Tuesday, 8 July 2014
Distance 16 km
Duration 4 hours 5 minutes
Ascent 191 m, descent 204 m
Map 146 of the TOP 100 lime-green series
Having learned at last the folly of starting out on an empty stomach, we had asked at the Bar des Sports the evening before, and been told that they opened at 7 am.
We had also noticed a busy boulangerie just across the road from the Logis hotel, so we decided to go there first to collect pastries to take back to the bar.
The only problem with this plan was that there was a sign on the door announcing that they were closed for three weeks. We felt very aggrieved, as it had been open yesterday.
A woman came out and told us that there was another boulangerie on the road to Poitiers, a couple of kilometres away, or we could try the little supermarket down the street. Naturally that was closed, so we went back rather disconsolately to the bar and the first thing we saw was a big basket of croissants on the counter.
We were the first customers of the day and were in no hurry to start walking, as the weather was grey and cool, so we settled comfortably in the warm inner room with our coffee and croissants.
It was so pleasant that when we finished, we ordered the same again. It was almost like a hotel breakfast.
This day’s walk was different from all previous ones this year, in that every step of it was on a GR (the GR48), apart from a couple of short cuts.
Having crossed the bridge over the Goire, we turned right and came immediately to a narrow stone bridge, a companion to the wider old stone bridge over the Vienne.
According to a sign, this was the scene of monumental delays in former times, as there was room for only one cart at a time to cross.
At this point the GR forked off up an alley between the houses and kept climbing behind them, on a steeply rising walled track (Rue Sainte Catherine) with a view over the roofs of Confolens, past a conical tower which may have once been a windmill, and eventually out onto a road.
Somewhere along this track I annoyed a wasp, and it gave me a ferocious bite on the back of the knee that hurt for days.
We left the bitumen at the first left turn and ignored the GR when it went for a little excursion down to river level and back.
Our gravel road continued peacefully over the high ground and when we joined the bitumen, we went uphill as the GR signs directed, and found ourselves among the remains of the château of St-Germain-de-Confolens, sculpted by the elements into sad, heavy, poignant shapes.
The church was still in use and we heard heavenly music floating out the door, which turned out to be from a woman practising the cello. She smiled and nodded but did not stop playing when we peered in.
A council worker who was murdering roadside weeds with a flame-thrower told us that the bar on the village had died years ago, so we were prepared for the lack of it when we got to the main road, which was down a series of stone staircases.
Pressing on past a huge quarry, our track threaded under the new bridge on the D951 and kept going beside the river.
The vegetation was thick and moist and the track muddy, with trees crowding in on both sides.
We crossed a log bridge, then crawled under a barbed wire fence, which seemed slightly odd for a GR.
A bit further on our doubts increased as the track became more and more overgrown and was finally swallowed up in a sea of nettles, blackberries, bracken and some horrible tall pink flowers.
We were stung, scratched and ripped relentlessly, but could only push on and hope to find a way through.
After a long time we struggled under a second barbed wire fence and reached a farm track, which led us up and away from the river. We had been on the GR all the time, but for some reason (probably the hostility of the local farmer) it had not been maintained.
Our legs were flowing with blood, which we washed off as best we could with water from some puddles before venturing out onto the little road going past the château of Fayolle.
This road made a gentle descent parallel to the river and we were grateful to be swinging freely along it instead of stuck in a sea of savage weeds.
We met the bitumen at the D99 and decided to go straight along it to Availles-Limouzine, although the GR went a different way. Our battle with the triffids had weakened us and our one desire was to arrive.
It was an easy four kilometres and there were no cars on the road, possibly because it was after midday, the sacred lunching hour in France. The only sign that we had changed departments (from Charente to Vienne) was that the road number changed from D99 to D100.
We came out at an intersection near the bridge leading to the village, and the sign to the camping ground was soon afterwards.
It was a longish walk along the river bank before we found the entrance and we were relieved to see the place buzzing with activity. The office was still open, a food van was dispensing snacks, and people strolled about or rode past on bikes.
We paid the requisite €10.30 (the only money we had spent on accommodation for the last three days), and managed to buy the last baguette, which Keith kissed melodramatically as the woman handed it to him.
Wandering along towards the shower block, we chose a site on a patch of lawn not far from the river, from where we could see the jumbled houses of the town across the water.
Aged pine trees with trunks like dinosaurs’ legs stood around, but their shade was not needed today, with the sky full of low storm clouds.
We sampled the baguette for our lunch, then Keith put up the tent while I had a shower, deliciously warm and comforting for my lacerated legs. Keith got back to the tent from his ablutions just in time to escape a sudden storm, and we were dry and snug inside while it raged.
Later we ventured over the bridge and into the town, which was not looking its best on this dark afternoon.
To our surprise, the Office of Tourism was open in the deserted centre and we found out that there was a bar at the Logis hotel (la Chatellerie) on the next corner.
We had to sprint to get there before another storm arrived, but once inside we spent a peaceful couple of hours with coffee and a crossword, while through the rain-streaked window we could see an occasional car or pedestrian hurrying past.
I even made a dash to the Co-op nearby to replenish our lunch supplies with a tomato and some sausage. We were the only people in the bar except for one old fellow, and the placid barwoman occupied herself by ironing the tablecloths of the hotel.
When the rain stopped we went back over the bridge. Apparently there had been only a narrow single-lane bridge until 1951, when the present concrete one was built, and in earlier centuries the crossing had been by ferry or on a ford. It was hard to imagine that such a wide, deep river could ever have been forded, but in the time before the barrage was built downstream, it must have been much less swollen.
About 8 pm we strolled back to town. There were two possibilities for dinner – the hotel or a little restaurant called Chez Cécile closer to the bridge. We chose Chez Cécile because it already had a good number of customers and we had no wish to dine alone after our solitary afternoon in the bar.
It was a beautiful little place in a restored old house, with flowery terraces at the front and the side, neither of them occupied on such a cold, wet evening.
We began with glasses of rosé, then had a green salad and a tomato salad – straight from the garden said young woman serving us, and they tasted like it.
To follow, we both had that enigmatic cut of beef known as pièce du boucher, which can vary from shoe-leather to top-quality fillet. These were the latter, and with them came potato croquettes, baby salad leaves, a bowl of aïoli and hot, crusty bread.
Our hostess (presumably Cécile) gave us a wonderful outline of the local food economy. The beef and lamb came from nearby farms, one of them owned by her father-in-law, and were killed in Confolens. The vegetables were from their own garden, the eggs from a neighbour’s farm and the chef was her husband, Lionel, whose mother took all the scraps from the restaurant for her pigs.
I told her that this was one of the best little restaurants that we had ever eaten in, and she was so pleased that she went and dragged Lionel out of the kitchen to shake our hands. When she discovered that we were Australian, she very politely said that she had thought I was a Frenchwoman, from another part of France. This far-fetched compliment was the highlight of the evening for me.
Meanwhile an English family was having pizzas at the table next to us. The women (mother and daughter) were both coarse-looking blondes and the man was covered with tattoos.
They told us that they had built a house in the area. They had such thick northern accents that we could barely understand them, and when they started complaining to Cécile, she certainly could not, although she had a reasonable grip on English.
I was able to reassure her later that it was not her English that was at fault, it was their impenetrable accent. Anyway, it was better that she did not understand their insulting remarks.
Back at the camping ground, I felt better than I had all day, but the arm that had been afflicted by shingles was very painful and I worried that I might be getting a relapse.