopes were no longer being cultivated. All that remained of the times of subsistence farming were the drystone walls dividing the hillside.
As we got near Candas, we rounded a crest of the road and came to a small, newish auberge on a bare promontory above the river. A woman was poking about at the front, so without much hope we approached her and mentioned coffee.
She was delighted to oblige and showed us to a balcony at the back overlooking rows of vines. As we sipped our wonderful coffees, she revealed that she was a walker herself, and appreciated how welcome a coffee break could be. She thought our average of about 25 km a day entirely reasonable.
Restored by this simple pleasure, we pushed on, following the road in and out of a deeply gashed side valley, with a scatter of houses surrounded many small vegetable plots on either side of the stream.
The French are great domestic gardeners, and why would they not be, with such deep, well-watered soils? Behind the houses, we often see the owners moving about at their peaceable labours. Even awkward corners or odd-shaped strips carry neat rows of beans, lettuces, onions and tomatoes, and there is usually a patch of flowers also, for the good of the soul.
We were reminded of Voltaire’s enigmatic and no doubt metaphorical phrase, much analysed by French school children – “il faut cultiver notre jardin”.
We came to the bridge over the Tarn, the first one since Millau. Like all the Tarn bridges, it had been washed away many times by floods, but was too valuable to lose and was always rebuilt.
On the other side the road climbed towards the town and we saw the first of the two camping grounds below us, but we pressed on to the square, where we found not only a bar/tabac, but a hotel, ranged around a statue of the local hero, Denis Affre, archbishop of Paris in the nineteenth century. It was a cheerful scene and we had coffee outside the hotel.
A woman leaned over from a nearby table and said, in schoolgirl English, that she had seen us on the road when she was driving to work earlier, and was impressed with our speed. We found out from her that the other camping ground was further on, down on the river.
The village occupied a fine strategic height, with a château and many solid houses, although only a few portals remained of the fortifications of earlier times.
The walk to the camping ground took us down through charming lanes and archways, past a grand hotel and a retirement home with a pleasant view of the river.
We pitched our tent among the trees, not far from another tent, which turned out to be occupied, not by the usual holiday makers, but by a young family down on their luck, presumably unemployed. They had a toddler, a few shelves of possessions and a table adorned with a vase of flowers.
Even though it rained lightly during the afternoon, they sat there resolutely, as if surrounded by walls and a roof, carrying on their lives as best they could. We left them alone out of respect for their privacy, but when we set off back to the village, they gave us a friendly wave.
The return journey was shorter, as we took the wheel track near the river, where we had seen people promenading during the afternoon. This took us up to a lower square with a cross, then by a staircase to the upper town, and we were soon installed at the hotel bar with a glass in hand, catching up on the Midi Libre.
In due course we moved to the dining room with a few other couples. We had a window table and could see the fine rain falling as dusk gathered. We had our plastic ponchos with us so were not bothered.
The delicious dinner consisted of salad, chicken and steak, with the usual additions of wine and bread. While we were eating, one of the other diners spoke to us in English – he had lived in the UK briefly a quarter of a century ago.
His two swarthy daughters smiled but did not speak, even though I stuck to French. He said he was the owner of two houses in the village, and a boat. All the houses have foot-thick walls, he said, and two cellars – the upper one for barrels of wine and the lower one for the Roquefort. We realised that we were approaching the home of this famous cheese.
The walk down to our tent was short and we were tucked up cosily by the time it rained again.