Monday, 24 May 2010
Distance 22 km
Duration 4 hours 20 minutes
Ascent 40 m, descent 28 m
Map 27 of the TOP 100 blue series
Map 36 of the TOP 100 blue series (or Map 135 in the new lime-green series)
During the night we both, separately, had qualms about whether we were up to the task that we had set ourselves. The last two days had been strenuous, and doing it again every day for another four weeks, trying to keep up with our companion, was a daunting thought. We felt slightly reassured in the morning when we discovered that we had both had the same feeling.
Instead of going along the marked GR pilgrimage track through la Marche, which became very convoluted before it got to Nevers, we had devised a route of our own, going along the left bank of the Loire instead of the right, close to the Lateral Canal.
We never would have dreamed of taking such liberties when we first began walking in France, but by now we were cavalier about it. On the map we had noticed what looked like a brown zipper snaking along beside the river and, although it was not explained, we remembered seeing this symbol when crossing the Grand Luberon years before. It had denoted a road that was closed to traffic and no longer maintained – ideal for walkers.
Having left at 6:50 and taken the second bridge, away from the town, we turned off towards Argenvières.
The road was initially on the levee bank and we almost felt we were back on our first day’s walk, leaving Cosne-sur-Loire in just this way.
Our main interest was in finding coffee, so when the road descended from the levee bank, leaving the potholed wreckage of the decommissioned road to continue along it, we took the road.
This cut a ruler-straight line towards Argenvières, which was on both the highway and the canal. We were surprised to find it quite a little industrial area, with engineering works and a vast truck yard.
The village itself was sweet but sleepy, and we had given up hope of morning coffee when, at the last minute, we came upon a hotel on the banks of the canal, near a little bridge.
Although it was not yet 8 o’clock, the bar was open and a few guests were having breakfast on a sort of verandah. We joined them with alacrity but we only had coffee, as our stomachs were still well lined with muesli. One of the breakfasters was a cyclist from Grenoble, the nearest thing to a fellow walker that we had met so far.
Magically strengthened by the power of coffee, we stepped out lightly along the towpath, waving to the cyclist as he disappeared down the road on the other side of the canal.
Someone had kindly mowed the towpath for us and the sun shone slantingly across it through a line of trees.
After a while I even zipped off the long legs of my trousers, although the air was still crisp.
At Beffes the busy little road crossed to our side of the canal but the towpath continued, undisturbed by the huge tile factory stretched out along the other bank.
Just before 10 o’clock the village of Marseille-lès-Aubigny hove into view and we were confident of a second breakfast there.
It was a popular boating port, on the junction of the Lateral Canal (the one we were following) and the abandoned Canal du Berry. Above the lock there was an array of moored pleasure craft and nearby a bar, as we had expected.
The only difficulty was that it was closed “exceptionellement”, with no further explanation. We assumed someone had died in the family, and tried to think charitable thoughts, but there were no other bars in the village and we were disgruntled as we sat down on the lawn outside the deserted Mairie and drank cold water with a muesli bar salvaged from the plane.
Setting off, we found ourselves on top of the levee bank again. The road petered out into another decommissioned section, but just before it did we were amazed to come to a fine auberge (du Poids de Fer), where tables were being laid for lunch.
We sat across the road under a tree, with the Loire at our back and fussy little gardens all around. The unexpectedness of the coffee intensified our enjoyment and we thanked our whiskery, piratical host effusively.
Past the barricade which prevented cars from entering, we strode along the levee bank with its broken remnants of bitumen. On either side the fields were as flat as a calm sea and at length we came to a huddle of cottages and trees, like a desert island in the featureless expanse. Here we passed a barricade and emerged onto a public road again, albeit a tiny one. A couple of cars went by.
At the slightly bigger hamlet of la Mole, we once again took to the levee bank when the road turned right towards the highway. This short cut was not even marked on the map but we felt sure it would go through to the bridge, which it did. We were in forest by then, which was welcome as the day had suddenly heated up and the sun was scorching.
We noticed a group of children playing near the river as we crossed the Loire and entered Fourchambault. As it was a Monday and not in the school holidays, we were slightly puzzled.
We crossed the long iron bridge, dodging from one strip of shade to the next. Sweat poured off us and we were pleased to see the camping ground as soon as we reached the other bank, a rather grand park-like expanse adorned with trees of various kinds.
We had not seen an open shop all day, so we asked the woman in the office where we could find a boulangerie. Her face fell. It was the Pentecost public holiday, she said – which explained the abundance of children at large – and most shops were shut, but if we hurried we could catch the boulangerie before it closed at 1 pm.
Leaving our packs with her, we rushed up the street but were too late, and even though we trudged the length of the ugly main street, all we saw were a couple of bars and a lot of shop fronts with their shutters down.
Fourchambault was not looking its best, and it had never been pretty. Its existence was based on the iron works set up in 1821, which supplied many parts of France, thanks to its proximity to the Loire. For example, the iron supports added to the roof of Chartres cathedral came from here. The first bridge at Fourchambault was built a few years later. It was blown up by the French army in 1940 to impede the German advance, and was not replaced until 1950.
When we arrived back empty-handed at the camping ground, our hostess took pity on us and sold us half a baguette, so we had a proper lunch at a shady table nearby.
The showers, as if to make up for the heat of the day, were barely lukewarm. Even we, hot from our walk, could have asked for a bit more temperature, but we soon warmed up again as we lay on the grass next to our grass-green tent. Keith’s mattress still had a leak but with a patch of sticking plaster it was reduced.
My beloved old shoes had shed, not only the piece of heel that I had thrown away at Bannay, but the strengthening patches that I had put on both soles in an effort to extend their life. It was becoming obvious that I had asked too much of them, after two previous long walks in France. I had the patches safely put away, awaiting glue.
The prospects for dinner had not looked promising along the main street as we had rushed past. The so-called “brasserie quarter” had two or three bars, a couple of closed restaurants and a pizzeria, also closed. Our kind hostess suggested trying the elegant but more expensive restaurant over the bridge, which we had passed as we came in.
Another hot walk across the bridge revealed that it was only open on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
As we returned, a group of adolescent kids was fooling about on the sandbanks and shallow water below us and one of them ran up onto the bridge and showed signs of jumping off to impress the only girl in the group. Luckily the rush of hormones abated in time to spare us the sight.
Starving hungry, we went back up to town, intending to have whatever food we could get at one of the bars – a Croque Monsieur if all else failed – with a quantity of wine, and hope for better things tomorrow night.
In the event we were saved by a place that we had not even noticed before, “Aux Gourmands d’Istanbul”, a tiny cave with a single table out on the footpath, occupied by a Turkish family who got up hastily to make room for us. They recommended the mixed grill, their grandest dish at €10.
This was the mixed grill to end all mixed grills, a veritable mountain of assorted meats, rice, chips, couscous and salad. At least half of the meat made its way into my ever-ready plastic bag, to provide lunches for several days afterwards.
They were doing a mighty trade in take-aways, and people were bustling to and fro or hanging about waiting. It was the social centre of the town on this Christian holiday, and all because of the non-Christian element. A good advertisement for multiculturalism.
When we left we shook hands warmly with the cook, his wife and the two children.