Sunday, 20 June 2010
Distance 31 km
Duration 6 hours 20 minutes
Ascent 414 m, descent 405 m
Map 63 of the TOP 100 blue series (or Map 159 in the new lime-green series)
We woke to the sound of rain, less pleasing than it had been yesterday afternoon, but it stopped before we left the room. We had already eaten our muesli and hoped to get a coffee downstairs before we departed. Unfortunately it was a self-service breakfast for a fixed price, so we went out into the wet, shining street to check whether the nearby bar was open, which it wasn’t.
When we got back, the owner appeared at the desk, his girth firmly contained in a suit, and suggested that we get coffee at his bar, which was a few steps away. While we were drinking it in the entry lounge, he told us that he had been to Australia and travelled around for several weeks, visiting many more places than we had ever been to.
Had he been twenty years younger, he said (no doubt to flatter us), he would have been tempted to emigrate. He gave us his card and the name of his son, Antonin, in case we went to Thredbo during the winter. Then our pleasant chat was interrupted by the Dutch cyclists emerging from breakfast.
They were irate at the constant rain and lack of sunshine in France, taking our host to task for his country’s weather. They might just as well have stayed in Holland, their leader declared indignantly. Our host politely pointed out that the sun was actually shining at that moment.
Since we had lost our map in the previous day’s miserable departure from Valence, we had no idea of the best way to get to Auch. All we knew was that we had had enough of highway-bashing. Monsieur Vincent advised us to go 500 metres down the highway and take the small road to Cézan and Lavardens, then ask again.
It turned out that the coffees were free, a gift from a French Australophile to a pair of Australian Francophiles. Not only that, but he gave us two small bottles of Armagnac to take home. We shook hands and set off with many thanks, marching off down the road in the morning sunlight, of which we had seen so little this year.
The contrast with yesterday’s weather put an extra spring into our step and I strode out confidently, having tied up my failing shoe with a length of the blue farmers’ twine that litters the countryside in France.
After 500 metres we started to look for the turn-off, but there was nothing, not even a path, and we came to the conclusion that our host had mistaken the distance.
(Later, when we got a new map, this was a bit of a puzzle, as the road was clearly there, and the GRP signs turned off at the same place. We must have been talking and passed it before we began to look).
On and on we went, until we were wondering whether we would have to go the whole distance to Auch on the highway. Then, about three kilometres along, we came to another turn-off, the D214, which mentioned Cézan, so we decided to take it.
This road was extremely quiet and rambling, intially keeping company with a wooded stream, and the air was warm enough by then to convince me to change from long trousers into shorts.
Presently the road crossed the stream on a small bridge and divided into two branches, one of which was signposted to Cézan, but we thought we should keep more to the south so we went the other way, which turned out to be a good idea.
After a while we came out into open wheat fields and pasture. Far ahead, on a height, we saw the great gaunt block of the Château of Lavardens, as it subsequently turned out to be, although at first we had no idea what we were looking at.
Our little road continued through the fields, with the sun beaming down mildly and the air full of the singing of birds and crickets. A last swerve uphill brought us to the crossroads of the village and the welcome sign, hand-painted, to “Cafe-Restaurant-Epicerie”.
The café was up a narrow lane, close to the formidable bulk of the château. Inside, the walls and tables were decorated rather hectically with Gaugin and Renoir prints, but we found it delightful.
Our charming dark-haired hostess brought us a tray with coffee and croissants, and as we were the only customers, we fell into conversation with her.
I mentioned that we had lost our map and were not sure how to proceed, so she wrote out a list of villages that we should go through on our way to Auch. The GR would be impassable, she said, after all the rain, so we should stick to roads.
Then she told us that Lavardens had the world’s only cricket-catching competition every summer, in which the first person to entice three crickets from their holes in the meadow was the winner (they were returned to their holes unharmed). She also brought us a brochure, from which we learned some of the history of the château.
The original feudal stronghold was built in the twelfth century or even earlier, and was besieged many times before being flattened on the orders of the young firebrand king, Charles VIII, in 1496.
A hundred years later, the ownership of the place had passed to Antoine de Roquelaure, who set about rebuilding it as a pleasure palace for his young wife, Suzanne (he was 75, she was 18).
Not surprisingly, he died of old age before the project was finished and it remained half-built until the Revolution, when it was sold off. Only recently has there been an attempt to complete the restorations begun so long ago.
Our own restorations having been satisfactorily completed, thanks to the café, we paid a quick visit to the château, admiring its thick buttressed walls, its rows of gargoyles and the empty sockets of its windows. Below it was a well, known as the “Tears of Suzanne”, although it is not known how many tears she shed on the death of her elderly husband.
The nearby church was being cleaned, starting from the bottom, which gave it a puzzlingly upside-down appearance, with the fresh white stones of the base supporting the stained and scabrous upper tower.
Leaving Lavardens, we took the D518 towards Merens, the first on our list of villages.
It was strange to be blundering along without a map, trusting to road signs to guide us to the next name on our list. Nevertheless we enjoyed the walk greatly, with the sun coming and going and the cool air making it easy to keep up a good pace.
At first we followed a smooth ridge flanked by acres of wheat, already turning golden.
Past the hamlets of Merens and En Maignaut, each with its fine stone church and steeple, we descended into a slight valley and up to the crossroads of les Quatre Chemins, which had three houses and a phone box.
A little further on, a steep side road went up to Roquelaure (presumably the estate of the lovesick old husband), but we stayed on the low road and soon stopped for lunch on a grassy bank. We had almost no food left.
The final stage was unexpectedly long and hilly. We went through patches of forest and beside a small river before meeting another road and seeing for the first time a sign to Auch.
We emerged at last on the edge of the Orwellian toy-town of Duran, where everything was new and bare and awkward-looking, even the well-meant community centre.
We wondered whether the original town had been bulldozed to make way for the big new highway, or whether it was truly a new town, a dormitory suburb of Auch. We hurried across the highway on an overpass and found ourselves in the scattered outskirts of Auch.
It took an eternity to walk down to the centre, on a long straight road with ever-thickening houses on either side, but even so it was a surprise to be suddenly face to face with the cathedral.
We recognised it from our visit in 2004, and were pleased to see that the renovations had progressed since then – the scaffolding had moved from the right-hand tower to the left.
The Café le France was still going in the square and we wasted no time joining the afternoon drinkers inside.
It was the end of the expedition and a moment to savour after thirty days’ continuous walking. To finish at the junction with an earlier walk was especially satisfying.
We had leisurely coffees before strolling off towards the camping ground, which was about a kilometre upstream on the river Gers.
The grand monumental staircase from the old town to the Gers was being restored, so we used the workmen’s metal scaffolding ladder to ge down to river level, and made our way to the camping ground by memory.
It was open, to our relief, and buzzing with activity. We were sent to the tent area at the back, where all the big old trees that had shaded it in 2004 had been cut down. Luckily it was cool weather.
There was one other walker there, with a miniscule tent, scarcely more that a chrysalis. He was a Dutch pilgrim who had been walking since the first of April, from Maastricht to le Puy and then along the main pilgrim route. He had recently deviated from that in order to visit Lourdes on his way to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, so we deduced that he was one of the devout.
We had deliciously warm showers and a little sleep on the riverbank before setting off back to town, leaving our fellow pilgrim stirring something on his stove.
Out of curiostity, we took a different way back to the top of the town, via one of the Pousterles, the precipitously steep lanes that in former times allowed the inhabitants to get from the fortified upper sanctuary to the river, for water.
Then we wandered about the mediaeval warren near the cathedral (stumbling into the house of Henri IV along the way), and eventually came out in the square.
As it was Sunday night, there were not a great many eateries to choose from and we finally decided to revisit the Café le France.
It was too cold to eat outside so we joined a considerable throng indoors, all eating and enjoying themselves. To celebrate the end of the walk, we had a bottle of Gascon wine instead of the usual carafe.
Our first course was a warm goat’s cheese salad, which I explained to the waiter was to share. He came back with two laden plates but insisted that it was still only a single salad.
After that we had an omelette and an entrecôte, which we also shared, and were so full by then that we had to do without the Café Liégeois that we had promised ourselves. It was lucky that we had a longish walk back to our tent, to settle this splendid farewell dinner.
Our plan was to go back to Paris the next day, to escape the doubtful weather, but we woke to a glorious blue sky, a sight that we had not seen since the first few days of our walk, and decided to stay.
Apart from buying our train tickets and some supplies of chocolate to take to the antipodes, we did very little except eat and sleep.
The following morning we made the journey described below and arrived in Paris late at night, into the ever-welcoming arms of the camping ground in the Bois de Boulogne, where the ground is like concrete but they never turn you away and the restaurant stays open till all hours.
The next day we were on our way back to Australia.
There is a railway station in Auch (cross the river from the grand staircase on the Pont de Prieuré and continue straight ahead on Avenue Hoche and Rue Voltaire to the end), from where you can go almost anywhere in France.
However, if you want a fast train, you need to travel by SNCF autocar (bus) to Agen to catch a TGV. Because we weren’t sure how far we were going to walk, we didn’t have prem (cheap pre-booked) tickets. We therefore had to buy our tickets on the day of travel and hence pay the maximum fare. Our Auch to Paris bus/TGV second-class tickets cost almost €100 each, whereas the prem price would have been about €55.