Sunday, 15 July 2012
Distance 14 km
Duration 2 hours 50 minutes
Ascent 156 m, descent 202 m
Map 147 of the TOP 100 lime-green series
There were downpours of rain all night. Keith had been up and down several times, bringing in and hanging out our walking clothes, in a noble but vain attempt to get them dry for the morning. The only result was that his socks were soaking as well as everything else.
We sat up at 6:30 am, and, taking the chance while it was not actually raining, we put on our wet things, packed quickly and set off. We were shivering with cold and not very happy.
As we hurried down the deserted main street we noticed lights on in the auberge – by some miracle it was already open, long before most bars in France would be. We tumbled through the door into the warm, dry, bright enclosure of the bar. It was the second time that this wonderful establishment had turned misery into joy for us.
A few hardy souls were already leaning on the counter, but we sat down at a proper table, with the croissants from yesterday and the local paper spread out, while the barwoman prepared our coffee. She smiled when we declared that she had saved our lives.
While we were there it began to rain in earnest and we continued to sit in the cosy bar. The forecast in the paper was for the rain to ease in the evening and give way to sunshine after a couple more days, which was good news in parts.
The woman’s husband appeared with a cigarette and smoked it standing in the open back doorway, which satisfied the letter of the law but let in a blast of cold air.
Finally the weather lightened a little and we shouldered our packs, By this time our wet clothes had dried so it was not as much of a test of character as before. After buying a baguette, we went back to the church square, where our little road (the D3) turned off up the hill, past sodden fields and patches of forest.
It was an easy gradient and we were pleased to have bitumen under our feet. Very soon the rain started again but we had our capes ready.
Beyond the houses of Plazanet, the road descended towards the shore of the Lac de Vassivière. We came to a large intersection and after that we had to share the road with cars, unlike on the previous section. The lake, edged by reeds, gleamed like silver through gaps in the trees as we laboured along. A passing motorcyclist waved sympathetically as he sailed by.
At the end of the lake we saw a sort of holiday village, with boats drawn up near the wooden cabins. Calculating our chances of refreshment there as too low to warrant the detour, we plodded on the remaining three or four kilometres into Royère.
It was good to arrive in this handsome little town. On our way to the church square we passed a supermarket just closing its doors (it was after 12 o’clock) and a paved area reserved for camping cars. No suitable place for a tent, however, except for a tiny triangle of grass.
The Office of Tourism had lights on so we went in, and the affable young man on the desk said there was no hotel and no camping ground, but several chambres d’hôte, all of which he rang but to no avail. They were booked out.
The other possibility was a nearby goat farm which had cabins for hire, but nobody was answering the phone. Probably out milking the goats, said the man (they make goat cheese). We decided it was time for a coffee break while we decided what to do. There were two cafés facing each other in the main street.
The first one we tried looked so depressing, with its long dingy tables, brown linoleum and pin-ball machine, that we backed out and went to the other one, on the lower side.
This was not much better and completely empty except for a cranky-looking crone behind the counter, who went off to make coffee somehow in the back room while we spread out our maps.
When she came back, Keith took a photo of the scene and she angrily told him that it was forbidden, because of the insurance.
Perhaps she thought we were robbers preparing a burglary. I assured her that the photo had been deleted, but she still looked suspicious (it was a lie, after all).
Meanwhile, we had decided to push on to Valllière, a rather bigger town that was only 13 km away, but when we asked her, she said there was nowhere to stay there and nowhere to eat except one small café. Things were looking gloomy. Our last chance was the goat farm near the village which had not answered the telephone earlier. We decided to walk there and try to find somebody, and if that failed, set ourselves up on the patch of grass beside the camping car area.
It was only half a kilometre to the goat farm, past a couple of holiday cottages, then along a dirt lane and through two massive stone gateposts guarded by a flock of hooting geese.
There was a farmhouse, a hay shed, another shed full of goats, all bleating pathetically, and an office building where the cheese was sold, all devoid of human life. A row of cabins behind the hay shed had cars parked all along – evidently they were all occupied.
We waited outside the office until it started raining again, when we took cover in the hay shed. To while away the time we did a crossword that we had brought from Australia for just such a moment.
An hour later, absorbed in this puzzle, we were surprised by the arrival of a little grey van, out of which bustled a little grey woman. To our enquiry about accommodation, she replied expressively that they were full, full, full.
I said that we had run out of options, but that we had a tent, which we could pitch at the camping car place in the village. She did not like this idea at all and asked us to wait while she consulted her list in the house.
When she returned, she had an offer. We could stay in “une cabane dans les arbres”, which was 400 metres further on, across the farm. It sounded fine and we thanked her profusely and paid (€38).
She let her dog off the chain and we all walked together over the meadow, slithering on the muddy track, while she told us that she had just finished her shift at the nursing home in the nearby village of le-Monteil-au-Vicomte. We were doing the right thing, she declared with feeling, keeping active and avoiding the horrors of dementia or Parkinson’s disease.
The track led past a pond and into a stand of pines. The cottage was nowhere to be seen until she pointed skywards and we saw it above us, a tree-house!
She must have decided that we were fit enough, and desperate enough, to cope with the vertical climb and the long walk to get there. We were delighted.
Having hauled our packs up onto the balcony by means of a pulley, we climbed up ourselves and examined the bedroom, just big enough for a double bed, and the “dry toilet” behind, which was fed with sawdust from a tub.
There was a kitchen and shower block with all the usual amenities not far away at ground level, as well as two enormous round cake-shaped objects wrapped in mouldering canvas. Madame explained that they were yurts, which they had not yet been able to make watertight.
The tree-house, on the other hand, was snug and dry, and looked newly built.
As soon as our benefactor had departed, we retired to the bedroom, taking off our cold, clammy boots, and turned on the blow heater to maximum. Soon the small wooden room was like a sauna, a blessed relief after the trials of the day.
Later on we had hot showers and washed a few garments, which we strung around the room. In the kitchen next door there were signs of habitation, perhaps connected to the caravan on the other side of the clearing.
There was a loaf of bread on the table and two magazines, one “Le Communard” and the other ”Creuse News”.
This last one was in English and full of offers from tradesmen for home repairs.
We had no intention of eating in this kitchen. We had asked madame about where to dine and she recommended L’Atelier, in the centre of the village.
At about 7 pm, dressed as warmly as possible and with socks under our sandals, we picked our way carefully back over the meadow, past the farmhouse and into the village. The clouds had thinned and a watery sun shone.
L’Atelier turned out to be the unprepossessing café that we had rejected at lunch time, but there was little choice so we went in. It looked no better than before.
While we were sitting there waiting for service, we noticed, at the far end of the counter, a whole other room full of tables, chairs and people, so we quickly moved and found ourselves in a different world.
Here, instead of the pervading brown of the outer bar, everything was clean and white. The walls were covered with paintings, no doubt from the adjoining gallery, to which it was linked by a door, and which accounted for the name l’Atelier.
Evening light streamed in through long glass doors leading to a terrace at the back. It was full of chattering locals and was obviously the social centre of the village.
We settled down in a corner furnished with armchairs, a great mirror and a Persian rug, feeling a lot more hopeful about the meal to come.
After our customary apéritifs (pastis and rosé), we moved to a dining table and consulted the menu, deciding for once not to have the formula of the day but to go for old favourites from the full list.
For a start we had charcuterie for Keith and crudités for me, with liberal helpings of bread and wine. Then steaks with green peppercorn sauce, baked tomato and a mountain of green beans.
To finish, I had a fan of Swiss cheese accompanied by a little round goat cheese which we hoped was from the farm where we were staying.
Keith had a glorious novelty – a frozen lemon, its rind sparkling with frost, stuffed with lemon icecream and sorbet. The bill for the whole thing, including wine and apéritifs, was €40.
Back at the tree-house, we were were startled to see a man emerge from the kitchen. He was dark and heavily bearded and was keen to speak English with us.
He revealed that he lived in the caravan and that he was the person who had waved in solidarity from his bike when we were trudging along the lake road that morning.
Delighted with this coincidence, he began to rhapsodise about the simple life, the natural rhythm of walking and so on, all sentiments that we agreed with. It occurred to us that he was probably a handyman catering for English house-owners in the district.
We still had work to do once we had ascended to our little nest. We had to make a plan, now that we knew that Vallière was no use to us. By torchlight we studied the map and the list of camping grounds from the Office of Tourism.
A forced march of 30 km along the road to Aubusson did not appeal, so we worked out another way, going north to St-Hilaire-le-Château and then cross-country on minor roads via Ahun, Goudet and Chambon-sur-Voueize to Montluçon. This would take one day more than our previous plan but would have the advantage of a place to stay every night, unlike on the GR, plus the avoidance of the mud and slush of the track.