Wednesday, 10 July 2013
Distance 16 km
Duration 3 hours 15 minutes
Ascent 13 m, descent 12 m
Map 170 of the TOP 100 lime-green series
After the horrors of the previous morning, when we had walked for ages without anything in our stomachs, we ate our muesli in the camping ground before setting off, borrowing a tiled table and bench in a barbecue area for the purpose. It was too early for anyone else to be up, but we were driven by a morbid fear of the heat to come.
For the last time we walked down the main street of St-Pierre, past the cafés and restaurants, past the holiday apartments and cottages, all alone where we had been part of a jostling crowd last night.
Finding a cycle path beside the road, we followed it out into a slightly less built-up area with a boat harbour, and then on into the thick of the next urban morass, Narbonne Plage. It was hard to think of these places as separate villages, which no doubt they had been in pre-tourist times.
At Narbonne Plage there was a double street running off the highway towards the beach, crammed with amusement parlours and eateries, most of which were closed at that hour.
The beach itself was a dismal sight to Australian eyes – no waves, no dunes, only a concrete wall holding the apartment blocks back from a strip of much-trodden sand, on which an improbable grove of potted palm trees had been arranged.
Apart from the palm trees and a rubbish bin, the beach was empty.
We hastened back to the main road and were pleased to see that the bar on the corner was now open, as it was 8 o’clock.
At a nearby boulangerie we got our usual pastries (a croissant for me, a pain aux raisins for Keith) and then sat down under a shady pergola for coffee, water and general enjoyment. The contrast with yesterday’s privations made it even more delightful.
Not wanting to delay too long because of the heat, we were soon back on the cycle path, which continued along the sandy coastal strip, never far from the road.
We passed a hoarding, similar to many that we had seen over the last few days, advertising the spectacle of “Toro Piscine”, which seemed to involve a bull charging about in a paddling pool full of people. Children were especially invited to participate. The thrills also included sumo wrestling, donkey races and a huge slippery slide.
Just after that we came to the actual site of the entertainment, where a makeshift arena had been put up on the dry grass beside the road. Tonight was the night for it in Narbonne Plage.
As we went along, the cycle path gradually filled up with holiday-makers, most of them on bikes, until we were in quite a crowd.
We passed behind a couple of big camping grounds, then some houses, and came unexpectedly to small new shopping centre, of which the main feature was a beautiful bar terrace full of umbrellas and people.
We joined the throng and had a second, much-appreciated round of coffee and water.
A man at a nearby table heard us speaking English and leaned over to enquire where we were from.
Having been told that we were Australian, he claimed that he had already guessed it, from the peculiar look of my hat, which to our eyes is an unremarkable piece of clothing.
We pressed on, over the highway and back onto the cycle path, which was even more populated by now.
It was getting a bit monotonous by the time we arrived at the outskirts of Gruissan, where we ducked under the main road and scrambled down a bank behind the houses to rejoin the more circuitous cycle path.
We were now walking beside the lagoon of Gruissan and saw ahead of us, on a rough crag above the old town, the spectacular ruined tower of the former castle, a surprising sight as we knew nothing of the history of the area.
When we reached the old town, there was a market on and the crooked little streets were jammed with stalls and shoppers.
With difficulty we picked our way through to the canal which linked the lagoon to the sea, and crossed over past a marina. It was only a few steps from there to the camping ground.
This was a pleasantly set out place, with spacious sites and plenty of trees. The only drawback was that the trees were spindly tamarisks, the grass was either dead or non-existent and the ground cover was a mixture of gravel and dust.
Having paid our €18.40 (camping had become cheaper every day since we hit the tourist strip), we wandered about until we found a place with enough shade to lie down in.
It was too hot for lunch so we just had showers and lay down on our mats, shifting every now and then as the shade shifted.
Not far from us was a large family – grandparents, two younger couples and sundry children. They were well established between two big vans, with tables, chairs, umbrellas, a huge refrigerator and so on.
Seeing us lying on the ground without any equipment at all, the old man evidently felt sorry for us, and came over with a bottle of iced water, for which we were very grateful.
Later one of the sons produced a hammer from his truck to help us get our tent pegs into the parched ground. He said that they were itinerant tradesmen doing a couple of weeks work in Gruissan, and that the family had come too, so that the kids could have a holiday by the sea.
By 7:30 pm the fearsome heat had abated slightly and we strolled back over the bridge to the town.
The market stalls had all gone and we could see that the narrow streets were arranged in concentric rings around the outcrop of the tower. It was a circulade, like several other villages that we had encountered on our ramble, and a very fine example of one.
Although the sign at the base of the tower stated that the gates on the staircase would be closed at 6 pm, they were still open, so we went up. It was a surprisingly long climb, but when we got to the top there was a view for miles in every direction.
The pink and golden roof tiles of the village were below us, and further away a skein of sand bars and shallow lagoons merged into the blue haze of sea and sky.
The tower itself was impressive, even as a ruin. The original fortress had been built in the tenth century, as a lookout for pirates and invaders entering the harbour of Narbonne, and was enlarged in the twelfth century by the archbishops of Narbonne. Three hundred years later it was destroyed on the orders of Richelieu, Louis XIII’s attack dog, whose aim was to eliminate rivals to the central power of the king.
Descending to the modern world again, we started looking for a place to dine.
There were several restaurants on the curved and radiating lanes of the village and we finally chose a place on a corner, with a pretty little wooden deck adorned with tables and an olive tree.
At an adjoining table was a couple who had seen us arriving at the camping ground. They were Danish, both deeply tanned, and were spending three months travelling around in warm countries in their campervan.
They greeted us almost as compatriots, because of the fact that the future king of Denmark was married to an Australian. Shelving our anti-royalist sentiments for the occasion, we had an enjoyable chat.
They had ridden to the restaurant on their bikes, which were leaning against the railing, and as they had already eaten by the time we got there, they sailed off before our food appeared.
The place specialised in pasta, so we had lasagne and ravioli, both with salad, accompanied by the usual bread, wine and water.
It was entirely delightful and remarkably filling, considering that we had not had lunch. The relentless heat during the day seemed to have shrunk our stomachs.
On our way home, we dropped into a large bar and asked what time they would open in the morning. The reply was 7 o’clock, as it was not a market day (it opened later on market days).
As we crossed the bridge over the canal, we could see a ribbon of rocky land setting off across the lagoon in the direction that we wanted to go in the morning, and which we hoped would allow us to avoid walking on the road.