Tuesday, 9 July 2013
Distance 16 km
Duration 3 hours 5 minutes
Ascent 22 m, descent 27 m
Map 170 of the TOP 100 lime-green series
This was the day that broke our will. It was already hot at dawn as we crawled out, and the heat increased with every passing hour.
We packed up in haste and left at 6:45 am, past the closed office and the barrier which the security guards were already patrolling. One thuggish fellow looked at our wrist bands and waved us through, and so it was that we had a free night in this most regimented of camping grounds
The area that we were in was an unbroken series of camping grounds side by side, all of them garish, depressing and expensive. The only bars in sight were attached to camping grounds, and none of them were open at that hour.
We pressed on hopefully, sure that there would be a bar somewhere along the way for breakfast, but we were wrong. After a long time the road emerged from the built-up area, crossed a flat, shadeless expanse of dry grass just behind the beach, and arrived at a boat harbour, where the Aude river spilled out into the sea.
The marina was as smooth as glass, with flocks of sleek white hulls like pelicans, under a forest of masts. There were a few well-caffeinated looking people wandering about attending to their boats and at the side was a group of buildings, but nothing resembling a café, or at least not an open one. No doubt it was too early, as it was only 7:30 am.
Dejectedly, we sat on the steps above the water and ate the muesli that we had not had before we left. There was no shade, but it was the lack of coffee that really demoralised us.
Soon we were on our way again, on a thread of a road going up beside the river, with a few isolated houses. Over the water we could see a large fun fair but there was no way of getting to it, even if we had wanted to.
After a couple of kilometres we came to a bridge and crossed it, then continued up the river on a gravelly track which followed the top of the levee bank. Before long it became a small bitumen road and we left the river, although not the riverine landscape. As far as we could see were the tall reeds of the Aude estuary, and our little road made a circuit around this coastal marsh.
By now the heat was wearing us down. The reeds provided no shade and, although we should have been grateful for the lack of cars, we started to hate the parties of cyclists gliding past at their ease as we plodded along.
All we could see were the monotonous reeds and we felt that we were trapped in a treadmill that no amount of walking would release us from. An hour of this was too much for me.
I started to lag behind and when Keith turned to ask whether I was all right, I burst into tears of misery, giving him a fright. He did his best to comfort me, but there was nothing for it but to continue.
Soon afterwards the reed beds gave way to tidal sand flats interspersed with low heath, and at last we had a more distant view.
Far away on a low ridge we saw a line of houses, the village of St-Pierre-sur-Mer.
Just the sight of it gave us new courage and we hurried on.
The road curved up to a repulsive new pink-plastered housing estate on the ridge (which is what we had seen from afar), then down again to beach level, where there was a municipal camping ground.
Just beyond that we found the longed-for shops that had eluded us all morning, and we were soon sitting in the deep coolness of an arcade, at a table laden with coffee, croissants, bread and cold water. It was a moment of pure bliss.
It was still only mid-morning and we had planned to continue past St-Pierre, along the coast to Gruissan, but the heat was stifling, even this early in the day, and Keith did not like the look of me. He had not forgotten my little tearful outburst.
Furthermore, we had just bought the next TOP 100 map from the shop next door (having walked off the edge of the previous one earlier that morning) and discovered that Gruissan was further away than we had imagined.
Keith suggested that we change our plans and stay here for the night, at which I felt a wonderful wave of relief and gratitude. We retraced our steps to the camping ground with light hearts and booked in, pleasantly surprised that it was only €23.40. In the rest of France we would not expect to pay more than €15.
The ground consisted of fine white gravel without a blade of grass, but there were trees here and there. Putting up the tent, we found it impossible to get a peg into the ground, so we had to use large stones to hold it down.
We were under an olive tree which cast only thin shade, but it was better than nothing and by lying very still on our mats we coped with the roasting heat. After showers, we spread out our lunch in the gravel, then had a little doze.
The leaves on the poplar trees behind us clapped like water running over stones, giving us at least the illusion of coolness.
Later we found our way through the grid of sandy lanes to the camping bar, where we had a cold beer and thanked our lucky stars that we were not still walking.
The afternoon passed slowly in the furnace-like heat, which we could not get away from, even in the shade.
As evening approached we sauntered back to the esplanade where we had found the life-saving café that morning.
Further on we came to a strip of eateries, past which crowds of tourists were strolling. Across the road on the beach was a gigantic fun fair, also packed with people.
We chose a place called “Le Petit Mousse”, and sat down next to some people who immediately recognised us from the camping ground.
In these parts walkers are never seen, so we were conspicuous. They had driven to the restaurant, as it was much too far to walk, they said with a smile.
We began the meal with charcuterie and a salad. After the rigours of the day, sitting comfortably while food was put in front of us was even more of a pleasure than usual.
Then I asked the waiter about the “steak à cheval” – was it the same as “steak de cheval” (horsemeat)? He laughed and assured me it was not.
I asked because there had been a scandal earlier in the year in France, involving the substitution of horsemeat for beef.
It turned out to be a mincemeat patty with a fried egg riding like a jockey on top. Our other main plate was calamari rings.
It was simple food but very welcome, and as usual we tucked away two basketfuls of bread with our dinner, washing it down with some dark local wine.