Saturday, 19 June 2010
Distance 23 km
Duration 5 hours 0 minutes
Ascent 456 m, descent 441 m
Map 63 of the TOP 100 blue series (or Map 159 in the new lime-green series)
For the first time in a long time, there was no rain during the night, which we took as a good sign. The tent was dry when we packed it away, and we had our muesli sitting on the kerb near the sanitaires, with my gluey shoes waiting to be pressed into position.
On our way back to town for coffee, we went against the tide of pilgims coming along the levée bank, most of whom were wading along between two poles as if walking were an unnatural act that required special equipment.
After a strengthening pause at the Café des Sports (coffee and pastries), we tried to find the road leading to the GRP, the track that would take us to Castéra-Verduzan.
On the map there were several roads heading for Saint-Puy but only one of them seemed to exist on the ground (the D654), and we walked half-way round the ring road before turning back and taking it.
We were relieved when the red and yellow GRP signs appeared on the outskirts of the town.
Out in the countryside, it started to rain. We came to the place where the GRP turned off the road on a track that disappeared into a sort of shallow lake or swamp.
Only a true zealot would have taken it and we were not that. Even the road was unpleasantly waterlogged, although not busy.
At Béraut we left the highway and plunged down past the church into a dank hollow, where the old village still hid behind its defensive wall. To allow the road through, one of the towers had been carved away at the base, leaving a strange corbelled overhang.
It was a pretty little village but we were in no mood for prettiness, with the rain coursing down and my shoe making ominous slapping noises.
We trudged on and were just approaching the aerodrome when the entire sole of my shoe parted company with the upper, except for a strip at the front.
It was a sickening sensation and I had to stop in the inadequate shelter of a tree and try to repair it, but everything was wet and it was only another few minutes before it happened again and I was forced to change to sandals.
The so-called aerodrome was no more than a shed beside a field. The road climbed and we saw the ravaged château of Tauzia in the distance, which is how we knew where to turn, as there were no road signs at the intersection.
As we descended past the château, we could already see the towers of Valence-sur-Baïse through the rain. A pair of horses peered out from the comparative luxury of the ruins, where at least they were dry.
We shuffled on in our leaky capes until we came out onto the highway, and took the local road up through a drippping forest until we came to the village, yet another bastide perched on a spur.
The inhabitants of Valence-sur-Baïse must have sinned in a previous life, as they had chosen this day for their Summer Festival.
In the wide square, there were articles of fun-fair equipment such as Dodg’em Cars and a bandstand, garishly decorated but standing empty in the rain.
There was a supermarket and a boulangerie, but the bar had been blocked off with barrels and taken over as a beer stall. A trestle table outside, under the arcades, was surrounded by morose local drinkers.
The boulangerie had run out of pastries, but we got a slice of apple tart and asked about the possibility of coffee. The baker shouted across to the barman, who disappeared inside and came back with two plastic cups of some warmish liquid.
There was nowhere to sit down, but we found a pile of chairs beside a derelict stall, and constructed a table from some trestles and an old door. This was better than nothing, although only slightly.
Bored teenagers hung about, staring discontentedly at the ruins of their day of amusement.
We studied our new map and saw the GRP veering wildly on its way to Castéra-Verduzan. The only other route was the highway (the D930).
It was a choice between a long, slow, slushy foot track and a shorter but busy and even dangerous road bash. After a bit of agonising we decided to get it over with by taking the road.
We struggled into our capes and left by the south end of the square, passing through a street of rain-washed cottages before joining the highway. From there it was ten kilometres of unmitigated drudgery on the side of the bitumen, with the traffic showering us with spray to add to the constant rain.
Visibility was so poor that we worried about being hit by a passing car.
Along the way we realised that we had managed to leave the map behind at Valence, but there was no chance of getting lost on this route.
The gently undulating land around us was planted with vines for the Armagnac trade, guarded by rose bushes in the traditional way.
As we got close to Castéra-Verduzan, we passed a billboard urging us to take the therapeutic waters of the town’s thermal spa, but in our bedraggled state we felt that water in all its forms was overrated.
Soon we came to an artificial lake and a camping sign, but kept going into the little shopping centre, where the only thing open was a bar.
We went in thankfully and had proper coffee at a proper table, with a sheet of glass between us and the weather.
Our companions were a few desultory locals, drinking and watching the trots. The barman looked at us dubiously when we asked whether the camping ground was open, and said yes, but there was also a hotel in the town. We normally only stay in hotels if there is no camping to be had, but in this case we thought we could make an exception.
Following the barman’s directions, we set off down the road, thankful that it had briefly stopped raining, past the rather vulgar colonnaded concrete facade of the Établissement Minéro-Thermal, and on to the hotel, which was next door and of similar architectural merit. It too had an arched facade and was coated in lurid brick-red stucco.
Inside it was more pleasant and we got the cheapest room in the house (€62), which was still the most expensive accommodation of our whole trip. The room was small but we loved it, especially lying at our ease in our clean clothes, listening to the rain drumming down outside.
We found out that Castéra-Verduzan had only existed since 1821, the only new town in the Gers since mediaeval times. It was formed from an amalgamation of little localities centred around the thermal baths, which had been exploited since antiquity, and were still the principal attraction of the place.
As we came down the stairs for an apéritif, we heard ourselves being talked about. The owner and his wife were telling another couple that some Australians were in residence, and when they saw us they asked which part of the country we were from.
Assuming that they, like most French people, knew next to nothing about Australia, I patiently explained that we lived in Canberra, the capital. “Yes, we know” replied the man, “Our son lives in Thredbo!” (Thredbo is a ski village close to Canberra). Their son was working as a ski instructor and they were delighted to meet people who knew the area.
Dinner was elegant in the pale dining room. Several tables were already occupied when we entered, one by a party of Dutch cyclists, but the other diners did not look very sporty.
We had the menu Athos, the cheapest of the menus, all of which were named after the Three Musketeers.
To begin with, I had an elaborate salad and Keith had long triangular pastries, and half way through, we swapped plates. Then I had fish with a deliciously puffy potato cake and a square of spinach tart, while Keith had a fine cassoulet.
The dessert was clafoutis aux pruneaux, a regional speciality. So the day, which had threatened to be one of our worst, ended up beautifully.