Thursday, 10 June 2010
Distance 22 km
Duration 4 hours 40 minutes
Ascent 99 m, descent 195 m
Map 47 of the TOP 100 blue series (or Map 153 in the new lime-green series)
Topoguide (ref. 6542) Sentier vers Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle via Vézelay
We could see a clearing sky out the window and after the usual shoe-glueing ceremony we descended to the restaurant.
I explained that the fourth member of our party, who had not appeared yesterday, had turned up later – not strictly true – and would pay now for breakfast. The rest of us had already paid our €3.50.
We each got a big bowl of coffee with bread, butter and jam, a lovely way to begin the day. Another couple arrived, also Dutch. They were not pilgrims so why they were staying in this creepy hostel I do not know.
As soon as we had eaten, Kees embraced us, shouldered his pack and set off on his forced march to Bergerac. We never saw him again. Henk was going to Saint-Astier, the same as us, but he was in no hurry, so we left before him.
Once back at the cathedral, we turned right and traversed the town, remembering it as we went along – the Roman ruins in particular.
At the railway station we went in to ask at the counter about a possible bus from Condom. We had hopes of walking as far as Condom before running out of time, but there was no railway station there, and we would need to get to one somehow in order to go back to Paris. The answer was that there was no bus, but it was too soon to worry about such things, so we didn’t.
We crossed the train lines on an overbridge and came to the river. Here we found a riverside footpath set amongst lawns and flower beds, and the red and white GR signs that we had not seen since before Limoges. We had strayed greatly from the GR654, and even from the pilgrimage, in the last few days.
It was good to be stepping out on this peaceful town path at nine o’clock in the morning, with traffic hurtling past on both sides of the river.
This lasted for a couple of kilometres and then the river turned sharply against a bluff and the path was squeezed onto the side of a road. The outskirts of Périgueux were as unedifying as those of any other town, with petrol stations, car yards and big ungainly metal workshops lining the highway.
At a roundabout just before Chancelade we turned off on the D710 and soon the traffic diminished to a trickle. On our left was the wide floodplain of the Isle with the river far away, but after a while the road was again squeezed by a loop of the river, and we had to climb to a rocky ridge.
Here the road to Ribérac went off over the high ground, but we took the smaller D3 back down to river level.
Before long we came to the ruins of a railway line, marching on its raised bed across the flats and over the river. It must have had a very short life, for something so difficult to build. We were getting weary and none of the little hamlets on the road had anything resembling a shop, let alone a bar.
Our hopes were raised by the sight of a woman wobbling towards us on a bike with a fat shopping bag, and when we came to Gravelle there was a sort of detour into the centre of the village, which turned out to be a walker’s dream.
At the crossroads we found a shop, a restaurant and best of all a bar, into which we tumbled joyfully. Three and a half hours on the hoof had sharpened our appreciation of the coffee that was put in front of us.
As we resumed our progress, we noticed the pilgrim markers heading down a side street. We followed them, hoping we were not being led into some muddy morass, but we need not have worried.
The pilgrim route flanked a little canal that cut off a loop of the Isle, and we strolled along the middle of the bitumen, undisturbed by vehicles. On either side were level fields of maize and corn.
At Annesse we crossed the canal and meandered past the church and a water mill, then scrambled up to rejoin the D3.
After a few twists and turns in a forest, we came to a place where a tall, chalky cliff came down to the road.
There was a gigantic door leading in to a cavern, formerly a chalk mine but now taken over for some spooky purpose by the gendarmerie. As we approached, the door slowly slid open, admitting a truck and an incongruous ice-cream van. Unfortunately the door had closed by the time we got close enough to see inside.
From there it was no distance to the town of Saint-Astier. The church stood on a rise, with its thick, concave, buttressed tower frowning down on the river, and at its foot a tangle of streets and squares.
Although it was 1:30 pm, we sat down for a second round of coffee to celebrate our arrival.
Saint Astier had been a sixth-century Roman hermit in a cave here and, like Saint Léonard, had wrought various cures. They were contemporaries and would no doubt have got on very well, had they not both been so solitary in their habits.
After the death of Saint Astier, an abbey was established, the basis for the present town, and in the early thirteenth century it was fortified against constant attacks from the river. The architecture of the church is a reminder of these unruly times.
It was not until the nineteenth century that a permanent bridge was built over the river, replacing the flimsy footbridges of former centuries.
The camping ground was over the bridge and looked like a park, with sweeping lawns and big spreading trees. The office was closed so we sat down at a table on the terrace and started to have our lunch, at which point he owner arrived and affably invited us to install ourselves and come back later to pay.
Having finished our picnic, we chose a camping spot with suitable shade, as it was now hot, and I went off for a shower.
It was the type of shower requiring the user to pull down on a chain constantly to keep the water flowing, which meant that my ablutions had to be achieved with one hand, but the water was warm and plentiful. I felt slightly guilty when Keith went for his shower immediately afterwards,and found it stone cold.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in repose on the grass. In France there is always noise – mowers, whipper-snippers, tractors, pumps, drills, traffic, helicopters, thunder – and we had the lot, although it did not disturb us.
At 6 o’clock we returned over the bridge in the hope of seeing Henk, and we found him at a bar, drinking beer.
He was lodged at a chambre d’hôte, where dinner was supplied, so after a round of drinks with us, he went off and we started hunting around for a good restaurant. There were several but we ended up next door to the bar where we had taken our apéritifs.
Our table was surrounded by flowering oleanders. There were a few other drinkers but we were the only people eating.
We began with pilgrim food in the form of Coquilles Saint-Jacques and a sort of cockle pie.
Then we had steak and chips, followed by apple tarts with chantilly. Wine was included and the price was €13 each, surprisingly cheap for an evening meal.
At 9 pm it was still light as we strolled back to the tent.
All along the riverbank were beautiful orderly vegetable gardens and orchards, and we guessed that the camping ground had probably been one in the past.