Monday, 16 July 2012
Distance 23 km
Duration 4 hours 30 minutes
Ascent 190 m, descent 430 m
Map 147 of the TOP 100 lime-green series
For the first time since we arrived from the south, the sky at dawn was clear.
There was sunshine coming through the window as we packed up, but it was pale and weak because of the mist rising from the fields, and the air was icy.
So instead of eating our muesli on the balcony among the branches, we lowered our packs on the pulley and had breakfast in the kitchen, to keep warm. There was no sign of our talkative friend of last night.
By the time we had crossed the boggy fields again and arrived in the village, the mist had evaporated, revealing a sky of unblemished blue.
It was 8:10 am and the bar did not open until nine, unfortunately.
The only shop we visited was the boulangerie before we set off along the road in the general direction of Aubusson.
We were still on the D3, which had been such a minor back road when we started out from Faux-la-Montagne, but now was the main thoroughfare. Nevertheless it was a pleasant walk and much easier than on a muddy track.
The traffic was light and most of the way was through deciduous forest, which narrowed to a small river gorge, known locally as le Rigole du Diable (the devil’s channel).
After an hour’s walking on this, we turned off to the left, away from the river, and climbed a little. We were still on the D3, although it was no longer the main road.
At the tiny settlement of la Vilatte, we stopped to admire a garden planted with rows of vegetables and flowers, displaying all the love and industry that a true gardener is capable of. There was even a rustic greenhouse covered with plastic.
I complimented the man who was working there, but he said it was his wife’s garden, not his. He only dug as instructed, while she planted and cared for it.
He wanted to know whether we had a house in France, and when we said no, he urged us to buy one in this area, as houses were extremely cheap at that time in the Creuse.
It was time to inform him that we were not English, not even American, but from the other side of the world entirely. He found this very remarkable, but then mentioned that his daughter had actually been to Australia for a holiday, which was remarkable to us, as French people do not generally travel far.
A bit further along we turned off again, this time towards le Monteil-au-Vicomte, which was on the top of a considerable hill.
We passed the ruined tower, last sad remnant of the château, and swung into the church square.
Despite its desolate and unpromising air, we had hopes of a bar here and Keith managed to find one, Chez l’Ours, just opposite the church. The only problem was that it was closed on Mondays, i.e., today.
Making the best of it, we unpacked a couple of chairs and sat down at a table outside, surrounded by various bits of junk and paraphernalia, as well as some pots of flowers, to have our morning refreshment of bread, cheese and water.
A woman walking past kindly offered us a cold drink but what we really craved was coffee, so we declined with thanks.
We were about to leave when a man called out from an upper window that the church was worth a look (“elle mérite un coup d’oeuil”) , so we dutifully went inside and found it charming, with its barrel vault and rough stone walls.
Our way from here was the D36 which went past the old people’s home (presumably where the goat-farm woman worked) and then snaked down to the valley.
Half-way down, a car stopped beside us and the driver offered us a lift, but he nodded and smiled understandingly when we said that we wanted to walk. Perhaps he was a walker himself.
The countryside consisted of undulating, emerald green meadows interspersed with small lakes and patches of forest, which was beautiful to walk through.
We passed the funny little grey church of Vidaillat, with its squashed-looking steeple, and continued on, but the last few kilometres were not as easy as we expected.
Keith had developed a severe strain in his lower leg and was having trouble continuing. We slowed down but even so it was a trial of endurance for Keith.
At last, coming to the little bridge leading into St-Hilaire-le-Château, we saw, with great relief, a sign – “Camping Municipal” – adorning a shed in the field across the stream. It was right in the middle of the village, opposite the church.
At the main street (the N141), we looked up and down and saw no sign of the longed-for café initially, but then we noticed a hotel/bar set back a little from the road, so we hurried in for our first coffee of the day (it was 1 pm).
The dining room was full of people having lunch and the tables in the bar were also set for lunch, but the barman obligingly cleared a table for us.
This was a wonderful relief and it got even better when we found out that the restaurant would be open in the evening. We were now at liberty to relax, with our accommodation and our dinner secured.
It was only a few steps back along the highway to the camping ground. The grass was soft and abundant, the trees thriving although young, and there were stone tables and seats looking as ancient as the church. Nevertheless there was only one other group in residence, an old couple with a tent and caravan at the far end of the field.
After lunch at one of the stone tables, we had showers in the tiny ablution block, which were excellent except that we had to lean constantly on the button to keep the water flowing.
With our clean washing fluttering above us, we stretched out on our mats for an afternoon of repose. Keith swallowed a couple of anti-inflammatories in the hope of relieving his leg-strain.
The entertainment was provided by a campervan which drove in along the gravel track and turned off onto the grass at the lower side, near the stream, which was saturated after the recent rain. The van sank into the turf, but the driver continued to gun the engine and dig himself deeper until he was hopelessly bogged and had to walk off to find help.
Various vehicles tried in vain to get it out, but it was eventually extricated by a tractor from a local farm, to the delight of the small boys of the village.
The man drove off, but only across the highway to the gravel forecourt of the church, where he spent the night.
Later a pair of heavily-laden Dutch cyclists turned up and installed themselves outside their tent on strange little legless canvas chairs. They were determined to soak up the sun as they had been riding for eight days (starting from Bourg-en-Bresse) in unrelenting rain, and this was their first fine day. The man was horrified that we were on foot. He said that he never walked anywhere – it was too strenuous.
Then a woman came around collecting camping fees. She visited the people at the far side, and the cyclists, and then, ignoring us, she disappeared and never came back, so we had another free night, to add to the one at Faux-la-Montagne.
Our Dutch companions produced a stove and cooked their evening meal, which they ate and cleared away while we continued to lie on our mats, reading (I was reading one of George Orwell’s essays, one of the many things that I had stored on my Kindle.
Before presenting ourselves at the hotel, we had a little apéritif at the stone table, with some of the remaining wine from Faux-la-Montagne, and strolled up the highway to find the minor road that we would take in the morning.
At about 8 pm we entered the bar, expecting to go into the room where all the lunch diners had been eating when we first arrived, but instead we were shown into a much grander room behind a glass door.
The walls were of stone, the ceiling of dark beams with a chandelier. The windows had a view both onto the front courtyard and onto a beautiful garden at the back.
The tables had crisp white linen cloths and serviettes, and ours was overlooked by a magnificently antlered stag, in the fashion of these parts.
Seated on our tapestry-covered chairs, we were given a little plate of nibbles to accompany the wine while we waited for dinner.
I started with a salade aux gésiers (better not translated, but it is a gizzard salad, and is better than it sounds), while Keith had smoked duck with salad.
For the main course we had regional specialities – Keith had a fondu creusois made with cheeses from the Creuse, with an omelette, and I also had an omelette, but mine was stuffed with the delicious forest mushrooms called girolles.
Altogether it was a delightful meal, but Keith was still suffering with his strained leg, and when we got back to the tent, he had another anti-inflammatory pill, as the first two had had no effect so far.