Tuesday, 28 June 2011
Distance 28 km
Duration 6 hours 0 minutes
Ascent 328 m, descent 382 m
Map 149 of the TOP 100 lime-green series
This was our final day’s march to join the Loire and it showed every sign of being easy, at least by comparison with the day before. For one thing, it was now Tuesday and we had made it through another hated Monday, when French villages are like graveyards. For another, we were out of the mountains at last, with a fairly gentle descent of about 20 km between us and Aurec-sur-Loire.
As we were keen to see the centre of the old town of Saint-Étienne, we left our little jewel of a hotel room without staying for breakfast, and by 7:30 were installed at a pavement bar in the Place Dorian, with coffee and a bag of croissants.
The day was already hot but we lingered, enjoying the bustle of the big, ornate city coming to life around us. Saint-Étienne grew to importance after developing an arms industry in the sixteenth century, and expanded again when coal was discovered in the nineteenth. But times have changed and the former arms factory has recently become an art and design centre.
When we finally set off, our only guide (because we had lost our map) was a small photocopy of the street plan, which Keith had printed from the internet, plus our memory of a country road going from the western side of town to Firminy.
At Firminy we wanted to see the famous church by le Corbusier, which would break our rule of never visiting tourist sights, but it was in a direct line with our destination of Aurec-sur-Loire so we felt it was justified.
The main streets were wide and prosperous, with trams gliding between the lanes of traffic. We came to a place where the road curved around a high promontory of land, bristling with mansions, and probably should have clambered up and over, but in our ignorance we continued along the road and eventually it looped back. The two sides of the road were now divided by the railway line, sunk in a deep cleft, and linked by footbridges at frequent intervals, with school children going in all directions.
At the bottom we turned off away from the railway line and climbed through an area of poorer houses, inhabited by Africans for the most part, until we got out of the town, just before arriving at a roundabout junction with the D201. This was where our street plan stopped, and where we made a terrible mistake.
There was a suitable-looking minor road going off to our right and we thought that it would soon cross under the highway and set off towards Firminy, but the more we walked, the less likely it became. We later found out that we should have crossed the highway as soon as we reached the roundabout. Then we would have found the little road that went straight to Firminy.
The wrong road that we had taken was pleasant enough, with trees meeting overhead and a steady downhill gradient, but we started to worry, as we were going north-west instead of south-west.
Passing a farm, we saw a woman in gumboots pushing a wheelbarrow and asked her the way to Firminy. Her advice was to go back to the roundabout and try again, but we pressed on, still hoping to find a way under the highway. In due course we did, and we came to the outskirts of a town, but it was not Firminy. It was Roche-la-Molière, a place that we had never heard of.
There were signs to Firminy and we followed them along various hot, unprepossessing suburban roads but did not seem to be getting anywhere. Then we came to a bar, a very welcome sight, and tumbled in the door. It was dark and cool inside, with a scattering of drinkers propping up the bar. We ordered cold water and coffee, and asked how to get to Firminy. Our hostess was aghast that we were thinking of walking there, as she said it was very far away, and when she heard that we actually wanted to go to Aurec-sur-Loire, she was even more horrified.
Everybody in the bar contributed their opinion about the best way to get there. The general view was that Firminy was now out of our way, and that we should go straight to Aurec-sur-Loire, a sentiment that we fully agreed with, as we felt we had been trudging too far already. Madame drew a rough map for us on a paper serviette and we set off with a chorus of “Bon courage!” from the bar.
We had been warned that it was a long way – about 18 km, they thought – but at least we knew where to go. Every inch of it was on tar and most on quite busy roads. It was not the sort of experience that people dream of when walking in France is mentioned. The sun grilled us and there was little shade, although it was downhill on the whole.
At last we arrived at Unieux and soon afterwards we reached the Loire at le Pertuiset, where a beautiful suspension bridge, as light as a cobweb, crossed the river.
We did not cross, but continued up the right bank. The river, artificially swollen by the barrage a few miles downstream, was as still as a lake, and as wide. Beside us was the railway line which had been built with such effort in the 1860s, from the industrial centre of St-Étienne to Firminy and then up the gorge to le Puy. At Saint-Paul-en-Cornillon it disappeared into a tunnel, while the road twisted and turned around the promontory, adding extra distance to our increasingly painful progress.
After a while we noticed some other walkers ahead of us on the road – two young fellows, swinging a large overnight bag awkwardly between them. Even at our slow pace, we caught up to them and we all stopped at a lay-by where there was a patch of grass and some shade.
I cast myself down in an extremity of fatigue – it was the after-effects of ‘flu again – and stayed on the ground, incapable of movement, while our two companions started off again.
We followed eventually and saw them turn down towards the ZI (zone industrielle) of Aurec, but we stayed on the ever-rising highway. I could hear myself groaning at every step but I could not stop doing it.
At last we came to the town and descended into the shopping area, where there was a sign to the camping ground and also a bar. Despite my exhausted state, I wanted to keep going to the camping ground, but Keith said he didn’t care whether it was only 50 metres more, we were going to stop. This turned out to be wise, as the camping ground was actually a couple of kilometres further on.
We had coffee, although it was midday and burning hot. While I slumped in a chair under a tree, Keith went across the street to a Presse and got a map to replace the one I had lost, so we could finally see what we had done wrong, which satisfied our curiosity but was no consolation.
The final step to the camping ground was longer than we expected. We tramped down to the river, where the stumps of the old, ruined bridge jutted out of the water beside its modern replacement.
On the other side we picked up the red and yellow marks of the GRP, which led us down, past a couple of restaurants, to the riverbank where families were having picnics.
We were well out of town before the path veered up towards the road and we found ourselves suddenly at the entrance of the camping ground. The office was closed until 5 pm but this did not hold us back. We hurried along one of the lanes and chose a shady enclosure, where we collapsed gratefully on our bedrolls, too exhausted even to think of lunch. The pleasure of lying still was enough.
A long time later we got up, had showers and did our washing. I went to the office to pay and found out that both the restaurants that we had seen near the bridge were open tonight, but even better, there was a bar/restaurant in the camping ground itself. It was a simple affair, just an open terrace with a wide awning over it, but it served the usual dishes and would save us a walk.
At about 7 pm we strolled to the bar and had a beer and a rosé. People started arriving around us and soon the place was full. The day had been a scorcher (37ºC) and everybody was relaxing in the relative coolness of the evening, although it was still warm.
We enjoyed the convivial atmosphere as well as the food. I had an escallope of turkey smothered in cream, while Keith had an entrecôte with green pepper sauce – it takes a lot to divert him away from steak. Even the chips that came with our dinners were scrumptious, which possibly said something about the rigours of the day rather than the skill of the cook.
As we rambled off to our tent I felt drunk, weak but happy.