Day 27: Gaillac to Puycelci

Sunday, 8 July 2007
Distance 29 km
Duration 5 hours 50 minutes
Ascent 389 m, descent 344 m
Map 64 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)

Walking in France: Gaillic vineyards with Gaillac in the distance
Gaillic vineyards with Gaillac in the distance

Our steady progress along the Tarn, all the way from Florac, was about to come to an end, because we had been seduced by the prospect of three Plus Beaux Villages in a row in the hills to the north. Whether this was a good idea ultimately would be hard to say – certainly our route was more strenuous.

It had rained in the night, but as our tent was within the little shelter, everything was dry and it was easy to pack up.

We left a bit after 7 o’clock, using our town map to cut through the streets and join the ring road (D18) at the turn-off to Vors. We actually meant to take the parallel road past the church of Vors, which was not in the village itself, but it made little difference.

Walking in France: Sunflowers and haybales near Castelnau-de-Montmiral
Sunflowers and haybales near Castelnau-de-Montmiral

Our small road was empty as we climbed up and over a fold of country, where vines for the local appellation covered every slope. It was hot and muggy, hard going, but after the hamlet of Vors, the road descended steeply and joined the one coming from the church, which we saw in the distance.

A little bit beyond that, we knew, was the winery that had made last night’s lovely bottle. We continued on this road, meandering through fields of sunflowers and wheat, until we came to the highway and saw the walled stronghold of Castelnau-de-Montmiral on its rocky spur through the trees.

Walking in France: Approaching Castelnau-de-Montmiral
Approaching Castelnau-de-Montmiral

At this point we found the red and white marks of the GR46 and followed them, via a sharp ascent, through a stone portal and into the village.

We found ourselves in a beautifully preserved bastide whose central square had retained all its arcades. It was the first of the Plus Beaux Villages.

The houses were of stone or the characteristic thin pink brickwork of medieval France, some of it half-timbered. There were tubs of flowers everywhere but no tourists. Perhaps 9:30 was a bit too early for them.

Walking in France: Flower window boxes in the main square, Castelnau-de-Montmiral
Flower window boxes in the main square, Castelnau-de-Montmiral

In the square we were relieved to see a boulangerie and a bar, both of which we patronised in quick succession. We settled down in the shade of the overhang with our shoes off, to have our coffee and pastries and read the local paper.

The only other customer was a leathery old fellow in shorts. When he heard us speaking English he came over and identified himself as a fellow foreigner.

Walking in France: Second breakfast, Castelnau-de-Montmiral
Second breakfast, Castelnau-de-Montmiral

He was an Englishman who spent his summers in this village and his winters in Thailand, as he thought Britain contained too many undesirables (blacks?) these days.

In his opinion, our prime minister was a great man because he said things that other leaders were afraid to say, such as that there was too much Asian immigration and that refugees were “queue-jumpers”. I wondered whether we should ask his opinion of slavery, or bear-baiting.

Walking in France: Quiet back street, Castelnau-de-Montmiral
Quiet back street, Castelnau-de-Montmiral

We walked out of town with this objectionable old buffer, as far as his house, then continued our gradual descent to the highway.

Almost immediately we found another small road going off to the left, behind a sporting complex and a charming artificial lake.

Everything was going well until we came to an intersection and I made a mistake, so that after about two kilometres we wondered why we were going uphill instead of flat beside the river. The awful truth dawned and all we could do was turn round and go back, which put us out of sorts.

As well as that, it was getting uncomfortably hot. We tramped on, with a range of hills on our left and the river flats on our right, briefly sharing the road with the GR46, until we came to a low stone bridge, where we stopped for a snack as we were running out of energy.

Walking in France: Puycelci from Laval
Puycelci from Laval

At last we arrived at a fork in the road where one branch went off over the river to the highway and the other, which we took, climbed to the village of Laval.

There we saw the entrance to a pleasant camping ground with lawn-covered terraces adorned with tables and umbrellas, but we decided it was too far from our destination, Puycelci, which we could see rearing up on its forested cone across the river.

Our information was that there was a camping ground at Puycelci proper, and we felt sure it would be at the foot of the village, but when we got there, all we saw was an oddly angled stone bridge, relic of a time before the river had changed course.

Walking in France: Oddly angled stone bridge, left high and dry after the river changed course
Oddly angled stone bridge, left high and dry after the river changed course

I asked a farmer on a tractor, who said there were two – the one at Laval and the other back along the highway near the bridge. So back we went and indeed there were two camping signs, but the other one was almost illegibly ancient, pointing to some farm further away.

With great reluctance we made up our minds that we would go back to Laval, across the bridge and up the road we had walked on an hour before, no doubt puzzling the people at the house on the corner, who were having Sunday lunch outdoors both times we went past.

At Laval, there was not a soul about, and only one other (unoccupied) tent in sight. We put up our tent on one of the green velvet terraces and had showers in a tiny annexe attached to a shed, then had lunch at a table with a pot of flowers, under a cheery yellow umbrella.

Walking in France: Lunch at the Laval camping ground with Puycelci in the far distance
Lunch at the Laval camping ground with Puycelci in the far distance

Meanwhile clouds were massing and by the time a woman from the village appeared to take our money, they were threatening rain at any minute. The forecast of our host at Trébas, that summer would start on Friday and end on Sunday, was proving remarkably accurate.

Our hostess showed us a room in the shed behind the showers, where she said we could go if it rained, which was nice of her, but we preferred the comfort of the soft grass to a slab of concrete.

Soon afterwards it did rain and we were confined to our tent, but it did not matter, as we only wanted to sleep anyway.

Walking in France: Exploring Puycelci
Exploring Puycelci

When evening came, prematurely because of the weather, we put on our flimsy plastic capes and walked down towards the village.

The GR46 had once again joined our path and after we had crossed the highway, we found it very useful as a quick way up to the village. It was rough, slippery, precipitous and narrow, through dripping forest, but in no time we were at the base of the encircling wall and shortly afterwards in the streets.

Despite the fact that it was a Plus Beau Village, an air of dereliction hung over the place, a combination of the wet weather and the usual Sunday evening malaise. Nevertheless we could see how enchanting it would be on a sunny morning, with its intricate lanes and squares, and its tall church.

Apéritifs in the bistro, Puycelci

The hotel-restaurant was closed, but around the back, through an archway, a little bistro was operating, gradually filling with damp stray tourists like ourselves.

The room was cosy and welcoming, with wood panelling and a large fireplace. We got a corner table, lit by a golden lamp, and set to work on the apéritifs.

Dinner in Puycelci

Then Keith had a pizza and I had the daily special – pork cutlets and vegetables. It was all very pleasant but we had the slightly bothersome prospect of the return walk in our minds.

In the end we walked back down the road, which was longer, but much better than the GR in the dark and rain. We went to sleep with the rain pattering steadily on our tent.

Previous day: Albi to Gaillac

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