Day 18: Saint-Junien to Chabanais

Sunday, 6 July 2014
Distance 20 km
Duration 4 hours 0 minutes
Ascent 207 m, descent 260 m
Map 146 of the TOP 100 lime-green series

Walking in France: Passing the chapel of Notre Dame du Pont, Saint-Junien

Passing the chapel of Notre Dame du Pont

We were woken before dawn by a monstrous thunderstorm that seemed to be centred on the camping ground of St-Junien.

The noise was like a battlefield and the rain came down in sheets, but our tent kept us perfectly dry. When it stopped, day had dawned and we got up, had a bit of muesli and hit the road.

Back in the heart of town, we walked down the fashionable street that had been pulsating with life the evening before. It was like walking through a graveyard, except for one lighted boulangerie.

At the lower end we quickly found ourselves in a maze of drab, run-down houses with no sign of the main road, but we kept zig-zagging downhill, went through a pedestrian tunnel under the railway line, and finally came to the bridge, with its five mossy stone beaks pointing into the current to deflect the force of the water.

The road detoured awkwardly around a stone chapel (Notre Dame du Pont) which almost blocked access to the bridge. Both the bridge and the chapel looked old, and it was a mystery which had been built first, and whether the present cramped arrangement was intentional.

Walking in France: Leaving St-Junien across the Vienne

Leaving St-Junien across the Vienne

We later discovered that they were both built in the thirteenth century, when the town first became a prosperous trading centre, although the chapel was rebuilt in the fifteenth century in ornate Gothic style.

On the other side of the Vienne the town ceased abruptly and we walked among fields on a little road. The Roman road from Limoges to Saintes passed along this bank and we tried to imagine ourselves on it, but it was hard with all the bitumen and the signposts.

We rose a little and arrived at Chaillac-sur-Vienne, a dormitory suburb of St-Junien, or so it seemed, with offensively new houses staring at each other in a treeless waste.

Walking in France: A convivial second breakfast in Saillat-sur-Vienne

A convivial second breakfast in Saillat-sur-Vienne

We ignored it and marched on, this time slightly downhill, until we came to Saillat-sur-Vienne, where the houses were old and the road twisted around them in a charmingly haphazard way before plunging towards the station. Halfway down we saw a bar, which looked closed but wasn’t (the door was on the lower side), so it was a happy surprise.

Keith nobly went on to the boulangerie and came back with two chocolatines, which was all they had left. Meanwhile the barman was taking down the ”Equipe de France” banner over the bar and his wife was bringing in a placard from outside which read ”Venez nombreux au match!”. The game against Germany had been a disappointment, as we knew.

It was quite crowded in the bar and when we left we we had our hand shaken by several of the drinkers nearby, almost like locals.

Walking in France: Arriving in Chassenon

Arriving in Chassenon

Continuing briskly along the little road, we passed through wooded country close to the river and soon climbed into the village of Chassenon, which looked pleasant, with its granite church and a line of trees shading the main street.

Beyond the houses, having rounded a large walled cemetery, we took a little road through the fields (Prés de la Fontaine), which quickly faded into a wheel track covered with shining puddles from the morning rain.

We rejoined the road to cross over the new bypass (the N141), then immediately turned right and descended to Chabanais on what was evidently the main road in previous times.

Walking in France: On the old track to Chabanais

On the old track to Chabanais

It dipped suddenly as we approached the centre of town and we saw a hotel-restaurant (la Barrière) at the railway crossing. Although closed, it was a hopeful sign.

Around the next corner was a second hotel, also closed. This was not so hopeful. However just before we got to the bridge over the Vienne there was an open bar full of drinkers, many of them outside in the sun.

Next door was a boulangerie where we got a demi-baguette, then sat down gladly and ordered coffee.

Walking in France: Arriving in Chabanais

Arriving in Chabanais

A thin old woman came up to us and addressed us in a foreign tongue, which we recognised after a while as Scottish. She had moved to this village a year earlier to live with her daughter and husband but she was not enjoying the experience, and was pining for the dank mists of Scotland, or more exactly, for relief from her cantankerous daughter.

Refreshed by this little break, we crossed the bridge in search of the camping ground. The town on the other side was almost completely defunct and we guessed that the new bypass road had killed it.

Walking in France: Coffees of arrival

Coffees of arrival

Turning left along this sad grey street with its boarded-up shops, we came to the camping ground, which was no more than a piece of grass beside the river with a tiny shower block. There were no other campers, but the grass was immaculate and shaded by beautiful deciduous trees in their summer glory. Beside it were some tennis courts and a high school.

We would not have been surprised if the showers had been cold, but they were hot and copious, the best that we had found so far on our whole walk. Once we were clean, we put up the tent, and it was well timed, as a sudden rainstorm swept in just afterwards.

Walking in France: All alone in the immaculate Chabanais camping ground

All alone in the immaculate Chabanais camping ground

Later we went back to town over a footbridge that we had not noticed before, and wandered about looking for an open restaurant, but to no avail. Then we retired to the bar, where the last hour of the Tour de France was playing on the TV.

I asked the barman for advice about a restaurant and a few of the local layabouts offered their suggestions as well. However they did not seem to have a grip on the fact that we were on foot, recommending places ten kilometres away, and one even mentioned a restaurant in St-Junien.

Walking in France: Returning to town over a footbridge

Returning to town over a footbridge

Meanwhile Keith heard English voices outside and went to investigate. They were a couple of red-faced men who lived in Chabanais for reasons unknown. One of them spoke so scathingly of France that it was tempting to ask him why he lived there, but the other seemed a likeable drunkard. He said that a pizza van came and parked outside the bar every evening, but not on Sundays.

It was not looking good. We decided to go back to our tent and eat the left-over steaks from Aixe-sur-Vienne, which were starting to look (and smell) a bit doubtful, but were all that we had.

We were halfway across the bridge when the affable Englishman lumbered up behind us and gasped that the pizza van had just arrived – apparently it comes on Sundays in July and August. He had not had that much exercise for years, he added, and we hoped he was not going to expire.

Walking in France: At the bar with two affable local Englishmen

At the bar with two affable local Englishmen

We walked back with him, very pleased, and ordered our pizzas. They took half an hour to prepare, so we went back to the bar (it was raining again) and had another round of apéritifs inside.

Unlike earlier in the day, the customers were now all English-speaking and most of them owned houses nearby. One of them explained that this was because there was a direct flight from the English midlands to Limoges, from where they could easily get to the nearby villages. It was better than driving all the way from Manchester.

By the time our food was ready the rain had stopped, so we ate outside. The food was hot and tasty, with company around us and a glass of wine each – a great deal better than what we would have had at the camping ground.

Walking in France: Our much appreciated dinner

Our much appreciated dinner

When the bar closed at 8 pm we walked back over the footbridge to our little tent. I dumped the old, grey steaks from Aixe-sur-Vienne in the rubbish bin and went to the shower block to clean my teeth. I heard the toilet being flushed, which was odd, as we were all alone in the camping ground.

Then Keith went to clean his teeth and there was someone having a shower. We assumed it was some homeless person taking advantage of the free hot water, and we watched to see who came out, but nobody did.

After a while I decided to check, so I went back and discovered that the door of the shower was locked, so I called out “Est-ce qu’il y a quelqu’un?” (is anybody there?) and a male voiced muttered “Oui”.

This gave me a spooky feeling and I went back to the tent and tried to sleep, but failed. What if the person in the shower was more sinister than just a homeless person? I kept sitting up to peer through the tent flap towards the shower block. It began to get dark and my nervousness transmitted itself to Keith. Eventually, feeling a real weakling, I suggested that we move back to the village, which was a mad idea, but better for me than a sleepless night with my heart in my mouth.

Walking in France: Setting up camp amongst some enormous campervans

Setting up camp amongst some enormous campervans

We gathered our tent and possessions into a rough bundle and hurried back over the footbridge. Whether we were observed by the creepy presence in the shower block I do not know, nor did I care once we were amongst the streets and houses of the village.

Earlier we had noticed a parking area across the road from the bar, which was where campervans were allowed to spend the night, so we crept behind the line of vans and put up our tent, unseen by anyone, but safe in the knowledge that there were people all around us.

Because of our wonderful tent that could stand up without pegs, we could pitch it on the bitumen, and our thick new bedrolls meant that we slept comfortably. I felt slightly foolish, but very happy. The rumble of passing trains and of heavy trucks going over the bridge was like a lullaby.