Wednesday, 18 July 2012
Distance 27 km
Duration 5 hours 40 minutes
Ascent 279 m, descent 365 m
Map 140 of the TOP 100 lime-green series
We were up at six and so was our jovial friend from Lille. It was a cold, misty morning, so we were glad of the orange chairs to keep us off the dew-soaked grass as we ate our muesli.
Keith’s leg seemed a little better after a night’s rest, but he took some more pills anyway.
By the time we had returned the chairs to the tennis court and packed up, the English cyclists had also risen, so there were good wishes all round as we marched out the gate with the man from Lille. He sailed effortlessly down the street, leaving us to follow at our own much less impressive pace.
Having got through the dour centre of Ahun as far as the church, we turned off and descended in rapid twists through a forest to river level, past a graveyard, and came to the half-excavated ruins of the original Gallo-Roman town, Acitodunum.
This was once an important point on the road from Lyon to Saintes, but fell into oblivion when the Romans left, leaving only the mangled remains of its name, which is now little more than a grunt.
When we reached the river, there was a pleasant surprise – the little village of Moutier-d’Ahun, which began life as a Benedictine monastery in the tenth century and continued as such for eight hundred years, until the Revolution.
Once again its name (monasterium) suffered the indignity of dissolution in the mouths of the French.
The monastery buildings stood serenely within their wall, basking in the morning sun.
Behind the church was a beautiful old piece of wall with a deep, carved portal, on top of which sat an incongruous cawing peacock. It was too early for tourists, but it looked the sort of place that would be thick with them later.
A narrow street lined with cottages led down to the river Creuse and a fine old Romanesque bridge (wrongly labelled as Roman, but what’s a thousand years here or there?).
Immediately after the bridge we took a tiny, unnamed thread of a road along the river bank, then up a rise through fields of grain.
At the top we crossed the railway line and pressed on, sometimes quite steeply and in surprisingly thick forest. At an intersection we thought briefly of turning off to Mornat and getting to Chénérailles entirely on back roads, but that route was a couple of kilometres longer and Keith was in no condition to extend the distance.
We joined the D55 at le Lacas and walked the last six kilometres along it into Chénérailles, with Keith fading badly towards the end. We passed the camping ground a good two kilometres before the village, which did not incline us to stay there for the night.
Our road swung in to join the highway from Aubusson amidst a mess of roadworks, but there were plenty of shops strung out on either side.
The first one we visited was a pharmacy, where Keith bought a packet of the strongest Nurofen pills available. Then we got bread and croissants and settled down on the flowery corner terrace of “Le Sporting”, in the middle of town.
It was such a relief to be sitting at our ease with cups of hot coffee in front of us, that we had a second round. The ever-hopeful Keith took two of his new pills and declared himself fit to go on.
The route that we had worked out from here to Gouzon started off on a tiny road in the direction of St-Loup, and we were pleased to find that the bar where we were sitting was right next to the turn-off.
A few steps down this road and we were in deep countryside that felt miles from civilisation. Hay bales stood like fat, legless sheep in the newly-mown fields, and clumps of trees cast their black summer shade.
The road was no wider than a car and we had it to ourselves, as not a single vehicle came past. We passed the rustic cottages of Montberger and continued on our quiet way. Only the rumble of the distant highway and a marching line of high-tension wires reminded us of the world beyond.
After an hour we turned left on a hedged lane to Bouchezy and joined another small road leading to the slightly bigger hamlet of Pierrefitte, which even had a church, as well as a couple of renovated houses among the old ones. It was in a shallow valley and the meadows all around were a maze of streams and pools.
We crossed a bridge and climbed to Riotat. By then Keith was in a lot of pain, which the pills had done nothing to relieve, and he walked the rest of the way on pure will power.
The last, soul-destroying hour was mostly on the main road, the D40, in the hot sun of midday, and even I felt the strain, but for Keith it was much worse.
Just as we approached Gouzon, we saw the camping ground on our left, with tents and caravans stretched out prettily along a small stream. There were seats on the banks, a hump-backed bridge, plenty of trees and a snack bar.
With all the alacrity we could muster, we hurried in, ducking under the barrier (the office was closed until 5 pm) and flopped down in the shade in a grassy plot surrounded by hedges.
Eventually we pulled ourselves together enough to have lunch, during which we finished the wine that we had bought in haste at Faux-la-Montagne, a lifetime ago. Then the ritual of showers and clothes-washing occupied us for a while. I even washed my hat and my towel, both of which were in need of a good dose of soap.
We hung our washing, as usual, between two trees, but a woman came and said it was not allowed, all washing had to be hung on special lines behind the ablution block, out of sight.
Our intention to sleep the afternoon away was frustrated by clouds of mosquitoes, a very unusual thing in France and one that we were not prepared for. All we had to repel them was face-cream, which worked for a short time until the perfume wore off.
After a while we decided to go for a walk into the centre of town to check on the restaurants and also on our route for tomorrow.
It was only a couple of blocks to the main square of Gouzon, impressively large and dominated by the church. There were shops around the edge, but nothing that looked like a bar or a restaurant, except for a grand, new-looking glass enclosure attached to the front of one of the ancient houses flanking the square.
Unfortunately it was closed, but in the street around the corner we found a mean little bar and went inside, as it was too hot to occupy the outdoor tables. The interior was crowded with a motley lot of down-at-heel locals drinking beer, and, for a change from our habitual coffee, we did the same, and enjoyed it greatly.
Back in the church square, Keith sat down, unable to walk any further, while I dashed around in search of somewhere to eat. I found our road for tomorrow, and there was a Logis hotel on it, but it had no restaurant. It was the only Logis hotel that we had ever seen without one. There were probably other places to eat in Gouzon, but we did not find them.
We crept back to the camping ground and made do with a simple dinner at the snack bar, for which we were very grateful.
A group of Swedish cyclists ate outdoors on the terrace, but we wanted to be further away from the mosquitoes, so we went inside, leaving a couple of glass doors open to catch the breeze.
We had a pleasant meal of steak, chips, salad, bread and red wine.
Our hostess then persuaded Keith to try her home-made “apple pee” (practising her English), while I had a café-crème.
It was lucky that our tent had a properly netted enclosure, so that we did not need to worry about being tormented by mosquitoes all night. Instead we lay awake worrying about Keith’s leg, but after a while the exertions of the day overcame these anxieties and we fell into our usual sound sleep.
Previous day: St-Hilaire-le-Château to Ahun
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