Thursday, 7 July 2011
Distance 27 km
Duration 5 hours 50 minutes
Ascent 218 m, descent 225 m
Map 134 of the TOP 100 lime-green series
Although our first meal of the day was the habitual dreary bowl of muesli, just to give us the strength to start, we ate it in comfort at a plastic table in the snack bar.
The bar was closed at that hour, as were the eyes of every one of our fellow campers, as far as we could tell, and there was still no sign of life at 6:45 am when we ducked under the entrance barrier and set off along the canal.
This time we went the other way, not towards town, and the canal soon turned sharply south, but we kept going on a dusty road past a sports field until we got near to the river.
The forested hump of Montrond, harbouring the remains of a thirteenth-century fortress, was on our right as we swung along the river bank with its open, grassy fields. Further on there were a few allotments where elderly gardeners bent to their pleasant morning tasks.
Arriving at the main bridge over the Cher, we crossed into the adjoining town of Orval, where the railway bus had dropped us a couple of nights earlier.
There were red and white GR marks on the bridge and shortly afterwards a parting of the ways – the GR654 (the Way of Vézelay, which we had followed the previous year) went south and the GR41 (our track for this year) went west.
It started promisingly with a lane off the road that led to a stone staircase and delivered us to the secluded church square, where a fountain stood in the midst of spreading trees.
Beyond that, however, we traversed a new housing estate, offensively bare and ugly, with streets named after violets, cornflowers, bees, nightingales, as if to deny the obliteration of all such things in the neighbourhood.
When the houses ran out we continued through fields, crossed the D300, and found ourselves on a wheel-track in a wood. There were many other tracks criss-crossing the wood but we stuck to the GR signs and emerged onto a small road, punishingly steep, that took us up to Nozières on the crest.
Although there were some new houses in this village, it was a lot pleasanter than the estate we had just left. There were trees and gardens in profusion and a fine old church with a black slate steeple.
At this point we parted company once again with the GR, which was going off in a big circle, and kept to the road as it plunged down beside the autoroute (the A71).
After a while we crossed an overbridge and entered a dark, tangled forest. Here the dead leaves of centuries muffled the ground and the trunks were thick with moss and lichen.
We felt remote from the world in both place and time, even though there was bitumen underfoot and the rumble of the nearby autoroute penetrated the silence.
A strange sight awaited us when we came out into the open – a low white rectangular building with a square tower and mast, like a modern lighthouse, and a line of flags. This was the pavilion of the Centre of France.
We were at the spot which had been calculated, somehow or other, to be the exact middle point of the country.
It brought to mind an earlier encounter (2008) with the centre of the whole world – the village of la Baume-Cornillane, in the department of Drôme, which was reputedly the centre of the ancient single continent of Pangea, millions of years ago.
Compared with that claim, this one seemed quite modest.
The road ambled on over a rise and we soon found ourselves in a pretty hamlet (Farges-Allichamps) with rows of cottages following the curve of the street.
The only human activity was a couple of gardeners at work amongst their vegetables, who gave the impression of being simple yokels from an age before machinery.
At the end of the street, where a château stood, hidden behind a wall and cloaked in trees, we found that we were on the GR again.
This was good, because we needed it to guide us through the forest to the next village. The signs pointed us around the corner, but just as we were turning, we looked back and noticed the glint of a metal chair outside a house, and a small sign above the door. It was the local bar!
With great joy we hurried back and ordered coffee, our first for the day. The woman was sorry that she had no croissants, but added that it was only three kilometres to the big town on the highway, information that deflated our fantasies of illiterate peasants eking out a subsistence living far from civilisation.
We made do with the remains of yesterday’s baguette, and the selection of cheeses that I had saved from last night’s dinner.
Much restored and cheered, we set off again, admiring the chimney pots and dormer windows of the houses, to such a degree that we missed the turning sign of the GR as it took to the fields.
It was only after we had gone a kilometre or so that we started to wonder about the lack of red and white marks, by which time it was to late to turn back.
However, it was a pleasant little road and completely empty of cars until we joined the bigger D38, where we finally started heading in the right direction, skirting the wood that we should have gone through.
Fields of sunflowers gladdened our eyes and we soon came to the entrance of Vallenay.
This looked just the sort of village for a second round of coffees, but a local man, whose dog was frantically barking at us through the fence, disabused us of the notion. On the other hand, he said, there were two bars at nearby Bigny, a distance that he put, with surprising exactitude, at 1800m.
It was a short highway bash to get there, and as soon as we descended towards the station we saw a boulangerie and a bar, both of which we patronised in quick succession.
The bar had no terrace and was rather dark inside, but we chatted agreeably with the barman as we tucked into our pastries and coffee. “Sooner you than me!” he said pityingly as we shouldered our packs to leave.
We came to the bridge over the Cher (noticing in passing a rather pleasanter-looking bar overlooking the river), crossed it and turned onto the GR, which wound its way through flat farmland until meeting the road at Rousson, at which point we took to the bitumen for half an hour to avoid a large loop in the GR.
At Boissereau the GR came back and we rejoined it. We plunged down a track to a weedy canal and, once across it, walked for a long time on a dirt road under trees. By chance this brought us straight to the camping ground of Châteauneuf-sur-Cher and we went in.
The office was closed but there were groups of tents here and there among the bushes, which turned out to be occupied by school children on canoeing trips.
The showers were warm and copious, operated by a pull-down chain like an old-fashioned toilet.
With all our clothes (apart from the clean ones we had on) flapping in the breeze over our heads, we had lunch and settled down for a sleep. The wind was fresh, so we took refuge inside the tent.
The attraction of Châteauneuf-sur-Cher for our fellow campers was not the venerable old stones of the village, but the white-water slalom circuit on the canal. We watched as novices and their instructors careered around in the churning torrent.
Later we strolled into town and climbed up to the château for which the village was named. It was founded in the thirteenth century, although the present building, with its pepper-pot towers, is considerably more recent.
The church nearby was not actually very venerable at all, having only been consecrated in 1898.
It had been built by subscriptions from all over France, two sous from each parish for every child in the country, and was the only church in France with the name Notre-Dame-des-Enfants.
It had all the attributes of a fourteenth-century Gothic cathedral with its profusion of buttresses, finials, rose windows and statues.
Inside was similar – vaulting, columns, stained-glass windows, paintings, all suspiciously clean. Somehow, knowing how new it was made it seem slightly fraudulent, like something from Disneyland.
Back in the low streets where all the shops were, we crossed the river and settled into a bar, ostensibly for a drink but actually to watch the end of that day’s racing in the Tour de France, which was showing on the TV.
For dinner we went to a brasserie further up the main street, where there were plenty of drinkers propping up the bar, but nobody eating except us.
We ordered our first courses (salads with egg and tomato), and got the usual basket of bread and carafe of wine, but the carafe was gigantic – a full litre instead of the half-litre that we had asked for.
I took it to the counter and explained that we only wanted half a litre. “Madame, ça c’est 50 centilitres” replied our hostess, rather haughtily. There was nothing for it but to take it back to the table and drink the lot.
Our main courses were steak, with Roquefort sauce and chips for Keith, and with peppercorn sauce and green beans for me.
It was fortunate that we only had a short walk through a lane to get back to our tent, as we were unsteady on our feet after finishing all the wine.
Several more van-loads of teenagers had arrived and put up tents while we were in the village, but still there was no life at the reception, so it was a free night’s accommodation for us.