Saturday, 7 July 2007
Distance 31 km
Duration 6 hours 35 minutes
Ascent 155 m, descent 180 m
Map 64 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)
We were up and out of the camping ground at 6:55, heading straight into the Place du Vigan, to the same brasserie we had been at two years ago, the morning after having tragically missed the Tour de France by five minutes.
We sat outside with our coffee and pastries, a rare occurrence this summer. We watched the town waking up, the street sweepers, delivery vans and shopkeepers going about their business before the crowds arrived.
At 8 o’clock we wove our way down through the lanes to the cathedral. It had the air of a fortress rather than a church, with its tall unscaleable walls, its circular towers and slit windows.
This was no accident – it was built as an assertion of the power of the Catholic church after the brutal suppression of the Cathar heresy in southern France.
Catharism was primarily a dualist belief, in which a god of good and a god of evil were locked in constant battle, and the eradication of this heresy in the thirteenth century (by northern knights) was known as the Albigensian Crusade.
The ferocious exterior of the cathedral was slightly softened by the warm pink brick that it was made of.
We had somehow lost the map of Albi that we had acquired in Trébas, but we knew we had to go west to connect with the D13. With a few lucky guesses we got straight to it and were soon out in the fields.
It was as flat as a table in all directions, and the road correspondingly straight and very quiet, past the turn-off to Terssac and on to the village of Marssac-sur-Tarn, which was bustling with Saturday morning shoppers.
It was pleasant but unremarkable, except for the strange octagonal spire of the church. At the crossroads we found a bar and sat down for another round of coffees in the shade of an umbrella, as it was 10 am and getting hot.
We crossed the railway line and set off again, but the D13 suddenly became busy, so we branched off and got a bit lost in a tangle of byways, ending up on the D13 again.
To avoid it, we veered off towards the river and after a big dip in the road, arrived at Lagrave, a tiny village which amazed us by having a full shopping centre, including a bar, so we had a third round of coffees, not that we needed it, while Keith put plaster on the incipient blister on his heel.
We bought lunch supplies and set off to rejoin the dreaded D13, but by this stage it was quiet again, as we were past the access point to the highway.
The seven kilometres across the bare fields towards Brens passed slowly as the midday sun drilled down on us. At length the road dipped into a forested valley and we arrived at the town. We felt that we had only to cross the bridge to be in Gaillac, but this was not the case.
The main part of Gaillac was considerably further downstream and we trudged along through unedifying outskirts for a couple of kilometres before coming to a town map on a board, which showed the camping ground quite near, just behind the park.
However, when we got to the park there was no sign of camping and some drinkers in a bar said it was closed, and advised us to go up to the top of town and look for signs there.
With bad grace we made the ascent to the large mandorla-shaped main square, passing several signs pointing down to the defunct camping ground. When we got there we saw signs to a different camping ground, and set off again, but there were no more signs after the first one and we were left to wander, hot, tired, hungry and frustrated.
A woman with three kids in the back stopped her car to help us, having probably seen the looks on our faces. She said we were going in completely the wrong direction and should go back to the square and ask again. She wanted to drive us to the camping, but could not fit us in her car.
The central square was buzzing with lunch-time diners enjoying the unusual warmth under the trees. Two waiters at a brasserie gave us instructions for getting to the elusive camping ground (very good ones, in retrospect), but we decided to try to find the Office of Tourism first, as we felt the urge to complain about the signs, or lack of them.
We finally tracked it down at the bottom of a charming maze of alleys, in the abbey of Saint Michel next to the bridge. The women on the desk were extremely apologetic, promising to get something done about the wrong signs.
They said that the old camping ground had been closed for four years, but the new one was only 15 minutes walk away, on a route that they marked for us on the town plan. Before we left, they took us into a back room and poured icy cold drinks of apple and quince juice to give us the strength to continue.
The final push was completed without trouble. The new camping ground had cabins and a pool close to the road, and terraced campsites lower down near the river. The trees were young and small, but there were two-sided shelters of matting that gave good shade.
We cast ourselves down gratefully and ate our late lunch with an easy mind. The grass was patchy and we later discovered that it was growing in pure gravel, impossible to drive a tent peg into.
We were reduced, for the first time this year, to holding the corners of the tent down with rocks, but that was a minor inconvenience after our vicissitudes in finding the place. The showers were delightfully new and hot. We washed almost everything we owned, to the degree that I had to wear my skirt for the first time. I lay in the shade staring up at a pair of gliders circling high above, silent and unworldly.
At 7 pm we went back to town and got an outdoor table at the brasserie where we had asked the way, so we were able to thank the two waiters for their help.
It was a lively scene in the square – there were lights in the trees, a jazz band playing, people were promenading, every outdoor table was full, all the indoor ones empty. Summer had arrived at last.
We honoured this famous wine town by having a bottle of Gaillac wine (Mas Pignou to be exact) instead of the usual house wine. We began the meal with salad, then Keith had veal in cream sauce and I had lasagne, both very fine.
Well pleased with this ending to a difficult day, we strolled back along the main road, the way the waiters had suggested in the first place.