Tuesday, 26 June 2012
Distance 16 km
Duration 3 hours 55 minutes
Ascent 464 m, descent 281 m
Map 164 of the TOP 100 lime-green series
Our plan was to go to St-Saturnin-lès-Apt today, a long step, so we started early with a quick bowl of muesli at a metal table outside the office of the camping ground.
At 6:40 am we were on the road, walking past the fragrant distillery and straight through the silent town, then following the GR marks down across the river into pastureland.
Here we discovered the reason for the appendage “les-Bains” in the name of the place – two or three spa hotels in the usual art deco style, with their Oriental columns and porticos looking slightly shabby.
At the end of this small road the GR shrank to a stony path that scrambled over a bank and climbed sharply through a forest of fresh young oaks and beeches.
Birdsong was all we could hear, so it was a surprise when we came out onto a bitumen road, but we left it immediately and continued our climb in the woods.
Once again we hit the road, which was twisting its way up the ridge as steeply as possible, but not as steeply as us. This ridge was the last eastern spur of the mighty range of Mont Ventoux.
At the top our path dropped just as abruptly but we were able to enjoy it more, now that we were not gasping for breath. The winding, rocky track would have been easy to follow even by moonlight, so white were the stones.
As we descended we saw, over the tops of the trees, the grim, ruined block of the Gour des Oules, ancient guardian of the pass through the mountains.
This pass was now occupied by the main road (the D542) which we soon encountered, after cutting through a field of petit épautre, the local speciality that we had sampled last night.
Only a few steps along the D542, we turned off on a minor road that shot straight up the slope. I was feeling the effects of our exertions yesterday and found myself falling behind Keith on the long haul to the crest.
It was time to revise our plan for the day – we would only go as far as Sault and hope for more stamina the following day. This was a weight off our minds and we pressed on willingly.
Before long the village of Aurel came into sight across the fields, a tight knot of houses on the hillside held together by the remains of a defensive wall.
It did not look promising as a place for coffee, but nevertheless we decided to approach by the road instead of staying on the GR which seemed to skirt round the top of the village.
Our hearts were armed against disappointment as we trudged up, but before we had even rounded the bend at the top, Keith heard the clatter of crockery and suddenly the beautiful sight of a Logis de France hotel appeared.
They were in the middle of serving breakfast under a striped awning (which was across the road from the hotel), but we were welcomed and given magnificent coffees and two light, buttery croissants. It was like going to heaven.
Most of the guests seemed to be organised groups of cyclists of various nationalities. One by one these groups drifted away, but we continued to sit at our ease against the wall.
An American cyclist engaged us in conversation, loudly informing us that walking was much less demanding than cycling (2,000 calories instead of 7,000, whatever that might mean) and that we should drink electrolytes, not coffee.
We remained polite with an effort and refrained from suggesting that he walk to Sault rather than go there by bike.
It was just as well that we had been refreshed at the hotel, because when we set off again, we spent a good half-hour thrashing about looking for the GR.
Our first attempt took us onto the highway, our second onto the upper road heading east.
At last we noticed a small yellow sign halfway up the steep street beyond the hotel, directing us through the houses and out into the fields.
This part of the GR ran parallel to the highway and a few hundred metres above it, along the top of a low ridge. The track was lined with oaks and flowering broom, the sun shone mildly and we felt as light as gazelles.
It only took an hour or so through fields and woods to get to the edge of Sault, and we descended into the town in search of a second round of coffee.
This was not hard to find. The village had several streets of shops, including some charming alleyways.
After our coffee we walked to the camping ground, which was a couple of kilometres away on the D950, opposite the hippodrome.
We passed the place where we had entered the town on the GR and realised that it was the original main road to Aurel.
By the time we got to the camping ground we were hot and flustered and starting to wonder whether it existed. It was a huge, dusty, sparsely occupied place shaded by thin pines. The office was unmanned.
Two walkers were just leaving as we arrived, overweight in both senses – their bodies and their packs. They did not appear to be enjoying themselves but they said they were going to Montbrun. It’s not far, I lied, and they shuffled away at a snail’s pace. They really should have started earlier, as by now it was punishingly hot.
The afternoon passed with the usual showers, washing, lunch and nap. There were quite a lot of tents and caravans among the trees, but hardly any cars or people. This was explained later in the day, when there was a general homecoming of cars laden with bikes.
Back in town, we had a worrying little adventure when the autobank accepted Keith’s card and request for money, but failed to produce any notes. With the help of the woman at the pâtisserie over the road, we got a telephone number that we could ring after 9 am tomorrow to complain, and I started to rehearse the sentences needed for this rather technical conversation.
To take our mind off mundane troubles we looked inside the church, which was light and pleasantly cool, and then sat down under the trees in the adjoining square for apéritifs.
Tables were set out in long rows in the square, seemingly for the guests at the Logis de France hotel, and they quickly filled up, but we managed to get a table for two at the far end. All around us were rasping Australian and twanging American voices.
We chose the menu for €15. To begin, Keith had a terrine and I had a salad with a poached egg wobbling on top. We asked the waitress to explain “gardiane de taureau”, which turned out to be a Provençal stew.
She complimented us on our French, because she had just come from a big table of Americans, not one of whom spoke a single word of French, but they expected her to understand them, she said indignantly.
The Australians had settled at two tables near us. They were all women apart from one man (who was French), without whom they would have been as difficult for the waitress as the Americans.
We wondered who they could be – a female sports team? a lesbian convention? They did not look like either, and in the end my curiosity got the better of me and I leaned over to the man and asked, in French, what he was doing with all these Australian women.
They were aromatherapists, he said, doing a course in Provence for a week! We were amazed that there were that many aromatherapists in the whole of Australia. He was their guide, having lived in Melbourne for the last forty years.
To finish the meal I had coffee with a tray of small pastries, while Keith had tiramasu.
We strolled back through the town, stopping at a different autobank to get some cash, then took a short cut past the cemetery and got back to the camping ground just as the light was fading.