Saturday, 5 June 2010
Distance 28 km
Duration 6 hours 5 minutes
Ascent 369 m, descent 449 m
Map 41 of the TOP 100 blue series (or Map 147 in the new lime-green series)
Topoguide (ref. 6542) Sentier vers Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle via Vézelay
Not only did we have a night in a real bed, but we had peaches with our muesli, and I rubbed my scuffed and disintegrating leather shoes with a shoe-shining cloth provided by the hotel. It made no noticeable difference, but I felt much better-dressed.
I also took possession of a small sewing kit containing buttons, white thread and safety pins, all of which I would be grateful for within a few days.
Out in the street, we got no further than the main square before stopping at a bar.
The weekly market was taking shape around us as we sat over our coffees, enjoying the feeling of optimism and strength that we often have in the morning before setting off.
The weather was summery and I was already in shorts. Every other day so far I had started walking in long trousers.
At the church we picked up the pilgrim markers and the GR654, and proceeded to weave our way down towards the river, through stone lanes lined with houses.
There was not a single tree remaining of the forest that had covered the hill in the time of Saint Léonard, at least until we reached the old bridge.
From there we could see a wooded slope, and if we had wanted to lengthen our walk, we could have climbed up to visit “Clovis’s oak”- surely not an original one. Instead we continued beside the Vienne on the D941.
The river was muddy and surging after all the rain, and across the water, on an island, were ancient half-timbered houses protected by a stone causeway with gaps to let the floodwater pass underneath.
When we came to a porcelain factory we turned off and clambered up a steep, stony track into farmland, interspersed with pockets of woodland.
Just past Chigot we came to a little road and the pilgrim signs went along it towards la Chapelle, while the GR veered off to the right. We stayed on the road, as we did not like the look of the future contortions of the GR shown in the Topoguide.
Soon we approached Chenour, which sat on a rise above a water meadow, an idyllic pastoral scene complete with cows.
The road was little more than a tarred farm track, wending its way through the countryside. Presently we arrived a crossroads and took a sharply ascending branch that took us into the village of Aureil.
It was two and a half hours since we had left Saint-Léonard and, judging by the size of its name on the map, we were confident of getting coffee there, but we were wrong. There were no shops at all, although the place looked well-tended.
Feeling suddenly tired after this lack of refreshment, we plodded on, still on the pilgrim route, through a small park and then along an overgrown lane behind the houses, until we emerged onto the highway.
This was the main road from Eymoutiers into Limoges, roaring with traffic, and we had to walk along it for a few hundred metres to get back to where we would have joined if we had ignored the pilgrim signs.
Then we turned off to the left on a much quieter road through farmland, passing the settlements of Labourdie and Crouzet with their sprinkling of old and new houses. As we came towards Feytiat, we crossed the GR654, which was skirting around Limoges altogether. Then the road dipped and crossed a stream with an artificial lake, and we climbed into the village.
Feytiat had evidently moved a bit since the appearance of the highway, because the church, normally the centre of town, was now on the periphery. Further along the road, at a traffic light, we came to a sign pointing down to “centre ville”, but all we came to was a dreary community hall.
Some passing locals told us that there were shops up on the highway, just past the place where we had turned off, so we trudged back and found them. It was already midday and the boulangerie had run out of croissants, while the bar opposite was defunct.
It was all getting hard to bear, but we asked again and were told to go down the highway a kilometre, which we had no wish to do, but there was little alternative, as it was in the direction of Limoges. The day was now very hot and our spirits and legs were sagging.
At least we were walking downhill, and after a while we saw a huge Super-U ahead. Closer inspection revealed that it was part of a complete shopping centre (the “centre ville” that the sign had referred to), and we could see the road that we had partially walked down coming in obliquely to the highway. We must have been only a few metres away from seeing the shops when we turned back.
But all was forgiven and forgotten in an instant. We tumbled into chairs at the bar and called for coffee. It was 12:30 and we were surrounded by people having lunch, so we pulled out our stick of bread and the last of the butter and jam from the plane, and had a snack with our drinks.
We could not have imagined, when we squirreled away those little plastic sachets from our airline meals two weeks ago, how much pleasure and relief they would bring us.
When we set off again, nothing bothered us, not the heat, nor the traffic, nor the ugly surroundings. We continued along the D979, past several other cafés and restaurants, gigantic hardware stores (none of them Weldom, unfortunately), car yards and factories, crossing over the autoroute on the way.
We came to the river (the Vienne again) and crossed into a part of town that had once been prosperous, but was now ruled by roads and sorely in need of refurbishment. As we stood there bowed over the map, a man came up and informed us of the pilgrim bridge, just along the river a little way.
This was an ancient footbridge that led straight up to the cathedral. In the frenzy of signs on the highway we had missed the place where the pilgrim signs turned off. However he pointed out a good, cheap hotel nearby, which was nice of him, as there was no camping anywhere near the centre of Limoges.
The only trouble was that, when we investigated further, we found it was closed at weekends, so we continued through rising streets until we came to the cathedral, a great pile bristling with buttresses, fronted incongruously by a bell-tower resembling a factory smokestack.
The square around it was pulsating with heat and the coolest place would have been inside the church itself, but we felt the need for another coffee break. In an alley nearby there was a terrace café full of tourists drinking hectically coloured cold drinks. We stuck to our usual grands crèmes, however. Paradoxically the heat of the coffee was more cooling than a cold drink, especially when preceded by a carafe of water.
Our main problem was the state of our feet. We did not dare to take off our shoes, knowing from experience the agony of putting them on again, but we knew that we needed to get horizontal as soon as we could. This meant following signs through the hot streets to the Office of Tourism, to ask for a list of hotels, and then hobbling around looking for one to take us in.
The first two we tried were closed, whether temporarily or permanently we could not tell. They looked decrepit enough. Another helpful man, this one pushing a stroller, directed us to a third, which was full. At last, near the station, we came to the Étap, a massive edifice more like a space-station than a hotel, with 120 rooms.
We had stayed in an Étap hotel in Angoulême previously, and found it excellent, in a slightly soulless, synthetic way. This one was being refurbished and the lobby was still a building site, through which we had to pick our way to a lonely desk to book in.
Once in the plastic capsule of our room, we had showers and collapsed, with our poor feet stretched out in front of us. Keith’s toe looked as though it had been through a mincer and the ball of my foot had become one big blister. From this position we read a brochure about Limoges.
The original Gaulish tribe of the area, the Lemovices, had their capital elsewhere (near Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat), and it was the Romans who first established a town on this site. It was Christianised in the third century by Saint Martial, who founded an abbey. This abbey, and Saint Martial’s tomb, survived until the Revolution, but not beyond it.
In the middle ages Limoges was famous for its enamel ware, and since the eighteenth century, when deposits of fine clay were found in the district, its main claim to fame has been its porcelain.
When evening came, we limped out in sandals to find dinner. In such a big town, near the railway station, on a Saturday night, it was surprisingly hard to find a place to our liking, even in the Cours Jourdan, which was lined on both sides with restaurants. We walked past the Pub twice before realising that it was not just a drinking hole, but a full restaurant, serving the sort of nourishing fare that our systems required.
As it was a hot evening, we had the pleasure of eating out of doors for the second night in a row. Starting with a salad of chèvre chaud (our new favourite), we pressed on to bavettes (steaks) with all the trimmings, feeling better with every mouthful and every sip of wine.
Even our feet responded to the happy occasion and we walked almost normally back to the hotel.
On the way we went through two beautiful parks full of flowers and fountains and people relaxing. The best building in Limoges seemed to be the railway station, and apart from that it looked rather run-down. Its days of glory were well behind it.