Day 21: Saint-Astier to Villamblard

Friday, 11 June 2010
Distance 18 km
Duration 3 hours 50 minutes
Ascent 395 m, descent 345 m
Map 47 of the TOP 100 blue series (or Map 153 in the new lime-green series)
Topo-guide (ref. 6542) Sentier vers Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle via Vézelay

Walking in France: Part of the morning routine - Jenny's shoe repairs

Part of the morning routine – Jenny's shoe repairs

With the thick grass and a well-placed hip-hole, we slept soundly, although it rained during the night. The morning was fine so packing up was easy enough. We had our muesli at the bar table outside the office, where we had eaten our lunch yesterday, and our host popped out from somewhere to wish us a good journey.

Without recrossing the bridge, we pursued the GR on a road along the left bank of the Isle. This was the big point of division between the two pilgrim routes.

Walking in France: Breakfast outside the Saint-Astier camping ground office

Breakfast outside the Saint-Astier camping ground office

The blue and yellow signs of the religious pilgrimage continued on the right bank of the Isle, towards Mont-de-Marsan in the west, whereas the GR654, the walkers’ pilgrimage, with its red and white markers, was heading south to Bergerac and Montréal-du-Gers to connect with the main pilgrimage from le Puy.

The two routes merged again close to the Pyrénées, at Saint-Palais, to be joined there also by the Way of Tours.

We passed like a darning needle under the railway line, over the N89 and under the autoroute, then turned off on a thread of road that climbed steeply.

Walking in France: Climbing into the forest

Climbing into the forest

Ahead of us and far above we saw the solid figure of Henk. After passing a few houses, the track levelled off and we entered a deciduous forest, where the sunlight filtered through every shade of green.

In due course the forest gave way to grassland and we began to descend into the valley of the Vern.

Walking in France: Starting the descent to Grignols

Starting the descent to Grignols

The track was deeply carved by centuries of use, between the fields. At the bottom of the slope we crossed a road, then the river, and entered the village of Grignols with its formidable château above.

Walking in France: The final part of the descent into Grignols

The final part of the descent into Grignols

In the wide, irregular main square, there was a boulangerie (closed for a pre-summer holiday) and two bars. The one we chose was almost a cellar, down a few steps in an old stone building.

Inside we found Henk finishing his coffee, so he had another cup with us while we chatted. Instead of pastries, we made do with the last of yesterday’s bread and the butter and jam that we had acquired at breakfast in Périgueux.

Henk was a big, strong, genial fellow, an engineer by profession, and was carrying the last word in mobile phones, which contained GPS and internet access. With the aid of this miraculous device he was able to steer himself across France.

He must have had information on the Way of Vezelay from a website, because we never saw him refer to a paper map or a guidebook. His phone was technologically wonderful but not immune to error. He told us a funny story about his departure from la Châtre two weeks earlier.

Walking in France: The château of Grignols

The château of Grignols

He set off on the indicated route and walked for three hours, at the end of which he found himself arriving in la Châtre again. After that he paid a bit more attention to the direction of the sun, the GR signs etc.

Leaving the village, we started up the road, looking for the GR turn-off, but it soon became clear that we had missed it. Presumably it had turned off lower down in the square.

Nevertheless we had a good view of the grand old château, which reminded us of the legend told in these parts. God had apparently asked Saint Peter to carry a sack of châteaux and sprinkle them all over France, but while he was above Périgord the sack broke and the whole lot fell together. Certainly they were thick on the ground in this area.

Walking in France: Approaching Jaure and a possible coffee

Approaching Jaure and a possible coffee

With the usual reluctance of walkers to take backward steps, we continued on the little road until the GR came in at a stream crossing.

Here Henk decided to follow the GR along the stream but we stayed on the road. We had hopes of a second round of coffee in the tiny village of Jaure, as promised in the Topoguide.

We had not gone far when a sports car pulled up beside us and the youngish man behind the wheel told us that we had missed the track. When we replied that we were in pursuit of coffee in Jaure, he looked very pleased and revealed that he was the mayor of the village.

There was not a great deal to be mayor of, we discovered. Apart from the Mairie, there was a small church, a château, a handful of houses and, fortunately, a bar-restaurant.

Walking in France: Enjoying a coffee and the view, Jaure

Enjoying a coffee and the view, Jaure

To this latter we made haste and were soon installed under an umbrella on the terrace with our coffees, looking across to the squat, square bell-tower of the church. The midday bells rang as we sat at our leisure.

When we left we felt refreshed enough to go into the church and admire its pale simplicity.

It was obviously much restored. Beside it was the miraculous fountain of Saint-Firmin, which like all such fountains was an unhygeinic-looking shallow concrete pool with a scum of floating rubbish.

Walking in France: The Jaure church

The Jaure church

Past the Mairie we found the GR again and clambered up in a tunnel of foliage until we reached a road with a few houses. Here we needed the track signs for a sharp right-left kink before descending across a grassy valley and up into another forest.

The white dirt road that we took through this forest was uncompromisingly straight, a sure sign that it was a former Roman road. We were to make use of the same road again the following day as it continued unwaveringly towards Bergerac, and we found out later that it had been an important route between Périgueux and Agen.

Walking in France: On the Roman road to Villamblard

On the Roman road to Villamblard

At about one o’clock we came out of the forest and saw the church and houses of Villamblard below us.

It looked promising but when we arrived we were disappointed, mostly because the bar-restaurant was closed until Monday. It was still so early in the season that shopkeepers were taking their annual break before the tourist influx.

Walking in France: First sight of Villamblard

First sight of Villamblard

The double main street looked dilapidated, partly because all the shops, of which there were several, were closed for lunch. The camping ground was on a side road about a kilometre away, a pretty little place with a stream running through it and a cluster of cabins higher up the slope.

Walking in France: Villamblard camping ground

Villamblard camping ground

The man in charge invited us to visit his holy water fountain after we had set up our tent, but first we sat down and ate every bit of the food we were carrying – a heel of cheese, half a tomato, half a shallot, a quarter of a sausage, a tenth of a cucumber and no bread.

The holy water gushed from a broken plastic pipe in a little roofed stone enclosure. It was not as insanitary looking as that at Jaure, so we drank some and found it cool and fresh, although nothing miraculous happened.

Nearby was a kiosk with a coffee maker and cups set out on the counter, raising our hopes that perhaps we could get some coffee in the morning before setting off. But our host said that it was for a special event tomorrow and was not his to give, much as he would like to.

We strolled back to the village which had woken from its lunch time torpor. It would have been an ideal staging place for us if we had come a few days later when the bar and restaurant were open, but even without that we were able to assemble the makings of a good picnic.

Walking in France: A cold dinner - both the food and the weather - in the Villamblard camping ground

A cold dinner – both the food and the weather – in the Villamblard camping ground

At the supermarket we got a bottle of Cahors wine, a tin of ratatouille, a soft, pungent cheese and some salad vegetables that looked as if they had been pulled from the ground ten minutes ago. At the boulangerie we got a baguette and two pastries to eat for morning tea on the long, empty track to Bergerac tomorrow.

Back at the camping ground, several more vans had arrived and their occupants were arranged in deck chairs, although there was a cutting wind and no sun. We lay on our sleeping mats until it got too cold, then retired to the interior for a cramped but pleasant meal.

We drank the wine out of the plastic container in which we mixed up the powdered milk each morning, and ate from our muesli bowls with a spoon. There was nothing wrong with it, but we missed the luxury of a properly set table and an elegant dinner in company.