Saturday, 14 June 2008
Distance 34 km
Duration 7 hours 30 minutes
Ascent 128 m, descent 356 m
Map 60 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)
After a bowl of dutiful muesli (we had forgotten to buy fruit), we set off in the bracing morning air to the town.
A brochure we had seen told us that Digne-les-Bains prided itself on its pure air, making the rather unlikely claim that not a single child in the district had asthma.
It was a big lavender centre, and another source of local pride was that the inventor of the four-stroke combustion engine, Alphonse Beau de Rochas – hardly a household name – was born here.
Near the big roundabout on the river we found an open bar and went inside for a second and much more agreeable breakfast.
Our route, like Napoléon’s, was down the valley of the river Bléone to its confluence with the Durance, then upstream towards Sisteron. We were pleased to find a cycle path on the riverbank, signposted to le Chauffaut and Château-Arnoud, which was our destination for the day. The main road was on the other side of the river.
We swung along easily, following the signs, until we got close to the cluster of houses that was le Chauffaut, which was perched a little way above the river, with a road leading over a bridge.
Here we had the idea of cutting the corner by going straight to the bridge instead of up to the village and down again.
It seemed a good idea but what we did not know was that the cycle path did not actually cross the bridge at all – it continued on the left bank until the next bridge at Malijai.
Having blithely crossed to the right bank, we found ourselves in a forest with a wide leaf-covered way beside the water. There were even other walkers here and it took us a while to realise that we were not seeing any more cycle-path signs.
Then the path began to circle back towards Mallemoisson, forcing us out onto the highway, which in this case had no redeeming features whatsoever. It was busy, hot, dangerous and annoying. We still could not work out what we had done wrong.
Ten thankless kilometres later we dragged into Malijai, just in time to get into the shop before it closed for lunch.
We got cheese, sausage, a tomato and a lettuce, and as we already had bread and croissants from the entry to the village, we hurried across to the bar and were soon under the shade of an awning, contemplating steaming cups of coffee and at peace with the world. The long road bash was forgiven and forgotten.
Across the square from where we sat was the pink and white château where Napoléon spent the night after having lunched at Digne, progress that made ours seem puny. However we were not finished for the day.
Past the château, we rejoined the highway briefly to get across a wide canal which took water to a hydro-electric station at Oraison, further down the Durance.
As soon as we were over this, we branched off on a local road, crossed a disused railway line and continued through the fields.
There was not much shade, so when we came to a stout old tree beside the road, we sat down and had lunch, although we were still full of croissants.
After another crossing of the dead railway track we strolled pleasantly through crops of wheat, peas and lentils, and apricot orchards, with the highway traffic visible in the distance, out of earshot.
Eventually we had to take to the highway again when we came to the river Durance. The bridge also served as a barrage, retaining the waters of the river and forming an artificial lake, with the town of Château-Arnoux on its bank.
It seemed a fine little place, with its sixteenth century castle and steep streets, and we sat down at a highway bar in hopes of another round of coffee before going to the camping ground, but nobody came to serve us so we walked on.
We followed signs down to the lake shore and found the camping ground, which looked delightful, except that it had recently closed for ever. A large notice on the gate advised us to try the camping ground at Volonne, 5 km away on the other side of the river (they even provided a map).
We suddenly started to feel very tired and our feet began to ache, but there was nothing for it but to trudge on, along the highway, over another bridge, and back towards the barrage. Had we known in advance, we could have got to Volonne in half the distance by not crossing over to Château-Arnoux at all.
After several frustrating attempts to get to the camping ground along the lake shore, we gave up and took a steep lane up past houses to the road. This soon got us to our destination and it was everything we had hoped for – big and busy, with a large restaurant and bar.
The emplacements were shaded by cherry and olive trees, seemingly having been an orchard before the age of tourism. It was almost 4 pm and we were exhausted.
Our legs were sore and I had blisters under my big toes and the balls of my feet, but in compensation the showers were wonderfully hot and copious. After a rest under our small, gnarled olive tree, we had the strength to creep over to the bar, where already it was too cool to sit on the terrace, so we had coffee inside.
When it was time to dine, we only had to walk to the other end of the room, a luxury that we appreciated very much. We started with a mountainous mixed salad, with which we put away two baskets of bread, then I had the plat du jour – turkey with roasted vegetables – while Keith had his invariable steak.
As usual, the day ended very happily, all the little setbacks and annoyances swept away by a good meal and a jug of wine.